A year after arriving from Ohio in 2006 as a newly minted college graduate, Tessa Wehrman was in love with living and working in New York City. But there was something missing.
“You feel like you need a little perspective,” said Wehrman, 28. “You get stuck in your ‘day to day.’”
So she joined New York Cares, which administers volunteer programs for 1,200 nonprofits, city agencies, and public schools, and ended up guiding runners with disabilities at Achilles International.
A few years later, they would be guiding her.
In early May of 2011, Wehrman noticed a “bump” in her breast and skipped brunch with her Achilles crew after their first triathlon practice of the season to keep a doctor’s appointment. Two weeks later—on the day she was supposed to run the Brooklyn Half-Marathon—Wehrman underwent a double mastectomy as the start of her treatment for breast cancer.
She was 26 years old.
Soon, Achilles members were at her door to cheer her up, bringing healthy snacks, a Tina Fey book, and plenty of perspective. There would be no “pity party” on her emotional calendar, Wehrman said: She had once spent nine hours doing the ING New York City Marathon alongside a man with cerebral palsy who as a child had been told he would never be able to walk.
Surrounded by these strong people as role models, Wehrman would just get on with it, and while recovering from reconstructive surgery during last year’s ING New York City Marathon she vowed that she would be on the starting line this year.
In the ING New York City Marathon on November 4, Wehrman will complete her comeback by representing Queens in the Foot Locker Five Borough Challenge, a race within the race in which a runner from each borough will run the first 13.1 miles of the marathon together before racing to the finish. The runner who finishes with the fastest time will become the Foot Locker Five Borough Challenge champion, winning a trophy from Tiffany & Co. The five athletes have all drawn inspiration from running while facing a significant challenge in their lives.
Six weeks after her surgery, while undergoing chemotherapy, Wehrman began running again. Not as much, not as fast, but “it was my way of telling cancer, ‘Look, this is what I own control of.’ And it made me feel better when I could do it. Sometimes I had to stop and walk, but that’s OK.”
While continuing to work as a programming manager for Viacom International, Wehrman also resumed her volunteer work with Achilles.
“She’s a fighter,” said Eddie Montanez, a visually impaired athlete who trains with the group. “I would have been more surprised if she didn’t come.”
At one training session, the group announced that it would raise funds in her honor by running the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure on September 18 last year. About 40 athletes and guides turned out, and Wehrman called it “mind-blowing” that people who have gone through so much themselves would stop what they were doing to do something for her.
Topping off the tables-turning day, Wehrman was guided during the race by Montanez. The two, joined by her father, ran the race together, doubling back after the finish to great the rest of the Achilles crew so they could all cross the line again together. Wehrman called it “the best experience ever.”
“When she asked me to be with her, I was honored,” said Montanez. “At the finish line, I got a little teary-eyed. It’s people like her who allow people like me to train and run and do marathons. I can’t say enough about her.”
Montanez recently finished the BMW Berlin Marathon, the last of the five World Marathon Majors races on his list, in 4:09:23
In the early days of her volunteer work for Achilles, Wehrman met Daniel Trush, whose recovery from a brain aneurysm inspired his family to found the nonprofit Daniel’s Music Foundation. Soon, she was also volunteering for DMF, which provides free music instruction to people with disabilities in New York City.
Several months after the Komen race, Wehrman was stunned to learn that she had been named winner of the nationwide Ladies Home Journal WE Volunteer Award, for which she was secretly nominated by her mother and sister. She was in a waiting room before one of her chemotherapy sessions when she got the call.
“I feel like volunteering has given so much back to me that I don’t deserve anything in regards to it,” she said, but added that she was thrilled to learn the award came with $5,000 to donate to the charity of her choice, which she gave to DMF.
Working hard to get back into shape, Wehrman has done a few half-marathons so far already in 2012, including the Brooklyn Half-Marathon a year almost to the day after her first surgery and the Staten Island Half-Marathon on October 7, which she completed in 1:56:37—her second-fastest ever. In between, she competed in her first Olympic-distance triathlon to raise funds for Achilles to return the favor of their support.
Her goal for the ING New York City Marathon?
“I don’t think I’ll be disappointed with anything I do this year because of everything I’ve gone through,” she said. “But I would like to keep up with the Five Borough team. That’s my goal: To not slow down the team the first 13 miles.”
Said Montanez: “I’m definitely going to be out there cheering for her.”
Bottom photo: Wehrman, Montanez (in blue hat), and Ricardo Corral after Komen race.