On the Podium: Eric Overton
By Denise Sechelski
A Phoenix rising from the ashes, a cat with nine lives, the Energizer Bunny: if you had to describe the defining feature of these things, you’d probably say they keep on going. Eric Overton—cancer survivor, longtime Gazelle, tech wizard, all around good guy—has unarguably earned a place on that list. He can claim more comeback awards than he might like. Eric’s tenacity when he pins on a race bib or faces a medical crisis remains strong, even after encountering a multitude of race bibs and crises.
Current Gazelles might have seen Eric at Gazelles HQ early in the morning before the Austin Marathon and Half Marathon. As the sun came up, people chatted, hugged, and tried to appear nonchalant even though they were nervous. Then everyone circled up and Eric provided the devotional, praying for safety, courage, and joy for all the runners. “Gilbert always asks me to bless the runners before the marathon,” Eric says with a smile that somehow remains calm and enthusiastic all at once. If anyone stands as a motivating force to remain positive, embrace gratitude, and run with joy, it is Eric.
A bit of a celebrity in the oncology world, Eric’s story isn’t necessarily a cancer story, although it soon becomes clear that his journey running the roads of Austin and his path navigating cancer wards are inextricable. He completed his first marathon in 1997, and in 1999, he discovered a lump in his arm that would come and go, baffling doctors. He didn’t think much of it, until a diagnosis in 2002 finally revealed a rare form of melanoma. “It was a weird variation that doesn’t show up on the skin,” he said. “The body destroys the surface evidence.”
Having taken a break from running, Eric did what any runner would do in the face of such news. He went out for a run.
Eric settles himself in the memories of that time. “While running, I heard my name three times. ‘Great,’ I thought, ‘I have a brain metastasis,’” he recalls with a touch of gallows humor.
He then becomes very serious, “The voice Gilbert heard, I head that same voice.”
“So I thought, okay, I’m listening. And the voice said ‘I put it in you. I’ll take it out. It will make your character. It will make you who I want you to be.’ And I had a strange kind of calm, a sense of total peace with the world.”
With this peace in his heart, a belief in his survival, and a stellar medical team, Eric faced grueling treatment: four surgeries, five rounds of radiation, and 144 cycles of chemotherapy over a 13-month period. “It was pretty brutal, actually,” Eric admits. In 2003, already a veteran of multiple versions of the Austin Distance Challenge (a collection of races, including the Decker Challenge Half Marathon and the Austin Marathon, that takes place over several months), he ran the Decker Half with the tube for the chemo drugs still in his chest. But when the time came to run the next race, he had to drop out of the series for the first time. “I was pretty well into the high-dose chemo and was wiped out,” he said.
But he kept moving forward and was cancer-free by December 2003. Two months later in early 2004, he ran a 5K and then set his sights on a bigger challenge: he gave himself a year from the time he was declared cancer-free to run a marathon. The Honolulu Marathon was December 2004, exactly a year after he had finished cancer treatment.
He joined the Leukemia and Lymphoma Team in Training, an organization devoted to readying people for endurance races like marathons while raising money for blood cancer research. So Eric began training and arrived in Hawai’i ready to run. His past marathon experience proved invaluable when choosing his pre-race sustenance. He knew not to rely solely on simple sugars, like the island’s delicious pineapples, which were irresistible to the other runners in his group. He would be grateful for his dietary knowledge during his race.
Not one given to understatement, Eric begins the marathon story by describing it as “one of the great moment in sports.” Hyperbole? Not really. Eric’s race report is worth quoting at length:
“That race is a traffic jam in the dark until mile 4. Mile 6 is where you first encounter Diamond Head [the soaring volcanic crater]. By mile 11, the sun was up and we were in 80 degree - 80% humidity for the rest of the race. Sure, the scenery was beautiful. But the conditions are the worst I've ever run in for a 26.2-mile romp.
“By mile 22, I was cooked and miserable. And I knew I had another trip over Diamond Head at mile 23. It was at mile 22 that the coach for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's central Texas team came up beside me on her bike and informed me that for not eating the pineapples [and therefore not bonking], I was their first place runner. And she said she was planning a surprise....”
There was a hospital at mile 23, and unknown to Eric, the Team in Training leader had traveled ahead and gotten the oncology unit patients out on the course.
As Eric makes the approach to Diamond Head, he is overwhelmed by what he sees: “Both sides of the street were lined with people. Bald people, people in wheelchairs, all of it. They were all there.”
His voice fills with emotion, “As I ran by, I thought, ‘I’m one of them.’
“Yes, I sprinted the hill. And nearly barfed when I was pretty sure nobody could see me anymore.”
It would be a perfect ending, if it were, in fact, the end. But Eric’s comeback story doesn’t wrap up so easily. What Eric came to discover is that he has a gene mutation that makes him susceptible to getting cancer. The positive flip side is that his body is also good at getting rid of the disease. The oddity in his DNA means cancer more easily hooks up in his body, but the killer cells can’t get any traction so they don’t stick around.
Four years after his Honolulu triumph, Eric was still running in Austin and still running the Distance Challenge. Toward the end of the race series in 2008, there was a tough, hilly 20-miler that wound its way through the Lost Creek neighborhood. The race became infamous because of the difficult course and horrid conditions. It had rained, and the course was slippery. Normally such a slog would be forgettable, but one race supporter turned it into a run Eric would never forget.
Although most people in the Austin running community knew Gilbert, Eric had not met him—yet. “There he was,” Eric says of a sloppy ascent during the race. “Gilbert was out on the course running people up the hill, cheering people all the way up in Gilbert style. He says to me, ‘Come to the tent.’ So when I finished, I go to the Gazelles tent and he says, ‘On March 1, I want you out with the Gazelles.’ And I’m thinking, I’m never going to see this guy again.”
Eric is gleeful as he continues, “So the Austin Marathon comes along, and I’m in the finishing chute. And there is Gilbert, smiling at me from ear to ear. He taps the side of his head and says, “Mind like elephant. See you March 1.’”
Eric laughs at the punch line, “So I’ve known Gilbert since then!”
Now in the herd, Eric kept running and kept tackling the Distance Challenge—until 2015. He’d noticed that runs were harder and that his running was suffering. “I was on an 8-mile run through Rollingwood,” he said, “and Kenny Hill had to help me home.”
He continued on with his plan for the day, which was to give blood. The pre-donation screening showed Eric was severely anemic, but his attempts to bump up his iron levels were unsuccessful. The tests results never improved.
When he had a colonoscopy in advance of his fiftieth birthday, they discovered why his running was faltering and his blood results were poor: a huge tumor and colon cancer.
Three weeks later, recovering from surgery on his birthday in July, he had visitors in his hospital room. “A bunch of sweaty Gazelles showed up after the long run,” he says. “There was no place to sit in the room because there were so many people. That tells you everything right there.” Eric’s paths all seemed to merge on that day: the cancers, the recoveries, the running, Gazelles.
The first Saturday after chemo, Eric ran halfway to Longhorn Dam and walked back. He approaches life with a wise perspective and runs with “grim determination.” Now, several years into his latest recovery, Eric says cheerfully, “Cancer was one of the best things that happened to me. All of the times! It made me who I am.”
Although cancer seems to be on hiatus for the moment, Eric is recovering from a fall that left him with a shattered bone in his lower leg. He says matter-of-factly, “It wasn’t pretty.” He spent some time in a wheelchair before starting down yet another road of rehab that includes swimming, the gym, walking, and, bit by bit, more running.
Because Eric knows no quit and has plans to run a marathon after each cancer, he is charting his next path forward, “This recent injury means, of course, that it's time to run Marine Corps in October. Because after you survive multiple cancers and your lower left leg is held together with titanium screws, that's clearly the most sensible plan.” So on a recent Saturday morning, Eric was at Gazelles HQ heading out for a walk as he continues rehab on his leg. He fully plans to be at the start line of Marine Corps in the fall.
To say that running mirrors life, or perhaps it is the other way round, is a cliché, but there are times and people that bring truth to the saying. It seems divinely orchestrated that a big chunk of Eric’s running resume includes The Distance Challenge, a fitting companion to his personal distance challenge through cancer surgeries, chemo treatments, and recoveries. Eric’s intertwined paths—on the roads and through the cancer wards—eventually led him into a room full of nervously joyful Gazelles on marathon day. “I learned a lot on the oncology ward,” he says, “mainly to truly take happiness in the success of others.”
“I have been shown grace,” he says. “So I’ll show grace. I’d be really stupid not to.”