Bill Nugent wasn’t always the avid runner he is today. He started his running journey back in 2011 with a Labor Day 5k race near his hometown of Wyckoff, NJ. That 5k run sparked his journey towards marathon running, one that took on new meaning a year later when his mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Now, he is preparing to complete all six of the world’s major marathons, all of which he has run with a Project Purple singlet.
“I’m excited and terrified,” said Nugent. “They haven’t been easy. A marathon is never easy. But these are big races with a lot of people and you know what is amazing to me when you do NYC or Chicago is how much love and support you get along the course. And then if you add to that that someone is going to put this giant dinner plate of a Six Star Medal at the end when I cross the line in Boston… it’s fantastic. I’m so excited to do it all with Project Purple.”
Patricia and Pancreatic Cancer
Nugent’s mother, a Long Island native, spent her life doing everything she could to support her children. When Nugent was eight, his parents divorced, and his mother was left to raise three children alone. However, his mother’s strength and dedication to her family ensured that Nugent and his two sisters grew up with every advantage she could give.
“She did everything she needed to do to make sure that her kids had everything they needed and had every opportunity,” explained Nugent.
As an adult, Nugent moved to New Jersey, where he has spent his career designing, building, and operating ships. With a wife and two children, Nugent had everything he could ever have wanted. However, when Patricia was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, things changed.
In 2012, Hurricane Sandy ripped through the East Coast, doing significant damage to many homes, especially on the shoreline. Patricia and Nugent’s sister Katie went without power for almost two weeks, during which time, Patricia began to experience bloating and back pain. After the outage, things started to get back to normal, but her symptoms only grew worse.
“She was never one to see a doctor,” explained Nugent, “so when she said she made an appointment, this was like ‘oh, something is going on.’”
Patricia went to see several different doctors before connecting with an oncologist. On Christmas Eve, the family found out that Patricia had pancreatic cancer, and that it had spread to other organs throughout her body.
“My sisters and I all burst into tears,” Nugent remembered. “And my mother, she gripped the edge of the table and said ‘Well now we have something to talk about at Christmas dinner.’ Sort of like, ‘let’s get on with this,’ but in her heart, she knew what this meant.”
The initial shock of the diagnosis left Nugent and his family in a tailspin.
“You go through the grief cycle. You have to deny, then be angry, and then you have to try to negotiate and then you’re depressed and eventually you accept it…” Nugent said. “You try to– you know, maybe there’s a diet out there or a research program; we can fly to Timbuktu and there’s a weird medicine guy there who claims to have cured all of this, and you sort of run through all of those things.”
A few days later, Patricia went in for her first chemo treatment. However, Patricia did not respond well and was eventually hospitalized for her symptoms.
“[The chemo] absolutely kicked her ass,” said Nugent. “It just absolutely knocked her out. New Year’s Eve, it was so bad, we were like ‘we’re going to take you to the hospital’…She was sick in every way you could imagine, weak, and honestly, given the diagnosis and given this reaction, we thought, ‘we’ve got days, weeks maybe.’”
Thankfully, the doctors were able to adjust Patricia’s medications and stabilize her health. Her doctor was open to trying different combinations of chemotherapy treatments to try and manage her care. Nugent remembers how difficult it was for him and his sisters to watch his mother be in so much pain.
“It was really hard; you know, this is your mom,” Nugent said. “She’s supposed to take care of you, you know. It was really tough. My sisters and I all had our moments of breaking down or fighting with one another or doing whatever we had to do to get through it.”
Nugent learned to appreciate the small things during his mother’s diagnosis. While his sisters took on more of the day-to-day responsibilities of being a caregiver, Nugent filled in where he could. He drove his mother to appointments, took care of her personal affairs and finances, tended to his mother when his sisters needed a break, and watched the grandchildren. He now feels grateful for getting to be so involved with his mother’s pancreatic cancer journey.
“Cherish every moment,” Nugent said. “To quote Warren Zevon when he was sick with cancer, he said ‘Enjoy every sandwich,’ which is really good advice. Enjoying the small things, the everyday things, is a good way to live.”
So Nugent and his family did their best to enjoy what sandwiches they could find. After the failed first chemo treatment, Patricia’s doctors continued to try a variety of other methods to slow the cancer. However, by March of 2013, the tumors had only grown in size. Finally, Patricia’s oncologist tried an experimental therapy normally used to treat colon cancer.
“Wonderfully, for about eleven or twelve months things were sort of managed. The tumors were stable and she was able to get by on some light pain medication,” Nugent remembered. “During that almost year she spent a lot of time with her grandchildren, a lot of time with her kids; she went to see friends, we had a big family reunion, a lot of the stuff that needed to be done and we had a window of opportunity. And honestly, she looked fantastic; her hair had grown back a bit, and she looked good.”
Sadly, this period of good health was short-lived for Patricia. At the beginning of 2014, the tumors began to grow again and treatment was no longer effective. The cancer had spread to her lymph system and her neck. The doctors attempted to treat these new tumors with focused radiation therapy, however, it only made her condition worse.
“It was too much for her body to take,” Nugent recalled, “it burned the inside of her throat: she couldn’t eat, she couldn’t swallow, she had difficulty breathing, she couldn’t speak. And that, on top of the tumors growing again, sort of hastened everything else.”
Despite the hardships cancer placed on her, Patricia did not let her pancreatic cancer diagnosis define the last months of her life. In fact, she rarely spoke about her condition with friends or family. She felt that her time was best spent connecting with others and making as many memories as she could with the ones she loved.
“One of her oldest, dearest friends from college lived not far from us and my mom talked to her regularly. Never told her she was sick. It was when I called her to tell her that my mom had passed away and explain what happened so she could come to the wake and to the services, she was like ‘I talked to your mother two months ago, she never said anything,”’ recalled Nugent. “[My mom] was just like, ‘nope, I’m not going to dwell on it, I have stuff to do and I don’t have to make other people sad. I’m going to get the things I need to get done, done, and if I have to be uncomfortable or suffer, I’ll do it quietly.”
Patricia relied on her quiet strength to get her through the last few months of her life. Her doctors tried several different palliative treatments (treatments designed to relieve the worst symptoms without treating the root cause) in order to make her as comfortable as possible, but she was still in pain. These treatments kept her going through the summer and into the fall months of 2014. However, Patricia sadly passed away in early October of that year.
Bill Finds His WHY with Project Purple
Running became a part of Nugent’s life shortly before pancreatic cancer did. Originally, Nugent began running because of some concerns he had about his health. As the Chief Technical and Sustainability Officer for International Seaways (an oil tanker company based in New York), Nugent was constantly traveling for work which left little time for him to manage his health. When his doctor prescribed him cholesterol pills, Nugent knew something had to change.
“I thought to myself ‘Oh my God, I am forty-two years old, I’ve got little kids, I can’t live this way, I can’t start taking pills now,”’ Nugent explained. “So I started dieting and then I started exercising. And when I got bored at the gym, I started doing a couch-to-5k program on the treadmill.”
Nugent ran his first race in August of 2012. He kept up with the sport after that initial race, but when the family received Patricia’s pancreatic cancer diagnosis a few months later, Nugent had a new reason to lace up his running shoes. He decided to participate in a charity marathon in honor of his mother. During his training, Nugent would call his mother to talk about his progress and check in with each other.
“All through my training, I would run Saturday mornings and on my way home from the park, I would call her and see how she was feeling,” Nugent remembered, “comparing my aches and pains from my run to her aches and pains. And that sort of kicked it off.”
From there, running became a way to connect and help support his mother through her diagnosis. Nugent ran several other races with other charities but did not find a true connection with any of the organizations. That is until Nugent stumbled upon Project Purple at the 2015 New York City Half Marathon exposition. As he was going to get his bib, he was greeted by a member of the Project Purple staff and immediately connected with her over their shared experiences with pancreatic cancer. By the end of the conversation, Nugent knew he had to become part of the Project Purple community.
“She shared her story, and I shared my story, and we’re standing there in the middle of the expedition hall and I’m crying my eyes out and she’s crying her eyes out. And I’m like, ‘I need to be with Project Purple, I should be running with Project Purple.”
Nugent has since run all of his big races with Project Purple, including all of the world majors he has completed so far. He feels that he has found his WHY when it comes to running.
“It gives purpose. Every step has a reason,” Nugent explained when asked about why he chooses to run with Project Purple. “Within the group, we talk about finding your WHY. Why am I going out and running again this morning? Because that way someone else doesn’t have to go through what Mom went through…Running with Project Purple gives all of the miles reason.”
Part of what keeps Nugent coming back to the Project Purple running community is the support he gets from fellow runners and Project Purple coaches and staff.
“The entire running community is incredibly supportive. Everyone is there to wish you a good race or say ‘Look I know you didn’t have it today but you’re going to have it tomorrow.’ Project Purple is all of that on steroids,” Nugent explained. “Everyone is there giving you support through the year and then you have Vin and Dino and Sam, and everyone who has been involved over the years and is currently involved, they’re all so dedicated and they’re there to help…It’s like a family.”
Nugent believes that supporting the pancreatic cancer community means making the diagnosis easier for the next patient. He believes that even if he only can make a small impact, it will still push the cause one step closer to a world without pancreatic cancer.
“I don’t want anyone else to have to go through this,” said Nugent. “This cancer shows no mercy. There’s no early detection. Literally, my mom didn’t feel great and then she’s spending New Year’s Eve thinking she has a couple of days. It was that fast.”
Since joining the Project Purple community in 2015, Nugent has run four out of six of the world majors with the organization. The Abbott World Marathon Majors is a competition for runners who participate in the world’s major races each year. The Six Star Medal was introduced by the Abbott World Marathon Majors in 2016 to honor the runners who complete all six Major marathons. These marathons include Boston, New York City, Chicago, Berlin, Tokyo, and London.
Nugent has run the New York City, Chicago, Berlin, and London marathons with Project Purple, and is looking to complete Tokyo and Boston in 2024. However, completing all six of the world majors was never a goal he had in mind when he started running with the organization.
“It sort of just happened,” said Nugent. “Originally, I did New York and that was great and I thought, ‘Okay, I’m done.’ Then Project Purple asked if I would want to put my name in for Chicago and I thought, ‘Oh, that would be fun.’ And then they said, Berlin and London were going to be a week apart two years ago. And so I said, ‘That’s amazing, it would be so cool to do both of them. It’s a big goal and I could do a big fundraiser’…
Nugent was able to complete both the Berlin and London races, despite having to defer Berlin for a year due to COVID. Now, he is preparing to run Tokyo with Project Purple as part of Project Purple’s Pioneer Program, which allows athletes to make a difference with Project Purple, while also giving them the flexibility to participate in any competition they choose.
But, Nugent didn’t decide to complete all six of the world majors until Project Purple became an official charity partner of the Boston Marathon. After that announcement, Nugent set a new goal for himself; complete all six within the year.
“That was when the bell went off, now I’m going to try and do all six,” Nugent said when describing how he felt about the Boston Marathon announcement. “I called my running coach, who was just getting over me finishing Berlin, and said ‘Guess what, I’m doing Tokyo and I’m also doing Boston.’”
Even though training will be challenging, Nugent is prepared to face it head-on. He relies on his schedule, and his mother, to help him get through the hardest parts of his journey. Now, Nugent can’t wait to get across that last finish line.
Set to Finish all Six
During each race, Nugent can’t help but think about his mother and her impact on his life. No matter where he is, he finds himself moved to tears by his mother’s struggle and the struggles of other pancreatic cancer patients.
“I’ve never run one of these big races with a singlet on where at some point during the race I didn’t start crying,” said Nugent. “When I ran Chicago, it was on the fifth anniversary of her passing. So on the back of my shirt, it said ‘Miss You Mom, Five Years Ago Today.’ And oh my God, everyone on the race course was coming and patting me on the back and saying sorry, go get ’em’. And there I am, twenty-six miles, and my eyes are balling.”
Now that he is preparing to finish up his last world major races with Project Purple in 2024, Nugent couldn’t be more enthusiastic. It’s an accomplishment almost thirteen years in the making.
“I’m so excited and I’m so proud,” said Nugent. “Everything I’m doing now is geared towards getting to those races healthy. I will be there and I will cross both those finish lines. And I will be really, really happy.”
If you are interested in joining the Project Purple running community, please click here for more information about our upcoming races. Congratulations on this accomplishment Bill– we can’t wait to see you cross that finish line in Boston!