A year ago, several miles into his fifth Grandma’s Marathon, Tim Bowman realized something was horribly wrong.
Bowman was running with a noticeable lean to his right and catching his right foot on the pavement.
A veteran of more than 40 marathons, the St. Louis Park, Minn., resident stopped at four medical tents along the route to receive an evaluation and was informed that a more thorough assessment could be made by a doctor at the finish of the annual 26.2-mile race.
So Bowman continued to Canal Park, crossing the finish line in a disappointing 4 hours, 55 minutes and 25 seconds - well off his usual 3:30 time - and headed straight for the medical tent. A doctor there advised him to see his regular physician at home and to schedule a magnetic resonance imaging exam.
The end result of the MRI was the discovery of a golf-ball sized, low-grade tumor in the frontal lobe of Bowman’s brain. After a five-and-a-half hour surgery to remove the tumor and subsequent fluid buildup on his brain, Bowman was unable to walk or speak clearly, recognize family and friends or understand simple commands.
He spent a month-and-a-half at Abbott Northwestern Hospital in Minneapolis and several months in outpatient rehabilitation.
“I had to relearn everything, how to walk and talk. It was very scary,” Bowman said by phone last week.
Around the time Bowman began regaining his body’s functions, he had a crazy thought: run the 2014 Grandma’s Marathon.
And that’s what the 49-year-old Bowman did Saturday.
He finished in 3:57:05, culminating a comeback against all odds.
“Let alone running a marathon, being able to recover physically and mentally as well as he did in such a short time, I truly think is a miracle,” said Bart Baker, a former roommate of Bowman’s at the University of Northern Iowa, who drove 8½ hours from Bettendorf, Iowa, to watch his best friend run. “What determination by Tim to fight those odds and come back to run it. It’s incredible.”
Afterward, Bowman said he shed his share of tears at the finish.
“It was overwhelming,” he said. “I was in a reflective mood the entire race. I was very thankful that I have come as far as I have and thankful for 1) my faith, 2) my family and 3) my friends. I couldn’t have gotten here by myself. It was very emotional.”
‘Wheels came off’ while running 2013 Grandma’s
Bowman and Baker grew up together in Clinton, Iowa, and went to college in Cedar Falls, Iowa. Bowman was able to convince Baker, a baseball and basketball player, to train for their first distance run.
“He said there’s a marathon up in Duluth called Grandma’s, and I said, ‘That sounds cool,’ ” Baker recalled. “In 1989, we ran it and had a wonderful experience. It’s something that will always connect us.”
Bowman went on to become a regular at the Twin Cities Marathon and ran Chicago five times, Boston twice, New York once and even did an Ironman Triathlon. At his peak, he averaged four marathons a year. Even a bout with lymphoma 10 years ago didn’t keep him from the road for very long.
He began experiencing slight nuances during training runs leading up to Grandma’s last year, but didn’t pay very close attention.
“I didn’t think much of it, and then the wheels came off when I was running Grandma’s,” he said.
Jeff Barkmeier, a running friend, saw Bowman shortly before that race and Bowman mentioned to him that he had trouble raising his right foot and kept stubbing his toes during training runs.
“It was very subtle; he wasn’t having many symptoms at all,” Barkmeier said. “When he ran Grandma’s, several people who know him and saw him on the course wondered, ‘What is going on with him?’ ”
That’s because of the distinct lean Bowman exhibited early on during the race. Knowing his body was telling him something, Bowman made all those pit stops along the course.
“I went through the testing and would start to feel like my old self and would start running again,” he said. “Then I would start leaning to the right again. Looking back, I don’t know if I would continue but I did and wanted to get done with the race so I could see a doctor.
“I had this sneaking suspicion that it was serious and the only thing that I was thinking about was that I needed an MRI of my brain.”
A CT scan and MRI were done a week later, set up by Barkmeier, a radiologist with St. Paul Radiology.
“I was in the MRI machine and I remember vividly that something was wrong,” Bowman said. “They brought in all these physicians and it was taking much longer than I expected. I knew something was amiss.”
Not able to stay until he heard the results from a doctor, Bowman was on his way home when Barkmeier called him and informed him about the low-grade glioma obstructing a ventricle on the right hemisphere of his brain.
“That was a hard call to make,” said Barkmeier, who ran the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon on Saturday and then cheered on Bowman near the finish. “It’s amazing that 11 months out from surgery and he’s already back running a marathon. I suspect he ran several marathons with that tumor because it had been there a while.”
Rehab led to training for Grandma’s again
Bowman experienced problems driving and speaking clearly in the interim between his diagnosis and surgery and then went under the knife on July 19, 2013.
The operation removed about 97 percent of the tumor, Bowman said, but more problems soon surfaced. Fluid quickly built up on his brain and Bowman’s mental capacity was vastly reduced.
“He didn’t know who I was,” said Baker, who was with his friend through the surgery and recovery phase. “I was there when a therapist showed him the word ‘fruit’ and said to name five of them, and he couldn’t name any. They had to teach him how to do everything. He literally could not speak and had to relearn that. He had to start all over.”
Days after surgery, surgeons placed a shunt in Bowman’s head to transfer fluid from the brain to his abdomen and normalize pressure. That led to a dramatic improvement in his condition.
Still, Bowman needed long hours of rehabilitation. He underwent physical and occupational therapy and speech pathology before being discharged about 45 days later.
“It was really a lot of work,” he said.
Doctors told Bowman his excellent physical shape aided in his recovery. Though a return to running was a long way off, Bowman held out hope he could one day come back to the place his distance running career began.
“It was more something that I wanted to do but I didn’t know I’d be able to do it in a year,” he said. “I was thinking about running Grandma’s, but it was more of a stretch goal for me. I wasn’t sure I would be able to be in the condition that I am today. But things have fallen into place.”
He joined a Lifetime Fitness running group in St. Louis Park and found his training went well.
“That took me to the point where I thought it was realistic that I could pull this off,” he said.
Baker tossed out a hint about running Grandma’s again and when Bowman didn’t rule it out, Baker agreed to make the 8½-hour drive to watch him run.
“I said, ‘If you sign up, let me know and I will mark it on my calendar and be there rooting you on,’ ” said Baker, who was there Saturday with his daughter holding up posters supporting Bowman and wearing T-shirts with sayings from Rocky Balboa emblazoned on them. “He’s such an inspiration to me.”
Bowman, who had a consulting business in the health care industry before his illness and continues to work in that field, still has the programmable shunt in his head and ran with it in place Saturday. He is anxious to have the shunt, which was recently shut off, taken out later this year.
That will close a chapter in his life that began at Grandma’s and culminated back in the same spot a year later.
“It’s always held a special place for me because it’s where I started my marathoning career,” he said. “It’s a place that brings back a lot of good memories and it’s a place that ended up changing my life forever.”