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Lillian Neukircher, almost 88 years old, works out on a treadmill Friday at the Jamestown Hospital Wellness Center. Neukircher recently completed a four-mile marathon in Indiana. John M. Steiner The Sun

At age 88, Jamestown woman fit enough to compete in race

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Lillian Neukircher makes the phrases "exercise is medicine" and "laughter is the best medicine" a way of life.

A few weeks away from age 88, Neukircher is fitter than many people half her age. And she proved it in late September by competing in the Fort4Fitness Marathon in Fort Wayne, Ind. For her the marathon was a 4-mile walk/run in the senior category. She crossed the finish line at the one-hour-and-42-minute mark and was awarded a medal. She was the oldest among the 7,500 people competing in the various marathon categories.

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"I was the only one in my category," she said.

Neukircher figured she actually walked 5 miles. It was at least a mile, she said, to get to where her group was gathered then a hike to the starting line.

"We had to get there at 6:30 a.m.," she said. "Then you stood there with your group and finally you walked and walked and walked to the start line. Believe me it was 5 miles."

She wasn't sure if she could get in good enough shape to do the marathon. She'd been diagnosed with breast cancer and gone through treatment last winter. Then in May she had surgery to replace part of her shoulder.

But she'd also been going to the Jamestown Hospital Wellness Center five days a week since 2000 when she had uterine cancer and a hysterectomy. Bonnie Dewald, a fitness motivator at the wellness center, was sure Neukircher could be ready for the Sept. 25 marathon.

"We cheered Lil on when it came to getting ready for the marathon," Dewald said. "She planned her workout and increased her time. She's always seemed to know how to pace herself."

Neukircher mostly worked on the treadmill to build up her strength, although she didn't neglect the other machines or her weight training. When she started her training for the marathon, Dewald told her to set the treadmill level at .5 -- slightly uphill -- to build endurance.

Neukircher, however, thought she said level 5 and set the machine much higher than Dewald suggested.

"That's very uphill, but I went over two miles without even breathing hard," she said. "I knew I could do the marathon with all the wellness people behind me."

By the time she went to Fort Wayne to visit her daughter, Neukircher was ready. She said her daughter, who has multiple sclerosis and is in a wheelchair, was going to participate in the marathon.

"I figured if my girl could roll it, I could walk it," she said. "And it was exhilarating. I'll never forget it. Everyone was so friendly and cheering you on as you walked through the town."

Walking has always been a way of life for Neukircher. She grew up on a farm south of Cleveland, married a farmer and lived 10 miles south of Medina. In 1983, after her husband's heart attack, they bought a house and moved to Jamestown. And she walked as she always had.

"I must have made about 500 miles from that April until it got cold," she said, laughing. "I was used to walking, used to exercise."

After her husband died in 1995, she continued living in their home, doing the yard work and general maintenance. And she walked.

But after her cancer and surgery in 2000, Neukircher said she couldn't get her strength back. The yard work took much longer or couldn't get done at all. She talked to her doctor and he recommended the wellness center.

"I was just worn out. I couldn't do what I wanted anymore," she said.

Since then, cancer has shown up five more times. It's only slowed her down briefly, if at all.

"I just kept going back to rehab (the wellness center)," she said. "I never feel sorry for myself. No matter what I've had I say 'it could have been worse.'"

Neukircher lives on her own in an apartment, drives, keeps her mind active and plays cards once or twice a week. Her sight is good and she continues to make quilts, although she doesn't have the room to do the quilting herself anymore. She said at age 88 she's still flexible enough to get up from the floor.

"I don't know what the words 'bored' or 'depressed' mean," she said. "Exercise has kept me where I am. I can do just about anything I want to do."

And she owes it all, she said, to her exercise regimen at the wellness center. For her, exercise is medicine. In fact, she said, she once had arthritis. And while she still has the swollen knuckles and joints, she no longer has the pain.

"For six years, the pain was excruciating," she said. "I thought I inherited it and there was nothing I could do about it. Now, it doesn't hurt anymore."

Along with her exercise, Dewald, who has worked in the wellness center for more than 10 years, said Neukircher's attitude has always been upbeat and very positive.

"She's an inspiration for a lot of people," Dewald said. "She proves that those who dwell on the positive do better. She has a great sense of humor and she loves to laugh."

Her humor is obvious from the twinkle in her eye and the subtle jokes she makes. Neukircher agrees she likes to laugh.

"I enjoy life," she said.

Sun reporter Toni Pirkl can be reached at (701) 952-8453 or by e-mail at tonip@jamestownsun.com

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