An elderly man in an orange shirt runs across a bridge on a rainy day.

Running through a diagnosis of dementia

Toughness might as well be Tom White’s middle name.

He served nearly five years in the U.S. Marine Corps. In 33 years with the Jacksonville (Florida) Sheriff’s Office, he worked his way up from patrolman to detective. He learned SCUBA rescue. When he retired from that gig, he spent 10 years working in other law enforcement posts, mostly as a fire marshal. Tom always has served the public, always given back.

In his spare time, Tom is an avid runner. About 10 years ago, he and his wife Becky challenged each other to run road and trail races in every state. They were well on their way until 2022, when Tom received a dementia diagnosis that rocked his world. Tom wasn’t about to let the disease derail his goal. So, with the blessing of his doctor, the dynamic duo kept on running.

As of this writing (early September 2023), the Amelia Island, Florida-based couple has completed races of varying lengths in 33 states. They recently wrapped a race in Alaska, under the midnight sun. They’re registered for races in Oregon and Washington before October begins.

“We’ll keep going until we can’t go anymore,” the 74-year-old Tom tells BrainWise. “I don’t care what the doctor tells me. There’s no way I’m giving up on life.”

Becky, 71, agrees.

“We may not be as fast as either one of us was years ago, but we’re still competing, still participating, and still finishing these races as best [as] we can,” she says.

Love of culture

Sure, Tom loves the endorphin rush of running a race. In his earlier days, that and a competitive spirit would propel him through marathons several times a year. As Tom aged, his interests matured, and he became less focused on the race itself and more focused on the culture that racing inspires.

One year—2003, to be exact—Tom came up with an idea of racing with a camera and taking pictures of what runners see from the course. These images captured fellow runners in grief and agony, spectators cheering on loved ones, and more. According to Becky, he became known as “the runner with the camera,” and everybody knew his name.

“People get pictures of the finish line, but they don’t ever get images of what’s going on during the race,” says Becky, who worked for years as a photographer for the Jacksonville Times-Union herself. “Once Tom started taking these pictures, everybody loved it because it was different and unique.”

Tom’s photos were published in Becky’s newspaper. Later, the local news station spotlighted his work.

Feedback on the photos was overwhelmingly positive. In subsequent races, runners and spectators would cheer for Tom every time he strode by.

Love of travel

Tom still races with his camera, though he isn’t taking many pictures anymore, and the race distances have shortened from full marathons (26.2 miles) to halves (13.1). Now he also has other priorities, such as maintaining his balance on the course and finishing each race so he can cross more states off his list.

He and Becky both say they love the new challenge because it enables them to see the world.

“It’s not so much about staying in shape as it is about being together and seeing all of these new and exciting places we’ve never seen,” Becky says. She adds that her personal objective every time they book a new race is to plan the trip so they can get out and see interesting attractions in or around the race destination.

To find sights to see, Becky investigates websites such as Atlas Obscura and Roadside America.

When they traveled to Illinois for a marathon, for instance, Becky discovered the race was near a tiny town named Metropolis, which was inspiration for the home of Superman. When they traveled to the western United States, they saw the Grand Canyon and Mt. Rushmore.

“Every place we go we find something unique and memorable,” Tom says.

Love of storytelling

Upon returning home, Becky prints out pictures and puts together photo books as mementos of their trips. Becky decorates each book to reflect something from the trip.

For example, on the front of the book from a trip to Louisiana is a picture of a crawfish.

Becky notes that the books serve two purposes: To tell stories of the couple’s adventures and to collect memories so Tom can access them easily if he needs to. She adds that the books are symbols of their love, too.

“There aren’t a whole lot of husbands and wives who do this together,” she says with a tremble in her voice. “We always do it together, at the same pace, which means he’s usually going slower for me. There’s no competition. Instead, there’s cooperation. We’ll say, ‘Give me a hand’ or ‘I’ll pull you up.’ We enjoy it more because we do it together. There’s no pressure that way.”

What’s next

Tom and Becky say they’ll keep running races as long as they can.

Becky says the two of them probably shouldn’t be running half-marathons any more, but they’re still doing it for now. She says she envisions a time in the near future where the duo might downgrade to 10- or 5-kilometer races instead. She adds that the distance doesn’t matter.

“Tom and I always say, ‘It’s you and me from here on out,’” Becky notes. “It’s important to nurture that, I think. I will always be here for Tom and he will always be here for me, no matter what. We treat each other with respect and dignity. We support each other. Really, that’s all you can ask for from a partner in this life.”

Tom agrees. He adds that once he and Becky hit all 50 states, they plan to start visiting the home nations of their ancestors, which include several countries in Europe.

“There’s nobody I’d rather be doing this with,” he says. “Nobody in the world.”