LAND O’LAKES — Saturday, the Land O’Lakes boys cross country team will run the biggest race of the year. Today, each member carries a small stone in a pocket or backpack, a little extra weight to keep focused.
When coach Kris Keppel handed out the gratitude rocks at camp over the summer, the boys painted them with their initials, XC Gators or whatever they felt was appropriate.
“They use it when they need to use it,” Keppel said. “I always suggest to them that at the end of their day, they’re thankful for what they have, because they’ve been given a lot.”
While his runners carry their rocks and think about the weekend’s state meet, Keppel will be in his third chemotherapy session.
Keppel, who has coached cross country for 20 years, was diagnosed with stage 3 pancreatic cancer — which involves nearby blood vessels and possibly lymph nodes — in September. He will undergo chemotherapy six more weeks before he does a brief round of radiation therapy.
“I feel like it’s working,” said Keppel, 52. “But I’m just very positive about everything.”
Keppel’s treatment today will take about five and a half hours. He’ll leave with a bottle attached to his body that dispenses more drugs, and he’ll still be wearing it at Apalachee Regional Park on Saturday.
Keppel said his wife will be with him during the chemo session, and they plan to pick up one of the runner’s mothers, Mary Anne Barnabei, for the drive to Tallahassee. They’re hoping to make it in time for a team dinner at Olive Garden.
Mary Anne has a special connection to the Keppels. A year ago before the state meet, her son, senior runner Steven Barnabei, was rushed into emergency surgery to remove a tennis ball-sized tumor in his head.
Keppel was one of the Barnabeis’ chief supporters. He organized and collected donations to help the single mother of two boys pay for months of treatment.
Mary Anne said Keppel’s support goes beyond fundraising.
“It’s hard without a father figure to guide them,” she said. “And he’s pretty much taken my youngest, Steven …he’s taken him and pretty much guided him in the right direction.”
Mary Anne said Keppel has helped Steven plan for college and learn to balance running with studying and family life.
"He's a father figure, inspiration, a role model, as well as a friend I've come to know and trust," Steven said.
Steven is back to running this year and is stronger than even he expected. He broke his personal record, 17:10, in the Class 3A-7 district meet, finishing eighth in a time of 16:45.64
Barnabei’s triumph gives the team hope as Keppel battles his own diagnosis, and Land O’Lakes runners have found a way to give back.
The girls’ team designed gray T-shirts with the phrase “I run for Keppel” and a violet ribbon for pancreatic cancer that are sold to raise money for Keppel and his family.
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Keppel’s diagnosis came Sept. 12, just days after the season began. He had suffered from jaundice, a yellowing of the skin and eyes, for two weeks. He was itchy “from the inside out,” though he didn’t have a rash. Doctors at St. Joseph’s Hospital-North in Lutz worked with him on a treatment plan and began chemotherapy.
“Now I feel a hundred times better,” Keppel said. “I almost feel some days, when I’m just doing regular things like working out at the gym, that I don’t really have cancer.”
Keppel said the cancer is at the head of the pancreas, which makes it more treatable. The tumor is sitting across four veins. If the chemotherapy can clear it away from three of them, doctors can perform the Whipple procedure — a complicated surgery that removes the head of the pancreas, gallbladder and sometimes part of the stomach.
Keppel hopes for a Christmas present when he goes to his last chemotherapy session Dec. 20. He’ll have five straight days of radiation after that, then they’ll see if the treatments were enough to qualify him for the surgery, which generally improves patients’ five-year survival rate by 300 percent.
Medical procedures are nothing new for Keppel. At Wednesday’s practice, he lifted his legs to show off scars from two knee surgeries. He’s also had a hip resurfaced and shoulder surgery.
“It’s just another challenge,” he said. “It’s something I’m kind of used to. I expect to have more pain with this, but the second session was actually easier than the first session.”
Keppel lifts weights and bikes every day he’s feeling “at least 80 percent.” He challenged the cross country team to increase their mileage last year, and he took up the test, too.
His goal was to bike 3,300 miles this year. He won’t quite make it, he said, but expects to make 3,000.
Before practice Wednesday, Keppel stretched with eight of his runners. Barnabei was absent; he works at Publix on Wednesdays, a job the team helped him find.
Keppel teased the runners because they couldn’t touch their toes, and he can. He wore his gray T-shirt with the violet ribbon and briefly took off his Yale baseball cap. He cut his hair short recently, but none of it has come loose yet.
Keppel describes this year, despite its challenges, as the best year he’s had as a coach. The Gators are on a three-meet win streak and won regionals for the first time. Keppel said it may have helped them to run for a teammate last year and for their coach now.
The team’s goal is to place between fourth and sixth Saturday. The Gators are currently ranked seventh.
Regardless of the outcome, when Keppel returns home, he’ll be reminded why he loves working at Land O’Lakes. There will be 75 get-well cards from co-workers propped up on his piano, and 10 prayer groups in the Tampa Bay area with him in their thoughts.
He thinks of these things when he tells the team to use their gratitude rocks.
“They’re a great team,” Keppel said. “You know, cross country’s small. It’s like a family. We use the rocks as a way to focus, as a way to be grateful for what God has given us.”
State cross country
When: Saturday. Class A girls run first at 7:30 a.m. Class 4A boys are the last to run at 10:25 a.m.
Where: Apalachee Regional Park, Tallahassee
Admission: $9; parking is $5.
Mary Kenney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @maryknews.