A champion runner is undergoing chemotherapy.

The rain felt like tiny needles on the athletes’ skin as they sloshed through the opening race at this year’s Class A State Championship track meet.

Adam Deveau of Mt. Blue, the 2005 Class A cross country running champion, was a pivotal piece of his team’s entry in the 4×800-meter relay.

After hanging with the rest of the pack through one lap of his two-lap leg, Deveau suddenly fell off the pace.

“Thayne White, who he was supposed to hand off to, kept looking at me and shrugging his shoulders, like to say What is he doing?'” said Mt. Blue track coach Kelley Cullenberg. “I told him I didn’t know. Afterwards, I asked Adam, and he said he just couldn’t have gone any faster.”

His split time of 2:21 was almost 20 seconds shy of his normal time.

In hindsight, it’s a wonder Deveau could run at all.

The 18-year-old graduate of Mt. Blue High School has been diagnosed with acute myloid leukemia, a condition doctors think he developed as early as two weeks into the high school track season in April.

“In the first practices, we do a thing called a duathlon, where the kids work in pairs and run two miles and do a bicycle race,” said Cullenberg. “He broke our team’s two-mile running record in that race, running 10:18.”

His season slid from there. His times, Cullenberg said, got slower, even though he kept saying he was “running as fast as he could.”

“I was starting to think I was doing something wrong coaching him,” said Cullenberg.

There were other clues, Cullenberg said, but none that would have triggered thoughts of leukemia at the time: Deveau had cuts that wouldn’t heal properly and bruises that remained painted on his body longer than they should have.

Still, Deveau kept running.

“He ran a 10:41 in a meet this year,” said Cullenberg. “Looking back at it, how many kids can say they ran two miles in 10:40 while they had leukemia? That says a lot about his competitive desire.”

His best friend on the team and running partner, Joe Staples, knew something was wrong, but he, too, was puzzled.

“It just didn’t seem right,” said Staples, who graduated with Deveau this spring. “I was coming off an injury, and we were running together. Normally, he was way ahead of me by the end of the season. The doctors say he’s had this for a while, and to me, it’s amazing how well he did do under the circumstances.”

Eric Marceau, who will be a junior at Mt. Blue in the fall, is the heir-apparent to Deveau on the distance squad. For two years, he has patterned his technique and his work ethic after Deveau’s.

“We both run races the same way,” said Marceau. “To see him always make the top five, to have him there is a big inspiration for me. We started to run races together about the time they say he started to get sick. I started to be able to catch up to him, and I was getting better, but something wasn’t right. I still want to know how well he could have done if he hadn’t gotten sick.”

Diagnosing the problem

The Class A track meet was postponed for a week following that first event due to torrential rain. In the week that followed, Deveau’s condition worsened.

“We all thought this was pretty much normal,” said his mother, Michelle Deveau. “He had a job, he had track and he had a full course load. He was burning the candle at both ends, and we thought maybe he was coming down with mono.”

According to his mother, Adam went with his class on a trip to Attitash, a recreation area in Bartlett, N.H. There, he was offered $40 to be the first person to run up and back down the mountain. He and Staples and another friend took the challenge. Adam won.

“The night before graduation, I offered to take him to the ER,” said Michelle. “He declined, but by Monday, he’d had enough.”

The doctors ran tests for mononucleosis and strep throat, both of which came back negative. But he got worse.

A week later, Adam came home early from his job at Dunkin’ Donuts.

“He was talking like he was Elmer Fudd,” said Michelle. “We were actually making fun of him, and thought mono again, because we thought his tongue was swollen.”

Another round of tests that evening revealed that Adam’s lymph nodes were so swollen they were pushing his tongue up, causing the speech impediment.

“They took a full blood count Tuesday night (June 20), that was at 5:30 p.m.,” said Michelle. “Wednesday morning, they called us up and told us to get down (to Portland’s Maine Medical Center). It was leukemia.”

Treatment, recovery

Because acute myloid leukemia is so aggressive, the treatment plan doctors prescribed for Adam is, too. According to Michelle, Adam will undergo 10 days of chemotherapy, followed by a three- to four-week recovery period – five times over.

“Unless one of our family members is found to be a positive (bone marrow) donor match,” said Michelle. “If one of us is, he’ll go through only two cycles of chemo and then go to Boston for a bone marrow transplant, and we’d be there for four to six months.”

Adam’s friends, family and the cross country running community have rallied to support him.

“I was one of his closest friends all through high school and middle school and still am,” said Staples. “I told him, since he is losing all of his hair because of chemo, I’d shave mine off, too. I told him, when his grows back, I’ll grow mine back out.”

According to Michelle, the flow of well-wishers through the doors at Maine Medical Center’s Barbara Bush Children’s Hospital has been steady.

“(Tuesday) there were 10 people here, about,” said Michelle. “I don’t think I’ve seen the same group of people in here twice, and it’s been a week now.”

Coaches from schools across the state have already started to phone Cullenberg, asking what they can do. One runner, a recent Gorham High School graduate, asked his coach, Jason Tanguay, to relay a special message and a question to Cullenberg.

“He wants to run the Beach to Beacon race (a world-class, 10 kilometer road race) in August, and he’d like to do it for Adam,” said Cullenberg.

Miles Bartlett, who recently graduated from Lake Region High School and was last year’s Class B state cross country champ, stopped by Tuesday with a bag full of comedy movies and some running magazines.

“There are so many different things people have come up with, that people are thinking of to try and help the family out.”

Cullenberg is organizing a road race in Farmington – aptly a two-mile race – to help raise money for the family, and hopes to hold that later in July.

Meanwhile, Adam will undergo chemo treatment No. 5 today in Portland. He shares his room with a pole used to deliver intravenous medicine that his parents have decorated to look like a person they call Ivan.

“It’s like Tom Hanks in Castaway with Wilson, the ball,” laughed Michelle. “It has a hat and everything.”

Adam wasn’t available for comment Tuesday. He had just been administered one of the tougher doses of chemotherapy in the cycle, but that, said his friends, wouldn’t last long.

“Everyone knows he’s going to get through this,” said Staples. “He’s probably the most high-spirited individual I know. He works hard at everything, and I know he’ll do the same here and beat this.”

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