[Noozhawk’s note: First in a series on Fran and Hal Finney, and their determination to compete in Sunday’s Select Staffing Santa Barbara International Marathon. Click here to read the second story in the series.]

Hal Finney got serious about running a few years ago and set his sights on the prestigious Boston Marathon.

He trained hard. He had used running as a main form of exercise for years, but wanted to lose weight and get in better shape.

Along the way, he inspired his wife, Fran, to get back into running. They ran a half-marathon together in Denver and his training was more than 20 miles a day.

Then, earlier this year, things started to change. Hal was getting ready for the Los Angeles Marathon but he was getting worse, not better.

There were “roadblocks” in his training, Fran said. “It wasn’t going smoothly; things kept happening, he kept hurting himself.”

At first, Hal thought he was overtraining. After all, he was 53 and working toward a Boston-qualifying time for his first full marathon.

But other things — outside of running — were changing, too.

Fran noticed that Hal, a fast talker by nature, was speaking more slowly and his breathing didn’t sound the same.

“My tongue was not working right, which was very alarming,” he said softly.

They went to several doctors and were referred to the UCLA Medical Center, to a facility that specializes in neuromuscular diseases.

Hal ran the Los Angeles Marathon in May, hoping to get a time he would improve on in this Sunday’s Select Staffing Santa Barbara International Marathon. Instead, he had to stop halfway through because of pain in his right leg.

It was a great disappointment, but making his marathon debut in his hometown, on a course that runs right past their house, would be even more fun, he said.

It was not to be.

On Aug. 5, the Finney family heard a diagnosis that would change their lives: ALS.

Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, or “Lou Gehrig’s disease,” is a disease that affects motor neurons, the muscle-controlling nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement.

According to the Muscular Dystrophy Association, ALS’ causes are mostly unknown, but some research shows that genetic factors may play a role. Over time, muscles get weaker and patients lose control of voluntary muscles, which results in paralysis.

Hal and Fran Finney competed in the Denver Half-Marathon in April, prior to Hal's ALS diagnosis.

Hal and Fran Finney competed in the Denver Half-Marathon in April, prior to Hal’s ALS diagnosis. (Finney family photo)

The progression of the disease is different in every case. Some patients have a very slow progression, some are fast, and some may start off one way and then speed up or slow down.

At first, the Finneys were in disbelief about the diagnosis. Hal was still active, often jogging several miles a day, and there are several less serious neuromuscular diseases that cause similar speech problems.

“I could list them all — we know them all now,” Fran said.

One month later, they ran the Disney Half-Marathon together. Fran typically runs shorter distances, so Hal used it as a training run and stayed back with her. He had to rest a lot and was sore for a long time afterward.

That was his last long run.

“In the last two or three weeks, even (jogging) is getting too hard, and I’m really just walking now,” he told Noozhawk. “And it doesn’t look like I’ll be able to run again.”

It’s not easy for them to talk about. Hal speaks more slowly and carefully now, and Fran often pauses to get control of her voice. Fran spoke more for him, but that’s nothing new, he laughed.

Both are fervently hoping that the disease’s progression slows down.

“It’s happening fast,” Fran said. “It’s clear now the diagnosis is not wrong.”

People with ALS can also have difficulty controlling emotional display, since it’s a muscular process.

“If he looks like he’s ready to cry, it’s just part of it,” Fran said.

“Well, part of it is, it is sad and it’s kind of hard to talk about,” Hal said. “I don’t talk about it too much. I think it’s natural to choke up a little bit.”

The diagnosis came one week after the Finneys’ 30th wedding anniversary. Hal and Fran met in the 1970s at CalTech, which had just recently allowed female students.

“The women were very popular,” Fran said. “I set my sights on a guy who was completely not chasing me, I had to chase him.

“Hal was just special. I picked him and he accepted me,” she laughed.

Hal remembers the first time he saw his future wife — sitting on the back of a chair in the library, leaning forward and talking to her friends with such intensity she didn’t even see him.

“Fran’s always been that way; she’s always had that energy and intensity and I’ve always loved that,” he said.

They married right after graduation and moved to the unincorporated area between Goleta and Santa Barbara in the early ‘90s.

Hal works in cryptographic software and Fran has her own business as a physical therapist.

She doesn’t consider herself a technical person at all, and only working like crazy got her through CalTech.

“That’s the reason I went — to meet Hal,” she said.

Their daughter, 24, lives in Boston and their son, 26, lives at home for now. Their son has said he’s numb, and their daughter hadn’t seen Hal since his diagnosis, until Thanksgiving.

Living in the Santa Barbara area, Hal and Fran embraced the running culture and have big plans for Sunday’s Santa Barbara marathon.

“We’re runners, or at least Hal is really a runner and he kind of got me into it, and he’s run every bit of that marathon separately many times,” Fran said.

The race course runs right past their house and Hal had long planned on participating. After the ALS diagnosis, Fran came up with the idea for a fundraiser.

They’re registered with the local Muscular Dystrophy Association and know the Santa Barbara Athletic Association runners well — and have been coached by some.

The Finneys will be part of a relay team Sunday, and are raising thousands of dollars to go toward ALS research.

Fran will run the last leg for the South Coast ALS Team, and hand off the electronic tracking chip to Hal. He can’t run, but will walk the chip across the finish line.

Hal’s name will be listed for the last leg of the marathon, and a group of family members, people from their ALS support group and fellow team members will join the Finneys walking the last two miles of the race.

The Finneys are a few hundred dollars away from their $4,000 goal, and the relay team’s goal is $10,000. The team may be the only one not running for a good finish time, but its members are running for something much more personal.

The Fitch family is raising money in honor of Dorothy Fitch, who has ALS. Katrina Carl is running for her grandfather, who passed away from ALS, and for Hal. Mary Ballard is running for her sister, who died of ALS in 2003.

Fran sent out e-mails to fellow runners, telling them about Hal’s diagnosis and the fundraiser.

Not only did she want to fund research, she wanted to let people know about ALS and Hal. With more awareness, people can ask how he’s doing instead of wondering what’s wrong with him, she said.

Fran wants to continue the fundraiser every year as part of the Santa Barbara International Marathon, regardless of whether Hal can actually be there.

“We both have to kind of be strong for each other,” Hal said. “We both have to face changes. And both of us sometimes have trouble seeing how we can do it. But when you take turns being strong, then we are able to find our way.”

Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli can be reached at gmagnoli@noozhawk.com.

Giana Magnoli, Noozhawk Managing Editor

Noozhawk managing editor Giana Magnoli can be reached at gmagnoli@noozhawk.com.