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Homes, and now strides, by Helen

At 75, Realtor Helen Torres will walk half the Disney marathon as part of a Train to End Stroke group.

By JULIANNE WU, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 5, 2003


ST. PETERSBURG -- She is one of the main sponsors of the Florida Orchestra's annual Concert in the Park.

She gives college scholarships to budding young musicians and supports local opera performances.

Now, St. Petersburg Realtor Helen Torres is taking on a new challenge: She is training to walk half the Walt Disney World Marathon on Jan. 12. In marathon terms, that's 13.1 miles.

"This the first time I'm doing anything like this," Torres said. "It's a challenge, and I like new challenges."

At 75, Torres -- who sandwiches training sessions between appointments with clients through her business, Homes by Helen Inc. -- is the oldest of a group of 64 Tampa Bay residents who will participate in next week's marathon as part of Train to End Stroke. Train to End Stroke is a program sponsored by the American Stroke Association, a division of the American Heart Association. While the main beneficiary of Disney's 10th Anniversary Marathon will be the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, the American Stroke Association and the American Diabetes Association are among other groups to benefit, said Walt Disney World spokesman Bill Hofheimer.

Strokes killed more than 10,000 people in Florida in 2001, including more than 750 in Pinellas County, said Jennifer Costello, communications director for the American Heart Association in St. Petersburg. "Thousands more suffered a stroke and are going through rehabilitation," she said.

Torres decided to enter the marathon after reading about it in the paper last July, she said.

After paying the $100 entrance fee, she wrote a fundraising letter to friends and neighbors. So far, she has collected more than $2,000 for the American Stroke Association.

Torres said that most of her friends and neighbors were supportive with checks, but "I was actually disappointed I had some turn-downs. That has never happened to me." Torres has raised money for various causes since she moved to Florida from Boston in 1980.

For instance, Torres, a native New Yorker, has been the principal sponsor of the Florida Orchestra's Concert in the Park (now held in Vinoy Park) for nine years. She gives scholarships to youngsters who play in the Pinellas Youth Symphony and the Tampa Bay Youth Orchestra, and has supported local opera performances.

Because she has no family to care for, Helen believes in supporting worthwhile causes instead. "I'm very big on giving back to the community. God gives you this body and mind as a gift, and you have to pay it back."

Torres said she is walking for friends of hers who have had strokes: Chris Moore and Chester Murphy of St. Petersburg and for triathlete Robert Ray, who died last July 30 of a stroke.

Although she initially talked to a coach about some pointers, Torres trains alone because of her busy schedule. She said she walks about 3 miles at least three times a week and 12 miles on weekends.

"The first thing I did was to go out to a sports store and buy the proper clothing," she said. "You have to have the proper shoes and socks, and shirts that breathe."

Torres is out in her Old Northeast neighborhood by 6:30 a.m.

Her advice to others who want to do a marathon or even half of one is: "Check with your doctor first. Then stretch each time and start slowly. That way you won't get sore. It's more a matter of mind than of age. ... You just have to listen to your body.

"Walking is a wonderful challenge. It's a little lonely because you go at your own pace, but it makes you very conscious of your health. To be motivated, find a cause that is important."

Costello, of the heart association, thinks Torres is a motivator to others. "Helen is a neat lady," she said. "It is so inspiring that our neighbors, regardless of age, are so committed to making our community a better place."

On Saturday, Torres and the others from the local Train to End Stroke group will board a bus for Orlando. About 6,000 people are expected to walk or run the half-marathon, and another 16,000 the full marathon, 26.2 miles.

Torres hopes to avoid "the Sweep," when a bus comes along to pick up anyone who hasn't finished the race within 31/2 hours, before the park opens to the public. "I'll do the best I can."

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