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Altoona runner overcomes cancer, ready to run Boston Marathon

Kevin Larson has run Boston Marathon before but this year will be far more special for him. Not only is he running with his wife, Betsy Larson, he also will be running cancer-free today.

Less than one year after being diagnosed with testicular cancer, Larson qualified for the Boston Marathon.

Larson, 40, of Altoona, said he was training for a fall marathon in the summer of 2017 when he began feeling some discomfort in his groin and experienced some urinary issues.

“I just didn’t feel right,” he said. “I had a very dull side pain.”

One of his testicles felt firm and was slightly larger.

“But there was no pain associated with running,” he said.

Kevin told Betsy about his discomfort, and she insisted he go and get checked out. He saw a doctor in late August.

“He had an ultrasound done, just to make sure we weren’t missing anything,” Kevin Larson said. “They called back, the same day. The urologist said it was cancer.”

The news struck them both hard.

“Betsy broke down,” he said. “I was in shock. (The doctor) said, ‘Let’s get it done tomorrow. We want to get this out of you.”

Betsy Larson agreed it was a shocking diagnosis; Kevin was just 38 at the time.

“You hear ‘cancer,’ and you immediately think the worst,” she said.

It was a nerve-racking night.

“I didn’t think so much about me but my family,” he said. “I had no doubt I was going to get through it.”

Kevin had surgery less than 24 hours after his first appointment. The surgeons made an incision into his abdomen, as they remove potentially cancerous tissues from inside the body as well as the testicle. The surgery lasted about 45 minutes.

While the surgery went well and Kevin was resting at home just a few hours later, he then had to wait to hear if the cancer had spread elsewhere in his body.

“You’re sitting there, waiting to find out the next step and if it had spread,” he said. “It was a huge relief when we got that call. I had the lesser-common type of cancer. Luckily, it wasn’t as aggressive. I didn’t need treatment, because it was contained in the testicle.”

Kevin opted not to take pain medications, and he missed a week of work.

Taking precautions

Even though he is cancer-free, Kevin will have a blood draw every three months, and a CT scan a year for the next five years.

As for running, he began the road to recovery, taking more than a month off working out. For a dedicated runner, that was a challenge.

“Running, I’ve been doing it my whole life,” he said. “If I don’t do it, I don’t feel like myself. I get irritable; I get short.”

He eased back into running in October. He competed — and won — a race in the Menomonie area that fall.

They decided to train for Grandma’s Marathon, which goes from Two Harbors, Minn., to Duluth, Minn., in mid-June. Kevin Larson finished in 3 hours, 1 minute, and Betsy Larson finished in 3 hours, 34 minutes. They both qualified for Boston Marathon.

Mike Olson, an avid runner from Altoona, is impressed with Larson’s recovery.

“I’ve always known Kevin as incredibly determined,” Olson said. “I’ve raced against him for years. It’s an amazing story to hear he can bounce back that quickly.”

Olson praised Larson for being a positive competitor in the local racing scene.

“At the end of every race, he always has the biggest smile, and wanted to talk about his next race,” Olson said.

Wade Zwiener, an area runner who also has been a race director, said he sees Larson routinely on the loosely organized runs from Owen Park on Saturdays.

“I think of his smile and his attitude, which is so great,” Zwiener said. “He’s so friendly and outgoing. It’s always great to see him at a local race. He’s just very gifted as a runner.”

About two dozen people from across western Wisconsin have signed up for the race, which features about 30,000 runners this year, the marathon’s website states. Boston Marathon competitors qualify based on a combination of their time, age and gender.

Running as a family

Kevin Larson is an Altoona native, graduating from Altoona High School in 1997. Betsy, 37, grew up in Hartland, and graduated from Hartland Arrowhead High School. They met in college, as they both raced in cross country at UW-Eau Claire, and they each were team captains. Kevin Larson held the school record in the 800-meter dash for several years.

Boston Marathon will mark Kevin’s 10th marathon, including his second time at Boston; he competed in 2016 as well. This will be Betsy’s 8th marathon, and her first-ever Boston Marathon.

“All my friends ran Boston in college,” Betsy Larson said. For 20 years, it’s been on my bucket list. But it was eight years since I had last run a marathon, before I qualified.”

The Larsons have two children: 7-year-old Elodie and 4-year-old Beckham. Betsy said she continued to compete in smaller races and half-marathons but stopped running the longer distances after becoming pregnant the first time.

“The training is different when you have two kids,” Betsy Larson said. “You just can’t go when you want to go.”

So that meant figuring out a schedule that enabled them both get in training runs. Kevin works at Mason shoe company in Chippewa Falls, and Betsy owns and operates Elements Salon Studios in Chippewa Falls.

“We basically alternate long-run days so we can get through it,” Kevin Larson said.

However, Betsy said she felt strong as she worked up the miles to prepare for her first marathon in eight years.

“For me, it was easier to qualify at (age) 37 than when I did when I was 22,” she said.

Kevin Larson dreaded the thought of not being able to run with her again.

“It’s such a big part of our relationship,” he said. “Losing that would be tough.”

Larson is thrilled they now get to compete together.

“For me, it’s that we can share this together,” he said. “I don’t know how many husband and wife combos can say they ran it together the same year. And we trained in the worst year possible.”

GOP states discover a tax hike they have to like: for roads

LANSING, Mich. — After passing waves of tax cuts in recent years, some lawmakers in several Republican-dominated states have decided it’s time to make a big exception and are pushing for tax increases to fix roads that are crumbling from years of neglect.

In the past month alone, the Republican governors of Ohio, Alabama and Arkansas have signed fuel tax hikes. Meanwhile, proposed increases are being considered by three legislatures that are fully or partly GOP-controlled, including a whopping 45-cents-a-gallon hike in Michigan.

The moves show a growing willingness in conservative places to take on the fearsome politics of higher taxes, at least for infrastructure. Republicans who otherwise support lower taxes are acknowledging that cutting government spending elsewhere in the budget won’t cover the cost of repairing the many miles of potholed roads and creaky bridges.

“It’s going to take $2.5 billion a year,” said Detroit Regional Chamber CEO Sandy Baruah of Michigan’s road-building needs. “Anyone who thinks you can cut even half of that out of other elements of the state budget without having significant ramifications to real people, you’re smoking something that’s not legal.”

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer won election last year after running on the slogan “Fix the Damn Roads.”

Her plan would gradually add 45 cents to the cost of a gallon of gas by October 2020, which would be more than double the current 26-cents-per-gallon gas tax and make it the highest in the country.

GOP legislative leaders have dismissed the proposed hike as way too much, but they are leaving open the prospect of passing a more modest increase in the face of intense pressure from the business community.

In some states, Republican-leaning interests have become the biggest backers of higher taxes for this purpose, which is seen as necessary for economic development.

While consumers are acutely conscious of prices at the pump, legislators are struggling to get around the difficult realities of the fuel surcharge that funds transportation projects. They are also facing the echoes of the tax cut promises they made in winning over many heartland states in the last decade — that getting tougher on spending wouldn’t mean worse services.

In most states, the excise tax rate per gallon is fixed and doesn’t rise with inflation. And the federal gas tax has remained unchanged since 1993. Meanwhile, consumers are driving more fuel-efficient vehicles or are driving less, depressing revenue. The real purchasing power of the federal gas tax has fallen by 40 percent over the past quarter-century, and repair costs rise significantly when roads decline to a rating of poor or worse.

This winter, Michigan’s Department of Transportation had to close 10 miles of Interstate 75 in suburban Detroit — one of the state’s most heavily trafficked stretches — because of vehicle damage from cracks and potholes.

In Ohio, new Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican who attacked his opponent in the 2018 campaign as a tax-friendly Democrat, this month signed off on a 10.5-cent gas tax increase and a 19-cent diesel tax hike. Republican Govs. Kay Ivey of Alabama and Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas last month signed increases that were their states’ first in decades, of 10 cents and 3 cents respectively. And the GOP-led General Assembly in Virginia this month voted to add 7 cents a gallon in some parts of the state, which was a win for Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam.

Fuel tax increases also are under consideration in Wisconsin and Minnesota, where power is divided between the parties.

The state plans pay little heed to President Donald Trump’s latest proposal for $200 billion in federal infrastructure spending. An earlier plan died in Congress and was heavily dependent on state and local funding, though House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Trump talked this month about working together on an infrastructure package.

In Michigan, the roads have become a state joke. Contests are held to find the worst pothole. An ice cream made by a Shelby Township company is called the “Michigan Pot Hole.” A 12-year-old Muskegon Heights boy recently attracted attention on local TV and social media for filling the ankle-deep pits on his street with dirt.

Three years ago, the Republican-led Legislature approved a $1.2 billion road plan that raised fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees, and was heavily dependent on shifting income tax revenue from an account that covers health care, higher education and other funding areas. But the effect was limited and Whitmer warns that without additional investment, the percentage of state-owned highways that are rated poor will double in five years, to 44 percent. Local streets are worse.

In recent years, Michigan’s Republican leadership has focused on cutting business taxes and expanding income tax credits.

“This is 40 years of disinvestment in the state of Michigan, and it’s coming due now,” Whitmer said of the roads.

At a recent GOP meeting in Grand Rapids, Republican state Rep. Lynn Afendoulis said many of her colleagues first want to look into redirecting other state spending to roads and to see the 2015 laws fully implemented. A number of Republicans hope to dedicate Michigan’s sales tax on motor fuel to the transportation budget, but they have not detailed how that would be done without slicing funding for schools and municipalities.

“I think there are people who are willing to talk about some sort of small tax, perhaps if we couldn’t find enough money elsewhere,” Afendoulis said.

Whitmer’s plan would cost the average motorist $276 a year. She has proposed offsetting that burden with targeted income tax relief for retirees and low-income workers.

Conservative Arkansas saw no alternative to higher taxes. The measure for adding another 3 cents per gallon for gas and 6 cents for diesel passed the Legislature by an overwhelming margin.

“That shows the level of need and the level of support,” said Arkansas’ governor, Hutchinson. The law also will tap into expected revenue from casinos and imposes an additional registration fee on electric and hybrid vehicles.

Ohio’s DeWine said the states can’t wait for the federal government to solve their road problems, noting that Ohio ships more federal gas tax revenue to Washington than it receives in return.

“Frankly, we should be raising the money ourselves and spending it ourselves,” he said. “It’s much more efficient, gives Ohio more bang for the buck than sending it off to Washington and having them send it back to us.”

Wisconsin nonprofit to open first peer-run veterans home

MILWAUKEE (AP) — Veterans organizations such as Dry Hootch have long sought better care in the community for their colleagues seeking behavioral and substance abuse treatment.

Now a community-based nonprofit, Mental Health America of Wisconsin, will start the nation’s first peer-run respite home specifically for veterans using a startup grant of $307,000 from the state Department of Health Services.

“The trauma that veterans experience is unique,” said Brian Michel, director of prevention services for Mental Health America of Wisconsin. “And also the demographics of the veteran status seem to transcend all other factors. They’re a Marine before they’re a certain race. Veteran status comes first because that personal identity has been broken down more than somebody who is a civilian and has not been in the military.”

The organization is looking for a location in the Milwaukee area that would be available to all veterans in the state free of charge, Wisconsin Public Radio reported.

Stays at the yet-to-be determined location will be limited to one to five nights.

“Just enough to allow people to regroup, get connected with health services or get re-engaged with treatment if they lapsed or have not sought treatment,” Michel said.

While there will be no clinical services provided at the respite, the staff will get trained and be paid. The training will include elements of Intentional Peer Support, the Wisconsin and/or National Certified Peer Specialist training, and veteran-specific training for peers to provide PTSD recovery services, Michel said.

One goal of the center is to prevent suicide. According to the state Department of Veterans Affairs, male veterans are twice as likely as their civilian peers to die by suicide. And suicide deaths among women veterans have increased by 40 percent over last decade.

While the state has various programs to help veterans with finances, health care and housing, Wisconsin Veterans Affairs Secretary Mary Kolar estimates up to half of the veterans in Wisconsin are not getting access to those services.

“There are programs that WDVA (Wisconsin Department of Veterans Affairs) has that sometimes we have to say, ‘You don’t meet this qualification for a WDVA program but we know this organization here that’s able to help you.’ We truly believe — and have documentation — that we’ve prevented suicides because we get people the help they need,” Kolar told WPR’s “The Morning Show.”

Kolar also spoke about ending monetary transfers from the Wisconsin Veterans Home at King. In 2016, concern surfaced over money taken from the profitable veterans’ home that was then put into the Veterans Trust Fund to cover losses.

In his budget proposal, Gov. Tony Evers wants to continue funding some veterans programs with revenue from veterans homes. But he is also asking lawmakers to approve $15.8 million in general purpose revenue in the second year of the biennium while the department works toward a long-term solution.