Ultrarunner Tommy Rivs runs in the mountains
(Photo: Paul Nelson)

Running Community Rallies for Tommy Rivs

Tommy Rivers Puzey is fighting for his life, recently diagnosed with lung cancer. His friends and fans are raising funds to help.

Ultrarunner Tommy Rivs runs in the mountains

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Tommy Rivers Puzey, 35, known as “Tommy Rivs” on social media, has been in the fight for his life since July, when he fell ill midway through a long run in the Grand Canyon.

The accomplished ultrarunner struggled with extreme respiratory discomfort and was coughing and urinating blood. When he returned to his Flagstaff, Ariz., home he quarantined from his wife, Stephanie Puzey, and their three young daughters, fearing that he had contracted COVID-19.

Initially, Puzey resisted seeking treatment at the hospital, concerned that the regional medical facility was overwhelmed by pandemic-related needs. Flagstaff is located next to Navajo Nation, where the outbreak of COVID-19 has been severe.

“He knew he was strong and didn’t want to take a hospital bed from someone who wasn’t,” said his brother, Jacob Puzey, who lives in Canmore, Alberta, in Canada.

A COVID-19 test came back negative, but Puzey’s health continued deteriorating. Finally, at the urging of his wife, he relented and was admitted to Flagstaff Medical Center’s intensive care unit, where he posted a series of videos on Instagram, explaining what was happening. In his videos, he also talked about helping the Anasazi Foundation and asked his 229,000 followers to demand care for members of the Navajo Nation, asking, “Can we establish a culture of compassion?” Puzey’s call-to-action resulted in donations to the Navajo Nation to help with COVID-19 relief efforts.

After two biopsies, Puzey was diagnosed with pulmonary NK/T-Cell lymphoma, an extremely rare form of lung cancer that has a poor prognosis.

As the news circulated among runners around the world, many have responded with the kindness and generosity that Puzey himself is known to exude. A GoFundMe campaign has raised more than $450,000 as of early August to help his family cope with medical costs, which are expected to be exorbitant.

After his second biopsy, Puzey was airlifted to a hospital in Scottsdale, Arizona, where he received the diagnosis. He was put into an induced coma with a ventilator and an Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation (ECMO) machine while he began his first round of chemotherapy.

“We were able to move him to a better situation in a large part because of the people in the running community made it happen,” Jacob Puzey said, crediting an Arizona-based runner who helped coordinate transfer to the new facility.

Tommy Puzey is a doctor of physical therapy, a consultant for iFit, and also an endurance coach. He is sponsored by Craft Sportswear.

Supportive Friends and Family

As Puzey’s family has coped with his sudden medical emergency, they’ve also kept his many friends and fans updated on his condition. Jacob, who is also an ultrarunner, coach and race director, has posted live videos and let viewers know how to help. Stephanie Puzey has also utilized Instagram to announce any news on her husband’s condition, while Puzey’s father, Kim, and younger sister, Anna, are also posting.

Jacob, who’s two years older than his brother, says, “We were pretty much inseparable for the first 16 years of his life and first 18 years of my life.” The younger Puzey then followed his brother to Brigham Young University Hawaii on the North Shore of Oahu, where the two ran cross-country together.

“In school, there were students from 70 different countries,” Jacob said. “We were exposed to a lot of different ideas and worldviews, both academically and in the community. That time period really shaped us both quite a bit.”

Jacob explained that taking Hawaiian studies courses is why Puzey “feels the way he does about the Diné and Navajo. He recognizes he’s a visitor on their land,” he said.

The brothers reconnected while Puzey attended physical therapy school in Flagstaff.

“I moved there to go back to grad school so we could be there together,” Jacob said “I wanted to find an excuse to be in the same town again.”

Now in Canada, Jacob gushes about the support they have received from thousands of followers and shares the current status of his brother.

“It’s pretty bleak,” he said. “But it sounds like the chemo has reduced some of the inflammation and cancer in the lungs. His oxygen levels are 10 points higher than they were in Flagstaff.”

Puzey is still slipping in and out of consciousness, but he is responsive.

“But through so many tubes it’s hard to know if he knows what’s going on. He smiled at Steph a couple times,” Jacob said, adding that Steph Puzey posts the most recent updates.

How You Can Help

The Puzeys express that the outpouring of support has been amazing on many levels and request that donations go through one of the following channels:

GoFundMe Page: Rest Up Tommy, We’ll See You Soon

  • This is the most direct place for donations and will allow the family to maintain transparency and streamline accounting as they move forward. Jacob Puzey asked that if anyone has other ideas for fundraising initiatives, to consider donating directly to the GoFundMe page or via one of the other efforts listed here. (Note: The Puzeys aren’t endorsing the usage of Tommy Rivers Puzey’s likeness, though they appreciate sincere efforts.)

#RunWithRivs Challenge

  • From August 1 through August 9, this effort encourages participants to choose a personal challenge—like running a certain number of miles, or biking, walking, or even praying for a specified time—to raise money in Puzey’s honor. Participants are also fundraising for their challenges, with all money going to the GoFundMe campaign.

RageOn Auction

  • Sponsors and high-profile runners like Olympian Magdalena Boulet have donated items like Olympic gear and singlets or coaching services to this auction, open for bidding through August 13.

Run With Rivs Shirts

  • Craft USA is producing and selling tech shirts that say “Run With Rivs” in a design created by Puzey’s sister, Anna. Proceeds to benefit the Puzey family.

Donate Blood

  • While Puzey has received a lot of blood and will need more, Jacob Puzey says he’s learned how there is a “huge demand and short supply” of blood for those in need, due to COVID-19 and other medical issues. The family encourages people to donate blood, not specifically to Puzey, but through their local blood bank to help others.

“Tommy would want people to know his case isn’t unique,” Jacob said. “If there are other people that need help, don’t just put all the attention on Tommy and his family. He’d want to make sure the pain and suffering of other people is recognized. That’s probably his biggest message.”

Jacob acknowledges that Puzey will likely be overwhelmed by the outpouring when he’s able to comprehend it.

“As soon as he can speak, he will say, ‘Thank you,’” Jacob said. “He recognizes his privilege.”

Still, the family faces a long road alongside their beloved Tommy Rivs. They are grateful for all the support the running community has offered.

“I’m broken,” Jacob said in a recent Instagram video. “This is burying me and crushing me. But at the same time it’s building me up and giving me some source of purpose and meaning.” He says of his brother, “Think on him. Breathe life into him and those around you.”

From PodiumRunner Lead Photo: Paul Nelson