While celebrating my 22nd birthday last week, I made a decision that will certainly make this year one to remember. After weeks of internal debate, I made a pact with my friend, Rosie, officially committing to running the 2013 Chicago Marathon.
A month ago, running a marathon was definitely not on my agenda. Sure, I had been tempted by the idea of joining the exclusive 26.2 club, but because all of the races on the Paratriathlon competition circuit are short course, I figured I didn’t want to break my focus by dabbling in long distance running. So why the change of heart? Here’s how it all went down.
As my loyal readers know, for the last 9 years I’ve been involved as a camper and a counselor at One Step at a Time, a camp for kids with cancer. Four months after losing my leg, during my third year of camp, I attended One Step’s annual adaptive ski trip in Park City, Utah. There, I befriended one of my counselors named Colleen McGrath. Before meeting Colleen in person, I had heard her described as “the heart and soul of One Step.” Within minutes of shaking her hand, I understood why.
Colleen was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer when she was 13. After several months of chemo, she was miserable, out of hope, and told her dad she wanted to stop treatment. But her dad wasn’t quite ready to let that happen. He and her doctors made Colleen a deal: go to One Step camp for a week, and if you still feel like this, you can have your way. Colleen kicked and screamed all the way to Lake Geneva, appalled that her dad was actually following through with the deal. But within the first hour of being at camp, she “got it.” For the first time, she saw cancer survivors who were not only living life, but loving it. She saw kids who, in spite of their illness, were enjoying the simple pleasures of childhood; and the smiles on their faces made her realize that her life could become big and beautiful again. In essence, being at camp taught Colleen that life was worth fighting for. She went home at the end of the week and successfully finished chemo with a spark inside her that was never there before. And to this day 13 years later, Colleen still says that camp saved her life.
Of course, I didn’t learn any of this until later in our relationship, because when you first meet Colleen, you would never think she was sad a day in her life. With our similarly loud personalities, we had an instant connection. We bonded over Lifetime movies, disregarding social norms, and our ability to read each other’s thoughts in competitive games of Triple Play. As the years went on, our friendship grew closer. When I moved from Milwaukee to Chicago for college, Colleen was one of the people who helped make the city my home by giving me a family when I was missing my own. And when I transitioned from being a camper to a counselor, I looked up to her as a model for my own counseling style, with the hopes of making the same impact that she had on me.
In the years since I’ve known her, Colleen has become even more dedicated to One Step, making it her mission to bring the magic of camp to as many children as possible. Two years ago, Colleen helped put together One Step’s first marathon team, a group of 30 individuals who ran the Chicago Marathon to raise money for One Step at a Time. The goal is for each runner to raise $1,000, the cost of sending one kid to camp for a week. It was so successful in its first season that last year, Colleen was hired to manage Team One Step fulltime. Her life-long passion had manifested into a career.
But just a few months after getting her dream job, the unthinkable happened: Colleen was diagnosed with cancer again, this time in her colon. To say I was devastated would be an understatement. In fact, the news shook all of the One Step family to its core. But Colleen took it in stride, assuring all of us that she was going to be okay. She remained dedicated to camp and to her job, attending that summer as a counselor, and managing Team One Step through a successful marathon season.
Last month, Colleen and I both attended One Step’s Winter Camp, along with 40 other counselors and 100 campers. At lunch one day, Colleen got in front of the camp and gave her pitch, asking everyone to consider joining Team One Step and spreading the word about the Team. A half hour later, she had 8 more people signed up. In the week that followed, members from our camp family continued to post on Colleen’s facebook page stating their intention to run. People who had never run more than a mile in their lives came forward as if they were agreeing to spare someone a quarter—like it was the easiest decision in the world. Watching so many people rallying behind her and agreeing to run 26.2 miles at the drop of a hat was absolutely inspiring. It was a beautiful of example of the things we are willing to do for the camp we all love so much, and the people that we love even more. And then I got to thinking…
I thought about all of my reasons not to run it (I risk injury, my competition times might suffer). Then I thought about Colleen, and how every time people ask her what they can do to help her, her answer is always the same, “Consider joining Team One Step. Run the marathon and change a life by sending a kid to camp.” Finally I asked myself, what kind of person uses the cruelest of circumstances as a chance to think about others and give back? And if Colleen is able to remain 100% selfless during a time when she has every right not to be, then what the hell is my excuse? I guess that’s when it all became clear. When it came down to it, not running was not an option.
And thus, 2013 will be the year I conquer my first marathon. Between now and October 13, I will raise $1,000 for One Step at a Time, and I will push my body to a point it has not been before. But by taking on this challenge, I have another goal. I want to convince 26 other individuals to join me in running this year’s Chicago Marathon for Team One Step. Whether you are an experienced marathoner or have never run a 5K; whether you know me well or we have never met; whether you have experienced the magic of One Step at a Time firsthand, indirectly, or have simply been moved by this story; I ask you to please visit teamonestep.org to find out how you can join Team One Step.
I know this is going to be hard, and I know it’s going to take work, but I’m lucky to have a solid support system, some awesome training buddies, and a cause that will motivate me to get through the toughest days. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little bit overwhelmed. But as scary and crazy and irrational as it is, at the same time, it feels so right.
Because in the grand scheme of things, 26.2 miles of a little pain is well worth the impact it will have on the camp that saves lives.