It all started when I felt so lost. Desperately seeking a purpose, I applied to be part of the 2011 Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge (DFMC), through which runners raise money for cancer research at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
I’d never run more than five miles until this past November, so I didn’t know what to expect from training for a marathon. But I’m determined and can rise to a challenge, like I did when my father was diagnosed in 2007 with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), the disabling and fatal disease also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
Losing my father, Tom “Dilly” Walsh, when I was 25 years old has been the most hurtful experience of my life. I still can’t believe he isn’t here. But when I was accepted to the 2011 DFMC Team on the day of the first anniversary of my father’s death, Dec. 1, 2010, I found what became my grounding purpose in the midst of such disorienting loss. To escape my loss or to process it a little more, I began to run, first along the misty roads of Chilmark, and then in Boston, training for the 115th Boston Marathon.
After losing my Dad, I’ve tried desperately to find the positive in life and to better myself, as he would want me to do. My father believed in me, in all that I could do and hadn’t done yet. He would be duly impressed and surprised that I took on a challenge as crazy as marathon training in the New England winter.
The DFMC community of runners is like a 500-member support group of people who believe in helping others, and who each have a story. Standing in a running store full of runners at 8 am on a Saturday and fighting back tears became a habit.
Each week began with a mission statement read by Dana-Farber staff, reminding us why we were logging all these miles together in the slush. My first and second pair of sneakers turned a brown shade of grey after many miles in the slush and snow, although I often pretended the crunch of the snow was actually the crunch of sand on the beach. For months I ignored the single digit degrees whipping me in the face.
Then I began to obsess about avoiding injury, buying running apparel, and, as the big day approached, the weather. Running a now familiar 9-mile stretch along the marathon course over Heartbreak Hill in neon reflective orange at night is now second nature.
One evening after work, as snow, rain, and hail alternately pelted me in the face, I appreciated my own determination with just another challenge in life met. After each toe-numbing run I’d remind myself, if I can do this, it can only get better from here. I also repeat my mantras, “I can do anything for a mile,” and “nothing is forever,” which my dad told me when I was going through an unhappy, hard time. It reminds me daily to make the most of every moment.
Over the course of my training I concluded that grieving and marathon training are really not much different; it’s hard to explain how I just gradually got used to running more miles and how you just get used to living with loss. I’ll continue to cope for the rest of my life with the absence of my Dad, far longer than the months it took me get marathon-ready. Not to say that training was easy: some long runs felt awful and I was forced to walk, stretch, or doubt myself. Others, including my last long run of 22 miles pre-marathon felt amazing — just the confidence booster I needed heading towards April 18.
Good day or bad, running always heals me by giving me time uninterrupted. I can ponder how quickly others want us to move on and feel better after loss, because who wants to feel that pain? Certainly not those who care about us, but we who have lost know that the simplest stray thought can bring back a wave of sadness. Grief is like the ocean — sometimes a calm peaceful sea, and other times the surge of a wave can pull us under.
When I re-read the article I wrote in honor of my Dad for his last Father’s Day, in 2009, I sobbed, realizing how true it all is now, the gravity of the loss I have suffered. I’ve been learning how to lose, really lose but keep living — what a paradigm. Making meaning and remembering are important parts of my life, and fatefully, being a part of DFMC and raising money for cancer research could not be more meaningful.
Dana-Farber and the Jimmy Fund Clinic hold a special place in my heart because of the year I spent working there as a pediatric psychosocial intern. I’ll never forget the children and teenagers I worked with: some have recovered and some have died. The conversations I had, the pictures we drew, and the meaning it all gave me remind me that I will forever want to be able to give back in honor of them.
I think of them all as I run, and as I receive each donation for Dana-Farber so that no one else has to suffer like them.
Despite all my preparation and experiencing the excitement as a spectator of the Boston Marathon, I never could have imagined how amazing a day it would be running myself. I woke up at dawn, and was off running by 11, finishing a little over four hours later. My goals were to have fun, feel good during and after, and to run the whole thing, including Heartbreak, without walking. Happily, I can write that it all went to plan!
Hearing people cheer me on who didn’t even know me refreshed my faith in humanity: about a million people came out to support the 27,000 runners. At about mile three, a woman passed by me and patted me on the shoulder saying, “Your father would be proud of you.” I smiled wide, since I knew he was with me, both pictured on the back of my Dana-Farber singlet and in the strong, helpful tailwind pushing me along that day. Everyone I loved was there either in person at the finish in the waving arms of my mother, Barbara, or jumping out at mile 23 emblazoned in Dana-Farber apparel and with bullhorn in hand, like my sister, Marisa, or in spirit like my brother, Dylan, who kept track of my progress via text message during class at St. Michael’s College. It was an amazing day full of love, and I could not have been any happier.
Now that the day has passed, I’m reminded of what I shared with everyone on Father’s Day in 2009 — to enjoy the day and our fathers. I’ve learned again during these months of training how every day matters, and more importantly to just live in the moment as best we can, and be thankful. For me, the moment lasted four hours during that blissful run in the sun this past Marathon Monday!
Kara Walsh has been a seasonal resident of Martha’s Vineyard since she was born in July 1984. She currently lives in Boston where she is a medical social worker at Children’s Hospital. Contributions to the Dana Farber Cancer Institute may still be made in her name at runDFMC.org/2011/karaw.