It’s all about a connection.
While the majority of ChadTough supporters don’t have the experience of losing a child, simply seeing others go through the struggle is enough to form a bond.
It’s what happened for Jeanine LaGorio. When asked how she became involved with The ChadTough Foundation, she humbly said, “I wish I had a better answer other than … I went to the University of Michigan,” she said.
“This is the honest-to-God truth: I applied to several schools and I got into them all. I went (to Michigan) because I wanted to say I got to witness U-M football.”
Lloyd Carr was the Michigan coach when Jeanine attended from 1995-99. She and her roommate headed to Pasadena when the Wolverines were in the Rose Bowl, having the time of their lives as the team won the National Championship.
Michigan football provided everything Jeanine had hoped it would. She remained a faithful alum, considering Coach Carr “her coach.” So, when the news hit that Coach Carr’s four-year-old grandson, Chad, had been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor — Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG) — her heart broke.
“I just picked up on it and couldn’t let it go,” she said. “I have two children and the blonde haired little boy … that’s my kid, you know? I started following (the story) and I haven’t looked back since.”
Jeanine has always had a passion for running, so when she saw the opportunity to run the Chicago marathon on behalf of The ChadTough Foundation, she was elated. She had already participated in the RunTough for ChadTough event the year before, ready to take her support to the next level.
Unfortunately, the wear and tear of running she had done over the years was starting to put a toll on her body.
“I diagnosed myself several years ago with runner’s knee and I know it’s common,” she explained. “I’ve been getting older, so I thought I would scale back a little bit from running to make my running career last longer.”
She also began work with a personal trainer, hoping to strengthen her body.
“Well, that ended up being my downfall,” said Jeanine. “I thought I was doing something good for myself by giving myself a break (from running). It turns out — I went to the doctor finally — I was born with my femur not being long enough.
“So every time I’ve walked or ran or done exercise for the last 40 years, my kneecap moved.”
As Jeanine was engaging in squats and lunges during her personal training sessions, she was ironically doing more harm than good.
“I thought I was doing something, good getting a break from running, when all I was doing was speeding up the process.”
A Magical Moment
Despite her frustrating diagnosis, Jeanine has continued to run. A couple weeks ago, she donned her knee brace and headed to the track for a 10-mile run – something she has always considered easy.
“I get out there early enough and I start running and my knee never hurt, but I kept looking at my time,” she recalled. “Normally I run about a 10:15 mile. I’m looking at my clock and it’s creeping up to almost a 12-minute mile. I was so angry. I’ve never been a fast runner clearly, but because I’ve never been fast, I don’t want to get slower.”
She was “wrapped up in her own little world,” stuck in a web of frustration. That’s when she looked up and saw a blonde little boy on the track.
“I don’t know how long he was there, truthfully,” she said. “He looked at me and smiled, running fast. I kind of smile back, but I’m not paying much attention.”
The little boy stopped, walked for a bit, and didn’t look back and Jeanine. Being the adult with longer legs, Jeanine catches up to the little boy.
“He looks over at me again, smiles, bolts,” she says. “I chuckle to myself. I’m thinking, ‘Okay, he doesn’t want me catching up to him.’ This happened four, five, maybe six times. It was over the span of about 20 minutes.”
The Fun of the Run
As this little blonde boy engaged Jeanine, she started to think about why she was running in the first place.
“I literally started laughing and I thought of the connection about: I’m having fun here,” she said. “This is fun, this is what running is supposed to be and the fact that he was this little blonde five- or six-year-old kid and I’m remembering why I’m out there running.
“Of course I thought of Chad. Of course I thought of Tommy. And I start crying. So I’m simultaneously laughing and crying and — because I’m by myself — I’m thinking, ‘My goodness if anybody could see me they’d probably think I was a lunatic.’”
It’s the reason so many ChadTough supporters get involved — the perspective of life and death, blessings and hardships, and a true recognition of “first-world problems.”
Seeing families lose their children in such an awful way makes everything else seem trivial.
“I decided to run last year and my daughter decided to run (with me),” said Jeanine. “At the same time she got diagnosed with some injuries and was in physical therapy, so she never once was able to run before the ChadTough race.
“She ran every single step of that 3.1 miles with me. I said, ‘Anna, you can stop. You’re okay. You can stop. No one’s gonna say you have to run.’ She’s said, ‘No, I’m doing this. I’m doing this for me, I’m doing this for you, I’m doing this for Chad.’”
So many ChadTough supporters find purpose in running the 5K or mile because it’s directly contributing to DIPG research. Beyond that, the outward showing of support provides comfort and peace to the Carr and Ruddy families as they continue to grieve their losses.
When Jeanine participated in last year’s race in Saline, she was excited to see the faces she’d only seen from Facebook interactions. Living an hour away, she had only seen one ChadTough sticker on the road out her way.
“It was huge,” she recalls. “It was remarkable and — while obviously it’s local to the Carr family — I know I’m not the only one who traveled at least a little bit for that and I know I’m not the only stranger.
“It just felt warm. It’s a warm community of people coming together for a common cause and we’re — for all intents and purposes — strangers. I just think that that’s a magical and powerful thing.”
You Can Be RunTough
If you’d like to participate in the 4th Annual RunTough for ChadTough event, visit chadtough.org/run to sign up. You can run locally in Saline or Grand Rapids, or anywhere in the world by signing up as a virtual runner.