This is the second year Kenny Buron has run the Chicago Marathon for his daughter, Emma.
Ask Kenny Buron to describe the precise moment of the 2017 Chicago Marathon when he realized his daughter was there with him and the answer, filled with a blend of emotions, comes almost immediately.
It is at that point of a long and difficult journey — 20 miles in, 6.2 miles to go — when marathoners experience a pivotal moment. It’s a moment that tests when they determine if they have the will to press on or when they decide their body has had enough.
But it was then and there, 20 miles into a race that came only months after his daughter’s death, when Buron knew he had no other choice but to keep running.
A year later, the moment is almost indescribable as Buron describes the feeling of knowing that Emma Buron, who succumbed to Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma (DIPG), at age 6 on Mother’s Day 2017, was unmistakably there, carrying her father though his first run 26.2 mile run through Chicago’s streets.
“I just felt an immense warmth over my body and I just started crying,” Buron recalled the day before he conquered the Chicago Marathon for the second time as a member of Team ChadTough. “I knew, ‘I’ve got to keep going.'”
In that instant last fall, the suddenly increasing heat wave that took over Buron’s body forced him to stop in his tracks. Like many other runners, Buron had hit a proverbial wall – an obstacle that awaits nearly every distance runner at one mile marker or another.
But like the 16 runners that made up Team ChadTough for this year’s rainy 26.2-mile trek through Chicago, the memory of Chad Carr, Emma Buron or Tommy Ruddy, Buron, in 2017, realized that stopping at Mile 20 was not an option.
“In a sense, I felt like my daughter was there with me towards the end when I was struggling,” Buron said.
He isn’t alone.
Kenny Buron’s neighbor, Drew Slagter, participated in the Chicago Marathon for Team ChadTough for the second consecutive year.
Until earlier this year, Jason Wilkerson had never considered attempting to conquer a marathon. He had always enjoyed running, but the motivation to cover miles of road work always came from within.
Running had always been a selfish endeavor for Wilkerson, who had gotten involved with The ChadTough Foundation through its annual Gala event. But when Wilkerson and his wife became sponsors of this year’s Gala, the images of Chad, Emma and Tommy on baseball cards that were displayed on tables led Wilkerson to consider running a distance he had never come close to taking on.
As a father of four healthy children who have experienced the normal bumps, bruises and occasional broken bones that are all part of growing up, Wilkerson admits that he often finds difficulty in truly understanding what parents who lose children to DIPG endure.
Suddenly, the selfish act of running became much, much more.
“Running is for yourself — something you do for you — and so when (being part of the ChadTough marathon team) came up, I thought, ‘What a cool way to give back and actually turn something that people think of as selfish into going toward a good cause,'” Wilkerson said.
While Wilkerson found himself sometimes fighting to keep pace with a traditional 16-week marathon training schedule leading up to race day, when he was fighting through longer road runs with just himself to keep going, Wilkerson only had to think back to the faces on the baseball cards that had become ingrained in his memory to keep going.
“Just having those to help inspire you really mattered because (Chad, Emma and Tommy) had a race they couldn’t win.”
Like Wilkerson, Sarah Marlowe had never crossed a marathon off of her personal To-Do list before this year’s event in Chicago.
Marlowe became aware of the ChadTough Foundation from the ESPN coverage that followed Chad’s death in 2015. Like Wilkerson, Marlowe had difficulty fathoming just how much pain parents like Jason and Tammi Carr and Buron had endured after their children received the devastating and life-changing DIPG diagnosis.
But as she trained for her first marathon – running as far as 20 miles in preparation for race day – Marlowe acknowledges that running for something – or in this case someone – bigger than herself provided her with motivation that perhaps she would have never discouraged on her own.
“On the long runs, it’s just you and it’s, OK, I’m struggling,” Marlowe said. “But what these kids go through and what these families go through is a lot harder and a lot worse than my pain for a few more miles. So, I can survive.”
As much difficulty as first-time marathoners find in reaching their final destination once they reach the finish line, even more experienced runners who have conditioned their bodies to handle 26.2 miles sometimes struggle with feelings of whether they can complete the course.
Nancy Munson with Tammi Carr the night before the marathon.
This year’s Chicago Marathon represented the sixth time Nancy Munson has conquered so many miles at once.
For Munson, a mother, grandmother and nurse who was part of the ChadTough team for the second straight year, drawing inspiration from the memories of those who led to the formation of the ChadTough Foundation has become a regular occurrence.
Last year, Munson – who traveled to Chicago from her home in Rochester, New York, for this year’s marathon – struggled with injuries throughout her training. In the times when she felt like the pain was too much, she would find herself thanking God for the strength to keep running but also talking to Chad.
“Seriously, it would be, ‘Chad, I know you’re there. I know you’re helping me through this, buddy,'” said Munson, who was the top Chicago Marathon fundraiser for the ChadTough Foundation. “I know a lot of us have leaned on him.”
Buron appreciates the camaraderie that comes from runners who come together to honor the memory and legacy of not only his daughter, but for others who have lost their battles with DIPG.
While runners have their own motivation for tackling the challenge of a marathon while raising awareness and funds for DIPG research, ground is being covered.
“Doctors are now saying there is a light at the of the tunnel,” Tammi Carr told runners at a reception the day before this year’s Chicago Marathon. “Three years ago, they weren’t saying that.”
So as doctors and researchers move closer to discovering better ways to treat DIPG and continue to work to find a cure, runners like Munson will keep pressing on, carried by the memories of children whose legacy continues to speak for itself.
“Last year, I finished the race and I did fine,” she said. “I was convinced that those little angels were on my shoulder.”
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