Why I run marathons

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I haven’t shared my story this training cycle yet. So yes, it’s a bit overdue. And with just under a month to go before the Cleveland Marathon (insert squeal), it’s something I want people to know about.

I’ve sort of been running since high school. In my head, it was a way to stay in shape for sports and to stay away from the fat kid I was in grade school (I was a total chub monster - I've burned all pictures so there's no evidence...) but, looking back on it, even then I was running for so much more.

My mom was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic Breast Cancer when I was 13. Running became for me then what it still is today: a way to escape. For a few miles, the things I didn’t understand at the time were put on pause. My head could clear from the panic of thoughts it was constantly having when I stood still and I could focus on just putting one foot in front of the other. 

Back then, I didn’t run for more than 5 or 6 miles at a time. In college, I ran a few half marathons and dozens of 5ks but it wasn’t until 2016 that I decided to run a full marathon. And this is why.

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In December of 2015, after 12 years of living with cancer, my mom was admitted to the hospital for what we thought was just pain from the cancer being in her bones. When you have stage 4 metastatic Breast Cancer, you don’t go into remission. You live day after day with cancer. There is no cure because it’s already too far spread. And because it had already spread to my mother's bones, she often dealt with some pretty terrible aches and pains.

Thankfully, we live in Cleveland and the cancer docs at the Cleveland Clinic are pretty incredible and have kept my mother alive and the cancer from spreading too rapidly by switching her treatments frequently and keeping a close eye on every single cancer spot in her body. But that December, the December of 2015, after coming to the hospital for pain management, there was one morning where my mom just didn’t wake up and we knew something was wrong.

After a full day of testing and my family and I having no idea what was going on, they finally told us. The doctors found a tumor in her brain the size of a Twinkie. Yeah, a Twinkie. Insert panic attacks from my loved ones and from myself.

They had to wait overnight for my mom’s blood thinners (because yes, she's on those too) to wear off before they could operate so we rallied the troops and filled my giant family in on what was going on. The plan was to operate and perform a 4-5 hour surgery first thing that morning. And everyone showed up.  I’m talking a waiting room full of maybe 12-20 people at a time in shifts there to support my family and my mom. And they came with snacks. And games. And ways to occupy our minds from thinking the worst. 

3.5 maybe 4 hours went by and the doctor came into the waiting room. We all immediately thought the worst since she came out so soon but to our thankful surprise, my mom had survived surgery and they got the brain tumor with clear margins. Later, all of us crammed into a tiny room where the docs gave us the shpeal. They showed us my mom’s pre-op and post-op scans which I am still haunted by because yes, a Twinkie sized tumor in your brain is no joke. 

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hey reminded us that we weren’t out of the woods yet. Brain surgery is extremely risky and we knew that getting the tumor out may have caused serious damage and we had to wait until she woke up to see just how much, if any. But, when my mom woke up, she was pretty much her good spirited self with a lot of scary staples at the bottom of her hairline. She remembered who we all were, who the president was, and even corrected my brother about where one of my uncles had flown in from.

We spent Christmas in the hospital that year, thankful that my mom was the survivor that she has always been. And I made the decision to run a marathon. I started training for my first Cleveland marathon just a few weeks after my mother was discharged. Because if my mom could survive over a decade living with cancer and a Twinkie sized brain tumor, I could run  26.2 miles. 

I dedicated my first marathon to my mom, running and fundraising for an organization in Cleveland that had helped through a dozen years of living with cancer: The Gathering Place. For those of you who haven't heard of it, The Gathering Place offers various services to cancer patients and their families completely free of charge. Through the years, my mom has utilized their library full of tools and resources, reiki, massage and exercise opportunities, retreats, and group therapy sessions. I raised just over $4,000 that first year for The Gathering Place and I finished my first marathon in just under 5 hours, about 5 minutes below my goal time.

If you ran the Cleveland Marathon in 2016, you'll remember it as the year we saw every weather possibility in a single morning. The race started cloudy and gloomy, rain that turned into sleet, snow, and eventually hail, 30 mile per hour winds, and by the tail end of my race, some sunshine. It was single handedly the worst and best experience of my life. And by the end of it, I was hooked on marathon running.

Last year, I decided to run Cleveland again. Once again I was running for my mom but I was also running a little bit for myself this time. I chose to fundraise for Bright Pink, an organization that provides resources to empower women my own age to be proactive about their breast and ovarian health in the hopes of preventing or catching breast and ovarian cancer in it's earliest stages so that there is a better chance of beating it. I raised about $3,000 that year and finished my second Cleveland Marathon in just over 5 hours. I blew out my knee at mile 22 and had to walk the last four miles, slowing down my time but still finishing a full marathon.

This year, I'll be fundraising once again for Bright Pink. It's my mission to help inform more women how they can take matters into their own hands and with just a few simple lifestyle habits, can help reduce their risk of long term breast cancer like my mother has. When she was first diagnosed, she was already stage 4. She skipped just one annual mammogram and she was already stage 4. I don't want that to happen to anyone. And neither does Bright Pink.

You can donate to this year's campaign by clicking here.

I'm hoping to raise $10,000 for them this year and I have a long way to go. I'm hoping to raise this much money before my fourth marathon and first outside of Cleveland. That's right, in October, I'll be racing through the streets of Chicago, where Bright Pink is based.

But first, I'll be toeing the starting line outside of the Q  on May 20th and running my third Cleveland Marathon. And you can bet that with every step, I will think of how if my mom can survive and thrive for almost 14 years of stage 4 breast cancer and a Twinkie sized brain tumor, I can run 26.2 miles. 

See you on race day.

Leah Backo