By Garry Schaedel
I began running in my mid 40s. I always wanted to run a road race, but lacked the confidence and courage. I finally did a race, in part to be a role model to my young daughter. My first race was sponsored by Joan Benoit Samuelson, a two-time Boston Marathon winner and gold medalist at the first women’s Olympic marathon (Los Angeles, 1984). It was the second year of Joan Samuelson’s Beach to Beacon 10k in her hometown of Cape Elizabeth, Maine and Joan’s cousin was a college roommate of mine.
I was ill prepared, but wanted to try it. I “trained” some, but had no idea what I was doing. On the day of the race, I was nervous. Just as the 10k race began, I suddenly realized that I had left my asthma inhaler in the hotel room. I tried not to focus on this mistake. I thought, “Take it slow.”
At the starting line, I saw people of every age, physical condition and skill level. They were from all corners of the world. There were a few thousand participants. The energy level and comradery were exciting. Brief conversations with strangers always ended with “Have a good run.”
The race began and I purposely stayed at the back of the pack. As I was running, I slowly gained on a young woman ahead of me. As I reached her, I realized she had one leg and was running using crutches. I thought, “If she can do this, so can I.” She was my inspiration. Soon a young man in a homemade wooden lighthouse costume on wheels went running by me. He added to the fun.
The hundreds of people all along the racecourse were amazing. These strangers were clapping, shouting out words of encouragement, ringing cowbells for me and the other runners. I felt as if I were Joan Benoit Samuelson and my fans were showing their support. Their energy was contagious. It made me focus on the moment.
Just before I crossed the finish line, I pushed myself with the little energy I had left inside. The crowds were so enthusiastic screaming, “You got this,” “Looking good,” “Almost there.” I made it! I finished my first road race.
Running for a Cause
Eventually I began seeking out races in different locations or for certain causes. Running in new locations added to the fun. I raced in the streets of the French Quarter in New Orleans; West Mount in Montreal, Martha’s Vineyard and elsewhere.
Then I came across a fundraising race for pancreatic cancer. My friend Charlotte had been recenty diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. She died just two months later. I decided to dedicate that race to Charlotte. I wrote her name on an index card and attached it to the back of my shirt. I did this to honor her but also to help me deal with my own grief.
As I ran in more road races, I would occasionally dedicate a race to friends or family members who had passed. More often than not, I did not mention my dedication to others. The dedication felt personal to me, both honoring the person and sharing my own grief.
In the fall of 2019, I summoned the courage to take on a new challenge and signed up for my first half marathon. Four years earlier, I had coffee with a friend whom I had not seen in a long time. She told me she and her husband had recently done a half marathon in southern Vermont. I told her I always wanted to do one, but was nervous I would not be able to finish it without having to walk during the race. With a sense of disbelief in what she had just heard, Carol said, “Then walk! My husband does it all the time.”
Sadly, that was the last time I saw her as she too was battling pancreatic cancer. Soon after we talked, her health deteriorated fast. She was gone within a few weeks. I never forgot those words, “Then walk.”
I signed up for the Vermont Half Marathon Unplugged in Burlington. I told few people about it. I was worried if I was not able to complete it, I would feel embarrassed. My training started in January 2020. In April of 2020, at age 65, I ran, and finished my first half marathon—virtually, due to Covid 19. I wore “Carol” on an index card that was pinned to my back for the 13 miles.
As much as I love running in road races, I do not like running outside to train for them. I tried it and it did not work. I came up with every excuse in the world. It’s too cold outside, it’s too hot, too much traffic, I’ll run tomorrow. Instead, I run on my treadmill in my basement. I’ve done this for over 15 years. I listen to music, I mark my progress. I can run morning, noon, or night. No excuses. I run. I run to train for future road races.
A Running Dedication
Having a road race in my sights has always been my motivator to keep me on my treadmill. In 2020, all my planned road races were cancelled. I had even won a lottery entry into the 2020 New York City Marathon. It would have been my first full marathon. It too was cancelled. After my April half marathon, I needed to do something to stay active and to keep me motivated.
I had learned about an outdoor running club from a former work colleague. When all of my in-person road races were cancelled, I joined his group. I needed a group to inspire me, to keep me on my treadmill. We met once a week at different locations.
A few months before I joined the running club, I had lost two good friends to illness. Similarly, many friends began to lose loved ones— parents, grandparents, and cousins. One friend lost a parent to the Coronavirus. Since I no longer had road races, I decided to dedicate my runs in my weekly running club to those who passed.
I started my dedications with Audrey, a friend’s mother, then Jason, a friend’s nephew, and then Bill, a friend’s dad, then Patricia, John, and Ed. Through social media I let people know what I was doing, and asked if anyone wanted a dedicated run for a loved one who recently passed. I received more requests, totalling nearly 30 through the end of the year.
Each week my run club organizer chose a different location for our group run. Before we all took off, I got a chance to say for whom I was running, and a few words about my connection to that person. Some wanted to see the index card with the first name of the person to whom I was dedicating my run. Later, I would write to a friend or family member to tell them where my group ran, the distance we ran, what I said about their loved one and the reaction from my group. I also enclosed a photograph of the index card I wore on the back of my shirt with the first name of that person. As I came to the finish of each run dedication, I quietly said the first name aloud.
I never could have predicted how meaningful this simple act could be. The responses I received have brought me to tears.
One friend had the Covid-19 early in the pandemic and was unable to attend his mother’s funeral. He wrote me following my run for his mom. “To be honest, I am tearing up with emotion right now. Thank you, my friend.”
One friend had a grandparent who had lived in Asia his entire life. I wrote his name in Korean on the index card. My friend wrote, “Hi Garry, your message and run and the photos brought me to tears. To say I’m touched and honored would be a huge understatement. I am beyond grateful for the love you’ve shown me and my grandfather.”
Years ago, I started these dedications as a way to acknowledge my own grief and to memorialize friends or family members. My dedications have provided meaning to me during the pandemic and support to friends and family, especially in these times.
The one thing we all wanted to do during the pandemic was to hug and to touch people we cared about. This is especially true when we, or friends lose a loved one. It is the only thing we cannot do. I tried to reach out in a different way. One friend said it best about my dedicated runs “In such a sad time, you gave us hope.”
Burlington’s Garry Schaedel was the Director of Health Promotion and Disease Prevention for the Vermont Department of Health. In 2014, he received the National American Academy of Pediatrics Child Health Advocate Award..