Then the Bank of America Chicago Marathon happened.
Denise and I had planned to run our “golden marathon” on Oct. 9. It would have been our ninth marathon together on the ninth. When she passed in the summer, I wasn’t sure if I’d ever want to use her race chair again. Then Keri Schindler of Athletes with Disabilities, a subgroup of the Bank of America Chicago Marathon, sent me the nicest e-mail. Keri suggested pushing Denise’s empty chair as a tribute to her. I knew if I decided to do it, it would be with MDA Team Momentum.
When I decided I would push Denise’s chair, April Tunnicliff and Alison Tibbits of MDA’s National Team Momentum group were ecstatic. They could not give me enough support as I planned for the race. They took care of everything to make Chicago 2016 the most memorable run ever. They genuinely cared and were so proud to be part of this “new” running experience for me, defining grace and beauty as they put the needs of me and others before themselves, just as my wife did. They blessed me so on marathon weekend. I will never be able to properly thank them.
I was privileged to have a front row seat to what could only be called a miracle when I took my seat at the Team Momentum Inspiration Dinner on Oct. 8. Talk about a celebration of family. The speakers were phenomenal (I was OK), and again April and Alison put on the most beautiful night. I was welcomed with open arms as family, and it was just what I needed on that night.
The way MDA celebrates its own is so uplifting.
On that night I told anyone who would listen, “MDA is the only charity I will ever run for.” MDA is committed and gets it. MDA is truly a miracle. The response I received after my speech gave me chills and tears all at once. I felt so part of this family, and it was exactly what I needed at this point of my life.
The night before race day, honestly, I didn’t sleep much. I know I was a bundle of nerves as I hopped into the cab headed for the gym where all Team Momentum runners would meet. I was early because I was with the Athletes with Disabilities group and needed to be staged and checked in by 6:15 a.m. I was not sure who was going to be there to meet me.
Of course, April and Alison were there to greet me with big hugs (they are both great huggers). My nerves subsided after getting to the gym. Alison even escorted me to the start because I had no clue where I was going. As I waited with the other participants, I started feeling strange. I’m not disabled, and everyone around me was. I felt guilty, like I shouldn’t be there.
That all stopped when a veteran who lost his legs in battle came up to me and said he saw a Channel 7 segment about my decision to push Denise’s chair. He put his fist to his heart a couple times and said “much respect.” That did wonders for me.
The actual race was just a roller coaster of emotions for me. After all, my wife was supposed to be there with me.
The tears came on multiple occasions when I thought of that. I laughed at some signs people held. I smiled as random strangers yelled my name and called me a hero and an inspiration. What blew my mind was that my name was nowhere on my bib or my shirt. How did they know who I was? The Channel 7 segment aired at 5:30 a.m. Saturday morning. Miracle!
My body held up fairly well until mile 18 when calf cramps started. Still a long way out. As I stopped to stretch a little before mile 19, I was preparing for a long 7.2 miles in. I’m not sure what happened, but I think Denise had something to do with it as those last 7.2 flew by with nary a twinge of a cramp.
I also ran into a bunch of Team Momentum teammates and we chatted a bit. And then something happened, and it was beautiful. Early in the race, I thought about doing something special at the end for Denise. I wanted it to be clear that the Chicago Marathon was not about me. It was about keeping Denise’s spirit alive as we did something she loved.
So I decided when I hit mile 26 I would get Denise’s picture out of her chair and hold it in my left hand as I crossed the finish with the love of my life with me.
This awakened the finish line crowd — it exploded as we finished. I think the people knew there was something bigger than a 26.2-mile jaunt through the city going on. When I was in the finish chute, volunteers stopped what they were doing and clapped for me. I of course was in tears, and when Keri approached me with tears in her eyes and hugged me, I absolutely lost it. She thanked me for doing the marathon. I thought I should be thanking her.
I met up with my buddies in the marathon’s VIP tent and had a great moment with them (yes, it did include a few cold ones). They will be joining me in New Jersey one last time next April to run with Denise. They told me they were moved when they saw me finish. They were proud.
Finally, I headed back to the Team Momentum meeting area in the gym. So many people greeted me and shared stories of the day.
I love the closeness of this Team Momentum group.
I feel so fortunate to be part of the MDA family. I hope to be an active member for many years to come. God blessed me when I was introduced to Team Momentum.
Join MDA Team Momentum & begin making a difference today!
Read Chris’ previous story: Chris and Denise Benyo: A love story written by faith, running, eHarmony, and an ALS diagnosis