On a December night in 2002, Miriam Dillard downed some burritos and margaritas with a friend at a Tex-Mex restaurant in Memphis. The next morning on a lark and without training, the 21-year-old biology major at Rhodes College ran her first half marathon.
You might have heard of it.
The St. Jude Memphis Marathon, back then, was just a small, regional race.
Before it became a nationally acclaimed destination event that draws 26,000 racers worldwide. Before it became the largest single-day fundraiser for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, with more than $100 million in all-time fundraising.
And one year before Miriam Dillard – now Miriam Dillard Stroud – became a researcher at St. Jude and embarked on the rest of her life.
“Seeing it go from a tiny number of people to a huge number of people, I think it just gets more and more special,” said Miriam, who runs every year.
'We were doing it'
Of the 2,846 runners that debut year, fewer than 20 have participated all 20 years. These are the stories of five who started running for St. Jude in 2002 at the first St. Jude Memphis Marathon Weekend — and never stopped.
They’ve run every single race for the past 20 years, except in 2013 when an ice storm cancelled it. (And some of them ran even then.)
It’s more than what they do. It’s who they are.
Miriam, who as a Platinum St. Jude Hero for Team Rhodes commits to raising at least $5,000 for St. Jude each year, has kept all her St. Jude medals, “and I don’t really hold onto race medals.”
She remembers that first race in 2002 and how she strapped a portable CD player to her chest so she could listen to her mix CD as she ran. All the runners wore cotton. And no one had digital cameras yet.
Her cotton shirt from 2002 “has holes in it, and I’ve had to have it sewn up multiple times because I’m like, ‘I’m not letting go of that.’”
“I like to think we were all running before people figured out the juggernaut of what running is now. We were all doing it wrong, but it’s fine,” said Miriam. “We were doing it.”
And they’ll keep doing it.
'Pushing the limits'
As a young boy in Akavidu, India, Raj Betapudi would often run with his dad around the high school track. He moved to the U.S. in the 1990s, and when he heard about the fledgling St. Jude marathon event from a colleague, he felt compelled to try, little realizing that through the process of training, he was weaving his past with his present.
Building up for the half marathon meant overcoming what Raj calls “a mental block” of self-doubt.
His breakthrough came on a treadmill at work when he ran farther than he ever had.
He thought of that little boy in India running with his dad. Back then, he’d had no worries, only dreams.
Raj accomplished his first St. Jude half marathon in 2002, and has accomplished many more since. He’s proud to have been part of the St. Jude marathon since the very beginning.
He sees a beautiful pattern in the warp and weft of his running life.
“My dad had three kids. A girl, boy, and a girl, and I have the same sequence of kids, and they do running. I guess this is the joy of passing (traditions) on.
“I think it’s just a great joy to be outside and enjoy the nature, and also challenging your body to do more than what you thought you were capable of doing and pushing the limits.”
'Lord, I was so slow'
Keri Nunley wanted to do the St. Jude race for her dad.
“A friend of mine was going to do it, and she said, ‘Hey, do it with me.’ And I was like, ‘Oh Lordy, I can’t run, girl.’ I was like, ‘I’ll walk.’ So I really trained. I trained and trained and trained.”
It started as a way for her to wrest meaning from an incomprehensible loss.
Her father had died in April 2001 from colon cancer. After his death, she learned he’d been a devoted giver to St. Jude for years, and he’d directed his memorial funds there. She felt the impressions of his handwriting on the checkbook ledger as though they were inscriptions on her heart: Page after page said St. Jude.
“We just never knew he donated like he did, and this is just my way to keep his donation going.”
Alone as the sole member of Team Hertwig that first year — “Lord, I was so slow. I was out there all by myself.” She walked 13.1 miles, her feet aching but her spirits high. It took 3 hours and 40 minutes, but she did it.
Keri walked alone that year but it was the only time she’d ever have to. After that, her family joined her, flying in from as far away as Pennsylvania, Texas, Florida and California to gather in Memphis for a family reunion of sorts, in running shoes.
Today Team Hertwig boasts 35 members and raises about $30,000 each year.
“It’s been 20 years since he’s been gone, and this will be our 20 years for St. Jude,” she said. “I think he would be super proud of what we’re doing and that we’re all still getting together.”
'It’s touched every part of my life'
Rich VanMeter’s muscles were aching, tired from the exertion of his 2007 St. Jude marathon, but when the St. Jude Hero looked over and saw his girlfriend Nicole Tice and her son William right where they said they would be along the route, talk about a runner’s high.
They’d been dating several months and she wasn’t a morning person, but they came out anyway, holding a sign William had scrawled in his little kid handwriting that said, “Go Rich!”
The thought occurred to him: He’d never been happier.
In 2002, Rich had been running with a group of guys where he worked at the Navy base in Millington, Tennessee, who wanted to be in peak shape. One of them brought up the idea of running in the new St. Jude marathon event.
How could he have known it would set him on a path to the rest of his life?
Rich’s running in the St. Jude marathon led to volunteering at St. Jude, which led to meeting the pretty brunette and fellow volunteer Nicole.
“If I hadn’t started running the marathon that first year, then I wouldn’t have gotten into the volunteering for it. …You know it all trickles down. I met Nicole, got engaged, got married, got a son, Adam – two sons, counting William, too. It’s touched every part of my life.”
Rich proposed to Nicole in the lobby of Tri Delta Place in 2009 on the St. Jude campus, the place they’d met as volunteers.
'I’m crying again'
What do you say about the energetic jokester Donnie Baldock, who, when the pandemic caused the St. Jude Memphis Marathon to go virtual last year, made sure a 14-year-old St. Jude leukemia survivor was able to achieve his dream of running his first half marathon? Donnie secured the permit for the young man to run with a police escort through his hometown and joined him to set the pace.
Who when St. Jude needed platelets, not only rolled up his sleeve, but brought 18 healthy, fit runner friends to do the same?
Who finished his half marathon, only to run to volunteer at the full marathon finish line?
Who runs as part of the St. Jude Breakaway Running for a Cause team that trains anywhere from 150-300 runners per year to participate in the marathon weekend for St. Jude? The team has raised well over $1 million.
During his life, Donnie has been a lifeguard, a PR guy, a graphic designer, a youth praise team leader, a garage band performer, a running trainer and a first responder. He’s a jack of all trades, but his true talent lies in how well he cares for other people. “I’ll work over at the St. Jude Heroes table and play guitar and stuff like that to welcome people, and you meet people from all over the world” – but especially the kids of St. Jude.
His wife is a 25-year cancer survivor. He’s kept his bib from the very first race. When he runs, he pins a photo of a St. Jude patient to his shirt. When he talks about St. Jude, he chokes up.
“I’m crying again. It’s just the families out there. The thank you signs, and I don’t know, just knowing families that have been St. Jude patients and stuff is awesome. I don’t know. It’s awesome, during the race.”