Samantha Elliott relishes St. Jude Memphis Marathon Weekend for reasons having only partly to do with the actual race. She looks forward to it as a homecoming — even though home, in this case, is where she lost part of a leg and part of a lung to cancer.
Before she steps to the starting line, Elliott each year enjoys reunions and familiar rituals in and around St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, where she’s kept in touch with staff in the years since her treatment ended at age 10. She even returns to the St. Jude School Program by Chili's, where she got English, math and other lessons while battling osteosarcoma, and writes the same message on the whiteboard — “Sam loves you” — that she’s left every year since 2011.
“It really is coming home,” says Elliott, 21, who travels from Ohio with her mother to participate. “It’s very emotional…It’s so comforting to come back and be healthy, but it also really takes a toll on our mentality to just see people in the same position that we were in.”
The Marathon Weekend, which includes a slate of races ranging from the full Marathon to the 5K, is set for Dec. 1. It’s the largest annual single-day fundraiser for St. Jude — part athletic event, part social event, and all about the cause. Last year’s race attracted 25,000 runners and 40,000 spectators while generating a record $10.3 million.
But for the 750-plus patients, former patients and patient family members participating this year — and every runner who comes out to support them — the Marathon culminates an extra special weekend.
It’s a time when members of the St. Jude family reconnect with one another, when they encourage kids currently undergoing treatment and honor those who didn’t survive. It’s also when they take the heart-tugging run on the portion of the course winding through the St. Jude campus, with patients and caregivers lined up to cheer them on.
It is, in other words, a homecoming in the truest sense.
Hugs and high-fives
“I plan on being part of this 'til the day I die. I mean, I can’t imagine that first week of December without doing this because it’s such a highlight of my year,” says Dean Ives, a Hendersonville, Tenn., runner who lost his daughter, Sydney, to a brain tumor at St. Jude in 2009.
The devotion of former patients and family members helps explain why many participants return again and again — and why the race has continued to grow in recent years, in contrast to national trends. They’re not only avid participants, but major fundraisers, with roughly two-thirds of patient family runners signed up as St. Jude Heroes.
For Don Raborn, this year’s event will be the 15th he’s run. He began participating when his son Jake was being treated for hepatoblastoma, a liver cancer, and continued in the years since he lost his child in 2006 at age 4.
“I don’t run it for the athletic part of it. I run it to talk to the other families and talk to the supporters and the people who come and thank them and tell them about Jake and St. Jude,” said Raborn, 46, who lives in Texas and is a production supervisor in the oil and gas industry.
“Even though we lost Jake, even though he passed away, it’s everything St. Jude provided us. They provided us hope that our son might be cured.”
Raborn follows the same routine each year. After the pasta party Friday night, he and a few others, including a nurse who treated Jake, drive the Marathon course posting about 40 to 50 “Team Jake” signs along the way. Some have pictures of the youngster, others carry inspirational messages.
Once he’s completed his 5K race, Raborn returns to the course to encourage runners in the Half Marathon and Marathon. He holds a sign with Jake’s picture and the message, “Thanks for running for my angel.”
Many of the runners respond. “You got people stopping and hugging me — I mean, complete strangers hugging me and high-fiving me. It’s just a really good feeling.”
For Raborn, Marathon Weekend offers a salve for his grief, a “kind of therapy,” he says. It also makes him feel closer to Jake.
“I just feel like I’m going back home a little bit. You know, maybe he’s there, maybe he’s in the halls of St. Jude (or) on the Marathon course watching over me.”
Safe havens and old friends
At the Marathon Expo at the Memphis Cook Convention Center, T-shirts from a projected 100 or more patient family running teams are a sign of the vast support that loved ones muster around St. Jude patients.
And runners can get armbands — purple for bereaved family members and gold signifying current patients or those who are cured or in remission — to wear during the race.
On the day before the race, about 600 runners who include former patients and family members will travel from the expo to St. Jude to tour the hospital.
To Paula Head, a senior philanthropic advisor who works with patient families for ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude, there’s no mystery as to why patient families continue to support the hospital after their children are cured, or even after they’ve passed away.
“They just want to stay connected in the mission,” says Head, a bereaved mother herself. “They don’t want any other family to have to be on the journey that they’ve already gone through.”
Physicians who work at St. Jude know all about the bond between patients and the hospital. Dr. Michael Neel, consulting physician in the Department of Surgery, says it’s “just seeing old friends who were there with you in the trenches” that makes patient families stay connected. As he has several times in the past, Neel plans to walk the 5K backwards this year alongside former patients.
Head can attest to the emotional heft the armbands have for patients and families. Last year, she noticed a bereaved father waiting at the entrance of the Patient Family Suite at the Marathon Expo and invited him in.
“I was just crying, and he was crying, and he took my arm and he said, ‘I need one of those purple bands.’ It was so emotional, and we just shared that bond. And he said, ‘I’ve lost a child, just like you.’ And that’s all it took. I put that purple band on him and we just stood there and hugged.”
The armbands make the race and the St. Jude cause all the more tangible. At mile 16 or 18, during that toughest spot in the race, a runner might look beside them and see someone with an armband, a symbol of the much more difficult journey that family has had with childhood cancer or other catastrophic illness.
The portion of the race course through the St. Jude campus gives participants an up-close look at what they’re running for. It is the highlight of the event for many of the former patients and family members who return year after year.
“Going through the campus is just the most overwhelming feeling, and seeing the kids on the sideline and just knowing that I think I’m at the point where it’s not about me being sick anymore, and that’s not really why we do it — we do it for those kids,” Elliott says.
Last year, Ives, the runner from Hendersonville, completed his first full Marathon. He remembers passing through campus at about mile five and seeing among the spectators a St. Jude doctor to whom he’d become close since Sydney’s death.
“He was standing out there when I was running my Marathon, and he saw me, and we were both tearing up, but he started running alongside of me and we were jumping up and down.”
Ives was more than 20 miles from the finish line, but in many ways he’d already made it home.