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Why I Run: Baltimore Running Festival participants share their inspirational stories

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Runners set goals — and don't look back.

They strive to cut those extra few minutes from their times. They have to go a quarter-mile farther each time, then a half-mile, then a mile. And beyond.

They push their bodies. They want to push themselves.

And for many runners in the Baltimore Running Festival, the goals are even loftier.

Among the 27,000 runners in Saturday's festival, pounding the pavement in the marathon, half-marathon, relay and 5K, are many running for reasons other than the thrill of crossing a line that perhaps once was thought to be unattainable.

We talked to five of this year's runners who have much more than a 26.2 sticker on their minds. There's a breast cancer survivor, running with a relay team whose members were strangers before they shared the same diagnosis. There's a runner who's out there to recognize family members who lost legs in the Boston Marathon bombing. There's a 28-year-old who's running for his mother, who died from complications from melanoma. He was 10 at the time. Here, they share their stories.

They already have met adversity head-on. On Saturday, they'll meet their goals — and perhaps inspire others to set a few of their own.

Lauren Kensky, 26, Fells Point, Paraeducator

I hate running. With a passion. Nonetheless, I have decided to run to honor my cousin, Jessica Kensky and her husband, Patrick Downes, who were both severely injured at the Boston Marathon bombing that killed four people and injured more than 260.

When I learned what happened to my Jesssica and Patrick on April 15, I immediately wanted to find a way to help them and show my support. Because Jessica and Patrick are avid runners, both having participated in full marathons, I decided to run a 5K in honor of their passion for running.

I remember April 15 like it was just last week. I had never gone for a run in my life until that beautiful Baltimore spring afternoon when a friend encouraged me to get out and enjoy the weather on a jog, and assured me we'd take it slow. It turns out running wasn't as bad as I thought it would be. Never did I think that my very first day running would become the last day some people would ever run, especially two people I love so much.

My cousins are loving, supportive and selfless newlyweds who just celebrated their first wedding anniversary this past August. As a result of the explosions, Jessica lost her left leg below the knee and her right heel. Patrick also lost his left leg below the knee.

During these emotional months, I am so thankful that Jessica and Patrick are not only survivors, but also fighters. It's important to me to show them that I love them in a unique way that is personal and meaningful to us. I want to honor their bravery and positivity and will to fight the uphill battle that they will face together.

I want Jessica and Patrick to know that while they may not be able to run at this very moment, it is my pleasure and a true honor to take the responsibility to run while they are in recovery.

I have also chosen to support the Maryland CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) Association, whose mission is to ensure that every victim of child abuse and neglect grows up in a safe, permanent home. I have decided to run for Team CASA because of my recent experiences in working with disadvantaged youth. My job as a paraeducator in a Baltimore City school has introduced me to some very harsh realities regarding our youth and how high the demand is for safe, supportive, permanent homes. I am hopeful that with the money I raise, our youth will receive more of the support they need.

Running this race is going to be emotional, as my purpose for running is very meaningful. When the going gets tough and the hills get steep, I will be thinking of Jessica and Patrick and how their lives were changed in the blink of an eye. I will remember that they will never again run freely as they once did. I will think of what they would give to have that day back.

What I'm most looking forward to about race day is seeing my brother, Jason, who is traveling from Boston to run with me in my very first formal race. He's an avid runner and my biggest fan.

To me, this race means that I am capable of running. It means that there is absolutely no reason to complain about running and to exercise because, when you least expect it, your life can change forever and you may not be able to run again with your own two legs.

Team CASA: For more information on the Maryland CASA, go to marylandcasa.org. To support Lauren, go to goteamcasa.org or call 410-828-6761. For Lauren's fundraising campaign, go to goteamcasa.kintera.org/Lkensky1221.

Sarah Bennett, 25, Bel Air, monitoring and project coordinator

Saturday will be my third marathon. When I previously ran, I ran to stay healthy. I ran to escape the daily stresses we all have in our lives.

But now I'm running in honor of my big brother Justin. This past April, my family and I lost him to suicide. Justin battled with depression and alcohol that drove him into a dark place where he felt there was no way out. He left behind a family with too many questions and not enough answers.

I'm the youngest of three, and the only girl to two older brothers, Rob and Justin. Growing up, Justin and I had a unique relationship: He didn't like me very much. He picked on me, and we argued constantly. I can remember when he would tell me that I was adopted and yell at me for talking too much. He even told the doctor to put a Band-Aid over my mouth.

But as time passed, our relationship blossomed into a beautiful friendship and we became closer with each passing year. Your sibling is more than a sister or brother. That person is the first real friend you have in life and you treasure those relationships above all others.

After Justin died, it was like nothing else mattered to me. I knew I had to direct my emotions toward something or I was going to fall into a deep depression. The only thing I knew was to run, so I ran.

When I run now, I feel as if Justin is there with me. It's as if he is the wind blowing through the trees or the sun lighting my way. Every Saturday before my long run, I stop by Justin's resting place to say a prayer and to talk to him. I talk to him as if he is standing right there next to me. I ask him to look over our family because I worry constantly about how this affects their health and well-being. I tell him about my run and how far I'm going to be running that day. I tell him how much I miss him and how I would do anything to have him back.

When you lose someone you love to suicide, there's no time for goodbye. There's no “I love you,” no “I'm sorry,” nothing. Justin made this choice to end his pain, to leave behind not only us, but also his daughter, Michelle. What drives me to run harder, faster and farther is the fact that certain people will never understand. Just because the services are over and the cards stop coming in the mail, some people believe we should be “moving on.”

There have been some days when I just go to the Ma and Pa Trail [in Harford County] and run as fast as I can. I push through the pain and tackle the tears as I listen to my music and daydream about Justin.

I now run with a purpose — to educate others about this illness and raise money for awareness and research to hopefully affect one person's life, to prevent someone from going through what my family and I are going through. I can sit here and ask “Why?” or “What if?” but that will just lead me into the quicksand, slowly pulling me in and taking over my life. I will not let this define me or my family. We will stand together with our faith, hope and love.

So on race day I will have all my friends and family there, wearing bright yellow Team Justin shirts to show support, raise awareness and honor Justin. Running teaches me to keep moving forward, one step at a time, especially in the most painful moments.

Team Justin: For more information or to donate, go to this shortened link we created, bit.ly/15hQsnx .The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention offices : 120 Wall St. 29th Floor. New York, N.Y. 10005 and 1010 Vermont Ave. N.W. Suite 408. Washington, D.C. 20005. Or call 888-333-AFSP

Ryan Joyce, 28, Washington, D.C., web development sales

As a kid, running was a way to escape the challenges my family faced. Today, it's a personal challenge and great communal hobby.

I was fortunate to grow up with two loving parents who taught my two sisters and me to be the best people we could be. Our family did plenty together — we rode bikes, played with our dog, hosted pool parties and had family dinners every night in our suburban New Jersey home. Life was good.

Then I heard the word “cancer” for the first time, and my 5-year-old mind took on much more than it was built to handle.

My mom was diagnosed with malignant melanoma in April 1991. At a time when my days were spent bored at school, arguing with my sister over Legos and watching “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” my nights were spent overhearing terms like surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

Family dinners became less jovial. While we still rode bikes, played with the dog and hosted pool parties, there was always an unwelcome guest that prevented us from having all the fun.

When the laughs ended, the cancer was still there.

Despite a valiant five-year battle, Mom died from melanoma on June 24, 1996.

On my first day of middle school, there was an announcement to sign up for the cross country team. I had never heard of cross country, but I figured it was a good way to make friends in a town we had moved to just a week after my mom's passing.

I was the youngest on the team and the shortest by six inches. Even the size small XC jersey draped over me like a makeshift toga. I remember wearing beat-up Converse lowtops to my first race. None of this mattered. The gun firing was like a release, and I would run as fast as I could to be alone. I loved being ahead of the other team's best guy. In a time when I had no control over a completely chaotic and awkward time of my life, the one thing I could control was how quickly I could cross the finish line.

As an adult, I was inspired to combine two of my goals: to run a marathon and to raise money for melanoma research.

After seeing friends hold similar marathon-fundraisers for various causes, I saw so many worthy charities but would wonder, “Why not melanoma?” Melanoma is one of the most rapidly growing cancers in the world. <EP>Melanoma is the most common form of cancer for young adults age 25-29. Every hour of every day, melanoma kills somebody.

It wasn't until I found Miles for Melanoma — a program set up by the Melanoma Research Foundation — that I realized it was my responsibility to bring awareness to the cause if I thought it needed more.

I created the Karen Joyce Memorial Fund to do just that.

So why am I running in the Baltimore Marathon?

If my father, Joe, can summon the strength to be an incredibly involved, attentive and supportive father while providing for his family as the love of his life suffered through pain he couldn't imagine, I can handle running 26.2 miles.

If my sister, Lauren, can be strong enough at 12 years old to take it upon herself to help raise our baby sister into a strong, confident young woman, I can handle running 26.2 miles.

If my sister, Alanna, can never allow not getting to know her mother to keep her from enjoying her life, I can handle running 26.2 miles.

If my mother, Karen, could harness the strength to cheer the loudest at soccer games, help with math homework, be a den mother to my Cub Scout troop, cook Thanksgiving dinners and let her family know every day that she loved us while suffering through the pain of surgeries, the nausea of chemotherapy and the fear of leaving her family behind, how could I not believe I have enough strength to run 26.2 miles?

I'm running this marathon to honor my family's strength.

The Karen Joyce Memorial Fund: For more information, go to firstgiving.com/fundraiser/ryan-joyce-1/MFM-Individuals-2013. All proceeds go to: The Melanoma Research Foundation, 1411 K Street, NW Suite 800, Washington, D.C. 20005. 202-347-9675. melanoma.org

Nicole Goetze, 28, Abingdon, chemical engineer

My reason for participating in this year's Baltimore Running Festival started exactly 2 years, 5 months and 26 days before I'll run Saturday.

On April 16, 2011, my son Emerson was born. The moment I laid eyes on my son, I knew my life would be changed forever. He was beautiful. My husband and I were on an amazing high that morning, overjoyed with the blessing God sent us. Later that day, the hospital pediatrician told us that Emerson has some of the physical markers for Down syndrome. Six days later, his pediatrician received the results of his chromosome test, and the diagnosis of Down syndrome was confirmed.

My pregnancy and Emerson's birth were very healthy and normal, so the diagnosis came as a shock. But we quickly learned that having Down syndrome, or DS, doesn't mean what it used to mean.

Emerson will go to school with his peers. He will learn what they are learning and will be able to do extracurricular activities just as his peers will. He may take longer to learn how to do some things, but he will get there! At only 3 1/2 months old, Emerson began working with therapists. He now has physical, occupational and speech therapists, as well as a special education teacher and therapeutic horseback riding lessons.

Although Emerson has low muscle tone and has to fight much harder to do things that typical kids his age have already mastered (he recently started walking independently), he does so with fierce determination and a smile that lights up the room.

Emerson is such an easygoing toddler (one of his first words was “happy”), but more than anything, he's just like any other typical toddler learning to explore his world. He has good days and bad days, tests his boundaries earning back-to-back timeouts, plays on the playground, loves paging through books, dancing to music and playing pretend. I've witnessed first-hand that Emerson, like other children with DS, is more like “typical” children than different.

Emerson is truly a fighter, and his strength and determination have inspired me to push myself by running a half-marathon. Because of this, I recently joined the National Down Syndrome Society's Team NDSS 21. The team is the first of its kind as part of NDSS Your Way, the organization's independent fundraising program. I'm one on a team of 21 people from across the country running an endurance event and fundraising for Down syndrome, in and around October, National Down Syndrome Awareness Month.

Together, Team NDSS 21 will raise at least $21,000, representing an extra copy of the 21st chromosome in trisomy 21, the most common form of Down syndrome. The NDSS works to create a culture that fully accepts and includes the more than 400,000 Americans with Down syndrome.

My hopes and dreams for Emerson are the same that any other parent has for a child. I want the world to accept him for who he is and allow him to pursue his dreams and be a contributing member of society, doing whatever it is that he's passionate about. Yes, my world was forever changed the day my son was born, but any other mother or father would say the same thing.

And while I'm running my half-marathon, and I start thinking about how tough it is, I'll think of Emerson. I'll think of all the challenges he has already endured and overcome in his lifetime — before even turning 3. And I'll know I'll be able to cross the finish line. And I hope that my comparatively small challenge will help to make a difference, thanks to the work of the NDSS. I hope that when Emerson is my age, our world will be one where even people who don't have someone with DS in their life understand that people with Down syndrome are more alike us than different.

National Down Syndrome Society: To donate to NDSS 21, go to http://ndssyourway.kintera.org/compete/runningforemerson  and search under fundraisers for “Nicole Goetze.”

Kristen Berset, 32, Washington, D.C., WUSA Sports Anchor

I've never been one to shy away from trying something new, no matter how daunting.

I've jumped out of airplanes. I've rappelled down buildings. I tried my hand at beauty pageants only to make it all the way to top 10 at Miss USA.

Give me a challenge — I'll give it a try.

However, there is one thing I never enjoyed doing, and that's running long distances. I was a tennis player growing up, so I was fine with short bursts, but anything longer than a mile or two never interested me.

That all changed four years ago. It was then, at the age of 27, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

It took me a while to wrap my brain around the words, “You have cancer.” What does that really mean for my future? What are my options?

I was never married, had no kids — would that still be a possibility? Amid all that chaos, however, I didn't have a doubt in my mind that I would kick cancer's butt.

After weeks of being poked and prodded, I opted to undergo a prophylactic bilateral mastectomy. I will never be able to breastfeed my kids when I do have them, but at least I don't have to worry about this disease taking me from them.

When I was diagnosed in 2009, I was working as a sports anchor for WBFF in Baltimore. Now I'm a sports anchor at WUSA in Washington, D.C. With my job, I am provided an incredible platform to advocate and educate others on the disease and the importance of early detection.

I found my lump during a random self-exam and was very fortunate to have found the tumor in such an early stage.

They say things happen for a reason. I know it's a cliché, but I truly believe that. It was of course one of the most difficult times, but it helped me gain perspective on my life.

I have been fortunate to have many wonderful experiences in my life and meet some incredible people. One of those is my fiance, Mike. When we first met, Mike was training for his first ever Sprint Triathlon. I asked if I could join him one day. I was impressed with his determination to try something he had never done before. He inspired me to do the same.

The following year, I competed in the Iron Girl Triathlon in Howard County as a member of the Ulman Cancer Fund's Team Fight. Crossing the finish line that day, just as other cancer survivors had done, was one of the most emotional and life-changing challenges I have accomplished.

I didn't care about time. I could have been the last one to cross the finish line. But that medal they hung around my neck that day meant victory.

Victory over cancer, victory of life.

Less than a year later, I took it up a notch, completing the St. Anthony's Triathlon in my hometown of St. Petersburg, Fla., alongside Mike and my brother, Derek.

Every stroke, every step, every mile is a reminder that I am alive and healthy now. I'm here to enjoy life.

Being diagnosed with breast cancer, you automatically become part of a community. Sadly, there are way too many members, but fortunately, it's a loving support group that's there for you every step of the way. Every person provides inspiration.

That led me to this, the Baltimore Running Festival. I saw a post on Facebook. Someone was looking for survivors to create a relay team. Remember how I said I despise running? Well, I figured six miles was a bit more palatable.

Team “Treasured Chests” was formed. We are a group of five strangers. Melissa Reuland, Laine Malcotti, Julie Lanahan, myself and original member Carrie Wells (she had to drop out after breaking her ribs, but she's still our cheerleader).

All different ages, different walks of life, different stages of diagnosis. But we all have one thing in common: We are survivors!

And we're ready for another victory lap.

Team Treasured Chests: Team Treasured Chests is running on behalf of all cancer survivors. For more information on the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults, go to ulmanfund.org

IF YOU GO

The Baltimore Running Festival will be held Saturday. The full marathon and relay starts at 8 a.m. at S. Paca and Camden streets, followed by the 5K at 8:15 a.m. at the same location. The half marathon starts at 9:45 a.m. at Pratt and Light streets. Runners must bring their e-registrations. Spectator admission is free. For more information and a full list of events, go to thebaltimoremarathon.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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