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Running for a cure

“If you think marathon training is hard, try chemotherapy.”

Those are the words emblazoned on the shirts that Mike and Sarah Thompson will wear when they run in the Music City Half-Marathon in Nashville April 25. When they cross the finish line, they will run into the waiting arms of their 6-year-old daughter, Carolyn, who, for two years has been battling leukemia.

This will be the first half-marathon the couple has run, but there is no doubt that they will finish the race. They will run on the strength of their young daughter, who will cross her own finish line in May.

“Carolyn will finish her chemo in May after a total of two years and four months of treatments,” Mike said. “So, you bet. We can finish 13 miles … for her and for all of the others who are suffering with leukemia.”

Mike and Sarah will be running with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training, which trains individuals to participate in endurance events like marathons, half-marathons and triatholons while raising money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

“I first became aware of Team in Training in February 2008 when a man I had never met ran an event in Carolyn’s honor,” Sarah said. “When I saw the pictures of him running with Carolyn’s name written across his shirt, I was inspired to do the same.”

The man was an employee of a client of Mike’s who asked if it would be all right to run for Carolyn. Of course, Mike was appreciative that someone would do that for his little girl. But, he had no idea that the act of caring would be the inspiration for him and his wife to put on their running shoes.

“A few weeks later, I bought a pair of running shoes, some jogging clothes and joined the gym,” Sarah said. “For my birthday, Mike bought me a running watch and a ‘LiveStrong’ T-shirt for encouragement. Then, I was ready. I started getting in shape and looking for a race to run.”

Mike and Sarah decided to run the Country Music Marathon for a couple of reasons. First, the marathon is run in April, “a good time of the year weather wise” and because Nashville is close enough for Carolyn and their four-year-old son, Will, to see them run.

“They are our inspiration and we wanted them there,” Sarah said.

Mike said the physical challenge of the race is a significant step for both him and Sarah but more so for Sarah.

“She decided that she wanted to do this and I wanted to do it with her,” Mike said. “Before we started training for this race, Sarah didn’t run for exercise or any other reason. I’m very proud of how hard she has worked to be in a position to get from zero to being in a position to complete the race. It means a lot to her. To both of us.”

Sarah said the race is a way to honor Carolyn’s courage and perseverance in her battle against cancer.

“It’s also a great way to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society,” Sarah said. “And, honestly, it’s very cathartic for me to run – to have an outlet to let go of the stress and heartache of the last two years. And, the fact that Mike is running with me makes the race even more meaningful. He has been by my side every step of the way through this. It is only fitting that we should run this race together.”

The “race” to Carolyn’s “finish” line began in January 2007 when she was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL).

Hearing the word, leukemia, was a “kick in the guts” for the young couple. They didn’t expect that.

“Carolyn’s symptoms could have been a lot of things and, when she was diagnosed with leukemia it hit us hard,” Mike said. “Even with the initial diagnosis, we didn’t know what we had. The kind of leukemia had to be determined and the doctors had to find out how her body would respond to chemo.”

The first month was a roller coaster of bad news and good news.

“Most treatment protocols for ALL call for two to three years of chemotherapy treatments and sometimes radiation,” said Sarah, who is a registered nurse. “Thankfully, no radiation treatments were required for Carolyn.”

But it was a long first year. From January through early November, Carolyn spent 93 nights in the hospital.

“Those 10 months were long and confining but, since then, things have gone much better,” Mike said. “In January 2008, she started back to school and was able to go about 70 percent of the time. She really enjoys school and being with the other kids. It’s good for her to be able to go to school.”

For two years, Mike and Sarah Thompson have seen the benefits of the research that has been done in the area of leukemia and they are committed to the fundraising aspect of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. “That’s why running this half-marathon is so important to us,” he said. “Each dollar that is raised equals more research. More research means better treatments that result in better overall success/cure rates and more targeted/less toxic treatment protocols for anyone facing leukemia or lymphoma. That’s why we are running. For Carolyn and all the others who are facing these battles.”

Sarah said Carolyn is very excited about the race. “I’m not sure if she totally understands our motivation for doing it but she is a natural-born encourager,” Sarah said. “She keeps reminding me not to forget to pack her Barbie cheerleading outfit and pom-poms when we go to Nashville. She wants them so she can cheer us across the finish line.”

An endurance run allows time for the runners to think, and Mike said that his thoughts will go back to everything that his family has been through for nearly two and a half years.

“It will be a chance to let go of some of the stresses of those years and let emotions go,” he said. “The training that we have done to cross the finish line is symbolic of the tough fight those with leukemia and lymphoma must win to ultimately cross the finish line.”

And, when Mike and Sarah Thompson approach the finish line of the Music City Half-Marathon and see their little, smiling daughter in her Barbie suit cheering for them, they will know that they have all run the good race and finished at last.