Of the four, the last two have been the most challenging and the most rewarding by far. I've trained and raised money through the American Stroke Association's Train to End Stroke (TTES) program. As a Cincinnati team member, I've proudly represented our region in Kona, Hawaii, along with hundreds of other TTES participants from around the country who have helped to raise more than $6.5 million for valuable research and medical treatments for stroke victims.
Participants are encouraged to dedicate their efforts in the name of a Stroke Hero, a loved one lost to stroke or a survivor whose perseverance has inspired those around them. Last year, I ran in honor of my grandmother, since the start of the training program marked the 10th anniversary of her death from a stroke.
During the letter-writing campaign and the training, my mother and I embarked on an investigation into our family's medical history and discovered that almost every single person on her side had died either from a stroke or heart disease. I realized that while I was honoring Louise Belin, and by extension my entire family line, I was also running to extend my own life.
For the most recent Kona Marathon, I had two heroes spurring me on. My Pops suffered a minor stroke in October and fortunately has completely recovered.
My other hero, though, isn't quite old enough to understand his impact just yet -- my 6-year-old brother Kwasi.
Often, the true victims aren't those directly stricken but the loved ones left behind or forced to live under the cloud of less than complete recovery of a parent or guardian. So, as he undoubtedly served as a lifeline to our father, Kwasi became my other superhero.
When I was young, I wasn't the type of kid who looked beyond myself and my circle for heroes. I had my mother and grandmother who raised me and instilled in me the importance of offering whatever talents and abilities I had to helping others. I had teachers who believed in me and, in turn, provided me with examples for believing in myself.
As a grown man, I now have far more heroes than ever before. The circle has simply expanded a bit.
My definition of heroes includes the people I've come into contact with through these two marathon experiences. From the local director and coach who, along with their families, have spent countless hours on the road and phones in support of each participant's training and fund-raising goals to the walkers and runners who have logged far more miles and hours together than they ever would have thought possible a mere five to six months prior.
And then there are the participants I've crossed paths with ever so briefly during the events. I'll never forget the runners who offered encouragement in those dire moments on the course when my stamina and spirits were flagging. I was able to reconnect with one such runner from Boston who I staggered to the finish with last year.
In a relatively short final two miles, we bonded through extreme muscle cramps and an insane desire "to run it out," which we accomplished amidst the thunderous applause of crowds lining the streets. We exchanged contact information but beyond an initial e-mail never developed a steady or lasting line of communication. Yet as soon as we saw each other in the hotel lobby a few weeks ago, the memories came flooding back; we were like long-distance cousins at a family reunion.
In a crazy coincidence, I found myself in a similar situation near the finish this year, cramping and struggling in the company of another runner from Boston. I blocked out the encouragement of the crowd this time though, preferring to tap my internal reserves to fuel that last mad dash.
But I was humbled by the appreciative words of this runner's wife about an hour after we had crossed the finish. Trembling and close to tears, she thanked me for helping her husband. It didn't matter to her that we'd saved each other.
Far too often we take each other for granted, but when the chips are down I firmly believe we do the right thing. That's what family is all about.
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