Tradition and Healing: Volunteers and supporters prepare for the 40th Columbus Marathon

Local News

COLUMBUS (WCMH) — One week away from the 40th Columbus Marathon, staff and board members rely on their 3,000 volunteers more than ever.

The organizers tout the annual race as one of the state’s biggest and expect close to 16,000 runners for this year’s event.

“We don’t put this event on without volunteers,” explained race director Darris Blackford.

Early Sunday morning, longtime volunteers Steve Fleak and his daughter Laurie Byrnes spent hours spray painting arrows along the turns of the race’s 26.2-mile course. Fleak worked at Bank One when the company sponsored the marathon and has been volunteering since the inaugural race.

“I told my wife at 25 (years), I’d evaluate how long I wanted to do it. After 15 years of re-evaluating, we’re going to stop at 40,” laughed Fleak.

Fleak plans to pass the responsibilities he’s amassed in four decades onto his daughter. Byrnes has been joining her father on the course since she was a small child.

“I started by just riding around on the back of the truck, playing around, eating snacks to actually taking ownership in the actual volunteer activity,” she recalled.

The longer she spent time volunteering, the more she recognized the event’s importance.

In 2012, Nationwide Children’s Hospital became the title charity.

Byrnes explained, “[I plan to] keep volunteering, continue to raise funds for the children’s hospital every year. [I’m] just doing my part in a greater good.”

In its eight years raising money for the hospital, the race director expects fundraising will hit the $10 million donation mark. Blackford credits the race’s charity arm for attracting and retaining support.

“That’s allowed us to expand the awareness to the community, as opposed to just people who cared about running or walking,” Blackford explained. “Now the community’s involved because of the kids and because of that partnership. It’s just become much more of a community event.”

Some families of children who passed away at Nationwide Children’s Hospital channel their grief into support for the runners each year.

Sunday, many were making signs to hold at the ‘Angel Mile.’ Named for the children who’ve passed away, the 11th mile has become an area where families gather to wave signs and honor their memories.

“As a family, watching all of the runners come by gives us such a feeling of love and inspiration… to see all of the people who care enough to run and show up and to give back,” said Meredith Adams.

Adams and her husband were both training for the Columbus half-marathon shortly before their son Mathew was born. Mathew was born with a congenital heart defect and spent all but six days of his 17-month life at Nationwide Children’s.

“After he died, it came out that Nationwide Children’s was going to be the title beneficiary of the marathon,” she said. “We just thought it was perfect to give back to the hospital and celebrate his life.”

Stacey Sanchez met Adams in the hospital’s cardiac intensive unit while her son Ian underwent a heart transplant and years of treatment. Ian passed away three years ago at age 10, while awaiting a second transplant. She said he enjoyed watching the marathon from his hospital window during the final months of his life.

“He sat up in the window and had a balloon and cheered on the nurses and everybody from his window. And so it was actually very exciting for him to watch,” she recalled.

Sanchez explained she finally felt ready to join other families at the Angel Mile this year.

“It’s kind of like I’m doing it for him because I know he cheered them on when he watched them himself,” she said.

Many families consider the annual event cathartic; spending time with families in similar circumstances and keeping their children’s memories alive.

Sanchez explained, “To be able to stand out there and be able to honor him and to let his legacy continue means the world. And it’s kind of part of our healing.”

Each year, a committee of hospital staff also designates Marathon Patient Champions. The group of former and current Nationwide Children’s Hospital patients each represent a marathon mile and are selected based on diagnosis, experience, age, and enthusiasm to cheer on race participants.

You can read about the Patient Champions, learn about this year’s course and expo and find out how to become a Children’s Champion yourself by clicking here.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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