The Last Page

The Last Page

Charities of Fire

In college, I rowed. I did not run. In fact, I hated running. When Mike, our coach, switched up a practice by taking us off the ergs and out for a few laps around campus, I was all grimaces, groans, and barely audible grunts. You couldn’t pay me to run.

Two years later, I can only imagine how surprised Mike must have been to receive my first marathon fundraising email. I have to presume that my former coach, as well as several family members and friends, giggled at the thought of me lumbering along, attempting to run any distance — much less 26.2 miles. I signed up for the Big Sur Marathon in January 2006 after talking with fellow Vassar grads training for the prestigious — and competitive — Boston Marathon. (I live in Boston, but the marathon has strict rules requiring runners to either qualify by meeting time guidelines or raising a minimum of $3,000 for registered charities before they can sign up.) Inspired by the Vassar runners’ dedication, perseverance, and — most importantly — the incredible money they were raising for charities, I was bitten by the marathon bug. If people were willing to fork out anywhere from ten bucks to thousands to help others, and all I had to do was sweat for a few hours, I was in. I went from zero to 26.2 overnight — well, almost.

I had always wanted to do something to raise awareness and money for stroke research. Stroke is a silent, sneaky killer that intrudes with no warning, but with powerful, deadly force. Stroke has struck my mom on multiple occasions, first when she was 26, and then again in her late thirties. Each time she survived — and thrived. But with each stroke she endured long recoveries, relearning how to walk, talk, and even swallow. In 2006, my mom received some negative test results regarding another health obstacle — her rare vascular disease, fibromuscular dysplasia — and I needed to do something. I needed to let out my frustration at all she had undergone, and to try to help. I couldn’t heal my mom, but I could improve the prospects for others.

Marathon running gave me the perfect opportunity. But not being a runner, I needed a little advice. (After all, most people don’t decide to run a marathon only a few months before, having virtually no running experience!) Luckily, the Vassar grads who originally inspired me — many of whom I had known only tangentially in college — jumped in to lend a hand. On training runs, we would pass each other struggling up Heartbreak Hill or maneuvering Boston’s icy streets and share high fives. Monday nights, we’d gather for trivia at a local bar and tell our latest stories of falls, sore muscles, or strong training runs. With fellow alums, I shared everything from steaming post-run chocolate chip pancakes to band-aids and well-wishing text messages.

We also shared stories about what inspired us. Whether it was stroke or leukemia, children’s literacy or athletics in Boston, each runner had a reason he or she was waking up at 5:30 and staying in on a Friday night before a long mileage workout. Many were former varsity athletes. Chris Shukie ’03, Tim Reinhardt ’04, and Aaron Beatty ’04 all played baseball; Caitlin Deschenes-Desmond ’04 swam; Christina Sheehan ’05 ran. And a wide array of Vassar grads, friends who weren’t actually preparing to run, supported us so that we could.

On Patriot’s Day, 2006, I cheered Shukie, Tim, Aaron, Christina, and Caitlin up Heartbreak Hill in Boston. The next weekend, I completed my first marathon in California, flanked for the last three miles by my dad, a graduate school friend, and my fellow Vassar rower Sara Gale ’04. I signed up for my next marathon the very next day. I’ve crossed the finish lines of Big Sur, Chicago, and last year, Boston — each marathon bringing with it more stories (and more Vassar runners) than the next. Since I started running, I’ve met other Vassar grads striving for the finish line — some for personal bests, but many just for the pure joy of helping others. And without fail, they all have incredible fellow alums supporting them.

One long run last spring, I started to wonder if there was something in the Poughkeepsie water. What was in the dorms, the gym, or ACDC that led these grads to dedicate hours on end, powering through miles of city terrain, or to spend hours in the cold, waiting to hand a Gatorade to their friends as they sped by? And then I felt my phone buzz. Pulling it from my running belt, a text: “Girl, I almost cried today. So inspired by our speaker — a leukemia survivor. Have to tell you. Pancakes?” There, in just a few words, and I knew. It’s not what was in the water for those four years, but what drew us to Vassar in the first place, and why, throughout life, we trek on across the miles, looking for the next finish line.

Jaime-Alexis Fowler ’04 is a writer, editor, and online strategist for Pathfinder International, a nonprofit dedicated to increasing access to quality reproductive health.

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