By Rebecca Schmitz
It was easy to pick them out, even in the predictably enormous crowd at the Charlottesville Women’s 4-miler. They are a smiling and energetic bunch, whose pink T-shirts are emblazoned with this inspirational quote from Proverbs: “She is clothed in strength and dignity, and laughs without fear of the future.” It’s an apt motto for a group of women who, for the past three months, have shown their support for cancer patient Kelly Johnston by gathering at the Western Albemarle track each Saturday morning to train for the annual race, which raises funds to support breast cancer research and treatment. Some were seasoned runners who had completed marathons. Some were embarking on their first regular walking routine. Some began three months ago as walkers and found themselves transformed into runners who could churn out four miles by race day.
When Johnston, a 44-year-old mother of three girls aged 13, 10, and 8, was diagnosed with treatable breast cancer at the end of January, her friends wanted to help. But, as Johnston’s friend Christy Hodge said, “You can only take the family so much food!” A conversation in a life fellowship class led Hodge to formulate a plan with fellow Crozet Baptist church members John and Michelle Andersen, owners of Crozet Running. Why not form a 4-miler team to raise money for breast cancer and at the same time, promote and support a healthier lifestyle for everyone who joined? Johnston, an active volunteer for the Special Olympics, her children’s schools, and other local causes, was excited to lend her name to an activity that could lead to cancer prevention. She had run the race herself many times and knew that besides raising money for research and treatment, the team would encourage people to incorporate exercise into their lives—a strategy for preventing some types of cancer.
According to Hodge, “Kelly wanted to lend her own circumstances to open the discussion and raise cancer awareness. She wanted the team to represent much more than just Kelly—she wanted a platform to promote overall health.”
Word spread through a Facebook page and conversations with friends, and soon “Team Kelly” had attracted over 120 members, ranging in age from elementary school students to women in their 70s. Members from as far away as Tennessee joined them from a distance, using training plans developed by the Andersens and posted online. Because the 4-miler accepts teams of only four to eight people, the women broke into 20 separate teams. The classrooms of Johnston’s three daughters, Talley, Emma, and Leigh, at Meriwether Lewis and the Village School, all formed their own mother-daughter teams.
An average of 20 to 30 women met Saturdays at 8 a.m. at the Western Albemarle track. Led by Michelle Andersen, they ran or walked different routes around Crozet each week. Kelly was often there, along with her daughters and her mother, Gay Wolford. Even husband David was a frequent attendee, quick with a smile and cheerful encouragement. The athletes had plenty of options to train: runner Lisa Ebanks led a group that met Monday and Thursday mornings, and runners Nancy Farish and Heather Laramy led groups that met Tuesday and Wednesday evenings.
These sessions were about more than just running. Friendships formed, confidence grew, and exercise routines took hold.
“It’s a good way to connect,” said Alice Lucan, who has developed a more disciplined walking regimen since working out with the team. She credits the women around her for their encouragement and motivation. Her canine family members were no doubt grateful too: “I have big dogs—now I’m able to take them on their walks!”
Six-year-old Maya Saucerman said, “It’s fun, but sometimes it’s hard,” after tackling a challenging three-and-a-half-mile run through Old Trail during an early morning training session in August. “The hills are hard!” She was excited to run alongside her mother, Lisa, on race day. “I thought it would be really fun to run my first race with my mom.”
True to the team’s goal of promoting an overall healthy lifestyle, health and fitness professionals were happy to share their expertise with the women. Melissa Miller, owner of M2 Personal Training, spoke about the importance of cross training. Michelle Andersen shared her knowledge of runner stability and cadence. “We didn’t want people to drop their fitness routines after the race,” Hodge explained. “We wanted to give them local options and resources to turn to.”
Johnston feels the same way: “We should all pay attention to diet and exercise and not take good health for granted. I hope Team Kelly members will continue to be healthy and active long past race day!”
Team Kelly raised money through pledges and fundraisers, including a pancake breakfast at Crozet Baptist and a pizza night at Crozet Pizza. They also sold over 200 of their team’s pink T-shirts.
Johsnton, who just finished six rounds of chemotherapy and will begin radiation treatment after Labor Day, is moved by the women who joined Team Kelly in her honor: “I’m incredibly humbled by the response to Team Kelly and honored that so many women and girls ran the 4-miler in my name. I think for so many team members, I’m reminiscent of perhaps a mother, sister, cousin, good friend, etc., who also was also diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer. They’re running in my name and for me this year, but also in the names of so many who’ve come before me in years past.
“One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer—too many—and I dare say most Team Kelly members can name a handful of women that they know and love who have been affected by breast cancer.”