AMR Love Week: Chrissi Lillard

The Lillard family, pre-fire.
The Lillard family, pre-fire.

Our week of AMR Love continues—and this story started with an email from another mother runner in Frederick, Maryland named Cathy. She wrote to us on behalf of her friend, Chrissi. "She will be visiting the Princess expo to pick up her bib and I would love it if you could give her a bit of extra encouragement when she stops by your booth," Cathy wrote, "I will let her know to make sure to go there, she needs to know that everyone is rallying for her to finish this difficult phase in her lifelong journey!" 

On January 31, 2013, a floor heater in the Lillard house in Myersville, MD, set the nearby curtains on fire. The fire spread quickly and uncontrollably. "Two of our daughters were trapped beyond our reach," remembers Chrissi, "Despite multiple attempts, we were just not able to save them." Sophie, then 6.5 years old, and Madigan, just 3, did not survive. The rest of the family, including 7-month-old Sadie and 8-year-old Morgan, was hospitalized for various periods of time. Four pets also died.

The Lillard house remains.
The Lillard house remains.

About five months pre-fire, Chrissi and her husband, Jack, had started to run on a treadmill in their basement. "Neither one of us had ever run before," she says, " It was a way for us each to get a break and so that each of us got some one-on-one time with the girls."

Once some of the shock of their loss started to lift, they made the decision to start a playground in honor and memory of their girls. Having lost all their posessions, the Lillards were reminded of how important straight-up memories are, and wanted to create a place where family memories would abound. The seeds of Sophie and Madigan's Playground were planted. "My husband started researching ways to fundraise and remembered the Disney races," says Chrissi, "We decided the Princess Half-Marathon would be a great way to honor the girls and have other runners join us to raise money."

The race was fitting for many reasons: the girls loved princesses, and fhe family loves Disney. "We visited Disney World every six months," remembers Chrissi, "We have a million beautiful memories from there that we are so thankful for."

So...a playground, a race, and a lot of miles required for both to happen.

Morgan after a race in memory of her sisters.
Morgan after a race in memory of her sisters.

The community has rallied in countless ways. Ten acres of land was donated for the Sophie and Madigan Lillard Memorial Park, and Chrissi has a vision of what will happen on those acres. "We're hoping for a nice mix of wide open space to imagine and play, and  whimsical pieces of equipment that you can't find at a standard playground. I see kids chasing each other across the bow of a pirate ship up into the tallest castle tower and into a world of flowers and butterflies," she says, "I see children playing in an open field, riding their bikes on the trails, watching the butterflies in the butterfly gardens, running in the field to their picnic blanket to lay their head in their mothers' laps to stare up at the clouds."

Maybe even a painting station at the playground? Madigan and Sophia summon their inner artists.
Maybe even a painting station at the playground? Madigan and Sophie summon their inner artists.

A variety of fund-raising runs have been—and will be—held, including the Pirate and Princess 5K and Fun Run in October 2014 and the 2014 Frederick Running Festival to turn her vision to reality.

And, of course, there are the Princess Runners. There will be an army of Sophie and Madigan fans at the Princess Race Weekend: 114 runners will be holding the two sweet girls in their hearts as their legs cover the miles. (The most special fan running? Their sister Morgan.)

The official uniform of the Sophia and Madigan Disney crew.
The official uniform of the Sophia and Madigan Disney crew.

That would be more than enough: a playground and a race, and a family on a healing path. But there were other (mother runner) forces at work.

Jack started running first after the fire, and once Chrissi had her sights set on 13.1, she started back in late March of 2013. She had a good group of friends with whom to train, so she started slowly piling on some miles. But the effort wasn't feeling much easier; in fact, despite training for a few months, she still felt super sluggish. She chalked it up to grief, shock, lingering issues with smoke inhalation, and anxiety, among other things. "I was out of shape and we had been through so much, so who knows?" she adds, "I had a really hard time with my breathing."

Turns out, Chrissi was pregnant. And had been at the time of the fire. When she found out, she had just 13 weeks left in her pregnancy. "I stopped running and started walking," she says, "To say I was shocked would be an understatement."

Jack and Mason at the Dude Runs Like a Princess, a 1K fundraiser.
Jack and Mason at the Dude Runs Like a Princess, a 1K fundraiser.

Mason—named for Madigan and Sophie—will be four months old on February 12. After a rough start and a brief stay in the NICU, Mason is thriving. "He's just a smiling, giggling monkey," she says.

And, like all newborns, easy or not, Mason threw a kink in his mom's training, "Up until I had Mason I was very consistent with my training," she says, "It's much harder with a newborn! I did just get done a 9-mile training run with my 'princesses in training' and I felt really good when I got done."

Running has been, she says, "A lifeline for both of us. Every on our worst days, a run helps clear our minds. It has also given us a productive outlet in the playground—and a goal to stay focused on. Knowing I am going to run 13.1 miles when I could barely walk a mile less than a year ago is a great motivator."

At age 34, Chrissi has crossed more finish lines than any mother runner should have to, but the one she'll cross on February 23 is the one that looms largest for her now. "I know I'm going to have a few breakdowns along the course," she says, "But crossing the line is going to be heart-wrenching and amazing all wrapped into one. I'm really looking forwward to being there for my babies and accomplishing this huge step in our healing process."

Send Chrissi and her family all your AMR Love: you can check out the Sophie and Madigan's Playground Facebook page; you can Tweet to them at @SophnMaggiePlay; and you can spend lots of time on their lovely website to get more details of how you can help. And if you want to run in honor of them, here's your page. (Personally, I vote for sponsoring Chrissi for her inaugural 13.1; she wants to raise a significant and memorable $13,102.) xo

16 responses to “AMR Love Week: Chrissi Lillard

  1. This story has been on my mind and heart since I first read it yesterday morning. I also choked back tears during my first read. I am a mom of six who has buried 3 babies, and still I don’t understand the pain of losing 2 children to a house fire. May God bless you, Lillard family, as you heal and make something beautiful out of your heartbreak. Keep on running, no matter your pace. Running has amazing healing powers!

  2. Thank you for sharing Chrissi’s story! She is an unbelievable inspiration to so many for her strength and the great things she is doing to honor her two beautiful girls. I will continue to log my miles in support of the Lillard Family and in memory of Sophie and Madigan.

  3. What unbelievable strength and bravery, as a mother my heart aches for you and I am in awe of your ability to do something so wonderful to honor your beautiful family. Wishing you fields full of laughter and sunny days. What a beautiful tribute. I just love this, though I wish it wasn’t borne of such tragedy, it is truly a beautiful way to honor your family. Thank you for sharing your very personal story. I would love to help you out!

  4. what a true inspiration you are Chrissi, bless you and your family. May you carry the strength of this tribe on your 13.1! Cheering and praying for you!

  5. I can’t, with the babies. I just can’t. My heart aches for you all, and I’m so inspired by your strength. That little Mason must be an angel, with a wing from each of his big sisters that aren’t physically here with him. Hugs to all of you.

  6. Holy mother runner tears flowing over here in MD this am while sitting at my desk reading this one. I’ve read this 2 times and cried both times. Sending this amazing family tons of hugs and well wishes for the most awesome race. Keep up the great work! My family will be cheering you on. From a mother who has lost one child….never ever stop running! Love how you are doing it as a family. Go Lillard family GO! Dream big and the butterflies will come.

  7. Such a heartbreaking story and yet, one of such bravery. I don’t know them, but I’m racing and fundraising in their names for the Princess Half. I do so because I cannot even imagining losing one child, let alone two, and as a fellow mother runner, I want to show my solidarity and support. Hugs and strength to the Lillard family.

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