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.
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.
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."
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.)
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."
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