Room on the Road: Heart Strides goes to Eau Claire

Back in May I packed up and headed to Eau Claire, Wisconsin, for the Eau Claire Marathon. With the end-of-the-year school chaos looming over my head, I needed a big hit of Midwest hospitality and some cheese curds.

Friday night set-up, thanks to friends and advocates for making EC another great year!

While I always love this race—the hometown feel wraps around me like a flannel blanket on a January night—this year was special. Heather, who received her shoes from Heart Strides in 2015, was running her first marathon. Heart Strides, a non-profit that provides new running shoes to moms caring for children with a disability or chronic illness. Heather was nominated by Cathy, a friend, who had met Heather through their local chapter of Moms on the Run, in Minnesota.

A single parent to four-year-old Jackson, Heather found friendship, support and inspiration through Moms on the Run—so much so that she was ready to tackle her first marathon, something that has been hanging out on her bucket list for a while.

Jackson’s medical needs require around the clock care and monitoring, so he is never far from her side—even during her training. She pushes him in his medical stroller, which is a workout in itself; Jackson, the stroller and all of his medical supplies weigh about 116 pounds.

Its expo–and inspiration—time! Heather and her son, and new Heart Strides recipient Payge, who was tackling a 5K that weekend, and her kiddos. Knowing what it takes for anybody get to a starting line, I am always impressed with moms of kids with disabilities who lace up on any given day, much less train for a race.

The morning of the expo, my hand was glued to my phone, I didn’t want to miss the incoming text from Heather. We’ve exchanged messages for over a year; even though I felt like I already knew her, I was excited to meet her and Jackson in person.

My phone vibrates, a message from Heather—Walking in, I forgot my wallet and license at home. Brilliant right?!! On my way to see you. Can I leave his medical bag with you while we explore the expo?

I could relate to her text on so many levels. Every time we leave the house I’m double and triple checking, Do I have my wallet? My phone? Logan’s medical kit?

As they made their way to the booth the the first thing I noticed was Heather’s smile, followed by the very large duffle bag that included medical supplies and other items.

Getting to know Jackson and Heather—coffee in one hand, love in the other.

Soon after giving her and Jackson a hug, I started rattling off questions, How was the drive? How are you feeling? Are you nervous? How’s Jackson doing? Do you need anything? The butterflies were starting to act up, but she was ready to put those miles behind her. I didn’t doubt her for a second.

Flat Heather and Jackson—We do hard things together.

Ten minutes with Heather and anyone would know that she would rock those miles. I have a feeling there is nothing she can’t do once she puts her mind to it.

On race day, my flight was leaving early, offering little room for cheering. With the help of my friends, Amy, Karen and Anna, we made a plan to get up early and find a spot or two where we could cheer and still be able to make our way past any potential road blockades. Karen, an Eau Claire native, navigated the side streets with ease, getting us within walking distance of the course. Cowbells in hand, we were ready to cheer.

As I watched the runners pass, feeling nervous that we may have missed Heather, I frantically sent her a text. I was already feeling torn about having to leave so early. We’re on the other side of the bridge. Which is hardly helpful; there are seven bridges throughout the course. “I’m just crossing the second bridge…” She was on her way, we were at the third bridge.

I held my breath, now my stomach was full of butterflies, I hope she didn’t go out too fast, I hope she feels rested, I hope we don’t miss her, I hope, I hope, I hope… 

As we waited for her to make her way to us, we had strategically placed ourselves on the path so we wouldn’t miss her. Keeping my eyes on the bridge, I cheered, holding my phone in position, ready to snap a pic. I love running a race but cheering for others definitely puts the eye back in this tiger. 

The sun was bright, making it difficult to see the runners as they crossed the bridge. “There she is!” I yelled, getting everyone excited. False start: not her.

Heather, all smiles, making her way across one of the many bridges.

Then I saw her. She was floating across the bridge, the sun hugging her body like a halo. Suddenly I was overwhelmed with the situation: How much coordination it took to get her here, and she’s making it look so effortless. She’s doing it, she is going all the way, she is on the course all by herself, and these are her miles, her strides…

My eyes brimming with tears I reached out to give her a high-five. Trying to keep it all in, I watched her go down the path. I mouthed to my friend Amy I can’t stop the tears.

Watching Heather come across the bridge by herself, when she typically would be pushing Jackson, was so powerful. Her strength, determination and can-do attitude filled the air. I didn’t know where to go with the rush of emotions. My phone buzzed with an incoming text. It was from Heather, Thank you! Love you! Have a safe trip!

I had to head to the airport, but Anna and Karen, riding the course on their bikes, found her near the end and helped her get past those last few miles. After the race, Heather sent me a message. OMG, Heart Strides was amazing. Biked me in the last mile and met me a few times!!

Heather and Jackson with their support crew— her sister and mother.

On the plane, I had a moment to sit with my thoughts. I know she didn’t do this alone—her mom and sister were taking care of Jackson, her friends at Moms on the Run was cheering her on, as were all the spectators—but it was her moment. Her marathon. She and Jackson have a loving, supportive village, but sometimes it’s important to blaze a (26.2 mile) trail on your own two feet.

7 responses to “Room on the Road: Heart Strides goes to Eau Claire

  1. Heather is truly a remarkable lady. I call her the energizer bunny. She can do anything she puts her mind to, in spite of the very demanding life she leads. She’s a true inspiration!

  2. Yay Heather!!! You are so amazing and such an inspiration !!! Your entire MOTR family are so pround of you!!! Much thanks to Heart Strides for supporting you as well!!!

  3. What a great story! Heart Strides, Denise, and all of the advocates are doing such an amazing thing. Congratulations, Heather and Payge!!!

  4. Marathons are so emotional and reading about this made me tear up! So happy and proud of Heather and her army of supporters who all got to see what courage looks like. Congratulations Heather!

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