Proof of Life: The Runner-Up Entry in our 2015 Race Report Contest!

Athena and her wife before the Race for the Place.
Athena and her wife before the Race for the Place.

My most memorable race of 2015 was the Race for the Place in Beachwood, Ohio held on Sunday, June 7, 2015, organized by the Gathering Place, which is an organization that provides support to people touched by cancer. My finish time was nothing close to impressive when compared to the times that seasoned, swifter runners might accomplish. In fact, I crossed the finish line pretty much in the middle of the pack. I completed the race with a time of 37:29, not speedy by any means. However, this particular race always holds a special place for me.

In 2010, I formed a team from my work to raise money for the Gathering Place. Prior to the 2010 race, Kris Austin, one of the organizers of the race, came to the college campus where I work to participate in a book discussion and to talk about the Gathering Place’s many volunteer opportunities. Forming a team with my colleagues, family members, and friends seemed like the perfect way to give back.

As I participated in the 2010 Race for the Place, I never imagined that in the spring of 2012 I would be diagnosed with leukemia, but then again, most individuals never expect to be diagnosed with cancer.

During my initial 6-week long stay in the Cleveland Clinic, Beth Darmstadter from the Gathering Place and one of the primary organizers of the race was the first friend who came to visit me in the hospital. It made me very sad that I was captain of my team’s Gathering Place team, and I could not be there on race day, especially for such an important cause.

Athena's first half marathon after beating cancer!
Athena’s first half marathon after beating cancer!

Each year this race is held on the first Sunday in June, which is National Cancer Survivors Day. The race is the biggest yearly fundraiser for the Gathering Place. It presents a unique opportunity for individuals, teams, cancer survivors, caregivers, and family members to all join together to support this worthy cause.

For this year’s race, the weather on race morning was perfect: blue skies, a light breeze and not a drop of rain in the forecast. This was a welcome change from years past where storms could be threatening or the heat could be intense. However, even less than ideal weather does not stop numerous participants from coming out.

One of the features that I love best about this race is that you see such a great variety of people running. The different color mixture of race bibs indicate not only 1 mile competitors and 5k participants but also those who are cancer survivors. It’s interesting; at one time I thought that nothing could rise above the importance of my 2006 Boston Marathon bib, but my purple tinted bib far outweighs the significance of the prestigious Boston runner bib hanging on my wall.

This year’s Race for the Place was also a special one because I ran it stride for stride with my wife, who was also my primary caregiver when I was going through my cancer treatments. Melissa was not much of a runner prior to us dating; yoga was more for her, an activity that I unfortunately never had the patience for. However, she took up running as a way for us to engage in similar interests, because she is incredibly considerate that way. And even though running is still not her first love like it is for me, she happily registers for 5ks, so that we can have the chance to spend time together. Many times in 5ks I might finish a bit in front of her, even though that gap has been getting closer and closer as the years have gone on, and she has improved. During this year’s race, we paced stride for stride. We were together the same way that she was with me throughout my treatments of chemotherapy, intravenous arsenic medications, and blood transfusions.

One of the perks of the race is the very pleasant course that is relatively flat with just a few gradual inclines. It winds through residential neighborhoods, where many local residents come out of their homes with cups of coffee in hand to cheer on runners. The race is also very well supported with volunteers, many of them having a direct link to cancer, either themselves or close family members.

A unique facet of this race is that prior to its start, there is the opportunity to speak with fellow cancer survivors. This year I got the chance to meet and chat with a skin cancer & Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma survivor. I was incredibly proud that one of my team members, Jess Brady, was the overall winner in the cancer survivor category. Seeing someone in her 20s overcome the enormous hurdle of breast cancer to run so well was very inspiring and shows many that just because your life drastically changes, it does not mean that it is over.

The first mile of the race is always pretty congested. The race being an event that prompts participation by many seasoned runners and non-runners means that there are different levels of participants intermixed. After the first mile, it begins to thin out. Even though it started to get more challenging & Melissa felt the urge to walk, she didn’t. We pushed on and kept focusing on the finish.

Athena's Race for the Place Team.
Athena’s Race for the Place Team.

This race, even though it is not a highly prestigious race, is the most important race of the season for me. It helps to remind me that I’m still alive and that I can still actively contribute to an event that I love so dearly. In fact, when I was in the hospital, one of the activities that I enjoyed doing the most was running, in whatever capacity that I could. Some days that meant just trying to accomplish a slow mile on the treadmill that was housed in the floor of the hospital where I stayed. It was a huge difference from the mileage that I was running just prior to being diagnosed in 2012, when I was in the middle of training for my 13th marathon, but it was still some form of normalcy.

Even though my times have gotten slower over the years and I’m far from being at the 3.36 & some change marathon pace I once held, running has taken on a new role for me. It has given me a greater appreciation for life, it has given me a greater sense of purpose, and it has made me realize that it’s not all about the time you finish and personal records but instead about who you can help and what you’ve learned about yourself.

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Congratulations to Athena Mericsko of Middleburg Heights, Ohio on beating cancer (WOO!), a great race report, and for winning second place in our 2015 Race Report Contest! When she’s not training for her goal spring half marathon, she is a newlywed and an English professor who enjoys watching movies, volunteering, and playing with her two cats, Stewie and Woody. Thanks so much for being a member of the Salty community and keep your eyes peeled for your prize!

Salty Running boss and mother of 3 little ones with PRs of 3:10:15 (26.2), 1:25:59 (13.1) and 18:15 (5k). I love to write about running culture, mental training, and fitting in a serious running habit with the rest of a busy life.

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1 comment

  1. Love, love, love this!!! And I love Athena! The Race for the Place is always my favorite 5k and I feel honored to be part of Athena’s team. It will always hold a place on my calendar every year in my racing plans.