RADJournals: Stephanie McKenna found her way to competitive running, started Team Be Happy, and the Be Happy Road Race after losing her sister to cancer
I always admired runners. To me there was such an allure to the skill and elite nature that seemed to coincide with being a runner. That was not me. I was the girl twisting an ankle or falling and scraping her knees…actually much hasn’t changed there, but that grace and agility alluded me.
Over about 5 years I slowly started to work it out. I’m a forensic scientist and researcher by nature so I read every book, article, journal entry, anything that could give me insight into what I was missing. Two major breakthroughs - I have narrow hips, which fight my speed progression and I have one foot an entire shoe size bigger than the other which skews my gait and makes me a toe runner. Pros: I’m less likely to have back and other associated spinal problems due to running. Cons: I need way more leg and glute strength to run fast and run far.
I was just at the point of making some progress when my younger sister, Lindsay, called me complaining of a stomachache. She was tough, a volunteer firefighter, dog trainer, and single mother of a 4-year-old cutie named Landen. We thought it was nothing, but it turned out to be cancer. It was actually Acute Myeloid Leukemia with a rare mutation that made it basically incurable. She was my person, my best friend in the world, and now she was very sick. My mother, my sister’s fiancé Sean and I committed to being with her every moment through her battle. We took shifts and adjusted work schedules so that one of us was always with her. That kind of caretaking, watching someone you love suffer (and someone so young and vibrant) is gut wrenching, heart breaking, and soul crushing. We never wanted to accept or let her believe that there would be no tomorrow. We were determined to have HOPE - to live and breathe that no matter what. It was not a small task. My only salvation, the only way to purge the chaos and emotions...was to RUN. I would run in the middle of the night, first thing in the morning, midday - whenever I had the opportunity. In order to walk into that hospital and believe what I was telling her I had to believe it to my core and running would clear my mind, settle my emotions, and give me the strength to go back the next day.
After 18 months of fighting, at 28 years old, Lindsay died. The cancer was too strong, and we were out of options. She had participated in a clinical trial, she received a transplant of my bone marrow, and there were numerous rounds of chemo and radiation, but the cancer was just bigger than all of us. At the end, we gathered as a family to spend her last days together. As we said our goodbyes she turned to us and said, “You don’t be sorry for me. My journey is over, and I’m okay with that. There’s no more pain, no more fighting, just peace. You live your lives and be happy.” I will never forget that moment for as long as I live. My sister’s fiancé Sean and I started running together as “Team Be Happy.” After all the heartbreak, the moment we crossed the first 5k finish line together and felt that runner's high and that energy, we were hooked. This July will be 5 years since Lindsay passed. In that time we have competed in nearly 100 5k’s, numerous 10k’s, half marathons, and several triathlons. I took it a little bit farther and have competed in several marathons and ultramarathons as well. My husband TJ and nephew Landen have competed with us as too! So far this year we’ve tackled the King of Pain - a 10 mile road race with ugly elevation gains - and up next is the Bolton Road Race (another hilly one), the Providence Marathon, Ironman Eagleman 70.3, and Anchor Down Ultra. A big year for me and for us as a team.
Our non-profit organization, Lindsay’s Legacy Foundation, will be holding its 4th annual Be Happy Road Race this August 28th in Windsor, Connecticut. After what we’ve been through, we knew that the breath of life that running gave us could help others navigate similar situations. We're proud that all the proceeds are donated to research into innovative treatment options and direct patient support . We run for Lindsay and for HOPE in making progress on the journey to becoming cancer free!