It is a cold, but sunny winter morning and the Ottawa Trail at Kettle Moraine State Park is packed with snow ... and runners.
One of those athletes is Ashley Kumlien, who is heading out for 32 miles. I'm also bundled up for a cold-weather run, but being the wimp I am, I'll only knock out 18 miles.
Ashley and I are both training for two runs we didn't always think we would race. I'm getting ready for the 114th running of the Boston Marathon on April 19. It will be 26.2 of the toughest and most satisfying miles I've ever run.
Ashely will also be running on April 19, too. If her route goes according to plan, she should be somewhere in Nevada. Ashley is running 3,200 miles starting March 22 in San Francisco with the goal of finishing in New York City on Sept. 22.
I am a firm believer in second chances. We have all made decisions we'd like to take back. We've all hurt people we wish would forgive us. We've all failed to act with compassion when we initially had the opportunity.
Some of us are lucky enough to turn a "wrong" into a "right" when it comes to people we have hurt. Others, realize their misguidance long after their chance, or in my case person, is gone.
I was 5 years old when my aunt and godmother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Sandi (my mother's younger sister) was a vivacious, athletic, UW-La Crosse graduate. She was working as a recreational therapist in a nursing home, helping patients perform day to day tasks their bodies no longer allowed.
Sandi had no idea she would soon need the same assistance.
One morning, Sandi woke up and felt a strange tingling in her arm. At first, the doctors misdiagnosed the sensations as a pinched nerve. She was young, in her mid-20s, and completely healthy. The doctors were wrong.
The tingling never went away and soon my aunt's vision was blurred. The diagnosis -- Multiple Sclerosis.
For my aunt, the disease was fairly progressed quickly. I was pretty young, but most of my memories of Sandi don't involve her playing softball or spending time with friends. They are of a woman in a wheelchair who not only lost her physical capabilities, but her mental capabilities, as well. In addition to slowly deteriorating motor skills, my aunt soon became forgetful, constantly asking the same questions over and over and over again.
As a kid, and even a teenager, I remember not being very sympathetic to the challenges my aunt faced. I was embarrassed to have a family member who talked funny, needed help just to use the rest room and whose conversations consisted of a monotonous chain of the same questions and answers playing like a broken record.
I didn't understand the disease and I certainly wasn't compassionate. I'm guessing I was also a little bit afraid I end up like "her."
Not only did my aunt have to live out the final years of her life trapped in a body she could no longer control, but also in isolation. Yes, my family and I talked and visited with Sandi, but I know I was never really "there." I treated her differently than my other relatives. Instead of making her feel loved and like any other aunt, I think she must have felt like a burden. An outsider in her own family.
My aunt died almost 15 years ago.
I know I was young when she was sick and probably didn't "know better," but I've always carried around a measure of guilt for the way I acted. When given the chance to make someone feel better, I backed away in fear.
I've never even done anything to help raise awareness or money for the disease that killed my 37-year-old aunt.
Someone recently told me that nothing is an accident. The people who enter your life are put there for a reason, but it's up to you to realize why and decide if you'll pay attention to the lessons, love and friendship they may provide.
Good thing Ashley is so talkative and motivating. I couldn't have missed her message if I wanted!
Ashley and I have more than running in common. Both of our families have been affected by Multiple Sclerosis.
Ashley's mother Jill was also diagnosed with MS in the early 1980s. As Ashley and I checked off the miles on that bright Saturday morning, I found out that she too had regrets about how she treated her mother. The same fears, the same frustrations, the same annoyances.
Jill Kumlien is still living with MS and will get the chance to see her daughter literally go the distance to find a cure for the disease she has lived with for 27 years. The reason Ashley is running 32 miles on a Saturday, in preparation for 3,200 miles this spring, is for her charity, MS Run the US.
Ashley, will cross mountains and plains, pass through small towns and big cities because she can. Unlike her mother or my aunt, putting one foot in front of the other is not a daunting and exhausting challenge. For Ashley and me, it's easy and oddly enjoyable.
Unfortunately, I can't run 3,200 miles with Ashley this summer. And I can't apologize to my aunt for not being a more compassionate niece. But I can run Boston in honor of Sandi and for Ashley's mom, Jill.
I can also help Ashley raise money for a cause that has affected and changed us both. What is the point of having a job that allows me to literally reach thousands, if not millions of people, if I don't use it for good every once in a while?
If all the people who follow me on twitter or friend me on facebook donated just $1 apiece, we would still manage to raise more than $6,000. For lack of better phrasing, how cool is that?
I find it amazing that such small steps can make a huge difference, and you don't even have to get off your couch.
Thank you in advance for helping support Ashley and her incredible journey.
To donate please visit: firstgiving.com/trennikusnierek
To learn more about Ashley's run across America, check out the story by Fox 6's Jen Lada:
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