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Why I Run: Eversource Hartford Marathon Has Countless Inspirational Stories

An expected 10,000 people will take part in the Eversource Hartford Marathon. That number includes those running in the half-marathon, the 5K, a kid’s race, the challenge series, and, of course, the full marathon.

More than 50,000 people are expected to watch. Some to catch a glimpse of family members and friends. Others just to cheer on those taking part.

Most of those running aren’t expecting to win. For them, it’s not a race to be first. For some it’s a race just to beat their own times. For others it’s a means to exercise, or a way to raise money for a charitable cause. But everybody has a story. Below are some of the stories The Courant told this week leading up to the race and some of the stories the runners shared with us. The full stories can be found in the website links below.

Running For Jackie

Jackie Gustafson had cerebral palsy and was non-verbal. But BJ Williams could feel the joy she felt, pulsating up through the handles of the wheelchair he pushed, especially when they would hit a pothole or go over a speed bump in the road.

At the Fenway Park Marathon on Sept. 15, Williams pushed Gustafson in her racing wheelchair 116 laps around the baseball park's perimeter.

And over the 26.2 miles, they bumped over the timing mat 116 times.

"Every lap, we'd go over the mats and if we were going fast enough, she would bounce," Williams said. "She loved that. 116 times."

Williams' voice trails off. Fenway was their last race together as a duo for Team Hoyt New England, which pairs able-bodied runners with disabled people in wheelchairs. Gustafson, who was a Team Hoyt member for four years and raced with Williams for two and lived in Feeding Hills, Mass., died suddenly of complications from pneumonia Sept. 30. She was 17 years old.

The two were planning to run the Eversource Hartford Half-Marathon Saturday morning. Now Williams, 33, of Leicester, Mass., will run alone. But he won't really be alone; he'll be pushing Gustafson's chair.

"Jackie won't be there with me in her chair running but she'll be with me in spirit," Williams said. "She absolutely will be. Her family will be there. I don't know emotionally what the race will bring.

"Training has been a little different since Jackie passed. I haven't been able to find my niche or my zen. Some days are good, some days are bad. I'm hoping on race day, everything lines up. It will be a tough time.

"It will be, in my mind, our last race together. I'll be sad, I know, at the finish."

Williams was honored as a member of the Aiello Inspiration Team, sponsored by the marathon. In the last 10 years, he has run in 16 marathons and six Ironman Triathlons and over 100 races.

He was a hockey player first. He learned to play when he was 3, growing up in Longmeadow, Mass., and as a freshman in high school, moved to Lake Placid to attend the National Sports Academy and hone his hockey skills. He played junior hockey for the Bay State Breakers in Boston, in Italy and upstate New York. But on July 20, 2005, that all ended when Williams was involved in a car accident on the Massachusetts Turnpike. He wasn't wearing a seat belt and was ejected from the vehicle.

"I woke up a couple days later in the hospital and I thought my biggest setback was that hockey was over," Williams said.

He learned that he had a traumatic brain injury. His balance was off and he had sensory issues. But he was 21 and in prime athletic shape, which helped his recovery.

Six month later, Williams was watching HBO late at night and saw a story about a father who pushed his son in a wheelchair in races. Dick and Rick Hoyt, the genesis of Team Hoyt, have competed in thousands of races all over the world and inspired countless runners and disabled athletes; there is a statue of the pair in Hopkinton, Mass. in honor of their running the Boston Marathon over 30 times.

Williams was inspired to run a marathon. The Hyannis Marathon was in three weeks. He decided to try it.

"I ended up only doing a half marathon that day," he said. "I couldn't walk for about two weeks after. It was a good learning experience to see that the sport is not easy.

"But I was hooked after that, into running, triathlons, races, anything I could do to physically push my body."

In 2014, Williams joined Team Hoyt New England. He met Gustafson and her parents at a fundraiser. She had been a team member for two years but didn't have a running partner at the time.

"Her parents mentioned there weren't many people in Western Mass. for Team Hoyt New England," he said. "I said, 'My parents live in Western Mass. If there's a race, let's do it.' They're like, 'Well, St. Patrick's Day is in two weeks in Holyoke.'"

Williams pushed Gustafson through the hilly 10K. He remembered it was freezing.

A few weeks later after the Fenway Park Marathon this year, Gustafson became ill.

"She had been sick for a couple days prior," Williams said. "I saw her two days before in the hospital. There was nothing saying, 'Prepare for the worst.' It was pneumonia. We knew she had another infection but we didn't think it would escalate to that.

"I was at work on Saturday. My wife sent me an email, around 7 o'clock, saying that her mother got in touch with me and said things aren't looking good. I left work, went to the hospital and we were there with her when she passed.

"She taught me about not giving in and not wanting to quit. It was back and forth - it was me talking to her, then reading her emotional cues. We had some nice conversations. She was the best listener and always laughed about a lot of things I brought up. It was always fun to run together."

Running To Improve His Health

Ed Rudman was in the best shape of his life. He had kicked a junk food addiction, shed 50 pounds, run a half-dozen marathons and, with his eye on a triathlon, was taking his first swim lesson when the stroke hit.

It was the first of three Rudman would suffer over a week-long stretch in January, prompting doctors to run a tube up his right side, tell his wife to pray if she believed in that kind of thing, and suck a blood clot out of his brain.

This Saturday, Rudman, 58, will line up for the Eversource Hartford Marathon, his first since the strokes. It will be the second time running the full marathon course; the first was in 2014, Rudman's first ever marathon. Earlier that year, he had kicked a fondness for Whoppers and ice cream sandwiches after realizing that fondness verged on addiction. Rudman recalled being at a package store at the end of a workday, watching people buy nip bottles of liquor. He asked the owner why they were buying them. For the drive home, she said.

"It totally struck me," he said, "because on my way home I would go into McDonald's and order two or three large fries and a Coke and maybe a kid's meal too – not because I was hungry but because I needed to have enough."

"I said, 'Holy crap – I'm an addict.'"

For years, Rudman had inflated and deflated on a seasonal basis – 180 pounds in the summer, 230 in the winter when he couldn't bike. But his eating habits didn't shift with the seasons. If he was watching TV, he'd pick up a 20-pack of ice cream sandwiches beforehand; on commercial breaks he'd run to the freezer and swallow five of them, and in an hour they'd be gone

Rudman didn't touch booze, but sensed he was of the same genus as the package store alcoholics. And so he cut the junk food, embraced the juice cleanse trend and decamped to New York state for a weeklong 'juice retreat.' He didn't know anyone there, and picked up running for something to do. When he returned, he told himself he was going to run a marathon, and scrawled on a piece of paper a goal of four hours, not knowing if it was possible. That October, he finished the Hartford Marathon just 20 minutes shy of his goal.

A few months later, Rudman fell into a group that called themselves "The Lactic Acid Droppers," a band of roving marathoners identified by the initials LADs tattooed on their right wrists. Rudman ran races in Massachusetts, Vermont, New York and Washington D.C., and Hartford again in 2015 as a half-marathoner. In 2016, he logged 1,000 miles with his legs and another 1,000 on his bike. He was 50 pounds lighter, and was starting to think about a triathlon when the strokes hit.

In the hospital, Rudman questioned the timing of it all. He'd turned things around. He'd found something he loved and looked forward to something that didn't come in a greasy fast food bag or the freezer section of the supermarket. And now the strokes threatened to take it all away.

"I don't love to run," he said. "Running is OK, but the best part is the people you're running with."

He was discharged on a Friday. The following Saturday, he walked with his wife to his alma mater, Rocky Hill High School. She never ran with him, but she did that day. They took four laps on the track together.

"You go to the marathon and you say, 'Look at that lady who's running all crooked,' or, 'Look at that guy who's 280 pounds,' Rudman said. "But that guy might have been 600 pounds last year. And that lady might have been paralyzed and she just learned to walk again. When you get into it and meet people, you see that everybody's got a story."

Running As A Team

When it comes to running, a lot has changed for Amy Frey over the last several years. Not that long ago, her son signed her up for No Boundaries — a program offered at the Fleet Feet store on West Hartford to help runners build up to a 5K race.

Now she’s the one leading group runs — and grooming new runners for the Eversource Hartford Marathon and Half Marathon, which takes place Saturday.

“As I progressed through the program and got faster and better, they asked if I wanted to coach and I looked at them like they were crazy and said, ‘I don’t know anything about coaching,’ but it’s really about giving back what I got out of it myself,” Frey said.

Fleet Feet has worked hard to nurture a strong sense of community among local runners like Frey. It has cultivated that camaraderie and built a strong group of runners who rely on the store for more than a new pair of shoes.

“You do think it’s a solitary sport, but for most people, you need a community around them to keep them motivated and keep them going,” said store owner Stephanie Blozy, who has spent nearly 10 years helping local runners build a running habit.

“Fleet Feet is more about that community hub for the runners that do like to have people around. You’re still doing it yourself, it still takes 100 percent your effort, but it’s nice to have a system.”

“What we do is the mom who is trying to get back in shape after having two kids, or the father that wants to do half marathon because it’s on his bucket list, or the new college graduate who is new to town and they want to meet people, and so we’ve kind of become that hub.”

Fleet Feet, and stores like it, have filled a growing need. According to the non-profit Running USA, 16,957,100 runners crossed a finish line in 2016. In 1990, that figure was just 5 million. The number of events also increased in 2016, totaling 30,400 across the U.S.

Every Wednesday at Fleet Feet on Farmington Avenue, dozens of runners meet up to weave their way through the the West Hartford streets for the weekly fun run. But it’s not the only group Fleet Feet serves.

Small groups of friends — often not affiliated with the store in any way — simply use it as a meet up point before they start their runs. Meanwhile, as many as 200 people are in training groups from distances ranging from 5K races up through marathon.

Running To Help Save Lives — After Running For Her Own

Dawn Conlon will be waiting for Chelsea Lamson, waiting for the feel of her friend's hand to start the final relay leg at the Eversource Hartford Marathon. Standing there, waiting, waiting, with a million emotions running through her.

Two weekends ago, Conlon had grabbed that hand, hard, refusing to let go as the two ran together for their lives from a madman named Stephen Paddock. They ran from a hail of bullets that Las Vegas night at the Route 91 Harvest Festival concert, a hail of bullets that would leave 58 dead, nearly 500 wounded and a nation shaken.

On Saturday, the two Connecticut women will run together on Team CDDC, shorthand for the runners' first names, to raise money and awareness for Donate Life. From Lamson to Conlon to the joy of the finish line, Conlon knows there is a fitting symmetry in this story. Then again, how can anything proportionally balanced and beautiful come from the horror of Oct. 1?

"Sometimes I can talk about this," Conlon said this week at her West Hartford home. "Sometimes I get too emotional. It's such an awful tragedy."

Conlon had not been a country music fan until Lamson, from Windsor Locks, turned her and Mary Anderson onto the sound. The friends, who work at the Department of Transportation, began going to concerts in the area. Along with Anderson's friend Ann Marie Gagliardi, they had planned the trip to Vegas and the three-day concert months in advance. They would celebrate Anderson's 50th birthday in style.

Leaving on Sept. 27, they went to the casinos, had dinner at the Venetian, went to see Eric Church perform on Friday, even had special shirts made that read, "Good Girls Never Miss Church." They went to see Sam Hunt on Saturday.

Anderson and Gagliardi stayed at the Excalibur. Conlon and Lamson stayed at a timeshare a couple of miles away.

Earlier Sunday, they went shopping and Conlon bought a huge dream catcher for her daughter Brittney's 30th birthday. Anderson wasn't feeling well, dehydrated. Gagliardi decided to stay behind at the Excalibur with her friend. Conlon and Lamson went on to the Jason Aldean concert.

"For Sam Hunt, we were right there, like 10 feet from the stage," Conlon said. "Eric Church, Mary's favorite, we were right up there. We had a great time, but I just wanted to hang back a little bit. We were to the right of the stage, in front of the Mandalay Bay.

"Jason Aldean was playing when there was this, pop, pop, pop, four, five, six of them. Chelsea has seen [Aldean] before. We thought it was pyrotechnics."

All of a sudden Aldean cleared the stage.

"I looked at my girlfriend, I grabbed her hand and dragged her," Conlon said. "Then it happened."

Conlon starts mimicking machine gun fire, over and over. How long did it last?

"Forever," Conlon said softly. "Time stood still.

"You heard people screaming. You heard people swearing. It was mayhem."

As Paddock's killing spree from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay continued for 10 minutes, Conlon and Lamson ran. They'd hit the ground. The shooting would stop. They'd stand up and run again. The shooting would start anew. They headed for cover between bleachers.

"The shots felt like they were coming from the sky," Conlon said. "All I could think about was I'm going to get shot in the head.

"I turned around and Chelsea was screaming at the top of her lungs. And I couldn't hear her."

The enduring tragedy is the dead and wounded, yet the terror of the moment was in the unknown. In the midst of the chaos, the women found themselves trapped near a fence. They were herded into a corner, at the mercy of bullets, yet at the same time vulnerable to being trampled.

"A man finally knocked down the fence and a mass of people went pouring out," Conlon said. "I grabbed Chelsea. She bumped into this big barrel, but there was no way I was going to let go of her. My mother instincts, you know, I have four children."

One of them, Wayne Brookbanks, is my daughter Katerina's boyfriend.

Conlon and Lamson found an entrance at the back of the Tropicana hotel. It was there Conlon ran from chaos to unforgettable horror.

"To my right, there was a guy who was shot and two girls were standing over him," she said. "He was placed on, like, a table. It looked like he had been shot in the neck."

They squeezed. The doors closed. On the elevator, an off-duty policeman said anybody who needed refuge could stay in his room on the 11th floor. So Conlon, Lamson and several others laid there on the floor in the dark of room 1170.

Conlon's husband, Terry, recalls, "I woke up at 1:30 a.m. out of a deep sleep to her friend Chelsea calling. She said, 'I just want you to know we're OK.'"

Slowly, the questions are receding. Slowly, they are replaced by the sound of Conlon's footsteps as she prepares for her relay leg. She has been running for 20 years, has run the Hartford half marathon five times. This time Lamson will run the penultimate leg. Conlon will be waiting to run the final six miles to the finish line.

"I was just talking to Chelsea about the race," Conlon said. "It's going to be hard standing there."

As she waits, she will think about Chelsea scooping up a few people during the shooting to stop them from getting trampled. She'll think about the young woman in a wheelchair, with green lights on the wheels, having a great time and wonder how she got out. She'll think about the two women standing over the bloodied man at the Tropicana.

And then she'll see Chelsea Lamson coming toward her, and the thought consoles her.

"You go through a tragedy like that together," Dawn Conlon said. "We're going to be friends forever."

Running Toward A Comeback

Lee Falk has been running her whole life: track meets in high school, jogs to keep in shape as an adult. But never as competitively or as religiously as when she learned a two centimeter-wide tumor was nuzzling her brain stem in 2014.

When doctors first found the tumor, they told her it was benign; so long as it didn't grow, they said, they wouldn't have to operate.

But by March of 2016, it had grown half a centimeter, and was squeezing her facial, acoustic and vestibular nerves. Falk was suffering from tinnitus, dizziness and an odd slackness in her right cheek.

She was booked for a June 8 operation. Not knowing what to expect, she dialed a hotline for people with the same condition.

"I talked to several people, and I heard horror story after horror story," she said. "One guy had the surgery and a whole year later still couldn't ride a bike, was still off balance."

Falk didn't know if she'd be able to run after the surgery, so she signed up for a race every weekend, from April 1 through June 5. As a physical therapist, Falk knew going into an operation in good health made for a speedier recovery.

But the races also gave her a weekly goal, something to train for and strain towards and complete, before moving onto the next one. The races helped her inch towards June 8 without dreading the passage of time.

On June 8, surgeons at Yale-New Haven Hospital excised the tumor. The next day, her sister pinned a race bib from one of Falk's earlier half-marathons to her hospital gown.

In the weeks after the surgery, Falk, by then discharged and recovering at home, began taking walks around her Bristol neighborhood. Twenty days later, she walked to Bristol Eastern High School's track, her old training grounds.

"I walked a mile, and then I said I was going to run. And I broke out into a jog and I ran a mile."

In August, Falk ran her first post-surgery race, a five-miler in Torrington. The operation left her deaf in her right ear and prone to bouts of dizziness, but she finished.

At this year's Hartford Marathon, Falk will be running the full 26.2 miles — "new territory," she said. She's never run a marathon before, but she's been training all year with her friends. They line up to Falk's left whenever they train, she laughed, because she can no longer hear out of her right ear.

On Saturday, 16 months after losing the treacherous growth behind her right ear, Falk will take to the starting line to check off her longtime goal of running a marathon. She was planning on running the full length of the Hartford course last year, but the tumor derailed those plans.

"I think of all the things I went through to be at that start line," she said. "I have a whole future ahead of me."

Running For Ava And Kiley

I run for my twin baby angels, Ava and Kiley. I run to support the Macie Grace Foundation, bringing awareness and support to pregnancy and infant loss. I trained for my first half-marathon in 2015 after they passed, as a healthy outlet at a challenging and grief-filled time. I continue to run for both mental and physical health.

For me, running symbolizes the perseverance often needed in life.

This year I decided to take on the full marathon in memory of Ava and Kiley. Through runs long and short, I can sense my girls are never far away.

Michael Luntta, Plainville

Running To Live

I am the first male Nelson in my family line to live to be 50 without dying or having a major cardiac event.

Yes, I started running 30 years ago to live. I cannot do anything about my genetics. However, those things I can control — my BMI, nutrition, cardiovascular workouts, stress, etc. — I can do what I can. Running has added years if not decades to my life.

Hartford will be my 45th marathon in 43 different states, and I am 58 years old.

Bonus: Running not only has added quantity to my life but quality as well. I identify as a runner. And a runner I am proud to be.

Randall Nelson, Austin, Texas

Running To Battle Addiction

In 2008, I hit rock bottom because of my lottery gambling addiction. I was separated from my family, lost my business, gained weight and was in bad health.

In 2011, I discovered running. I've run 302 races in 152 towns in Connecticut and 10 states, from 5Ks to 50K. I co-founded Run 169 Towns, paced 21 half-marathons and volunteered at races. I've run in snow, rain, while freezing or sweltering. I've lost 32 pounds, regained health, refrained from gambling since 2008 and rebuilt my life.

Adam Osmond, Farmington

To read some of our other submissions, click here.

Courant reporters Lori Riley, Jeff Jacobs, Matt Ormseth and Kevin Vellturo contributed to this report.

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