I Never Thought I'd Be A Runner, Now I Run For Ashley

Growing up, I was a dancer who hated working out. I loved my dance classes and competing but I never stepped foot in a gym other than the school gym. Which I detested. I nearly failed gym class in high school despite being this fit, fierce, and competitive dancer. Go figure.

In junior high, I was ‘forced’ to run the mile in a track meet. As much as I refused and tried to fight the gym teacher, the good girl part of me that always wanted to follow the rules took over and I relented. The day of the track meet, about 2 laps in to the 4 lap mile, I passed out while running. And in a matter of minutes, my running career was over!

Fast forward 20 years and at 36 years old, I’ve run half a dozen 5ks and I'm training for the Falmouth Road race which is a 7-mile race in the New England August heat. How did I go from passing out to training for races with gusto? Her name is Ashley.

I had just started dating my now husband and we were meeting each other’s friends that we didn’t already have in common. His friend Ashley was a skinny, beautiful blonde that made me feel clunky and awkward despite being skinny myself. I already knew she lit up the room when she walked in and soon realized it was for more than just her looks.

Me (left) and Ashley (right).

Luckily for me, Ashley and I became quick friends.  She had an infectious personality that made you want to be a better, kinder person. The type of person everyone looked forward to hanging out with because she could change your mood for the better in a matter of minutes. She quickly became my weekday texting buddy, my countdown to summertime in December friend, and my go-to girlfriend. We talked about so many things, nearly everything, except her persistent cough.  

In January 2017, I found out through a mutual friend that Ashley was admitted to the hospital. Our mutual friend was vague, just as vague as Ashley always was about her health. Much to my surprise, her health was declining and she was transported to Boston Children’s Hospital. A day or two later, I received one of the most gut-wrenching calls of my life. Her sister Emily called to ask that I come to the hospital to see Ashley, as it may be the last time.

How in the world could a seemingly healthy 29-year-old go from no-big-deal “I’ll be out in a couple days, just need some meds” hospitalized to on her last breath in a matter of days?

Cystic Fibrosis, that’s how.

Ashley had been living with it but didn't want anyone to judge her or treat her differently for it. It was not and would never be what defined her. Outwardly, you would never know she had it. I didn’t even know for certain that anything was wrong other than her occasional bouts of coughing. (Though I later learned that several of her friends, myself and husband included, speculated but never said anything out loud.) She was strong and fierce, a badass lady to the core. She ran races, she did Tough Mudders, she never let cystic fibrosis define her in any way.

While Ashley was hospitalized, I had friends trying to convince me to run a 5k. “There’s beer at the end!” they said as if that would encourage me. They needed a couple more runners for their own beer tent, and the whole time I’m thinking, “Or I could meet you at the brewery after you guys run and just buy my beers!”  Then Emily messaged me: “Run it for Bea [Ashley].” At this point, I understood what Ashley had been battling, after many lengthy conversations with her family while sitting bedside with Ashley hooked up to various machines. I wasn't shocked when they told me what I already knew. I was mostly confused about how she ended up there. Ashley was strong, vibrant. This unconscious Ashley hooked up to machines, lying still in a hospital bed was not my friend.

“Run it for Bea.” I had no idea what the coming weeks would bring, but I did not hesitate to sign up after that message.

On March 5, 2017, just weeks shy of her 30th birthday, Ashley lost her battle with cystic fibrosis. The day before what would have been her 30th birthday, I ran my first ever 5k - for Ashley. Emily and I ran the entire race, side by side. We ran for Bea.

My first ever 5k, with friends who would later be known as the BeaStrong Runners.

And every race since, I've been running for Ashley. But also for me. Running quickly became my outlet. The steady thump of my feet, my rhythmic breathing, the release – all of it was exactly what I didn’t know I needed. It helped me release my grief, it helped me relieve my stress. Hell, it still does both, 13 months later.

Am I the best runner? No. Do I hate it some days? Yes. But I still push myself to do better, to set and exceed my goals. Even when I have a terrible run, I don’t get upset with myself, I don’t berate myself for doing poorly, I don’t get discouraged. I remind myself of my inspiration. Ashley was defying the odds for most of her life. And when she had bad days, she never let on. She continued to do everything she loved, which included running incredible races like the Tough Mudder.  

I don’t run in place of Ashley, I don’t run because Ashley can’t. I run for her - for her memory, for her life, for everything she offered this world. I run for the connection to Ashley that it gives me. I run for Bea.

This is the tattoo I got after Ashley passed, along with my Breathe for Bea Foundation bracelet. My daily reminders to breathe - literally and figuratively. 

This is the tattoo I got after Ashley passed, along with my Breathe for Bea Foundation bracelet. My daily reminders to breathe - literally and figuratively. 

To follow my runs, search #irunforbea and #werunforbea on Facebook and Instagram.

**Please also check out the Breathe for Bea Foundation (www.breatheforbea.org), a non-profit set up by Ashley’s family in her honor to help families affected by Cystic Fibrosis.