Are you Aly?

Her name is Aly. A close friend of a special classmate of mine from Seton Hall University’s Master of Arts program in Strategic Communication & Leading, Aly became an “angelfriend” – one of thousands of people battling blood-related cancers when I raised funds while training and ultimately finishing my first marathon in San Diego, CA.

Taking action to transform from a “morbidly obese” woman to losing 125 pounds and training as a first-time marathoner was no easy task. I started small, coming in second-to-last in my first 5k proclaiming to family and friends “Don’t let me do this ever again.” Shortly thereafter, the flyer from the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training program arrived in the mail. I could raise funds for special people who had lived and lost their lives with blood-related cancer. It was the goal I needed. While training to finish 26.2 miles, I raised more than $4,000 for Team in Training, in memory of Aly and in honor of Corey Carlson and Stephanie Stockton, both of whom had successfully battled and survived lymphoma.

I ran or weight-trained every day – for me, for Aly, for Corey and for Aunt Steph. Race day came quickly, and I was nervous, scared, and excited while I waited in the starting line corral. When the horn sounded, my perception quickly shifted. I had planned my strategy – walk, then run, walk some more, then run as fast as I could across the finish line. Then reality hit me like a ton of bricks.

At mile 20, I hit “the wall.” My legs felt like lead weights. Blisters were popping on my feet, I was exhausted, and felt the mental and physical toll on my body and mind. I said out loud, “Aly, please be with me to finish the final miles.”

Within minutes, a woman ran past me. Most marathoners, including me, write their names on their shirts and arms so spectators can cheer their names along the marathon course. On the back of her shirt was the name “Aly” -- same unique spelling.  I literally stopped in my tracks. I had carried a disposable camera in my running pack, and I took a picture. Crying and laughing, I was re-invigorated.

For the next 6.2 miles, Aly & I would take turns running in front and behind each other. Once the finish line was in sight, I sprinted with everything I had left, and finished my first – and most significant – full marathon. I looked for Aly at the finish festival, and never found her. Yet her presence was no less than a message that I feel called to pay forward.

To whom are we an “Aly?” To whom can we invite and encourage to finish those last “miles?” Aly lives in each of us. Are we using our gifts to encourage those around us to finish the last, and hardest, miles?

Godspeed, and lead on!