Commentary

They run because others can't

For these three Boston marathoners and many others, Monday isn't all about them

Updated: November 27, 2013, 12:13 PM ET
By Tom Lakin | Special to ESPNBoston.com

When the sun breaks in Boston on Monday, thousands of runners will wake and pull on an assortment of exercise gear -- running shorts, T-shirts and running shoes, nice and broken in. But not James Gefke. Instead of squeezing into spandex, he'll assemble a more unusual outfit.

He'll start with the basics -- shorts and a T-shirt. But then Gefke will pull on a pair of Kevlar pants, heavy and worn, dotted with charcoal stains. He'll hitch the pants with a pair of red suspenders, draping them over his shoulders like two seat belts. Then comes the CamelBak, for water, and over that a Kevlar coat, soot-speckled and frayed, same as the pants. The helmet goes on last.

You see, Gefke is a firefighter and he's running the 2011 Boston Marathon in full fire gear in honor of a friend.

A funny thing about this particular race: Most of the people participating couldn't care less about their time. Like Gefke, most of the people running know they have no chance to win, but that's not why they run. People like Gefke run, almost invariably, because someone else cannot.

For Gefke, that person is late firefighter John Harrington, who was killed seven years ago, sideswiped by a truck while riding his bicycle to the fire station where both men worked.

James Gefke and John Harrington
Courtesy of James Gefke James Gefke, right, is running for his late best friend and fellow firefighter John Harrington, who was hit by a truck and killed while bicycling to work four years ago.

Harrington was Gefke's best friend. They grew up together in Glendale, Wis., and after high school, Gefke followed his friend to North Shore Fire Department in Glendale. The two got an apartment together in nearby Bay View and biked to work each day. They worked hard and played hard. Harrington was 25 when he died. Today Gekfe is 29, and not a day goes by he doesn't think about his friend.

"I was at the firehouse when I heard about the accident," Gefke said. "John was my relief that morning. I was about to hop on my bike and head back to our apartment when I heard there had been an accident on our bike route. I just assumed John had stopped to help out at the scene and that was why he was running a couple minutes late for work. Then my girlfriend called and told me what had happened."

After composing himself, Gefke went to the local high school to break the news to John's father, a school psychologist, then both went to tell John's mom.

"That was just a horrible day," Gefke said.

Every year since, Gefke has organized a Memorial Day bike race in his friend's honor. The participants ride the winding 9-mile route from the old apartment to the firehouse. Close to 100 riders show up each year and all share memories and raise some money.

In 2009, Gefke qualified for the Boston Marathon and has every year since. He decided this year he'd race for his friend -- in full firefighter gear, no less, all 30 or so pounds of it. Harrington would've liked that.

"It's really special for me to be able to do this for John in his memory," Gefke said. "Because if the tables were turned, I could very well see him doing it for me.

"One of the things I've thought about a lot during my training is, you know, I have two sons -- 3 and 4 years old -- and that's what really disappoints me, that John never got to experience this part of life, because he would've been a terrific father and a wonderful husband to somebody."

So on Monday morning, James Gefke will run for John Harrington. He'll run for his friend and for the kids who never got the chance to have him as a father and for the woman who never got to be his wife. And as he runs through the city, Gefke will remember the time he and John visited Boston in 2002, when they took the Boston Fire Department test on a lark. He'll remember how much fun they had that night, rough-housing on the Boston streets, and he'll honor the memory of his friend. That is why James Gefke will run.

But he won't be alone.

He's there for his brother

Ben Ganzfried is running for someone, too. He's running for his brother, Sam, 26, who was diagnosed last spring with chronic myelogenous leukemia and has been waging a personal prizefight against the disease for the past year at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Ben, 24, was at a job near his hometown of Bethesda, Md., when he got the news of Sam's diagnosis.

"It was just so sudden," Ben said. "Sam and I always kept in touch during the week, so I knew he had been to the doctor. After a blood test, they realized his white blood cell count was 250 times what it was supposed to be. We went to the ER that night -- it was April 1, last year -- and the doctors told us it was cancer."

A cancer diagnosis hits a family like a bullwhip, leaving loved ones dazed and staggered, searching for answers to an impossible question: How long does he have?

In Sam's case, the answer stung: We don't know.

"The first few months, it was unclear whether he was going to live," Ben said.

But Ben wasn't going to take the news sitting down. The doctors thought Sam needed a transplant, so Ben volunteered for a battery of tests to determine his donor potential. As it turned out, he was a match, and in a 10-hour procedure on the day before Thanksgiving, Ben gave up 5 million of his own white blood cells to keep Sam alive. Today, Sam is more than 100 days out of his transplant -- an important milestone in the recovery process -- and doctors hope to have him back on track by December.

"It's incredible," Ben said. "Who would think that you could do something like that?"

Monday Ben will run with the Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge team to raise money for cancer research so that someday doctors can save someone else's brother or sister or mom or dad. He has moved to Cambridge to be close to Sam and he even quit his old job in D.C. to work as a research assistant at the Harvard School of Public Health, analyzing cancer data sets. Talk about going the extra 26 miles.

That's what family is all about. And on Monday, Ben will run knowing the new, healthy blood flowing through his brother's veins once belonged to him. He will run so that Sam can rest up and continue to heal. He will run because, for now, his big brother cannot. That is why Ben Ganzfried will run.

Inspired by her twin sister

Then there's Wellesley, Mass., native Kate Bryant, 26. She, too, will run for a sibling -- her twin sister, Carrie (known to family and close friends as Bear), who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2004. Kate was three weeks into her first semester at Wake Forest when she heard the news.

"When my mom told me about Bear, I burst into tears because I thought it was a death sentence," Kate said. "All I wanted to do was come home."

What Kate didn't realize was that the home waiting for her in Wellesley was very different from the one she'd left just weeks before. Suddenly, life for her sister was a grueling uphill climb. Each day brought with it a fresh hell -- blurred vision, muscle weakness, extreme fatigue. Every morning, Carrie woke to battle against a body that was constantly fighting back. But even as she struggled to find a foothold in her new life, Bear refused to submit to her disease.

Carrie and Kate Bryant
Courtesy of Kate Bryant Kate Bryant, left, will be running for her twin sister, Carrie (known as "Bear"), who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2004. "I idolize Bear," Kate says, "because I've seen what she's done in spite of her disease."

"She's not a 'woe is me' person," Kate said. "She doesn't say, 'Hi, I'm Carrie Bryant and I have MS.' It's a part of who she is but it doesn't define her."

Where others might've fallen, Carrie thrived. She enrolled in Middlebury College just a semester late and four years later graduated on time. Today, she's studying science in a post-baccalaureate program at Johns Hopkins, and in 2012 she plans to head to medical school. She wants to be a doctor.

"I idolize Bear," Kate said, "because I've seen what she's done in spite of her disease."

In the six months leading up to the Boston Marathon, Kate has drawn on her sister's example of strength. She needed it most in February, when the rigors of an 18-mile run left her with a partially torn meniscus. Kate was heartbroken. The marathon was just nine weeks away, and she could barely get out of bed. But after a pep talk from her sister, Kate decided searing pain wasn't going to keep her on the sidelines. Why would it? It hasn't stopped Bear. If she needs a cortisone shot before the race, so be it, but on Monday morning Kate Bryant will run.

She'll run as part of the Strides Against MS team, in honor of the 2.5 million MS patients worldwide who no longer can. She will run for her sister, who through daily pain and steroid treatments and two spinal cord surgeries has never once complained. Kate will cover 26 miles on a burning left knee so that one day Bear might outrun her disease. On Monday morning, with Ben Ganzfried and James Gefke and hundreds more like them, Kate Bryant will run because someone she loves cannot.

"It might not be the most painless four hours of my life," she said. "But that's not why I'm running.

"I'm running because I've met lots of people who can't. The other night at a fund-raiser, I met a woman in a wheelchair who used to love to dance, but because of MS she can't do it anymore. And that's why I'm running, for people like her. I'm running for those people who will be out there in spirit but can't do it themselves."

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