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Fund-raising marathon was amazing experience

I just returned from a wonderful family vacation at Walt Disney World in Florida. In one day, I went to all four theme parks -- Epcot, Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, MGM Studios, then back to Epcot. The most amazing part of the day was that I did it on foot.

As a volunteer for the American Stroke Association, I competed in the Walt Disney World Marathon. Six months ago, I joined a program called Train To End Stroke. People all across the country work toward the common goal of training for a marathon while raising money for stroke research and education. Through a simple letter-writing campaign, I was able to raise $7,000 from nearly 150 people and businesses in Buffalo.

Training for a marathon is hard work. I trained six days a week for six months. I was at Delaware Park each weekday morning at 5:30 a.m. My dear friend Collette Schoellkopf met me faithfully each and every day. Although she was not training for the race, she loved the exercise and the camaraderie and also believed in the cause.

My experience was greatly enhanced by the people I would see out there each day. On Saturdays, I met my team at the University at Buffalo Bike Path to do the long mileage. Coach Steve O'Brien developed a sensible training plan for us, gradually building up our mileage.

Being a volunteer for the American Heart/Stroke Association has been a gratifying, educational and fun experience. Although I had trained for and completed three marathons, each with a fund-raising component, this was the first time I had been part of a team.

The days leading up to the marathon were filled with excitement, anticipation, nerves and very little sleep. On race day, I had to board a bus at 3 a.m. to get to the starting line. There were 14,000 runners and walkers as well as the awesome athletes in wheelchairs. Just before 6 a.m., as we were all assembled tightly into our assigned corrals, Mickey, Minnie and Donald appeared on a big stage and welcomed us. The race was started, not by a gun, but by an amazing display of fireworks.

I felt surprisingly calm. I set out at a slow pace and maintained it throughout the race. I took in all of the sights, hugged each and every Disney character along the way, listened to every band, watched every cheerleading squad and made lots of new friends.

The camaraderie of the Train To End Stroke participants was powerful. The names of the people painted on the back of my race jersey in whose honor or memory people made donations helped carry me through. The thousands of people cheering were wonderful.

Since I had painted my first name on the front of my race jersey, hundreds of strangers cheered me on by name. The best part was sharing the experience with my husband and two little boys. They not only cheered me on, they met up with me at five different parts of the race course. When I spotted them on Main Street in Magic Kingdom at mile 9, it was the best sight I had ever seen in my whole life.

When I reached mile 26, I heard an incredible sound from around the corner. As I made my final turn, I witnessed a full gospel choir, dressed in gold robes, belting out a praiseful song. All I could think was, "Hallelujah!" I could feel the tears coming. With my head held high and a huge smile on my face, I sprinted across the finish line.

Catherine Linder Spencer, a visual artist and art educator, lives in Buffalo.

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