In October, 5,000 people took part in the Runner's World Half & Festival in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. As usual, I started the half-marathon in last place, stepping across the timing mat on a raw and windy Sunday morning to spend some time at the back of the pack, making my way forward to meet and encourage as many runners as possible.
Around mile two, I met a woman named Madeline who, nine years ago to the day, had a brain tumor removed. She was celebrating the anniversary (and the fact that she's been cancer-free since) by donning shorts and compression socks and going 13.1 miles with editors and fellow readers of her favorite magazine. Perhaps you've noticed this -- the great stories that surround us, hidden until you strike up a conversation. I'm continually amazed by our readers, by how many of you have accomplished remarkable things through running. That's why we launched our first-ever cover contest over the summer, to collect as many stories as possible -- your stories -- for this special issue.
Judging the contest, along with Executive Editor Tish Hamilton and Chief Running Officer Bart Yasso, was one of the hardest -- and most inspiring -- editing jobs I've ever done. Our seemingly impossible task: Choose 10 finalists and two winners (one male, one female) from more than 2,300 entrants (see a breakdown on page 18). They all were asked how they started running, what accomplishment they are most proud of, and why running is important to them. They were also asked to describe themselves in one word. Those words accompany the profiles of our 10 finalists (page 67), but they scarcely begin to convey what these runners have overcome. They have beaten disease and addiction, rebuilt their lives after losing hundreds of pounds or surviving near-death traumas, and achieved goals they never thought were possible. They love running in a way that is infectious and permanent. In fact, they all feel they owe a debt to running for what it has given them.
After weeks of reviewing the entries, Tish, Bart, and I interviewed the finalists by phone, and our somewhat abstract undertaking became deeply personal. Andrew Peterson, a Special Olympian who was born with fetal-alcohol syndrome, read us the speech he has given at a dozen Indiana high schools, and it moved us to tears. Sabrina Walker described with humility and ease how she has run her way through cystic fibrosis and a cancer diagnosis, and we felt almost abashed by our own good fortune and puny problems.
On the day we called Scott Spitz, he was in the hospital after undergoing his second surgery to have abdominal tumors removed. He'd intrigued us partly because of the photo he'd submitted, a self-portrait with his face half-hidden by a feather. He told us he'd taken it the day before his recent surgery on his favorite trail, and that running there made him feel more connected to the natural world. His cancer is pernicious -- his doctors didn't think he'd survive long past his first surgery. But Scott, a dedicated runner with a 2:25 marathon PR, has run throughout his recovery. "I literally feel like I may be saving my own life," he said. When we called a few weeks later to tell him he was one of our winners, he was back home, off pain meds, and doing "shockingly well."
The first time we spoke to Christina Lee, she was in Iowa, en route from New York City to San Francisco -- on foot. She was running 30 miles a day, pushing her supplies in a jogging stroller. Six years after suffering a traumatic brain injury, she decided to do this to raise $100,000 for the Navy SEAL Foundation. Did she know someone in the SEALs? No. She simply believed it was an important cause. When we called her to tell her that she, too, was a winner, she was in Nebraska. Somewhere along her journey, the wheel on her 70-pound stroller had broken, so she carried it until her arms tired, and then taped the rig to her shoulders and pulled it. Rest days? She uses those to work on her Rhodes Scholarship application. We became convinced that there is nothing this woman, who's all of 23, cannot accomplish. "I'm doing a happy dance!" she said when she heard our news. "But I don't have the words to describe what it means to me."
Bart had put it perfectly during our deliberations: "There are no losers, but there have to be winners." We hope we've done all the entrants justice and that you're as inspired by your fellow runners as we are.
And yes, we'll be doing this again next year.
To see the two winners and the other eight finalists, visit our online Cover Contest feature. To see the full stories, pick up a copy of the December 2014 issue.
David Willey is the editor-in-chief of Runner's World. Follow him on Twitter @dwilleyRW.