Competing for Katie

Competing for Katie

Springfield mother competes in the Marine Corps Marathon to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

Race-walking a third Marine Corps Marathon is an accomplishment of which Karen Collins can be proud. She will be thinking of her daughter with every step she takes, though.

Collins, a Springfield resident, will participate in the Marine Corps Marathon — run in Arlington this Sunday — as a member of the "Team in Training" program, which trains runners to compete in distance races and in the process raises money for The Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

Collins has personal experience with leukemia. At age 11, her daughter Katie was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), a form of cancer that attacks the lymphoid white blood cells, which normally fight infections. Now 14, Katie is a freshman at Robert E. Lee High School in Springfield and is in full remission.

"Seeing her face when I am out there gives me strength," said Collins, who found out about the Team in Training program by meeting other parents and relatives of leukemia patients during her daughter's illness. ALL is most common in children, according to the National Cancer Institute.

"I know she's proud of me, and it gives me strength to keep going," said Collins, who race-walks the 26.2-mile marathon, since it means less stress on her legs. She has also competed in two half-marathons in Virginia Beach.

After being diagnosed with ALL in January 2001, Katie underwent nearly three years of chemotherapy.

"IT WAS hard," said Katie. "And the drugs made me sick, a lot. I got brain damage, and really bad headaches. I'm glad it's over."

Katie was still in chemotherapy in the summer of 2002 when her mother began running with the Team in Training program.

Although she had never run a competitive race in her life, Collins had watched marathons on television, including the Marine Corps Marathon, and was inspired to join the program.

"I thought, if I'm ever going to do a marathon, this would be the program to do it," she said.

According to Jan Scoenbauer, a consultant with LLS, who coaches runners in the Team in Training, the program is designed for people with little experience in distance running, just like Collins. Beginning with the basics — like the importance of wearing the right running shoes — runners train for nearly six months, running daily on their own, and meeting once a week to measure progress and increase gradually in distance.

"It became a goal every Saturday, I'm going to be able to increase this week," said Collins. "Every time I could do that, it became a great feeling for me."

This season, the National Capital Area chapter of the LLS trained 240 runners for a variety of events, according to Scoenbauer, among them the Marine Corps Marathon. Hand in hand with their training, the runners for Team in Training raise money throughout the year to benefit the LLS and its goal of finding a cure for the diseases of leukemia, lymphoma and myeloma, and providing education and financial support to patients and their families.

COLLINS RAISED money this year through a letter-writing campaign, bake sales, yard sales and personal donations.

Through the training, Collins not only grew to be a more conditioned runner, but she began to draw inspiration from her daughter as she battled leukemia.

"I would be out there, and I would think, 'I can't go another mile,' and I would think about my daughter dragging herself from the bed to the bathroom with her IV pole, and taking one more pill," said Collins. "She never quit, never gave up."

"This year, it all clicked for her. She had probably her best season ever," said Scoenbauer, who said she gave Karen Collins her "Racer Rabbit" award for the most improved runner this season.

In December 2003, Katie headed to the hospital for the last time as a leukemia patient. She has been in remission for nearly a year, and for the first time this year while training, Collins has had time to reflect on what the running did for her psyche.

'It was really a stress-reliever for me. It's kind of mindless, you know, you keep going on and on. It gave me time for reflection, time to talk with other teammates," said Collins. "Swapping stories is a really great support."

This season, Collins was able to do more than just picture her daughter as she ran. Katie has attended her mother's practices, helping at water stops and being there at the finish line.

"I think that adds to everybody on the team, to have Katie here," said Scoenbauer. "We've all kind of adopted her, as a daughter-figure, not just as someone who survived cancer."

Collins said she has no intention of slowing down, now that she's got the marathon bug.

"She has challenged me to do a marathon every year she's in remission," she said. "And as long as she's healthy, I'll keep doing it."

"I'm proud of her," said Katie. "When I'm older, I'm going to do it just like her."