Guest blog by Julia Stoffel, Community First Fox Cities Marathon participant
The ability to run is a gift. I love the connection I find while on a run, at peace, in my own head. The joy I find and can share with others. Running for me was therapy – therapy that I needed after an unimaginable, life-altering event in my family and our community.
My name is Julia Stoffel and I will be running my first in-person Community First Fox Cities Marathon presented by Miron Construction this year.
I always wanted to be a runner, but always thought I couldn’t because I didn’t like running, so I didn’t. After my brother-in-law, Jon Stoffel, and my sweet niece, Olivia Stoffel were tragically murdered on the Trestle Trail Bridge in 2015, I was struggling.
Grief is a very raw feeling. It’s difficult to explain to anyone unless you’ve experienced it and everyone experiences it differently. My husband, Brian and I were really struggling with the loss of Jon and Olivia so we met with a grief counselor who advised us to find an outlet, specifically something physical, so I decided I would start running. I began a ‘Couch to 5K’ running program.
At the time, I was working in hospice and after taking two weeks off from work after Olivia and Jon were killed, I debated if I should leave hospice work because it can be a really mentally and emotionally heavy line of work. Little did I know how much I would learn from my first patient – he was exactly what I needed.
My patient had glioblastoma, an aggressive brain tumor that is almost always fatal. Only 25 percent of patients with glioblastoma survive more than a year and he was given less than three months to live. He was a life-long runner and was wearing a Boston Athletic Club Shirt the first time I met him. I told him I liked his shirt and asked if he’d ever ran a marathon before. This man had run 20 marathons, six of them at Boston. Again, as I was very new to running, I didn’t even know you had to run a marathon to qualify to run the Boston Marathon. When I told him I started a running program his demeanor completely changed. His face beamed with joy, and he wanted to know everything, except my pace. Pace didn’t matter to him. What mattered to him was that I had the ability to run.
He became such a wealth of knowledge for me when I first started running to cope with my grief. Sharing tips and correcting my “new runner” slip-ups. That fall I signed up for the Turkey Trot. Admittedly, I made the oversight in thinking it was a 5K, but instead, it was a five-mile fun. Whoops. I remember finishing it and thinking running might be my thing.
I could feel God using running in my life to help me cope and grieve the tragedy we experienced. When I’m running I always think of the Bible verse Isaiah 40:31.
“But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.”
I continued to train and my new friend in hospice would share many stories and life lessons that I will forever hold dear.
He told me he enjoyed running when everyone else was sleeping. Taking in the quiet of the morning. Feeling the breeze on his face. Seeing the stars and then the sunrise in the same run. I couldn’t believe he would get up to run so early and for fun. I told him I didn’t like running alone and that I didn’t know anyone who runs. He reassured me that I would find people. He told me God would bring people into my life that would come alongside me and encourage me and I would run more miles than I ever thought possible. I suddenly realized we weren’t just talking about running.
He was right about everything. I found a community in running. I joined the running group, ‘Moms Run This Town’ and began to really find my stride. He used to always talk about what he would give for one more mile. He’d tell me to be grateful for the miles.
I ran my first half marathon that following spring and in the fall I ran the ThedaCare Half Marathon. The marathon went over the Trestle Trail Bridge and I began to think, if I were to ever run a full marathon it should be the Community First Fox Cities Marathon in honor of Jon and Olivia.
Since then, I have run 13 half marathons. I can’t help but give thanks to God when I run. When I run past the memorial for Jon and Olivia on the Trestle Trail Bridge, I thank God for the time I did have with them and say a prayer for Erin and her family.
I know I will likely have a little cheering section after I go over the Trestle Trail Bridge. My friend, Abby and I, made tee shirts that say “Stoffel Strong” on the back along with the Bible verse that we will be wearing. I have a lot of joy in finally being able to do this and share my personal story. I hope this gives anyone struggling with something similar strength, courage and hope for that light at the end of the tunnel. Grief can be very isolating, and I have found so much love, support and a community in running and training for the Fox Cities Marathon.
I believe God brings different people into your life at different times and with purpose. God used me in my patient’s life, and I needed him in mine at that moment. In his last days, he shared his passion and love for running. When you really love something, you want to share it and I’m so grateful for him. His passion for running would be what I needed to survive an unfathomable loss. He spoke often about running as a metaphor for life. Life is a marathon, not a sprint. We are all running at our own pace and we might as well enjoy it.
I’m now a Nurse Practitioner in palliative care so all of my patients have some type of terminal illness. I know how precious life is from Jon and Olivia, but I also have a daily reminder. I made a list of the people I will run for with each mile of the marathon. First on that list is my sister-in-law, Erin then my second and third miles for Jon and Olivia. The rest of the list are diseases or illnesses that have robbed my patients of the life they once knew. The last on my list is for my former patient with Glioblastoma.
I have found myself thinking back to him often on the early mornings over the past five years. I am fortunate to lace up running shoes in the quiet of the morning. I now pay close attention to the steady breath in my lungs. The soothing cadence of my feet. The stars above me in the early mornings and I think to myself, I am grateful for the miles.