Playing for Others Gears Up for Thunder Road

By Laura Edwards

Running Charlotte’s Thunder Road Half Marathon blindfolded last year was a surreal experience. With the help of my guide, Andrew, and countless other supporters, we accomplished every goal we set out to achieve.

The story didn’t end when we crossed the finish line, and while I’ll run Thunder Road sighted this year as a quick detour from my quest to race for Taylor in all 50 states, a group of teens especially close to my heart has something incredible planned for Charlotte’s largest road race.

Mom and Laura at finish linePlaying for Others is a teen organization focused on personal development, service and the arts. Taylor’s Tale was one of its chosen charities last year, and Taylor participated in its buddy program. Her “buddy,” Nicole, now a freshman in college, is a friend for life.

If you went to Thunder Road last year or saw any of the photos or many news stories on our effort, you may remember these amazing kids. About 70 of them wore purple tutus, sparkle and glitter. They wielded signs and pompoms and packed into our official cheer station at the race’s final turn. When we passed the station, all 70 of them took off after us in an unscripted, spontaneous, gorgeous burst of emotion. And when I took off the blindfold after crossing the finish line and hugged my mom, they surrounded us – and didn’t leave. It was like the end of a Disney movie, and I half expected them to carry us out on their shoulders. It was beautiful and exciting and not cheesy at all.

Playing for Others is supporting a new cast of deserving charities this year, and Taylor is no longer in the buddy program. Many of the kids in that crowd on race day graduated and went off to college. But Playing for Others hasn’t forgotten about Taylor’s Tale, and they’re creating their own version of the blindfolded run at this year’s Thunder Road 5K.

What do the kids have in store for this year’s race?

Teens have signed up to run/walk the 5K tethered to parents. The teens will be sighted; the parents will be blindfolded. Anyone not running will paint the sidelines purple with specially created t-shirts and encourage runners with their tireless spirit.

Playing for Others 5K practiceI went to the group’s first practice this past Sunday. Some of the kids and their parents are runners; some of them have never run a race. But that’s not what’s important. I remember well how Taylor was not a “runner” when she signed up for Girls on the Run in the fall of 2008. Yet she overcame blindness and the effects of Batten disease to run not one, but two 5Ks tethered to a guide. This is not about physical gifts – it’s about sheer will. And Taylor always had that in spades.

Please be on the lookout for these amazing ambassadors for Taylor’s Tale at Thunder Road on Saturday, November 15. Thank them for their amazing dedication to people like Taylor and for taking on such a remarkable personal challenge. I understand what it’s like to learn to run blind – I’ve been there. But I believe they’ve got what it takes.

On another note, if you’re planning to run the Thunder Road 5K, half marathon or full marathon, please consider running for our Taylor’s Tale team. Simply select “Taylor’s Tale” as your team when you register on the race website and wear purple on race day. Let’s paint Thunder Road purple again for the fight against rare diseases!

National Running Day, a Nod to the Past, and a Glimpse of the Future

By Laura Edwards

blindfolded run 1National Running Day, held annually on the first Wednesday in June, is a national celebration of running. Since 2009, runners everywhere have marked the day by celebrating their passion for the sport.

In the final hours of National Running Day last year, I jogged to a middle school track under an inky, starless sky. There, on the asphalt oval worn smooth by the pounding of thousands of adolescent-sized shoes, I took one end of a short bungee cord in the palm of my hand and squeezed my eyes shut; led by the voice of my friend and guide, Andrew Swistak, I began my initiation as a blind runner.

I ran in darkness eighteen times prior to taking on the biggest race of my life, Charlotte’s Thunder Road Half Marathon, on November 16, 2013. Nothing about my training or the race ever came easily, but I said then, and still feel today, that the near-two hours I spent on that course embodied the most incredible experience of my entire life, something that can never be repeated or recaptured.

Shortly after the race ended, everyone asked, “What next?” We accomplished almost everything we set out to do. We raised money for the fight against Batten disease. We had one of the largest teams at Charlotte’s biggest race. We achieved local, state and national media coverage including the cover story in North Carolina’s Endurance Magazine and a nod in Runner’s World magazine. In fact, as I reflected on the race in the hours and days after I hurdled the timing mats at the finish line and buried my face in my mom’s shoulder to cry, I realized that I had just one regret: my sister, Taylor – the inspiration for it all – had declined so much during my months of learning to run 13.1 miles without the gift of sight that she wasn’t well enough to come to the finish line.

And so, as the monster called Batten disease continues to rob bits and pieces of my sister and the lives of children like her, whose hearts hold great love and whose lives once held great possibility, I continue to fight. When people asked me when I’d run another race blindfolded, I said there wouldn’t be another blindfolded race. I can’t reproduce the singular magic of what happened that day, and I won’t try.

But this Wednesday, to celebrate National Running Day and my sister’s courage that still shines like the bright beacon in a storm, I’ll don the blindfold one more time; Andrew will lead me as I run into darkness, and the future.

I’m inviting you and your friends and family – runners and non-runners – to run for Taylor, too. Run a mile or two or 20; run fast or slow; run wherever you’d like; the how and the where aren’t important. Just remember that once upon a time, my blind sister looked Batten disease in the eye, said, “You can’t stop me,” and ran a 5K race. Twice. That’s how my sister lives her life. That’s how I try to live mine.

As for the future…I may be running Thunder Road with my own two eyes this fall, but I have some pretty special things in store. Check back later this week to learn about my next challenge. This fight’s not over. Not even close.

If you run for Taylor on National Running Day, I want to hear about it! Leave a comment here, or share your story with Taylor’s Tale on Facebook or Twitter.

What’s Next?

By Laura Edwards

Thunder Road finish framed

I (almost) never buy race photos. They catch me at my worst moments. When I look at the proofs, I think, “When did I make THAT face?”

But I not only bought this one-I blew it up to 16″ x 20″ and paid to have it matted and framed. It captured a moment I’ll never forget and tells a story in a way no words ever could.

I’m blindfolded, but I’m not tethered to Andrew Swistak, my friend and guide. He’s finishing his own race, but he’s also watching the ground to make sure I don’t fall.

Steve Gray, my friend whose work at the UNC Gene Therapy Center could lead to a better future for kids like my sister, is tailing us and snapping another photo I’ll treasure forever.

And, best of all: can you find the crowd of purple-clad teens running down the 5k side on the left? They’re not racing-they’re chasing us. When I removed my blindfold after two hours in the dark and melted into my mom’s arms, they surrounded us in the finish area.

We had our Hollywood ending to five months of a lot of hard work and one dream – a big dream in its own right that, at the end of the day, is just another chapter of a long story in our very personal fight against Batten disease and the bigger fight for 350 million people suffering from a rare disease.

It would have been perfect if only my little sister had been well enough to come to the race that morning to share it with us. Just as the finish line picture tells a story, her absence from the hundreds of photos taken at Charlotte’s Thunder Road Marathon tells another story of the cruel reality of a disease with no known cure; a disease that marches on in a body that doesn’t have the tools to fight it, no matter how strong or brave the soul inside may be.

Today, a friend asked me if I think I’ll ever run Thunder Road, or any race, blindfolded again. Without hesitating, I said no. It’s not that I dread the thought of it or doubt my ability to do it, the willingness of Andrew or someone else to guide me or even the potential of a second run to have a positive impact. It’s none of those things.

I can’t explain it, but there was something magical about what happened at Thunder Road on November 16, 2013. I felt it when I ran beneath the canopy of trees on Charlotte’s Queens Road West, untethered yet never so sure of my surroundings. I felt it when we approached the corner crammed with Taylor’s Tale supporters less than a quarter of a mile from the end. I felt it as Andrew and I approached the finish line on the final stretch. I’d never felt that way in my life, and I’ll never get that feeling from a race again. But for as long as I live, I know that I’ll only have to remember those moments, and I’ll be transported back to the day my little sister, blind and suffering from a fatal disease, gave me the courage to run 13.1 miles in the dark.

There won’t be another experience like Thunder Road. But I’m not done fighting this fight, in running shoes or otherwise. Far from it.

Do you have an idea for my next chapter in the fight against rare disease? Let me know in the comments. Meanwhile, I’m gearing up for next weekend’s Charlotte 10 Miler (rescheduled after flooding on the greenway in February), my first race of 2014. I won’t be in a blindfold, but I’ll be dressed in purple for Taylor. 

Some Place I Can’t Describe

By Laura Edwards

After months of training, planning and anticipation, it arrived: Charlotte’s Thunder Road Marathon, and my planned attempt to run 13.1 miles blindfolded to honor my little sister, Taylor, and support the fight against Batten disease.

On Friday, my colleagues at a creative marketing communications agency threw a purple-drenched pep rally, complete with the theme song from “Rocky,” a gift to Taylor’s Tale and an appearance by my husband, John (who schemed with them to plan the surprise).

At the race expo, I traded hugs with my former colleagues at the healthcare organization sponsoring the race and runners wearing purple for Taylor’s Tale on race day.

Friday night, Dr. Steve Gray, a UNC Gene Therapy Center expert whose lab’s Batten disease research is co-funded by Taylor’s Tale, arrived in Charlotte for the race.

pre-race dinner

Finally, race day arrived. John, Steve, my mom and I picked up Andrew Swistak, my sighted guide, and arrived in uptown Charlotte before sunrise. I did an interview with News 14 Carolina and took a couple of photos for Society Magazine.

News 14 interview

Andrew, Steve and I headed to the start line just as the morning’s first sunlight painted the tops of the skyscrapers. And at 7:15, I took one end of a green bungee cord, pulled down the blindfold bearing my sister’s name and ran into darkness.

start line

We got off to a slow start for the first few miles due to the policeman driving the pace car and charged with keeping the early starters at bay. We even took a wrong turn at one point when the pace car couldn’t keep up with us and had to wait at a busy intersection for the light to change before we could cross. But Andrew and Steve took it all in stride; a few miles in, the course opened up for us, and we picked up the pace.

Auditory cues mean so much more, and are so much more acute, when you can’t see. I loved hearing the reactions of people lining the streets to cheer on runners. First, they cheered for us as they’d cheer for any runner they didn’t know. Then, they’d notice something different about us and go silent before crescendoing into a loud roar. It was incredible to experience, and it gave me an extra kick. Several times along the course, we passed people who knew me or knew our story. I didn’t recognize all of them, but along one quiet neighborhood street, my good friend, Amy, surprised us. I recognized her voice as soon as she called my name. So much of human emotion is expressed in the eyes, and a thick blindfold concealed mine, but I hope she knew how much it meant to me to hear a familiar voice at that very moment.

A few weeks ago, during my longest blindfolded training run with Andrew, I ran untethered for a short period. During the race on Saturday, Andrew cut me loose a few times. Around mile 10, I ran without my guide for what felt like an eternity. I never felt closer to Taylor than during that stretch. I imagined her next to me, healthy, her legs in sync with mine, her voice dancing on the wind, her eyes drinking in the earth.

solo run

Just a short time later, we approached the Taylor’s Tale cheer station near the final stretch. Once more, Andrew took the bungee, and I ran past a screaming, adoring crowd. Their voices melted the cramps in my legs and filled my heart with love. In front of the station, I made a 90-degree turn on Andrew’s spoken direction alone, and we headed to the finish line. As we did, 70 teenagers clad in purple tutus, pompoms, sparkle and glitter took off after us. And as I hurdled over the first timing mat, then the second, and Andrew pulled me to a stop, and I lifted my blindfold and let the light come pouring in, I melted in the arms of my mom, who stood waiting for me at the finish line, crying, and the kids surrounded us, closing us off from the outside world, and suddenly, even though I had a medal around my neck and a timing chip on my shoe, I wasn’t at a race any longer, and I didn’t care that I’d just run a half marathon blindfolded. I was somewhere else, some place I can’t describe or ever return to again except in my dreams.

Mom and Laura at finish line

I ran 13.1 miles in the dark, but I didn’t take a single step alone.

We built Taylor’s Tale from the ashes of a tragedy that tried to burn my family to the ground. And Batten disease is the saddest thing I’ve ever known.

But Taylor’s Tale is not a sad story. Taylor’s Tale is a story of love and hope. And as I ran the final steps of Thunder Road, flanked by living angels and guided only by Andrew’s voice and Taylor’s courage, I knew:

Batten disease may have cast a dark shadow on our world, but I was running to the light.

I believed.

And I felt free.

the finish line

 Note: I ran the Thunder Road Half Marathon blindfolded not only to honor Taylor’s courage and raise awareness of rare diseases, but also to support Dr. Steve Gray’s gene therapy research co-funded by Taylor’s Tale at the University of North Carolina Gene Therapy Center. Donations to this cause are 100 percent tax-deductible. To support our fight to develop treatments for Batten disease and other genetic diseases, click here.

The Reason

By Laura Edwards

The Thunder Road Half Marathon is less than a week from today. When I closed my eyes and took my first steps as a blind runner on a middle school track on June 5, I only hoped that I would cross the finish line standing on Nov. 16. But now, with 15 blind runs under my belt, including a 10-mile run just seven minutes shy of my sighted personal record for that distance, I feel confident that Andrew and I will run a great race for Taylor and the millions of people fighting a rare disease.

With Thunder Road just days away, my attention has shifted away from training for the race to considering last-minute logistics, such as:

  • We have more than 40 people running for Taylor’s Tale, giving us one of the largest teams at Charlotte’s largest road race; somehow, we have to get purple Nike Dri-FIT shirts to our runners between Tuesday (when they come back from the printer) and Friday.
  • We’ve received local, statewide and even national media interest in our story; juggling interviews, especially for TV, with a full-time job can be like trying to put together a jigsaw puzzle with a couple of missing pieces.
  • The race begins and ends in uptown Charlotte; this morning, I squinted over my cup of decaf coffee at the parking map posted on the race website and tried to find the corner near the finish line where our cheer station will be located.

As much as I want our supporters to have convenient parking, I’m most concerned about my dad, who will be with Taylor on the morning of the race.  I’ve often dreamed about what I will do when Andrew and I cross that finish line. I can’t even begin to imagine how I will feel.

I called my first post about this race “Run to the Light.” After 13.1 miles in the dark on Saturday, I’ll take off my blindfold; I hope my little sister is the first person I see. But last night, for the first time, I grew concerned about finding parking close enough to the finish line that my sister can make it there.

In the five months since Andrew and I began training for Thunder Road, Taylor has slipped deeper into the dark chasm of Batten disease. She struggles to walk, even with a walker. She suffers from myoclonic jerks. Batten disease has silenced a once beautiful singing voice. I don’t remember the last time my sister talked to me. I wish I’d known it was the last time. I would have savored it, or recorded it, or made a note of the date.

Taylor's 5K finishFive years ago, my sister ran her own triumphant race at Thunder Road. She ran tethered by a bungee cord to a sighted guide, just as I will do on Nov. 16. She stumbled and fell a few times, but she pulled herself to her feet, brushed herself off and said she could keep going. And she RAN across that finish line.

But that was five years ago. I know a lot about Batten disease. I may have majored in English, but I can describe the science of Batten disease in cold, technical terms. And I know this to be true:

My sister is dying.

I talked with a writer at a national magazine for a possible story yesterday morning. She asked me if I believe that this run, or the efforts of Taylor’s Tale, can save my sister.

I believe in Dr. Steve Gray, who will run alongside Andrew and me on Saturday. I believe that Steve and the team at the UNC Gene Therapy Center can save the lives of kids like Taylor. But as much as I believe in Steve and a handful of other talented scientists around the world working on Batten disease, I don’t know the answer to that writer’s question.

horseback riding

I do know this, though:

There will ALWAYS be another Taylor if we do nothing. Children and families shouldn’t have to endure a tragic disease with no known cure. And I believe we WILL beat Batten disease.

For me, Taylor’s courage as a runner will always live on as a symbol of her never-give-up attitude in her fight against Batten disease. Blindness kicked her and knocked her down when she ran that 5K at Thunder Road in 2008, but she pulled herself up and kept going. I won’t give up in MY fight on behalf of people like her until the day we cross the ultimate finish line.

Taylor didn’t stop running until her body gave out on her…and neither will I.

I will run the Thunder Road Half Marathon blindfolded to support gene therapy co-funded by Taylor’s Tale at the University of North Carolina Gene Therapy Center. Donations to this cause are 100 percent tax-deductible. To support my run and our fight to develop treatments for Batten disease and other genetic diseases, click here.

Join the Taylor’s Tale team and help us turn Thunder Road purple for Taylor! Click here to register for the marathon, half marathon or 5K by TONIGHT at 11:59 p.m. ET. On the second page of registration, under “Event Groups/Teams,” select “Taylor’s Tale” from the list under “Choose an Existing Group.” If you miss this online registration deadline, you can also register at the race expo on Friday, Nov. 15. Wear purple and run for us to help raise awareness on race day. If you’d rather cheer, click here for details about the official Taylor’s Tale cheer station on the course!  Contact me with any Thunder Road-related questions.