Carrying the Torch

By Laura Edwards

I’m past the halfway point of the two-week rehab period prescribed by my sports medicine doctor, and I’m ready to get back on the road for Taylor. I don’t have any swelling in my sprained ankle, and the pain is much better this week than last. I’ve practiced the art of icing with a frozen cup of water; I kick off my shoes to do this at the office at least once a day, so I’m grateful for understanding coworkers. Barring any new setbacks, I should be back in a blindfold by sometime next week, just in time for the three-month countdown to Thunder Road.

Mom on trackMeanwhile, my mom’s carrying the torch for both of us. I thought I’d be able to publish a new post for each of her training sessions, but I’d never sleep. By my count, Mom’s made it to the track or the treadmill three times since her coach went down last week. She even went to Run For Your Life and bought new running shoes! Last night, I joined her at the Y near our house and lifted weights while she ran laps. Once, I crept to the corner of the stretching area with my phone and hid behind a weight machine until she came down the straightaway. I jumped out just in time to capture a photo of her. Mom didn’t stop, but the next time she came around, she tried to sneak a peek at my camera roll and get me to agree to approval rights.

Mom will be ready for Nov. 16, and so will I. You can join us and help save kids like Taylor. Just visit the Thunder Road website to sign up for the 5K, half marathon or marathon. If you run for the Taylor’s Tale team (available in the list of groups/teams), we’ll provide a moisture-wicking shirt and a fun post-race get-together. More details to come! In the meantime, please consider supporting our cause with a donation (see how below). All gifts are 100 percent tax-deductible and will support gene therapy at the University of North Carolina.

See you on the road…soon!

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 at Thunder Road! Click here to register for the marathon, half marathon or 5K. On the second page of registration, under “Event Groups/Teams,” select “Taylor’s Tale” from the list under “Choose an Existing Group.” Run for us to help raise awareness on race day. Stay tuned for more details, including special shirts for team members and an informal post-race event!


When to Fold a Hand

By Laura Edwards

In case you haven’t heard, I’ll run Charlotte’s Thunder Road Half Marathon blindfolded to honor my sister and support the fight against Batten disease and other rare diseases on Nov. 16. I’m a seasoned runner with a drawer full of half marathon and 10-miler race medals. But I’ve never run a race of any distance without my vision, so my training for this race is unlike anything I’ve ever done before.

I returned from a long weekend in the North Carolina mountains this afternoon and made plans for a late-night run with Andrew Swistak, a good friend and my sighted guide for Thunder Road.

But just an hour after I messaged Andrew, I aggravated the still-weak ankle I injured on our first training run, all the way back on June 5. I don’t have any idea how I hurt it; I felt a sharp pain walking from my back door to my kitchen. In any case, I’ll be brushing up on my R.I.C.E. skills (rest-ice-compression-elevation) right about the time that Andrew and I would have met at my mailbox for blindfolded run number eight.

I’m frustrated about this latest setback, which may end up being nothing more than a one-day punishment – perhaps my body’s gentle way of telling me that I wore the wrong shoes to traipse around downtown Asheville, NC for two days. I’m sorry I won’t squeeze in a practice run tonight but am grateful, really, that logic won out in the end. Because the last thing I need is an injury I can’t overcome.

My sister’s fight against Batten disease has its ups and downs, too. She has good days and bad days. She has a heck of a lot of courage – far more than I’ll ever have – but even so, some days, the disease still gets the best of her. For her sake, we have to know when to fight back with everything we’ve got, and when it makes sense to fold a hand so we don’t lose all our chips in the end.

I might be taking tonight off, but I’ll drag my body – bum ankle and all – back out on the road as soon as I can. And I’ll cross that finish line for Taylor on race day, even if I have to crawl. You’d better believe I’ll fight for my dream – to save the lives of people like her – until we win.

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 at Thunder Road! Click here to register for the marathon, half marathon or 5K. On the second page of registration, under “Event Groups/Teams,” select “Taylor’s Tale” from the list under “Choose an Existing Group.” Run for us to help raise awareness on race day. Stay tuned for more details, including special shirts for team members and an informal post-race event!


Uneven Ground

By Laura Edwards

On Nov. 16, I’ll run the Thunder Road Half Marathon blindfolded to honor my little sister’s fight against Batten disease and raise money for gene therapy at the University of North Carolina. Since early June, I’ve gone on six training runs with my sighted guide, Andrew Swistak, and we made more progress in those first six runs than I ever dreamed possible.

But I haven’t run in darkness since July 1. I’ve been on vacation for a week, and our schedules don’t jive in the coming week. I’ll keep my fitness level; running is part of my life, whether or not I’m training for a race. But I’m not blind, and running without my eyes isn’t like riding a bike without training wheels. It takes practice. So I expect to be a little rusty the next time I pull a blindfold over my eyes and grab hold of my lifeline, a three-foot bungee cord.

I’ve been on the South Carolina coast for the past week, and I laced up my third-string Brooks Glycerin shoes – the ones that have about 800 miles on them – for a couple of runs on the beach. On a late afternoon run at low tide, I thought about my long stretch without any practice runs with Andrew and wondered if I could survive a near-deserted, flat area of the beach with my eyes closed.

I started my experiment on the part of the beach between the powdery dry sand that the waves never reach – ankle-breaking sand – and the damp sand that just hours before had been underwater. I scanned the beach ahead of me for tidal pools and child-dug holes, saw none, said a silent prayer and closed my eyes.

Ten seconds later, the surf filled my tired Brooks shoes. The tide didn’t change; I just veered off course by seven or eight feet in those 10 seconds.

I kept my eyes open the rest of the way.

My self-imposed lesson brought back a memory of a hot summer afternoon at the same beach six years ago. Taylor’s vision had already begun to fail her, but otherwise, she was still the happy, vibrant, healthy kid we knew.

Taylor in the surf

Despite her vision loss, Taylor could run from our chairs to the ocean and back again, low tide or not. She had one hell of an internal compass, and she had no fear.

I’ve never been as fearless as my little sister. Even in that 10-second experiment on the same beach Taylor once ruled in summers that are now only a memory, I feared that I might re-injure my ankle or trip over a child running out of nowhere to chase a seagull or catch a wave.

Like it or not, those smooth, wide beaches are in our past. The path ahead is uneven ground. I’ll need at least an ounce of my sister’s courage to keep going. And whether I run one blindfolded race or one hundred, I’ll need to keep my eyes wide open for the real fight.

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.


Running in the Dark

By Laura Edwards

Two nights ago, I ate an early dinner and waited for several hours to give my grilled cheese, my apple and my neighbors a chance to wind down. Then, I donned a reflective hat, strapped on my Garmin watch and laced up my running shoes. With a bungee cord in hand, I jogged .7 miles under inky, starless skies to the home of my friend, Andrew Swistak, a fellow runner who works at The Fletcher School, where my sister, Taylor, spent six wonderful years.

Just after sunrise on the morning of Nov. 16, I will pull on a blindfold after I lace up my shoes, and Andrew will guide me through the 13.1-mile Thunder Road Half Marathon course on the streets of my hometown of Charlotte. I will attempt to run the entire race without the gift of sight to honor the five-year anniversary of Taylor’s first 5K race, which she ran in conjunction with the 2008 edition of Thunder Road with the help of an older student from Fletcher.

But on this night – National Running Day and my first training run with Andrew – I had no blindfold and, with corrective lenses, perfect vision. Our goal for the evening was to get accustomed to running with the bungee cord.

blindfolded run 1

Early on in our run, though, Andrew took me to the track at the middle school by our neighborhood so we could get used to making turns. And in that protected environment, he asked me if I wanted to give blindness a try, at least for a minute. So I closed my eyes.

Right away, I lost my spatial awareness. The bottom dropped out from under me. My legs turned to Jell-O, and my body felt as though it was not my own. I couldn’t run in a straight line.

But soon, with Andrew’s help, I found my bearings in my dark world. I think we ran five laps around the track. Andrew said that for the most part, I stayed in my lane, even on the turns. I learned to understand the meaning of his tugs on the bungee cord. After a while, we left the track and returned to the neighborhood. I figured out how to make 90-degree turns and 180-degree turns and shift to the side for an oncoming car. At one point, Andrew asked me if my eyes were really closed. And they were.

I thought I’d mastered running blind – albeit much more slowly than I run sighted – until I mistimed a curb jump and twisted my ankle. And in that moment, I remembered that NOTHING about blindness is easy, just as nothing about this race will be easy.

But nothing about Batten disease or rare diseases is easy, and nothing about our fight to save people like Taylor is easy. And a twisted ankle on my first attempt isn’t enough to stop me. An ACE bandage, an ice pack and a couple of days’ rest work wonders for such injuries. And besides, going to work with an ice pack taped to my ankle gave me a natural opening to tell plenty of people about my blindfolded run and the reason behind it, so we spread Taylor’s Tale this week.

And I have a great guide in Andrew Swistak, not to mention a healthy dose of inspiration. There will be no twisted ankles on Nov. 16. We’ll be ready.

I am running the Thunder Road Half Marathon 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.


Run to the Light

By Laura Edwards

My little sister, Taylor, has Batten disease. But that didn’t stop her from signing up for Girls on the Run in the fall of 2008, at the start of her fifth grade year at The Fletcher School. The degenerative disease had already stolen her vision and made it difficult for her to learn new things, but more than anything, Taylor wanted to be a normal kid, and she dared Batten disease to get in her way.

In the afternoons after school, Taylor and her girlfriends met at the track for practice. They developed good fitness habits and learned about teamwork, and they learned to believe in themselves. An upper school student named Mary-Kate stayed after school to practice with the younger girls. When it came time to walk or run around the track, she and Taylor each took one end of a modified jump rope – my sister’s lifeline to a normal experience she desperately craved.

At the last practice of the semester, the girls ran a “practice” 5K around the school track. All of the other girls finished their laps before Taylor and Mary-Kate. Then, as the pair rounded the corner and began their final lap, something magical happened. One by one, everyone on the sideline joined my sister and her sighted guide on the track. Soon, the whole team, plus the coaches and others there to watch the practice, fell into stride with my sister and ran her final lap with her. Girls on the Run Founder Molly Barker happened to be on campus that day to watch practice and meet the girls; she captured this incredible moment in a story for North Carolina’s Endurance Magazine that Gap Inc. also featured in a national campaign last year.

Mom's photos 232

The team’s first REAL race took place on a chilly morning that December at the Jingle Jog 5K, run on the streets of uptown Charlotte in conjunction with the Thunder Road Marathon and Half Marathon. Mary-Kate told us that Taylor stumbled and fell several times on the course, but that after each fall, she pulled herself up, said she could keep running, and did just that. The tethered pair finished the race in just under an hour. They didn’t run fast enough to win an official award, but watching them cross that finish line remains one of the most moving things I’ve ever witnessed. In that moment, I realized that I could never, EVER give up on my sister or my fight against Batten disease. And when the trees bloomed that next spring, I started running for her.

Taylor and Laura after the Jingle Jog 5K in 2008

Taylor was all smiles after the Jingle Jog 5K in 2008.

I’ve run thousands of miles for Taylor since that day at the finish line of the Jingle Jog 5K. I run the Thunder Road Half Marathon every year and run various other races in Charlotte and elsewhere, from 5Ks to 10 milers, and I’ve shaved more than 30 minutes off my half marathon time since my first go at the 13.1 distance in 2009. But I’ve never come close to achieving the kind of feat my sister accomplished, because I’ve run every race with the benefit of my vision. That’s why, to honor the five-year anniversary of her incredible achievement, I plan to run the 2013 Thunder Road Half Marathon blindfolded. 

I’ll be tethered to my good friend, Andrew Swistak. Andrew is an avid runner and is also on staff at The Fletcher School, where my sister spent six wonderful years and met many guardian angels. I’m grateful to have Andrew’s support as well as the support of the folks at Run For Your Life, who put on the Thunder Road Marathon and Half Marathon.

Andrew will be my sighted guide at the Thunder Road Half Marathon this November.

Andrew will be my sighted guide at the Thunder Road Half Marathon this November.

I’m in half marathon shape now, but I’m not ready to run 13.1 miles – or even 13.1 feet – without my eyes. Have you ever closed your eyes and tried to move around? It’s not easy to run in the dark. I’m in awe of Taylor’s spatial awareness and courage. Andrew and I have some practicing to do between now and Nov. 16, but we’ll be ready.

I’m doing this mainly to raise awareness of Batten disease, but donations to Taylor’s Tale are always greatly appreciated. Currently, Taylor’s Tale and five partners are supporting gene therapy for infantile and late infantile Batten disease at the University of North Carolina Gene Therapy Center. This promising work could lead to treatments for not only rare diseases such as Batten disease, but also more common diseases like Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease). If all goes well, this work could be ready to go to clinical trial at UNC in just a few years.

Please share this story to help us build awareness! We’re making incredible progress in the fight to save people like Taylor, but we need the support of friends like you to continue to make a difference.

I have a little bit of my sister in me; I believe, and I dare Batten disease to get in my way!

To support my run and our fight to develop treatments for Batten disease and other genetic diseases, click here.

NEW: Join the Taylor’s Tale team at Thunder Road! Click here to register for the marathon, half marathon or 5K. On the second page of registration, under “Event Groups/Teams,” select “Taylor’s Tale” from the list under “Choose an Existing Group.” Run for us to help raise awareness on race day. Stay tuned for more details, including special shirts for team members and an informal post-race event!

running for Taylor


The Ghost of Laurel Hill

By Laura Edwards

photo (7)Yesterday morning, I woke with the sun to run the Tar Heel 10 Miler in my little sister’s honor for the fourth consecutive year.

I’ve already collected four race medals for Taylor in 2013, but this one is special. The Tar Heel 10 Miler was just the second competitive race I ever entered; I paid the entry fee for the April 2010 edition not long after watching my sister – blind and suffering from a rare, fatal brain disease – jog across the finish line of Charlotte’s Jingle Jog and Girls on the Run 5Ks on one end of a running buddy’s guiding rope and the wings of her own courage.

The Girls on the Run 5K, staged on a sun-drenched, happy day in May 2009, was Taylor’s second race. It was also her last.

Batten disease has stolen so much from Taylor since it crept into her life that the word “unfair” doesn’t begin to do the job. The ability to run is a precious gift that too many of us take for granted, but my sister has lost many more valuable things.

I wish I could make Batten disease go away. I wish I could work magic – go back in time and give Taylor two good copies of the gene that causes Batten disease or even one good copy (which would make her a healthy carrier, like me). But I can’t.

So I share her story in my own words – both spoken and written. I help support the people who have the knowledge to find answers for children like her – people like Steven Gray, PhD of UNC’s Gene Therapy Center, to which Taylor’s Tale awarded a two-year grant earlier this year.

And I run.

On Saturday morning, I followed the brick sidewalks to the football stadium nestled in the trees on the same campus where Dr. Gray works his magic for children like my sister and where I earned my undergraduate degree. I lined up on the track at field level with 3,253 other runners. When the gun sounded at 7:30, I found an opening in the crowd and sprinted through the stadium tunnel and into my 10-mile mind game.

The Tar Heel 10 Miler, set mostly on the gorgeous UNC campus, has some tough sections, but none come close to Laurel Hill, the 200-foot vertical gain over the course of about one mile at the 8.5-mile mark. It’s so difficult that the race organizers place separate timing mats at the bottom and top and hand out special awards just for the hill, and many self-respecting athletes speed-walk it. I’ve never walked, but I’ve come close.

end of tar heel 2013 I went into Saturday’s race riding a streak of four straight personal records (PRs) for the half marathon, 10 miler, 5K and 10K that started at the Thunder Road Half Marathon in Charlotte last November. Even though I’d beaten my previous 10 miler record by two minutes just two months earlier at a race in Charlotte, I was determined to beat it again.

But when I reached the first Laurel Hill timing mat, things didn’t look good. My quadriceps burned, and worse – I felt winded. I never get winded. I was riding a 7:45/mile pace through the first 8.5 miles, and it’d taken a lot out of me.

As I started the climb, a voice in my head told me it wasn’t my day. I shouldn’t have eaten the sweet potato fries at Top of the Hill the previous night. I shouldn’t have stayed up till midnight watching the Boston Marathon bombing coverage. As I wheezed my way up those 200 vertical feet, I told myself that WHEN I cross the finish line isn’t important to Taylor (which is true). As my Garmin watch beeped its “Behind Pace” beep, again and again…I began to write my post-Tar Heel 10 Miler blog post in my head. I called it, “I Lost My PR and Found My Truth on Laurel Hill.” I talked to myself over my wheezing. “You can do this,” I breathed. “Forget the stupid PR. Just RUN.”

But then, something happened. My quads loosened. The tightness in my chest melted away. The houses perched at the top of Laurel Hill came into view.

For most of the race, I used my Garmin as my guide. I ran for Taylor, but I ran more for myself.

The moment I understood that is when I left the Ghost of Laurel Hill behind.

It seemed like just moments later that the stadium reappeared. I sprinted into the tunnel, down the track and across the finish line.

When I did, the clock read 1:20:48.

I beat my PR for 10 miles by almost two full minutes and ran the Tar Heel 10 Miler four minutes faster than ever before. I finished in the top 16 percent of 3,253 runners. And when I crossed that finish line, I felt as if I could fly.

Almost like I had wings.


World Rare Disease Day 2013

By Laura Edwards

This morning, about 80 people joined Taylor’s Tale as we recognized World Rare Disease Day and made an exciting announcement about the fight against Batten disease.

I shared our family’s journey and introduced our featured guest. Following is a modified version of my comments.

My “little” sister is 14. We’re the same height.

But I still remember the day she came home from the hospital. I raced my then-best friend and now-husband up the stairs to peer over her crib (he got there first).

I remember how my sister learned to read as a toddler.

I remember 5-year-old Taylor. She seemed perfect. Beautiful. Intelligent. Healthy. Spunky. She kept our brother on his toes. The world – and Stephen – were hers to conquer.

But 6-year-old Taylor couldn’t handle first grade math. Addition and subtraction left her in tears.

Seven-year-old Taylor couldn’t find her way in dim places.

Just three weeks before my sister’s eighth birthday, a monster called Batten disease burst into our world and shattered it into a thousand little pieces.

Batten disease is a rare, inherited disorder that affects mainly children. To get it, kids have to inherit a “bad copy” of the gene from each of their parents. I got one good copy and one bad copy, so I’m a carrier; that means that I’m healthy but could pass the gene on to my children. My brother is a carrier, too.

Taylor got two bad copies.

With one roll of the genetic dice, our little sister got a fatal disease.

Fourteen-year-old Taylor lives in a world that’s always dark. She can’t learn like other kids. She has seizures. She loves to sing, but soon, Batten disease will steal her speech. Even now, she only has a few words. I can ask my sister if she had a good day at school, but we can’t talk about it.

Taylor ran two 5K races with the help of a sighted running buddy through the Girls on the Run program at her school. But that was four long years ago. Soon, my sister will be in a wheelchair.

Batten disease steals the lives of children.

It upsets the natural order of things.

Children aren’t supposed to have their dreams snatched away from them by a monster like Batten disease.

They aren’t supposed to die.

Taylor was diagnosed with infantile Batten disease on July 24, 2006.

I still remember the long moment we all shared in the floor of my parents’ dark bedroom; wrapped in each others’ arms; soaked in each others’ tears.

The doctor who delivered that news told my parents to take her home and make happy memories.

We don’t have anything against happy memories. But while Batten disease is in our DNA, going down without a fight is NOT.

Every day with Batten disease is a hard day. Still, in the near-seven years since the day our lives changed forever, we followed the doctor’s orders. We made our fair share of happy memories.

But we made time for fighting, too.

With the help of good friends, we founded a non-profit organization. We raised nearly half a million dollars for potentially life-saving research and promoted awareness of Batten disease. We advocated for increased support for the rare disease community.

We partnered with other groups that share our mission; American organizations such as the Batten Disease Support & Research Association and EveryLife Foundation for Rare Diseases, and international organizations such as the Global Genes Project.

And along the way, we met MANY families like ours.

One in 10 Americans suffers from a rare disease.

Chances are, you know someone fighting his or her own battle.

To borrow words from my mom, diseases like Batten are rare…but hope should not be.

That’s why I’m pleased to share reason for new hope with you today.

On behalf of Taylor’s Tale, I’m excited to announce that we’ve joined an international coalition of organizations founded by families like ours – families that refused to go down without a fight.

Together, we’ll fund gene therapy for two forms of Batten disease. This revolutionary work will take place right here in our home state at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The goal of this study is to pave the way for a human clinical trial.

I’ve watched this disease try to rob Taylor of EVERYTHING. I’ve prepared myself for the reality that I will likely outlive my little sister.

Bottom line – I HATE Batten disease. But in seven difficult, painful years, I’ve witnessed great progress. I’ve NEVER stopped believing.

And I believe in the ability of THIS project at UNC to help save the lives of children like Taylor.

Its leader is an expert in AAV vector design and gene therapy. He graduated from Auburn University and earned a PhD from Vanderbilt University. He completed a postdoctoral fellowship at UNC, specializing in central nervous system gene therapy.  His work focuses on the development of treatments for neurological diseases. He’s been published in multiple journals and mentioned in high-profile publications and blogs. His work is chronicled on the pages of a 2012 book that explores gene therapy as the next frontier through the stories of real patients and families.  The doors of his lab are decorated with photos of the children for whom he and his colleagues go to work every day.

The leader of the Global Gene Transfer for Batten Disease project is Steven Gray, PhD.

To learn more about this exciting initiative, click here.

group at Rare Disease Day event


On the Highway

By Laura Edwards

This week, my mom is in San Diego for the Lysosomal Disease Network World Congress (Batten Disease is classified as a lysosomal storage disease). One of the presenters on the program is Sandra Hofmann, MD, PhD, whose infantile NCL project Taylor’s Tale has funded since mid-2007. Very few families attend this particular conference because it is so technical, but this is my mom’s second go-round, even though Taylor was diagnosed less than three years ago. That’s my mom – she won’t accept precedent, and she won’t miss a single opportunity to give kids like Taylor an edge. My mom and I joke that we stick out like sore thumbs at these conferences (I majored in English in college, and my mom majored in music), but we hold our own. We simply have to. We can’t offer anything in the lab, but what we can do is advocate for children with Batten disease – and all children with rare diseases – and understand enough of the research landscape to maximize our ability to support it with our fundraising and awareness efforts.

All of us – children like Taylor and families like mine and our friends and loved ones – are currently stuck in a car traveling down a single highway. We’ve been told what lies at the end of the highway by those who’ve gone before us – that this is a fatal disease and that the best we can do is provide comfort to those who suffer from it – and make as many happy memories – as much for us as for them – as we can. But I have a little bit of my mom in me, and I don’t like that itinerary. I don’t like the idea of a highway without exits and a car that travels at its own speed and doesn’t bother to tell me when it’s going to speed up or slow down.

I can’t have a new car, though – T’s genes are what they are. So the best I can do is keep my eyes open for an exit. I don’t know if there is one exit or if there are many, if they are marked or if we will have to rely more on our instincts. I don’t know if the exit will be created by enzyme replacement therapy, or gene therapy, or stem cell transplantation or something else – or if there will be more than one exit – but I know that something’s out there, and that we’re close, much closer than when I first got shoved into the car by invisible hands that day in the summer of ’06. See, though I may spend each and every day working toward a greater understanding of the science, I’m still a creative, and I don’t deal in black and white. I don’t deal in absolutes, and I like to throw a little color in there whenever I can. It may take a little imagination to help find the exit(s), but maybe that’s my role – I’ll leave the miracle-making to the ones in the lab. I don’t like the route that was chosen for us. And I’m not backing down.