Thunder Road 2014: The Magic and the Wonder

By Laura Edwards

I spent months training and long hours planning for the Thunder Road Half Marathon last year. Running the 13.1-mile race blindfolded, tethered for most of the way to my friend Andrew Swistak, gained national attention for Taylor’s Tale and our fight against Batten disease, and it gave me the experience of a lifetime. When the dream ended, I said it could never be repeated.

But it didn’t seem right to treat the 2014 edition of Thunder Road like just another race on the race calendar, especially after our friends at the teen service organization Playing for Others asked our permission to walk the Thunder Road 5K blindfolded to honor Taylor and our cause.

One week before race day, I came up with a crazy plan: run the last leg of the 2014 Thunder Road Half Marathon blindfolded – and untethered. Never mind that:

  • I’d run blindfolded just once since the 2013 Thunder Road Half Marathon (an unofficial 5K with Andrew to commemorate National Running Day in June).
  • I wouldn’t get an early start this year (thus putting me right in the crush of thousands of other runners).
  • Andrew’s sidelined with a foot injury, meaning I’d need to find another guide on short notice.

But I’ve been stubborn since I was a kid, and once I get an idea in my head, I’m tough to shake. My husband John says I always up the ante, and he wouldn’t be surprised to see me run a marathon blindfolded while juggling chainsaws if I thought it’d help our cause.

I don’t know to juggle, but I’d run blind and untethered for short stretches before. So one week before race day, I put out a call for runners aiming to run the half marathon somewhere around my goal pace. Even though I planned to run the final stretch untethered, I needed someone to help me avoid obstacles, from sewer caps and curbs to other runners. Almost immediately, my friend Alyson Vaughan responded, and I had a guide.

By the Tuesday prior to race day, I had the ear of WSOC-TV, Charlotte’s ABC affiliate and the top local station. We filmed a story about Playing for Others’ effort and my crazy plan for the end of the race with anchor Natalie Pasquarella Wednesday afternoon; while we ran/walked in the sunshine at Charlotte’s Freedom Park, Taylor had her second surgery of 2014 at Levine Children’s Hospital. As Playing for Others teen member Anna Harden guided me around the pond, I thought about how Anna and Taylor are about the same age, and I wondered if they’d be in the same circles of friends if my sister wasn’t sick. Batten disease has stolen so much.

Taylor's Tale with WSOC

The WSOC story aired Friday; see it here. All day, Alyson and I traded emails and texts about everything from purple shirts to parking plans. We didn’t have time to practice together.

On Saturday morning – race day – Mom pulled into my driveway a few minutes before 6 a.m. She’d signed up for her second 5K, and she looked fabulous in her purple running gear. But her phone rang the moment she walked through my back door. Taylor had just had a big seizure, Dad said. And just like that, Mom’s Thunder Road experience was over. “I hate Batten disease,” I said to John as my mother’s car pulled away.

It was 22 degrees when John and I arrived uptown, and I tried to keep my teeth from chattering as I did an interview with Charlotte’s NBC affiliate by the finish line (watch the story here). When Alyson arrived, we had our first and only “practice session.” I pulled the blindfold over my eyes, and we ran up and down the park milling with people in front of the baseball stadium as Alyson gave me verbal direction. We only bumped shoulders once. Then, it was go time.

I’ve been banged up since I ran the Great Smoky Mountains Half Marathon nearly two months ago, and I didn’t train for Thunder Road. But we lined up with the 1:45 pace group led by the Charlotte Observer’s Théoden Janes and hoped for the best.

Nine miles later, we were still on pace. That’s when my legs got angry. My calves were so tight I thought my muscles might pop. But when my eye caught the photo of Taylor finishing the 2008 Thunder Road 5K slipped inside my armband, the pain melted away.

Taylor's 5K finish

About 1.25 miles short of the end, we made the final turn onto S. Mint Street, a not-quite-straight road in the heart of Charlotte. I’d been running to Alyson’s left for much of the race, but when we reached Mint, I switched to her right, because I’d always run to Andrew’s right. I slipped the blindfold down over my eyes, and we headed for the finish line.

We bumped shoulders a few times, but Alyson was a pro. She helped me avoid the curb and kept me on course when the road twisted and turned. In the background, someone shouted my name; I waved and pushed ahead (I learned later that the voice belonged to my friend Sharon).

Somewhere near the end – I don’t know exactly where – we passed the Playing for Others cheer station on our right. Alyson told me we were approaching a sea of purple, but she didn’t need to say a word; I could hear the cheers and knew it had to be them.

When I ran the 2013 race, I ran the last leg with almost no one around us, because we’d gotten a 30-minute head start on the rest of the field for safety reasons. But this time, Alyson and I were running in a pack for most of the 13.1-mile race, including the final 1.25-mile leg I ran blindfolded. In a crowded finish line area, the logical thing to do would have been to slow down or even walk.

But running that last stretch, I could only think of two things: my blind sister running across the finish line of the 2008 Thunder Road 5K, and the feeling I had when I hurdled the timing mats last year and landed in my mom’s arms. The final words from Playing for Others member Anna Kilguss’ poem, words that graced the backs of the team’s shirts for yesterday’s 5K, echoed in my head: “You believe. We watch. She flies.” 

And then, we were in the finish chute, and instead of slowing to a jog or walking, I was sprinting in the darkness (like I’d always known deep down that I would), and Alyson was yelling “Jump!” and “Jump!” again as I hurdled the timing mats. The last thing I remember before getting my medal is Alyson yelling “Stop!”

crossing the finish

Tears welled up in my eyes as I simultaneously hugged my friend, received my medal, realized we’d both set new personal records for the half marathon (1:44:37) and caught a sea of purple and love in the corner of my eye – the Playing for Others crew.

Playing for Others in Victory Lane

But I didn’t cry. Instead, I lost myself in the magic and the wonder of the moment – the great beauty that can be found in even the worst tragedies if you only believe. And hours later, when I hung my eighth half marathon medal around my sister’s neck, wrapped my arms around her thin body and breathed in her courage, I soared.

Please help me write the happy ending to Taylor’s Tale. To support our fight to develop treatments for Batten disease and other rare and genetic diseases, click here.

Taylor after Thunder Road

Thunder Road: The Skinny

By Laura Edwards

Taylor with medalThe 2014 edition of Charlotte’s biggest race is less than 48 hours away. I think I’m ready for my second half marathon of the fall season (if not the bitter cold – the temperature for the starting gun is expected to be 27 degrees).

You can’t bottle the kind of magic that happened on the course at Charlotte’s Thunder Road Marathon in 2013. Every moment, from the magazine cover two weeks before race day to the heart-racing start to the storybook finish and the Runner’s World column the following spring, exceeded my expectations. The moment I put my medal around my laughing sister’s neck hours later – in the quiet and privacy of my own home – may have been the best moment of all.

But the 2014 race will have its own brand of magic. Our friends at Playing for Others bring a passionate, loving, infectious energy to the fight against rare disease, and you can’t bottle that either. I know they’ll write an unforgettable chapter when they step onto the Thunder Road 5K course with blindfolds and tethers and walk 3.1 miles in the darkness in honor of millions like Taylor.

Thunder Road finishMy mom, too, will be an angel for Taylor this Saturday when she runs her second 5k. She’ll be joined by others running in purple for the girl who refused to let Batten disease get in her way – until it did.

As for me? I’m running 13.1 miles at Thunder Road, but I’m saving my best for the final stretch.

That’s when I’ll trade light for darkness one more time and follow my sister’s footsteps home.

Want to support Taylor’s Tale and Playing for Others at Charlotte’s Thunder Road Marathon race events this Saturday? Here’s the skinny:

  • The half marathon starts at 7:45; I expect to finish between 9:30 and 9:40.
  • The 5K starts at 8:15; the Playing for Others crew could finish as early as 8:45.
  • Playing for Others is hosting an official cheer station at the corner of Graham and Stonewall (mile 13 of the full marathon course). If you want to find a pro-Taylor’s Tale crowd during the race, this is your spot!
  • All races finish on S. Mint Street behind BB&T Ballpark.
  • Find course maps here.
  • Find other race information here.
  • p.s. if you live in the Charlotte metro area, watch a feature story about our 2014 effort on WSOC Ch. 9 at 5:30 p.m. Friday.

Charlotte’s Thunder Road Half Marathon: The Next Chapter

By Laura Edwards

finish line 2We’re approaching the first anniversary of the 2013 Thunder Road Half Marathon, where the story of Taylor’s courage on the race course and in her fight against Batten disease captured the attention of people across the nation. The moment I crossed the finish line of that race blindfolded, I knew the magic of that day could never be repeated.

But I can’t stop running for Taylor, and I’m on a new mission now – a mission to run a race for her in all 50 states to spread this story far and wide. I’ve run around the rim of Oregon’s Crater Lake, where she and my parents found solace during her time in a historic clinical trial in Portland; I’ve run through Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains, just a stone’s throw from the village of Blowing Rock where we made a lot of happy memories together and my sister made the best “senior” flower girl ever on my wedding day; I’ve run in Taylor’s purple witch costume in a Great Pumpkin race in South Carolina to commemorate Halloween, her favorite holiday when she could still trick-or-treat. In the next 10 months, I’ll take Taylor’s story from North Dakota’s Red River Valley to Hawaii’s lush gardens.

Playing for OthersFirst, though, comes the 2014 edition of Charlotte’s Thunder Road Half Marathon, where I’ll run 13.1 miles for my little sister as she recovers from her second surgery in a difficult year. About the time I reach the four-mile mark of the half marathon, at 8:15 a.m., approximately 30 parents and teens affiliated with an organization called Playing for Others will begin the Thunder Road 5K. The parents will be blindfolded; the teens will be their guides. In completing the 5K blindfolded, they’re honoring Taylor’s story and the fight for a better future for millions of people like her.

I wish I could run my race AND be there to see Playing for Others finish the 5K. But my experience training to become a blind runner and my relationship with my blind sister have taught me that some of the most beautiful things in this world do not have to be seen to be felt.

The Beacon

By Laura Edwards

A cold rain is falling from a black sky. The slick roads are plastered with wet leaves that burned with the fiery crimson, yellow and orange of a North Carolina autumn for just a short while before an angry wind whisked them from their branches.

I’m not ready for winter, but it’s here, ugly and mad.

One cold, bright day last winter, I told my mom I needed to quit Taylor’s Tale for awhile. Remembering that moment now, I don’t know what I meant, and I’m not sure I ever really did. I uttered those words in the middle of a journey around an indoor track with no shortage of directional signs. But I’d still lost my way.

I never quit Taylor’s Tale, after all. Mom gave me an out, but I didn’t take it. Instead, I picked up my boxing gloves and threw myself back into the ring. I kept writing, and I kept fighting.

Capitol building

I thought Batten disease was killing me, but I was wrong. It’s killing my sister. And I can’t let it get away without a fight.

I stuck around, and since that day on the track, I’ve watched Taylor’s Tale partner with other non-profit organizations to help develop a possible treatment at the UNC Gene Therapy Center, endorse important legislation for the millions of Americans fighting a rare disease, speak to members of Congress and a regulatory committee of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and tell stories that have reached the far corners of the globe.

blindfolded runSince that day on the track, we’ve earned a lot of victories, but Batten disease has kept winning, too. Last weekend, I ran Charlotte’s Thunder Road Half Marathon blindfolded to honor Taylor, who ran the Thunder Road 5K after losing her vision in 2008, and support the fight against Batten disease and other rare diseases. From the moment I decided to run the race blind, I dreamed of wrapping Taylor in a hug at the finish line. But my sister was in no condition to join us on the morning of the event. Thunder Road marked one of the most incredible experiences of my life, and I’ll never forget it. But hanging my medal around her neck at my house hours later and seeing her face light up was just as special.

In two days, I’ll see Taylor again for the Thanksgiving holiday. Batten disease has a powerful effect on a family; if you’re not careful, it can take everything that’s good in your life and rip it into little pieces. It’s the world’s worst diseases all rolled into one, and it’s been busy with my sister in 2013.

And yet…

I’m thankful.

Taylor with medalI’m thankful for my time with my sister, whether it lasts 15 or 50 years. I can’t change the fact that my sister has Batten disease. I can hope that tomorrow won’t come, but I know it will, like the rush of water behind a dam that’s about to burst, or the licking flames of a fire that has already started to spread. And yet, I can recognize the beauty in her smile, the courage in her laugh and the warmth in her hug. I can accept each new day we’re given with Taylor as a day some people aren’t blessed enough to have with the people they love. I can feel encouraged by all of the progress that has been made because my sister’s story is powerful and people are good.

On my dark days, I can feel angry at Batten disease and know it’s okay to hate something that’s stealing somebody I love. I can channel that energy into saving lives. In that way, I’m thankful for the anger, too. My anger is always conquered by my love. And my love for Taylor is a bright beacon, lighting my way.

What are you thankful for?

Turn it Purple

By Laura Edwards

Thanks to a West Coast friend, Julie Siebel, and a Charlotte friend and father of two sons fighting Batten disease, Chris Hawkins, for this idea. My mom and I hope you’ll help us get it moving.

Chris will wear purple and run the 5K for Taylor’s Tale at Charlotte’s Thunder Road Marathon tomorrow, but while Julie won’t be able to run with Team Taylor’s Tale, she’ll also be wearing PURPLE in support of our efforts to bring awareness and funding to Batten disease and other rare diseases. Chris asked his friends to use social media to share photos of themselves dressed in PURPLE even if they couldn’t run or cheer at the race.

Thanks for the inspiration, Julie and Chris! I’m asking all of my readers to put on some PURPLE and share a photo with Taylor’s Tale via Facebook, Twitter or both tomorrow, Nov. 16. By turning Facebook and Twitter purple, you can help us support not only kids with Batten disease, but also 30 million Americans and 350 million people worldwide suffering from rare diseases. Then, go one step further. Ask YOUR friends to post a photo of themselves in PURPLE and share the reason behind it.


There are about 7,000 different types of rare diseases, with more being discovered each day. Ninety-five percent of them don’t have a single FDA-approved drug treatment.

We can do better. And it all starts with telling a good story.

That’s it from me until after the race. It’s go time.

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.

Click here for details about the official Taylor’s Tale cheer station at Thunder Road!

The Finish Line

By Laura Edwards

In less than 36 hours, I’ll cross the finish line of Charlotte’s Thunder Road Half Marathon, completing the biggest road race of my life. I’ll take off my blindfold and let the light come pouring in.

We won’t have an answer for kids like Taylor by Saturday afternoon. But I hope that my run, and the runs of all 50-plus people who will put on a purple shirt for Team Taylor’s Tale at Thunder Road, will help us get closer to the finish line in the race that really matters.

Thanks to all those who will help us turn Thunder Road purple for Taylor on race day.

Thanks to all of our supporters who will rock the cheer station at the final stretch and give ALL runners the boost they need to get to the finish.

Thanks to Dr. Steve Gray for dedicating his life to finding treatments that could save people like my sister. He has the talent and the passion to lead us into the light. 

Thanks to my guide, Andrew, who helped me find my way in the dark.

Thanks to my family, who always believed in me.

Thanks to my sister, whose bravery inspires me every moment of every day.

It IS possible to find beauty in the midst of a tragedy. Focus on what’s good, appreciate the support of others, work hard, keep your eye on the finish line, and never, EVER stop believing.


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! Online registration is closed, but you can still 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.

The Real Heroes

By Laura Edwards
Taylor's 5K finish

Taylor finished the 5K race at Thunder Road in 2008 guided by two angels and the wings of her own courage.

Three weeks from today, I’ll run the biggest race of my life. I’ve run Charlotte’s Thunder Road Half Marathon three times since 2009, but on Saturday, Nov. 16, I’ll run it blindfolded.

Late Wednesday night, I went out for training run number 16 with my pinch runner – my husband, John. The temperature dipped below 50 degrees for the first time this autumn. I left my black tights at home to make myself more visible to passing cars, and though I didn’t see the goosebumps on my legs, I felt them. I called out manholes and irregularities in the road to my inexperienced pinch runner – not the other way around – but I stayed on my feet and didn’t suffer any sprained ankles throughout 2.18 slow miles.

As much as I love my husband and appreciate his willingness to take me out for a run at 10:15 on a weeknight, I can’t wait to get back on the road with my friend, Andrew Swistak, a seasoned runner born to lead the blind(folded). I feel safe when Andrew’s on the other end of the bungee cord, even though I had a crash landing on one of our training runs back in July. With my friend’s coaching in my first race of 2013, I conquered a nasty hill at mile eight, found energy I didn’t know I had at mile nine and set a new personal record (PR) for 10 miles. With Andrew’s help, I believe I can run not only a safe race, but a FAST race for Taylor at Thunder Road in three weeks.

But this isn’t about me, and it’s never been about me. So more than a fast time or an injury-free race, I’m hoping for this: that my 15-year-old sister, who’s had a rough few months in her fight against infantile Batten disease, will be well enough to come to the finish line. I want her to be the first person I see when I take off my blindfold. I want her to be there so I can give her a sweaty hug and tell her how much I love her, even though she can’t say “I love you” back.

Because the battle Taylor fights every day is a thousand times tougher than running a race in the dark. 

Helen Keller quote

I’ve spent hours blindfolded, but I’ve never been blind. I’ve vowed not to remove my blindfold at any point during Thunder Road, but if I wanted to see the endless sky above my head and the pavement beneath my feet and the bare November branches and the crowds lining the streets, I could do so.

I’ve never been blind, but I think that perhaps losing sight of the real purpose is the worst kind of blindness.

Taylor, and the several thousand others living with Batten disease, and the millions of people worldwide facing a rare disease without a single approved treatment or cure, are the real heroes. 

The moment I forget that – the moment I make the story about myself – I’ve lost my way, and even Andrew won’t be able to lead me back.

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. On the second page of registration, under “Event Groups/Teams,” select “Taylor’s Tale” from the list under “Choose an Existing Group.” Wear purple and run for us to help raise awareness on race day. If you’d rather cheer, stay tuned for details about the official Taylor’s Tale cheer station on the course! 

A Blind 10K, and Some More for Good Measure

By Laura Edwards

Blind run #13This morning, Andrew and I did the most normal thing in the world: we drove to an almost deserted office park south of our neighborhood and warmed up with a .82-mile jog at about a 9:00/mile pace. But that’s when we threw “normal” out the window: when Andrew handed me one end of a short bungee cord, and I pulled a purple blindfold down over my eyes, blocking out the brilliant sunlight in the cloudless sky. That’s when two runners – one sighted, one blind – stepped into the bike lane facing traffic and picked up the pace for a 6.5-mile run.

Blind run number 12 marked not only our longest run to date, but also our fastest. Over 6.5 miles, we averaged about an 8:30 mile and even briefly dipped into the sixes on some of the downhills (without taking a double face plant). I ran faster with the blindfold than without it, even at the end of the run.

With the exception of one large loop in an offshoot, we traversed the same road – a road with a gradual climb – several times and made a U-turn each time we reached the end (doing so allowed us to practice our double U-turn skills!). That gave me a very different sensation from all of the tight cul-de-sacs and speed bumps in our neighborhood. The road also included a bridge over Interstate 485, with a different surface from the pavement covering the rest of the road. The bridge felt like corrugated cardboard beneath the soles of my high-cushioned Brooks running shoes. We passed a few walkers, runners and cyclists. Andrew told me that once, we passed a woman wearing a purple shirt (purple is the color for Taylor’s Tale). Another time, he told me that a mother driving with her teenage son in the passenger seat slowed the car and pointed, urging her son to look at us (I smiled with my eyes beneath my blindfold when Andrew told me that). We – or at least I – had one scary moment when a driver came flying down the road in our lane. Without my vision, I had no concept of whether or not I was about to be hit by a car, and I instinctively jumped toward, and almost into, my sighted guide (and my stomach jumped into my throat). Andrew told me the car was about 10 feet from us, but the driver was speeding so quickly that I felt all of the car’s force in my bones. I wonder now if Andrew felt the same way, or if I felt it at a heightened level because I couldn’t see it coming.

My goal for the Thunder Road Half Marathon is to average at least a 9:00 mile. I ran faster than that in the race last year and think that with Andrew’s direction and Taylor’s courage to guide me, I can match that even without the gift of sight.

news 14 filming

p.s. Earlier, I called today’s outing blindfolded run #12, but I didn’t count this past Monday, when I donned the blindfold and ran with Andrew for a News 14 Carolina story that aired in Charlotte. You can watch it online here. More coverage is on the way, so stay tuned!

As a reminder, I’m doing this crazy thing not just so I can talk about it, but to help support our fight against Batten disease and to save people like Taylor. Read on to find out how you can support our efforts through my run as well as how you can join our team on race day. If you plan to run for our team, please send me a note ASAP (even if you won’t register ASAP) to help us plan. Thank you!

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!

My Birthday Wish for Taylor

By Laura Edwards

birthday cakeMy sister, Taylor, will turn 15 on Monday. Taylor’s less than half my age, but she’s my hero. She’s done some pretty incredible things in her short life – like run two 5K races despite the fact that she’s blind and suffers from Batten disease, which is pretty much the worst disease on the face of the earth. That’s why, in three months, I’ll run Charlotte’s Thunder Road Half Marathon blindfolded to honor her and help find a treatment for Batten disease.

I’ve had the same birthday wish for Taylor every year since her diagnosis in 2006. I want a world where people like my sister can dream of growing old. I believe in that world. Tomorrow, in honor of my sister’s birthday, you can do one of three things to help Taylor’s Tale achieve that dream:

  • Sign up to run for Taylor at Thunder Road on Saturday, Nov. 16, and help us turn the course purple for Taylor’s Tale. You can run the marathon, half marathon or 5K. Note: blindfold not required. 🙂 Be sure to join our team during the registration process. 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 honor Taylor and help raise awareness of Batten disease on race day. In return, you’ll receive a moisture-wicking team shirt and an invitation to an optional post-race get-together. Stay tuned for more details! Click here to register now.
  • Make a gift to Taylor’s Tale in honor of Taylor’s birthday and help support our fight against Batten disease and other rare and genetic diseases. All donations are 100 percent tax-deductible. We fund research that has the potential to lead to treatments for human beings. We’ve supported work at top institutions in the United States and Europe. Today, we’re co-funding work at the University of North Carolina that could lead to life-saving gene therapy for Batten disease and many other genetic diseases. To make a donation, click here.
  • Run 3.1 miles – or a 5K – for Taylor on her birthday, Aug. 19. Visit our Facebook page and share a post about your run. Be creative – share a photo or a description of your run, or just tell us that you did it! You can also connect with us on Twitter. Share your run with us on Facebook and Twitter.

Thank you for helping us write the happy ending to Taylor’s Tale!