Missouri man to run Boston Marathon in honor of his daughter
CAPE GIRARDEAU, Mo. (AP) — On November 5, 2007, Shannon Aldridge lost his daughter, Sahara Jayde “Hoops” Aldridge, to a brain tumor. She was 13. It was a Monday.
“Every year,” he said. “It’s the worst weekend of our lives.”
Last year, it again fell on a Monday. But last November, as Aldridge was steeling himself for another awful anniversary, he got a phone call, on the Friday before, inviting him to run the Boston Marathon.
“My legs went weak. I never dreamed they would call me,” he said.
And of the timing, “I always like to think Sahara had something to do with it,” he said.
Like many runners, Aldridge, 55, made the Boston Marathon an ultimate goal — or maybe it was more than a goal. Maybe, Aldridge told the Southeast Missourian , it was more an aspiration.
“I one of those things all runners dream about doing, but I never thought I was going to get there,” he said.
After all, his journey as a runner hadn’t begun in earnest until he was nearing middle-age. His journey started, in a way, with the birth of his daughter, Sahara.
“I got fat,” he recalled.
His young daughter turned out to be a gifted athlete and Aldridge became her eager coach, but, he said, even the softball-playing he used to do fell to the wayside.
In 2006, he started dieting with Sahara’s help and started seeing results.
Then he saw Sahara walking funny. His daughter, the athlete who had led her basketball league in scoring, led her flag-football league in rushing touchdowns and who had once won a free-throw competition with a boy-sized basketball after organizers told her she couldn’t use her own girls-sized one, couldn’t balance to walk straight.
It was the night after her 12th birthday party.
“I told my wife we need to take her to the doctor,” Aldridge said. “In two weeks, our whole life got turned completely upside down. We were running scared. We didn’t know what to do. A stranger just told you your daughter was going to die and there wasn’t a damn thing you could do about it.”
Then came chemotherapy. Then radiation.
Eventually, Sahara was relocated to an M.D. Anderson-affiliate hospital in Texas. Aldridge’s wife, Amy, went with her while Shannon stayed in Cape Girardeau.
“One night we were on the phone and I told her, you know, ‘I’m just going crazy without you guys here,’” he recalled. “She told me, ‘Dad, you need to do something. You should go for a run.’”
So he did. He made it barely a half-mile from the house, downhill, before stopping to dry-heave and turning back.
When Sahara asked how it had gone, he told her the truth: it was bad.
“She said, ‘So I guess you’re done with that, then, huh?’ And I said, ‘No I’m getting ready to go again tonight.’”
And within weeks, he was hooked. He was far from fast and still struggled to make it much further than he had on that first night, but he realized it helped him sleep. It helped him eat. Nothing would make him feel better about his daughter’s ordeal, but it was something, and he needed something.
The following year, on November 5, Sahara died. Aldridge didn’t run. He walked.
“I don’t know how far I went. I was just thinking, ‘My daughter died last night,’” he said. “I don’t know what to do.”
Eventually, he said, he decided he wanted to try and help others. He and Amy started an annual race in Sahara’s honor, Hoops for Life, which ran for 6 years — until what would have been Sahara’s 21st birthday year — and it became a sensation. By Aldridge’s count, they raised $200,000 in total for cancer research.
And in the meantime, Aldridge ran — and ran and ran and ran — working from 5Ks to half-marathons and marathons, some in Memphis and Nashville for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. Then came the ultramarathons. He’s still not fast, but when the race is 100 miles long, you don’t have to be, he said. You just have to not quit.
“I went from a guy who couldn’t run half a mile to a guy who’s run 100 miles 3 times,” he said. “That’s my therapy, I guess you could say.
“Instead of taking a little blue pill or a little yellow pill to function in the world, I run.”
Last year, he applied to be a “Hero” runner on the St. Jude team, a 10-person squad of marathoners who, rather than qualify on speed, run the Boston Marathon to raise money for cancer research. Out of hundreds of applicants, Aldridge was selected; the first runner from southeast Missouri to be a part of the team, he said.
But as part of the process, each runner has to raise $10,000 for St. Jude. Aldridge, in homage to his daughter’s preferred jersey number, 21, told the organization he was instead going to raise $21,000.
The race is April 15, and Aldridge has raised somewhere north of $12,000 so far.
“It’s gonna be hard to raise that much, but I’m trying like hell,” he said. “Some things are worth the fight.”
The loss of a child, Aldridge said, isn’t something you get over. Rather than getting easier with time, it gets hard in new ways.
“For a long time, people really cared,” Aldridge said. “But you know now, it’s been 11 years and people, they forget about the little girl who’s really good at basketball and died of cancer. I mean, it’s natural. But it’s tough. People don’t remember her like I do.”
So he’s running and fundraising to try and make sure that doesn’t happen so often to families. Boston is just the next step.
“It’s the biggest race in the world and I’m gonna cross the finish line looking up,” he said. “I’m gonna point and I’m gonna say thank you.”
Information from: Southeast Missourian, http://www.semissourian.com