The year 2012 marked a lot of changes for Jody Stutzman. That was the year that she took up running and completed her very first 5k. It was also the year that two members of her family became gravely ill. First, one of her aunts was diagnosed with ALS. Shortly thereafter, her great aunt, Sharon Erickson, was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer. Both women fought their illnesses during the same period of time, and their battles and subsequent deaths deeply affected Jody. While on the surface it may seem that running and her family’s experience with illness are unrelated, the truth is that Jody’s running took on a deeper meaning because of her great aunt’s illness and it is now forever entwined with the events of 2012.
Jody grew up riding horses in barrel racing competitions. These speed events were her first love, athletically speaking. As an adult, she got into biking and found that she enjoyed it. She jokes that she only participates in athletic endeavors that require little coordination. Cycling and running seemed to fit the bill for her. In 2012, she heard about a local 5k run and figured that if she could cycle, she could run. She had to google how far a 5k is, and when she learned that it was 3.1 miles, she thought, “I could probably do that.” She started training on a treadmill after work and soon entered and finished her first race. Four years later, she has run several 5ks.
Around the time of her initial 5k, illness struck Jody’s family. Jody learned that her aunt had been diagnosed with ALS. Soon after, her great aunt, Sharon Erickson, was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer. Both women had established on-line journals so that loved ones could follow their battles. Jody remembers how difficult this time was, not only for the women who were fighting for their lives, but also for their family members. “I read about what both of them were going through and it was just awful. Both aunts passed away within weeks of one another. In many ways, I think it is harder on the families than on the person who is sick.” Jody remembers the pain that her second cousin, Sharon’s daughter, Elli Zadina, experienced. “No one in the family has ever been sick before. It was eye-opening how terrible illness is and how hard it is for family members.”
Jody’s cousin, runner and triathlete, Robin Cain, also experienced first-hand the impacts of their family’s tragic experiences with illness. Robin has played a big role in encouraging Jody to push herself as an athlete. Robin ran with the Project Purple Lincoln Marathon team in 2014, and she encouraged Jody to join in with her. Jody signed on to run with Project Purple that year, but was unable to run when race day arrived. Instead, she cheered Robin on and took in the sights and sounds of the marathon experience.
In 2015, Jody signed back on to run with Project Purple in Lincoln. Though the temperatures reached the 80s and she was not feeling well, she completed the half-marathon. “I was so excited to be around all of the people,” Jody explains. Towards the end of the race, she had to stop and walk. One of her teammates came by at just the right time, giving her the boost she needed to finish the race. “To this day, I don’t know who he was. He was on the team, because he had the Project Purple shirt on. He came up behind me and was cheering me on to finish. Seeing all of the different people in their Project Purple shirts made me feel like I wasn’t alone out there.”
Despite having run several races, including two half-marathons, she still does not consider herself to be a runner. And yet she will be running the full Lincoln Marathon on May 1st, 2016. She has a renewed sense of purpose when it comes to raising money and awareness for pancreatic cancer. Recently, her great uncle, Gary Erickson, Sharon Erickson’s husband, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Jody was stunned by this turn of events, saying, “When Gary was diagnosed, it was really, really sad. It was almost unbelievable that another person in the family could be diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.” Though she finds her long runs to be difficult, she draws her strength from Gary’s fight. “I try to think about what he is going through when I run,” she explains. Gary’s strength in the face of his diagnosis inspires Jody. “When I talk to Gary, he doesn’t even bring up that he is sick. He doesn’t want people to feel sorry for him,” Jody says.
Before her family’s two experiences with pancreatic cancer, Jody knew very little about the illness. What she learned after Sharon’s diagnosis is that most people with pancreatic cancer do not survive. Now, it seems that she is hearing of other people who have been diagnosed with the disease on a weekly basis. “I am running for all of them. I am running for people who I don’t even know,” Jody says. “It is huge for me to be able to spread awareness.” Though the thought of running a full marathon is daunting for Jody, she is looking forward to crossing the finish line on race day. “There is just something about Lincoln,” she explains. “Everyone is standing along the sidelines cheering you on.” Facing her biggest running challenge yet, Jody will be completing the Lincoln Marathon for Gary, and everyone else who is battling pancreatic cancer.
Please make a tax-deductible contribution to Jody’s fundraiser at the following link: