Elizabeth Downey was only 13 years old when her mother, Maria Downey, passed away from pancreatic cancer. Elizabeth says, “When you are a kid, all you think about is ‘what does this mean to me?’ Not how difficult a struggle it must have been for her.” Maria Downey had been experiencing chronic stomach pain but her doctor could not figure out what was causing it. When her medical team finally uncovered what was ailing Maria, the news was devastating: she had stage IV pancreatic cancer. In 1994, after a year-long battle with pancreatic cancer, 50-year-old Maria passed away. She left behind her children, Elizabeth and Michael, and her husband, Joseph. Now, 21 years later, Elizabeth honored her mother’s memory by running the New York City Marathon with pancreatic cancer charity Project Purple.
It is difficult to imagine just how much the loss of a parent might affect a young teen. Elizabeth explains, “My mom’s death impacted me a lot. It was just my father, my brother and myself that summer before I started high school. I did not have my mom to go back-to-school shopping with or do all of the other things that moms were supposed to do.” Though Elizabeth had to go through her high school years without her mother, other people in her life stepped up the plate. “Dad was amazing,” Elizabeth explains. “He was always there for us. I had lots of aunts who looked out for me. One of my friend’s mom took me prom dress shopping.”
Maria Downey grew up in Brooklyn, NY as part of a large, Italian family. “She was very animated and always cooking,” Elizabeth recalls. “When my mom and dad married, they moved to New Hampshire. It was very different from Brooklyn, but she embraced it.” Maria had been a stay-at-home mom after her kids were born until Elizabeth went into first grade. Then, she took a job as a secretary in the high school. No matter what, family always came first for Maria. She always made time for her children and her community. Elizabeth remembers her mother for her dedication to her family, but also for her toughness and spirit. “She was such a fighter,” Elizabeth says. “My parents kept some stuff from us in terms of how bad her illness was. Mom said, ‘Whatever I have to do for treatment, I will do.’ She went in full force and did not give up until the very end. She wanted our lives to be as normal as possible.”
When Elizabeth was in high school, she was a competitive swimmer. As she grew up, swimming fell by the wayside and she decided to try running to get back into shape. Though she had hated running as a youngster, she soon discovered that it was a great way to relieve stress. “I really miss it when I can’t get out and run,” she says. Elizabeth, who works in Human Resources for Fidelity in Boston, MA, has now run three half-marathons and completed several triathlons.
In 2014, Elizabeth decided that she wanted to bump up her running and try a full marathon. The New York City Marathon was her race of choice. She explains, “I wanted to run in the city where my mom grew up.” She also wanted to run on behalf of a pancreatic cancer charity. She found Project Purple and tried to apply for the New York City Marathon team, but she was too late. Unfortunately, the charity had already filled all of the available spots for the team. Project Purple founder Dino Verrelli personally contacted Elizabeth and encouraged her to reapply in 2015.
Elizabeth applied this year and was readily accepted to the team. She has found training for a full marathon to be challenging and more intense than training for a half-marathon. However, as she got further along in her training cycle, she began adapting to the physical demands of the longer training runs. “When I was training for a half-marathon, I thought that was a crazy distance. Now the half-marathon is starting to seem short,” Elizabeth says.
Elizabeth has been grateful for the experience of running with a charity team. “Everyone has been so generous and supportive. Yes, I am running these crazy distances but it is for a great purpose. It makes you feel good that you are doing something for a cause you really believe in.”
On November 1, 2015, Elizabeth fulfilled her dream of completing the New York City Marathon. She honored her mother Maria, through her fundraising and her running. Elizabeth reflects on her marathon experience, saying, “The marathon was great. What an experience! I’m not going to lie, it was tough but the crowd was awesome and all my friends out on the course cheering really kept me going. I finished in 4 hrs and 51 minutes but I was just happy to get over that finish line. I was really nervous that morning and didn’t know what to expect but once we got to the start I was so fired up, I was just ready to go! I was so proud to run with the Project Purple team and made sure my mom’s picture was pinned to my tank.” Though Elizabeth was devastated to lose her mom at such a young age, she has done all she can to keep her mother’s memory alive.
Please make a contribution to Elizabeth’s Project Purple fundraiser at the following link: