‘Blowout’ promised for final race
When the five-woman team of DeLandites Linda Ryan, Kim Winters, Kathy Guyer, Barbara Underhill and Kim Martin organized the first ME STRONG 5K in 2012, the group had no idea how big the race would get.
The first year, the women hoped for 300 participants, to cover expenses. They got 800. In 2020, more than 6,000 signed up to run.
Now, after 10 years of races and nearly $2 million raised to help people battling cancer, the group is ready for a victory lap and final race. But some of ME STRONG’s work is indelible.
“The event really has united the community,” Ryan told The Beacon.
The decision to call it quits wasn’t easy, but as the race has grown, the women have found their passion project has turned into full-time jobs.
“We realize what we’ve done, but we’re all at different points in our lives,” Underhill said. “I have four grandkids now, and I want to be a grandma.”
The ME STRONG founders hope the end of the annual 5K will inspire others to create new community-building events to replace it.
They are also looking forward to being just friends again, and not necessarily co-organizers.
“I don’t think we’ve sat at a table in the last 11 years without me having a laptop in front of me,” Martin said.
How it all started
The story began when Linda Ryan moved to DeLand in 1999 and became fast friends with the women who, with Ryan, would become the ME STRONG team.
“It was such a tightknit community,” she said. “But I quickly learned how welcoming this community is.”
She fell in with Winters, Guyer, Underhill and Martin thanks to connections through St. Barnabas Episcopal School. All four women worked there, while Ryan’s children were attending the school.
Over the years, Ryan has fought off cancer several times. First thyroid cancer, and then cervical cancer in 2004, and again in 2011. Shortly after running a marathon in 2011, a lump in her neck caused her to go to the doctor and learn her cancer was back.
She was recently diagnosed with cancer again, and underwent chemotherapy. Her outlook is positive, she said.
To provide some support for their friend, a runner, after her 2011 diagnosis, the group of women decided they would organize a race to support her and bring awareness to her struggle and the struggle so many other people endure in battling cancer.
“Originally, we thought we were putting on one event, just a 5K,” Winters told The Beacon. “We had no idea we were starting a charity and it would grow into what it did.”
Their goal was only to recoup the cash they spent organizing the race, but when around 800 people signed up for that first 5K, the group decided to incorporate ME STRONG as a charity and use the excess cash to help others.
The women named the race ME STRONG after Ryan’s blog, which she kept as a record of her life and her cancer battles.
As the ME STRONG 5K became a DeLand tradition, it continued to grow and grow.
“She was really into running when she was diagnosed,” Martin said. “It was a gift that turned into a very successful nonprofit.”
The 2020 ME STRONG race brought in the most attendees and donations so far, Treasurer Barbara Underhill said. With around 6,400 racers, the charity made about $350,000, all of which was put toward helping cancer patients and survivors pay expenses like mortgages and utility bills. The five organizers take no money.
“It’s been very rewarding,” Underhill said. “To see how the community has rallied behind it is really unbelievable.”
ME STRONG stories from the community
“We started doing it when my dad was in remission from cancer. The first year we did it, we got everyone to wear Team Charlie shirts and surprise him. Sadly, he passed away in 2014 from cancer. But now we do it every year in his honor and memory.”
— Karen Jackson
“I did the virtual race last time. I was just diagnosed with thyroid cancer in November 2020. I had to prove to myself there were things that I had to do by myself to become a survivor. I was proud to be a cancer survivor for my first race, although virtual.”
— Judith Ochse
“I’ve participated almost every year for family members. From grandparents, and aunts, to most recently, both of my parents. It’s my favorite day of the year, and it’s also the most emotionally charged and hard, too. Truly the most complex, grief-filled, happiest and healing day, for me personally.”
— Stephanie Kelly-Thompson
“I lost my mother in 2008 to a seven-year battle with cancer, so ME STRONG is near and dear to my family. We have participated in every race since 2014.”
— Jason Godwin
“In 1997, when I was a freshman at DeLand High School, my 35-year-old mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had cancer multiple times and is still alive, living here in DeLand. In 2013, I was tested and learned I carry the BRCA1 gene. I had preventative surgeries in 2016, becoming a ‘previvor.’ In 2019, myself and my children began running the race. We are so sad to see it end.”
— Amy Duffy
“My brother-in-law battled esophageal cancer for several years and passed away in 2018. I’ll be running this year for my dear friend who is currently battling breast cancer. Participating in ME STRONG is a small way I can support those I love battling this awful, difficult disease.”
— Rachel Parker Sarro
One last race
The final race will be a blowout, the organizers said. The group has branded the final race the ME STRONG Victory Lap, and they’re aiming for more donations, more runners and more of everything.
They didn’t want the tradition to end with the 2021 race, which had to change due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
That year, the race was a “virtual” 5K. Except for picking up a T-shirt and packet, participants were on their own, and free to travel 5 kilometers (3.1 miles) however they liked, as well as wherever and whenever they wanted.
“If people wanted to ride their Peloton, or kayak, or ride a bike, or whatever they chose to do for exercise, the goal was just to keep moving,” Ryan said. “That’s one of the foundations that ME STRONG was built on: physical activity.”
People got pretty creative, too. Some people ran, Ryan said, one person rode a horse, and another even parachuted.
But, come 2022, the group is back to storming the streets of DeLand and encouraging the community to run together for a good cause.
The “Victory Lap” tagline is exemplified by a giveaway for a spruced-up 2000 Corvette donated for a fundraising raffle by DeLand dentist Dr. Anthony Visconti. Chances to win the car are available for $20 each.
“I just love ME STRONG,” Visconti said. “It’s a great thing they do for DeLand.”
Visconti has long been a friend and supporter of the race. In 1984, he lost his mother, Sheila Visconti, to pancreatic cancer.
“She fought it hard, like Linda,” he said.
To see his friends working together to support others fighting cancer touched his heart.
The money from the Corvette raffle and this year’s race will be used to operate ME STRONG’s philanthropic efforts until they run out of funds. Treasurer Underhill said she believes the funds, which will help cancer patients and survivors pay bills, should last around a year after the race.
The race has touched many in and around DeLand, from cancer survivors to family members who lost loved ones to the disease. The race will soon be over, but the memories — and the impacts Ryan, Winters, Guyer, Martin and Underhill have had on the DeLand community — aren’t going anywhere.
“This is just an amazing adventure I’ve been on,” Martin said. “I’m tearful it’s coming to an end, but joyful it’s affected so many people. I think it’s made the town a better place.”
Ryan agreed. Ending the tradition they started 10 years ago is bittersweet, she said. That’s in part because none of the women expected it would become as big as it did.
“Our goal was 300 [participants], and the numbers kept climbing and climbing,” Ryan said. “I remember we were having a meeting saying, ‘What does 500 people running through the streets of DeLand even look like?’”
Thanks to the ME STRONG organizers, not only have DeLandites learned what 500 people running through the city’s streets looks like, but they know what 6,000 looks like, too.
“We started this as a gift for Linda. It’s turned into a gift to the community and the other people battling cancer in our community,” Martin said. “We want to go out on a high knowing we gave it all we had to give, and I think that’s the right thing for the five of us.”
Want to get involved and take part in the final ME STRONG race? Visit the organization’s website, www.mestrong.net.