Of the 797 registered runners in Sunday’s 41st Annual Clarence DeMar Marathon, 184 are residents of Keene, and each one has their own story to tell. This is the second of two installments telling a few of those stories.
The dancer who runs
Kristen Leach knows well the divide between art and sports in modern society, but she believes the combination of her artistic skills and athleticism can help to bridge that gap.
Leach, 45, is the artistic director at the N.H. Dance Institute — a local nonprofit organization that educates elementary-school children in choreographed dance — and will run in the DeMar Marathon for the first time Sunday after running the half-marathon four times. She can thank race coordinator Alan Stroshine for the encouragement to take the step up.
“It’s always been a challenge that I’ve wanted to reach, and (Stroshine) was just very encouraging, as well as some dear runner friends of mine,” Leach said. “I was at the rotary meeting when the T-shirt designs came out, and I said, ‘I want that! I want the one with the 26.2,’ and (Stroshine) said, ‘Go get it.’ ”
After making the official decision in May, Leach adjusted her training regimen for the longer race and paired up with the dance institute’s residency director Lisa Cook — a once-committed runner who completed multiple marathons, including Boston, but hadn’t run one in 20 years — to help make the longer workouts more enjoyable.
“We’ll talk and we’ll sing and we’ll dance while we’re running,” Leach said. “Talk about choreography and ideas and stuff.”
Leach is no stranger to the fusion of running and the performing arts. She and her daughter, 18-year-old Jayna Leach, both ran in this past summer’s “4 on the 4th Road Race,” and Jayna — an award-winning violinist — performed the national anthem prior to the race.
Through the dance institute, Leach goes to a number of schools and tries to show children how fun dance can be. Sometimes, she finds, that fusion can be more like a divide when it comes to the young, and to student-athletes.
Leach and Cook can leverage their backgrounds as runners when they try to change bridge that gap.
“It makes us a little more relatable to the kid athletes when you explain to them that you’re registered for a full marathon,” Leach said. “They kind of perk up and listen, and then they start dancing and realize, ‘Oh, this isn’t unlike what I’m doing in my one month for football or soccer.’ ”
And as she works to bring more people into the world of dance, she continues to admire the supporting and inclusive nature of the DeMar and the Keene running community at large.
That community, she said, “Is a family that just loves each other and supports each other. They don’t care about your pace, they don’t care about what time you come in, they care about your journey and your process getting to that finish line.”
Disabled body, able spirit
The fact that Alayne Abbott is registered to run in this year’s DeMar Super Seniors race is nothing short of a miracle.
Just a little more than two years ago, Abbott — Kristen Leach’s mother — couldn’t sit up or lift her head for more than 10 minutes, would vomit every 20 minutes, couldn’t swallow and had very little strength or control over the right side of her body following a hemorrhagic stroke she suffered following a surgical procedure on July 15, 2016.
“It was supposed to be a simple surgery that I did in the hospital overnight and go home the next day,” Abbott said. “I called my daughter that morning and said, ‘I think I’ve had a stroke,’ and I guess she called back, and they said, ‘No, she’s fine,’ and by 9 o’clock that morning, I was apparently back in surgery.
“It ended my life as I knew it.”
But the self-proclaimed “40-year-old in an 83-year-old’s body” didn’t lay down for long. She set to work on a long recovery process that would reduce the frequency of her extreme nausea and return some physical function to her right side, to the point she’s now able to move around with a walker.
“She had to endure all kinds of challenge and discomfort to get up and continue to move her body,” Leach said.
“It’s just plain tenacity and determination and my love for my life and my grandchildren and my daughter and her husband,” Abbott added. “There’s every reason in the world to want to be alive.”
Sunday won’t actually be Abbott’s first marathon since the stroke, as she walked a mile at a half-marathon this past summer in Rockport, Mass., rediscovering the fun and getting out, moving around and being with other people.
“It was such fun. My son walked with me; I have such a cute little walker, and when I was going down the hill, he actually had to slow it down for me because I was walking at quite a pace and he said, ‘Are you sure you can walk that fast?’ ” Abbott said, chuckling. “It was fun to come to the end and have everybody cheer you on. I guess camaraderie is the word that comes to mind, mostly.”
And camaraderie is the name of the game at the DeMar; Abbott said she takes pride being one of the 105 ‘Super Seniors’ taking part in this year’s race.
“They’re all over 70 and everybody has their maladies, and some of them, I tell you, they’re incredible,” Abbott said. “I think the stress I would like to put on this whole thing is you can do it. All you have to do is want to.”
Right beside you
Not everyone at the DeMar is running in one of the races.
Cheshire County Sheriff Eliezer “Eli” Rivera will be among the non-runners, and even though he wanted to be on the course, he still plays an important role.
Rivera, 53, registered for the half-marathon, planning to run for the first time in more than three decades. His son, Ryan Rivera, 25, also registered, and traveled from New York to run and support his father.
But the best laid plans often go awry, and Eli Rivera began experiencing increasing back pain over the course of his training, a leftover side effect of a past back surgery, he said. Eventually he had no choice but to withdraw from the race.
“It kind of sidelined me for about two months, between physical therapy and other things to get my back in place,” Rivera said. “My primary doctor said running short distances is fine, but going for the long distance is not good, so that’s why I kind of gave up on training for the long distance.”
Rivera still intends to be at the race and still intends to traverse the course, but he’ll be going about things a little differently. The new plan is for him to bike alongside his son, with the father now providing the supporting role.
Although things have changed, Rivera said the new arrangement still captures the essential essence of what they were originally going for: getting to do outdoor activities together as a family.
“For the past year-and-a-half or so, I’ve lost 80 pounds, gotten involved in physical fitness, and part of that was to do some running with my children,” Rivera said. “So, the alternative was, ‘Hey, you can run the 13 miles and I’ll bike alongside you, and we’ll still get to do something together as father and son and show that we can do physical activities together,’ which we couldn’t do before because of my weight. So, doing this is something that’s kind of rewarding.”
Rivera said one of the best things about the DeMar Marathon is that people don’t necessarily have to run in order to play a part in the event.
“There’s different ways the community can get involved, by either manning water stations or being at the finish line and cheering the people running,” Rivera said. “So, there’s a place for everyone. Just because you can’t run, that doesn’t mean you can’t participate and have a great time with the Clarence DeMar.”