May 7, 2018

Twenty people strong, Jayci’s family gets together at the AF Canyon Run Against Cancer to run and walk together while remembering and honoring Jayci. 

It’s a story no family wants to tell. No family wants to find whether they have the resilience and strength to catalyze loss into legacy.

But that’s the challenge Jayci’s family has, and together — with their extended family — they gather each year at the AF Canyon Run Against Cancer. There, they run together and walk together, talk and listen together, and remember Jayci.

Be sure to listen to our conversation with Jayci’s parents and sisters on Apple Podcasts or Google Play, or play it right here:


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Jayci's Story

It’s not exactly right to say that Jayci was a “normal” girl. “She was an extremely remarkable child,” says her mom, Heather. “My husband and I felt very fortunate her whole life, just to be her parents. When she got sick, it was no different. She taught us so many things through her battle. She was going to smile always, no matter what was happening.”

Jayci was just twelve years old when she began showing symptoms — “of things not being right in her body,” as her mom says. In March of 2013 Jayci was diagnosed with cancer at Primary Children’s Hospital.

“We had a whirlwind year while she battled cancer,” Heather says. “We spent more nights inpatient in the hospital than we did out that year and fought with everything we had.”

After fighting hard for almost a year, Jayci passed away, just a couple weeks after her thirteenth birthday.

A Race Like Jacyi

Only a couple months after Jayci passed away, Heather joined a group of friends to go to American Fork and run the AF Canyon Run Against Cancer. Heather’s friends were there to run the half marathon in honor of her daughter; Heather did the 5K, saying “I was not a runner like they were.”

And that’s how Heather found something special about this event. “I found that the race itself just embodied those very things that Jayci had taught me,” she says. “Everyone's smiling, and moving forward, and tackling what's right in front of them, and helping and encouraging each other.”

“I love the whole feeling of it,” Heather says.

Every year since then, more and more family has come, with twenty or more coming last year: Jayci’s grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. And of course, above all else, her parents and sisters. Some family members run it very fast; some take their time and walk it slow.

Regardless of what speed they go, says Heather, “It's something in our family that is just about Jayci. Of course we feel her with us at Christmas and Easter and family reunions and all the different times of year. But this specific weekend in American Fork is purely honoring herand what she taught us through her fight.”

“It's just a good chance for us to all get together and remember her,” says her dad, Coby, “and also support those that are going through it right now. Maybe we can offer some sort of help to those that are dealing with it at this time.”

During the Race

At the AF Canyon Run Against Cancer, little things are important. Coby recalls, “I remember there being a poster up along the race, saying ‘My sister is my guardian angel; I love her and miss her,’ written by her sister Halle. We saved that and brought it home.”

Halle, Jayci’s youngest sister, will be eleven at this year’s AF Canyon Run Against Cancer, and will be her third time entering. Which means she has been running this race since before she can really remember, and plans to keep doing it every year. She loves seeing everyone, the matching shirts that say “Fight Like Jayci” they all wear together.

Jayci’s 14-year-old sister Halle, says she doesn’t really like running, but she loves doing this race every year. “I always look forward to having all of my family up there together because a lot of them I never see, or I don't get to see very often,” says Halle. “And so we all really come together and do this as a family.”

The race is a good time to walk and talk about their favorite memories of Jayci, says Halle. “I was with my older cousin, and we have all these memories with [Jayci]. We share memories and we were just laughing at all the funny memories,” she recalls.

“And,” she says, “I like the French toast at the end.”

“Jayci taught us so many things through her battle,” says Heather, Jayci’s mom. “We learned that she was going to take on whatever was right in front of her, and she was going to take it on with a smile and accept the challenge and go for it.”

Which is exactly what Jayci’s family is doing now.

 

April 30, 2018

Since the very first AF Canyon Run Against Cancer, Ryan Hecox has been there, making sure runners’ drop bags are waiting for them at the finish line. As a radiation physicist, he’s definitely overqualified for the job.

It doesn’t matter that the AF Canyon Run Against Cancer happens in June; it’s still coldat Tibble Fork Reservoir at 5:30 am. Smart runners will have packed sweats, blankets, gloves and hats to keep warm with, while they wait for start time. 

The question is, though: what to do with all that stuff once it’s time to race?

Luckily, the answer to that question is very simple: you stuff it in a specially marked bag provided by the race and drop it off by the “drop bag” truck. Then — almost as if by magic — your gear is waiting for you at the finish line — sorted and handed to you by a friendly race volunteer.

How does that happen? Well, with a lot of commitment, smarts, hard work and a good plan — all of which since-the-beginning race volunteer Ryan Hecox has in spades.

But “Race Volunteer” doesn’t even begin to cover Ryan, because Ryan’s day job is as a physicist, working behind the scenes to help people fight cancer.

Listen to our conversation with Ryan on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or right here:


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Behind the Scenes

Ryan is a friendly man with a big smile and a booming voice — a real people person. So it’s a little surprising to find that he’s got the ultimate “behind the scenes” volunteer job in the AF Canyon Run Against Cancer: “I have the glamorous role of being in charge of the drop the bags,” Ryan says, with a laugh.

And he’s been there, taking care of this increasingly large role — while the race had around 900 people the first year, it’s now closer to 4000 — right since the first year of the race.

With responsibility for thousands of drop bags, Ryan obviously needs help. And he has it, in the form of about forty people working with him to get those bags collected, transported, unloaded, and sorted in time.

It’s a race of its own, of sorts, walking a fine line between the rush to beat the clock (and the racers), and the need to stay calm and organized.

Ryan’s got a gift for this frantic work, though: In just over an hour — because some of the runners do this downhill half-marathon fast — Ryan and his crew need to load, transport, unload, and sort literally thousandsof numbered drop bags. And Ryan gets it done.

How?

“I love organizing things. I like numbers. I like order. I like bringing some structure to this,” says Ryan. “I guess that’s why I was ‘volun-told’ I’d be doing the drop-bags.”

Ryan doesn’t mind this high-energy manual labor, though. In fact, he sees amazing value in doing it, because, as he says, “the funds from the runner entries for this race go directly to our patients. It's really satisfying to be able to provide this for our patients to be able to take care of lots of little needs.”

The Physicist

The organized, analytical part of Ryan’s personality certainly gets a workout as he does his day job: working as a physicist with Intermountain Healthcare at the radiation therapy departments in American Fork Hospital and Utah Valley Hospital.

That’s where — once again behind the scenes — Ryan really makes a difference in peoples’ lives.

“I’m in charge of the radiation therapy process,” says Ryan. “After a patient is diagnosed and they go through all the pathology, radiology, medical oncology, and radiation oncology, if it's decided that a radiation treatment is warranted, the oncologist says what needs to be treated — how much radiation.”

“At that point,” says Ryan, “It becomes a physics problem: pointing the beam in the right direction, making sure the right amount of radiation comes out, that the computer model for it is accurate.”

“My job,” he says, “is to make sure every single treatment, every single time is perfect.”

“Because,” Ryan concludes, “that's the only thing that's acceptable.”

 

April 23, 2018

As the founder and editor of Utah Valley Magazine, Jeanette Bennett may know Utah Valley better than anyone else. And that’s only one of the reasons she loves the AF Canyon Run Against Cancer.

If you’ve lived in Utah Valley, you almost certainly know about and read Utah Valley Magazine, which Jeanette Bennett and her husband launched back in 2000, and describe as a publication “for people who love the valley.”

What you may not know, however, is that Jeanette and her small staff — in addition to Utah Valley Magazine, also publish Utah Valley Business Quarterly, and Utah Valley Bride magazines, along with the daily UtahValley360.com site and several custom publications.

And she’s a mom of four young children.

With everything on her plate, you could well wonder how Jeanette is able to find time to be a runner. But she does find time, and it’s important. In fact, she is able to find time to run the AF Canyon Run Against Cancer each year…during which she’s had some extraordinary moments that have to be heard to be believed. Listen to our conversation with Jeanette on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or right here:


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Early Days

Like many of us, Jeanette didn’t really see herself as an “athlete” — certainly not as a runner — when she was growing up. “I was interested in journalism; I wasn't really an athlete other than playing on my church teams and enjoying watching sports. It wasn't my passion and I didn't really even think I had the proficiency for it.”

So what changed? Jeanette says, “I graduated from college, got married, and had a family. I had my fourth child, I was thirty, and I just started feeling like — for physical and mental reasons — I needed to spend a little time outside, alone, and to get my body moving, get my blood pumping.”

And for Jeanette, that meant running, which brought some much-needed time to think. “I put on some shoes,” she says, “and I started walking — then running — always by myself. And at that time, I never listened to anything. I just wanted to hear the silence and hear my thoughts.”

“It was important,” she emphasizes. “It was valuable.” And perhaps critically, it was one thing she was doing just for herself. “I didn't even really tell friends or anything,” Jeanette says, “because I didn't want them to think I was thinking I was a ‘runner.’ I was just doing it for a mental benefits.”

Running For Grandma Lola

It wasn’t too long before Jeanette noticed the changes that a regular running schedule brings, and she signed up for a 5K. She ran the whole thing, felt great, and found herself hungry for more. She found herself running more 5Ks, the Ragnar Relay…and eventually, signing up for the AF Canyon Run Against Cancer — the 5K version at first, and then working her way up to the half marathon.

And when Jeanette picked up her race packet, she found herself facing a question. “There was a sticker that I could put on that said I could run for someone who had had cancer,” Jeanette says. “I hadn't really thought about that until I was sitting there, but my Grandma, Lola Dawn Reeve, she died of cancer when I was 10. That just seemed obvious and cool to be able to run with her name on my back.”

Jeanette continues, “I loved coming down the Canyon and doing the whole race and seeing all the supportive signs. I got choked up several times that morning, just thinking about the people who are running alongside me and the beautiful signs and stories posted along the way.”

And in the beautiful AF Canyon, supportive people and signs all around her, with her grandma’s name on her back, Jeanette had a remarkable experience. “I'm going to think about my grandma and everything I can remember about her,” Jeanette thought.

“I knew she was an English major, and I'm a journalism major,” Jeanette thought. “and she sang and played the piano; I play the piano and organ and I enjoy singing. I thought about her family and how she had started with four kids, two girls, two boys.”

“We’re a lot alike,” Jeanette thought.

As she continued to dwell on her grandma, Jeanette thought more about her grandma Lola’s children. “She had a large gap and a little girl, my favorite aunt Mary. I thought about that and my family. I had two girls, and two boys at the time.”

“Then I had this really cool experience,” Jeanette explains, “where I felt like she was with me and expressed that I would still have my ‘Mary,’ who was her youngest daughter.

“I thought about that the rest of the race,” continues Jeanette. “Okay. I have a little girl left.”

“And when I got home, my daughter said she had had a dream that morning that for either her birthday or Christmas, she had a gift of a baby sister. I asked her to tell me everything about the dream. And I ended up being due — with a baby girl — on that daughter's birthday the next year.”

“And I named that baby Lola,” concludes Jeanette, “after my grandma.”

A Utah Valley Race

Jeanette is the editor-in-chief of Utah Valley Magazine, and as part of her job, talks with people about their lives in Utah Valley all the time. As such, she has a great sense of how the AF Canyon Run Against Cancer fits into this community.

“There's so much heart. There's so much purpose,” Jeanette says, describing both the people of Utah Valley and the AF Canyon Run Against Cancer. “And this particular race has so much heart and just ties into what Utah Valley is all about. You learn a little bit more about cancer. You learned more about what people are dealing with. And it's inspiring.”

“Utah County people love to read a story about overcoming challenges, and that's what this race is so full of,” says Jeanette. “And, we're supporting a local cancer research and treatment facility.”

“That feels right,” Jeanette concludes. “That feels good.”

 

April 16, 2018

He’s a hospital administrator by day, an outdoor enthusiast in his free time. She’s incredibly detail-oriented and loves to run to clear her head. Together, they’re making a real difference in cancer patients’ lives.

Kevin Brooks had just finished doing an overnight relay race in Southern Utah with some friends. Exhausted and sleep-deprived, the conversation wandered over to the topic of downhill runs and the question of why nobody had put on a race down American Fork Canyon.

The question stuck with Kevin more than you’d think any idea born of a post-race rambling might. By the end of the next workday, the question had blossomed into an idea.

Listen to race organizers Kevin and Holly talk about the beginnings of the  AF Canyon Run Against Cancer, the people who participate, and what makes this race important on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or right here:


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Origin Story

Like many great ideas, in hindsight Kevin’s idea seems very simple. “It's got to be one of the most beautiful venues on the planet, and it certainly is a special place for me, my family, and the community. I left work and drove up to Tibble Fork Reservoir. It just reaffirmed, this road is awesome. Then I reset my odometer, drove down the canyon to the hospital…and it was 12.8 miles.”

“I have something here,” thought Kevin.

By itself, the American Fork Canyon run makes a fine route. But a combination of circumstances and work is what turned this idea into an event that is truly special.

“We had a close friend and colleague of ours who was diagnosed with breast cancer at about the time I was given the responsibility to oversee cancer services at the hospital,” says Kevin. “And it all came together.”

The AF Canyon Run Against Cancer was born.

Putting it All Together

Of course, having an idea for an event is one thing, but making it happen— and furthermore making it happen well— is the difference between fantasy and reality.

And that’s where race director Holly Hardy comes in.

“When I first started planning the race,” says Holly, “I thought, ‘It can't be that hard, you know: get some bibs, have a finish line.’ But there are so many details of everything you have to do, from the perfect medal for everybody, and making sure everyone has safety pins in their bag. There's a million details you have to think of.”

“Holly does such excellent work,” adds Kevin. “She goes above and beyond in making sure this is about cancer services. As you run down the canyon, you'll see these signs that are often quotes from our runners’ lives. We hear people say, ‘I was running out of the canyon and I got choked up.’ Well, people don't realize the amount of work that goes into those: sifting through thousands of quotes, getting those printed, and then putting them up in the canyon. It's a ton of work.”

Bigger & Better

Holly and Kevin focus on improving the race with each passing year. “The race has changed so much since the first year,” says Kevin. “The first year was Holly, Craig Nielsen, myself, and a couple friends. We had about 900 people come race, which was big for the first time.”

“But we didn't sleep for three days before the race,” says Kevin, “and we were just dead tired. I think we pulled it off fairly well, but this year we'll have over 4,200 participants across all the events."

“We have between 200 and 300 volunteers to help us now,” Kevin notes, “so we get a little more sleep.”

The People Who Matter

Kevin notes that the run makes a big difference in the lives of many people fighting cancer right now. “You hear stories of people who may even have insurance, but their deductibles or copays are out of reach or strains their budget when they're traveling from rural communities and they need money for gas or hotels. Many cancer patients lose their hair and they don't have money for wigs or scarves.”

“So in addition to providing a lot of cancer care,” says Kevin, “we provide a lot of those soft services as well. We give out a lot of gas cards. We pay for a lot of hotels and we do buy some minor equipment on occasion that really benefits our patients.”

For both Kevin and Holly, one of the most rewarding aspects of putting on the AF Canyon Run Against Cancer is seeing the people who are either runners or supporting the runners. “One of my best friends from high school passed away from cancer just a few weeks before the race,” says Holly. “Her family and friends all ran in honor of my friend. It’s so meaningful for me, because I'm thinking of her and how that translates into so many other people's lives.”

“People are shocked,” Kevin adds, “at the emotional impact of running and seeing families at the finish line. They hug and embrace, and they're all wearing the same tee shirts and they realize they participated in something that's really a step above your average race.” 

April 9, 2018

Amber’s a busy mom of three girls. She’s a wife, a competitive runner, and a blogger. And she’s in long-haul cancer treatment. There are no two ways about it: Amber is a true inspiration

Amber has always been an early-morning runner. Until recently, she’d get up and go running on the trails and paths in her Oregon town, while her husband would stay at home with the kids and run on the treadmill — his little early-morning gift to her.

Things have changed lately, though. “I don't have the energy to get up at five in the morning anymore,” says Amber. The cancer treatment and surgery take a lot of her energy these days. Still, Amber gets out and runs. “My three-year-old still loves to run with me. She will wake me up in the morning and tell me that it's time to take a run.”

“That is a big motivation,” Amber says, “but it's kind of a little bond between us too.”

Be sure to listen to our inspirational conversation with Amber on Apple Podcasts or Google Play, or listen to it right here:


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Diagnoses

It took Amber some time, frustration, and her own initiative to discover what was wrong. “I started feeling a little bit off at the beginning of the year,” she says. “I called my gynecologist and they said, ‘oh, it's no big deal. It's just because you had a baby, you're an old mother.’ But I continued to have a lot of pain in my abdomen and I self-diagnosed that I had fibroids, since I'd had them when I was pregnant.”

The pain kept getting worse, however, and Amber could even feel the tumor bump herself. “I ended up going in to a primary care physician. The doctor said, ‘you need to get into see your gynecologist.’ And I said, ‘”Well, I need a new gynecologist because mine won't get me in to see me.’”

Even feeling terrible and not knowing why, Amber ran the AF Canyon Run Against Cancer. “I did the half marathon that year, and I didn't feel well,” she says. “The whole time I remember thinking, ‘what is wrong with me?’”

“I remember thinking vividly,” Amber says, “‘Well, at least I don't have cancer. Look at all these people that are doing this, fighting for their lives. I can deal with little bit of abdominal pain.’”

Amber’s frustration in trying to find a doctor who would help continued. “While I was visiting Utah, I tried to get in to see a doctor there, and it didn't work,” she says. “Two weeks later, once I was back home in Oregon I finally found a doctor who would see me — and immediately they started blood work and ultrasounds and CT scans.”

Finally, Amber had a doctor who was ready and willing to help, but only to find some of the worst news possible.

“I was diagnosed in July with stage four colon cancer,” Amber says. “The tumor I had found by palpating my abdomen had attached to one of my ovaries. My colon was almost fully blocked with another tumor.

Treatment

Since diagnosis two years ago, Amber has been in near-continuous treatment, working to keep the cancer at bay. “I had emergency surgery two days [after diagnosis],” she says, “and they were able to remove about a foot and a half of my transverse colon and they were also able to remove the tumor and my ovary.”

That tumor, Amber says, was about six inches — “about the size of a toy football.”

And that was the beginning of Amber’s was the beginning of my journey. “About six weeks after that, I started the chemo regimen that I am still on. The cancer had moved to my lungs and my liver and kind of all throughout my abdomen.”

“While they were able to remove the primary tumor, there's no way that they can go get all the little pieces out of my body,” Amber says. “I was given 24 to 28 months with my original diagnosis based on the drugs that they have that they can use to keep me alive and keep the cancer at bay.”

“So that was kind of harsh,” Amber says, understatedly.

A Day in Amber's Life

Amber has three daughters — a twelve-year-old, a ten-year-old, and a three-year-old. Her older two kids are independent and like to get themselves ready for school in the morning, which gives Amber and her three-year-old an opportunity to get out on a run together. “She likes to get pushed in the stroller,” Amber says. “It's kind of a little bond between us.”

This fusion of priorities — taking care of herself while doing something with one of her girls — is just one example of how Amber manages her life right now. She needs to be efficient. Time and energy are at a premium for Amber; she’s managing stage four cancer.

“As we speak,” Amber says (we are talking just a few minutes after she’s put her girls to bed), “I am hooked up to a chemo pump. Every other week I go for a few hours to the treatment center. They draw my blood, I meet with my doctor, go over all the blood work and what's happening. And then I get hooked up to the drugs, and then they send me home with a pump that runs for 48 hours —I have a permanent port in my chest and tubing going to a little fanny pack for the next two days.”

“I'll feel yucky and down for about seven days and then I can regroup and have my life back for a week,” Amber says. “So it kind of goes week-on, week-off. That's the pattern we're in.”

New Victories

“I’m not training for a marathon ever again,” Amber says. Instead, she has what she calls “a new normal” and priorities that match what she can do. “Training for 5Ks are a big deal, and getting out to run for a few miles with my children or my daughter.”

“I've had to come to an understanding that this is kind of our life now,” Amber says, “and it took some pretty hefty adjustment. I had to stop running with the watch because I was really frustrated that I wasn't running a seven-minute mile or an eight-minute mile.”

The new victory? “I'm running,” Amber says, “or at least I moved my body today.”

Coming Back

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In many ways, the AF Canyon Run Against Cancer is significant to Amber. “It’s a very emotional thing for me, with the ties I have to running it while not knowing I even had cancer… then being diagnosed shortly after.”

“And then I ran it after hitting my year mark, and was celebrating being alive, I guess,” Amber says, “but also coming back home and being able to run with my friends and family and people who had known me pre-cancer.”

“It was a really empowering thing for me to feel like I had accomplished something very big — a 5K,” Amber says. “Which is weird, because in that in the past that would have not been a big deal at all.”

“But then I think,” says Amber, “I'd just finished sixteen rounds of chemo. It was such a beautiful thing for me to be able to do that and say, ‘No, cancer doesn't have a hold on me. I have a hold on cancer.”

“I continue to do this for my children and for my family,” concludes Amber. “Because that's what I do.”

Amber will be back, along with her family, for this year’s AF Canyon Run Against Cancer. “It gives them a way to feel like that they are showing their support and giving themselves to something that matters to me,” she says. “I think that's a really beautiful thing.”

 

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