Nathan Brand, 36, of Perryville said he started running to lose weight, but he decided to make the miles more meaningful.
He and a running buddy founded Grace Race last year in the small Perry County community.
“We just wanted to help families that had hardships with medical bills,” Nathan said.
The 5K race was named for Maddie Grace Windle, 11, of Aplin, who is being treated for Wilms’ tumor, a kidney cancer.
Nathan and Josh Dewees created the race, and Nathan’s wife, Shannon, 34, helped with it.
Soon afterward, Shannon’s mother, Martha Zulpo of Little Italy, was diagnosed with colon cancer. She also became a recipient of the first race’s proceeds.
“We’d never put on a race before,” Nathan said. “We jumped in headfirst.”
The event raised enough money that, after expenses, each recipient received $3,100.
Maddie’s mother, Gina Windle, said Grace Race was a blessing in more ways than one.
“They’re just phenomenal people,” Windle said of Nathan and Shannon. “They saw a need, and they took an interest that they already had — running — and they just incorporated the two together. It turned out to be a tremendous blessing, not just for us but for everybody involved.”
Windle said Maddie got home from a chemotherapy treatment the day before last year’s race, “and she was so pumped and excited, she did the whole thing. She didn’t run it all, but she finished. We consider that pretty miraculous,” Windle said. “Everybody was cheering her on, and she felt like a hero.
“It got the whole community involved. It got people running. People started running who had never run in their whole lives.”
She said Maddie returned home March 7 from Arkansas Children’s Hospital, where she underwent a stem-cell transplant. She said her daughter is “thriving.”
Nathan is director of this year’s Grace Race, which will be April 26 during Fourche River Days in downtown Perryville.
Windle said Maddie plans to be there, although she may not be able to walk the entire route this year.
Shannon, 34, just received her own cancer diagnosis.
“I have been having pain in my right side for a couple of years,” Shannon said.
She said ultrasounds didn’t show anything amiss, and she figured it was her gallbladder.
“At a physical probably two weeks ago, I said, ‘The only thing that’s bothering me is my side,’” she said.
The doctor sent her to have an MRI the next day.
“There is a cancerous mass on my right kidney, and surgery will be the best option at this point, and then we will go further with whatever we need to do,” she said.
Shannon received good news last week when a surgeon told her that in the “best-case scenario,” she would have part or all of her kidney removed and possibly no chemotherapy.
She is scheduled for surgery April 30, four days after Grace Race.
“So, I get to be at the race, thank God,” she said.
Nathan emphasized that Shannon will not benefit from the race proceeds.
“It’s ironic, what we do, and now she comes down with it,” he said. “She’s not a recipient this year at all. We didn’t choose this; I promise you that.”
Shannon said the recipients of Grace Race can be “anybody with life-threatening illness. It just so happens that all the recipients we’ve been choosing do have cancer.”
The recipients of this year’s Grace Race proceeds are Perry County residents Nicole Evans, who has breast cancer, and Floye Zimmerman, who has colon cancer, Shannon said.
Shannon said her mother’s cancer is in remission, although she has a “rare blood disorder.”
“My mother’s dad, my grandpa, just died last year of colon cancer, so it does run in the family,” Shannon said.
“As crazy as it may sound, my mother lost her kidney in 2001, but it was due to something totally different,” Shannon said. “She had hydronephrosis. Her kidney had just stopped working.”
Shannon said she became a runner because Nathan encouraged her to run.
“I was actually quite a bit overweight, and I’ve lost 45 pounds running with him,” Shannon said. “He basically coached me. I kept on and on.”
The Brands have two daughters, Marly, 11, and Anna, 8.
“My little girls, especially my youngest — she loves to run. They’ve run several 5Ks with me and their dad,” Shannon said.
“I got the running bug. I fell in love with it,” Nathan said. He wanted his wife to share his newfound hobby.
“I promised her if she started running, I’d do her first half with her,” Nathan said.
In October, the couple ran the Soaring Wings Half Marathon together.
“It’s a good, good feeling,” she said of finishing her first half marathon.
Shannon said she registered months in advance, so “it gave me a goal and it helped me not say ‘I’m not running tonight.’”
Nathan has run four marathons and several half marathons.
This year’s Grace Race, which also embraces walkers, will begin at 8 a.m. at the courthouse in downtown Perryville.
Shannon said the runners who participate come primarily from Perryville, Conway and Morrilton.
“It’s huge for Perryville,” Nathan said of the race. “It’s probably the biggest thing Perryville has ever seen. … This gets all the young people out,” he said.
The Brands said return racers will see improvements to the event this year.
“We had several lessons learned from last year,” Nathan said. No. 1? “Nobody likes to eat spaghetti at 10 o’clock in the morning.”
He said a spaghetti dinner was scheduled immediately after the race.
“It wasn’t just a huge hit,” he said.
Another improvement will be the people helping the event run smoothly.
“We didn’t have near enough volunteers; we recruited a lot more this year,” he said.
Also, Shannon said, the race will be timed this year and will be mapped out.
“We have custom medals this year. Last year, we just had the little cheap finisher medals,” Shannon said.
The cost to enter the race is $25 per person.
“That gets them a goody bag, a race T-shirt and a finishers medal. A silent auction will be held immediately after the race at Mustang Sally’s in Perryville,” she said.
“More than anything, he and I both — we love the idea of the community coming together,” Shannon said. “Last year was amazing. We had such a good time.”
Nathan’s goal is to have 200 participants.
“They usually wait till the last minute; they’ll really flood in,” he said.
Registration can be completed online at www.racesonline.com.
Shannon said it’s hard to believe that her mother was diagnosed with cancer shortly after the race was established, and that she also faces that battle.
She said her mother is understandably upset at Shannon’s cancer news and is “praying like nobody’s ever seen, and she’s just given me hope, and she keeps encouraging me and feeding me the positive.
“I’ve got a great support system, friends and people praying for me, which I’m really blessed with that.”
Nathan said he is “very optimistic” that Shannon will do whatever it takes to get through her cancer journey.
“She’ll be able to dig deep; no doubt she’ll be a fighter,” he said.
Shannon said that with the bills that have come in so far in connection with her diagnosis, she knows how much it means to have financial help.
Nathan said he wants people to participate in Grace Race to help others — emotionally and financially.
“Get out there and run for a reason,” he said. “Get up and help your small community.”
Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or firstname.lastname@example.org.