Going beyond finish line

Triathlons for charity

Ellicott City cancer survivor races to raise funds

July 19, 2008|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Sun Reporter

Elysabeth Ray hates to run.

"My friends say the only place they ever saw me run was around a corner to buy myself a soda," she said, laughing.

But that was before the "Boogity Man" came into her life. The Boogity Man is what Ray calls cancer when discussing it with her children. Ray, 37, was diagnosed with leukemia five years ago when she was 14 weeks' pregnant with her daughter Jordan.

She has already run and won her biggest race: the race to save her life and that of her then-unborn child.

Now, cancer-free, the Ellicott City resident who runs triathlons to raise money for charities comes near tears.

"I just start crying," said Ray, when talking about her daughter's recent birthday. "When Jordan was about to be born, I had to say goodbye to my family - to my husband, my 15-month-old son, my mom and dad - before they took me to the delivery room. They were sure I was going to die, and they were sure my daughter wouldn't make it or she'd have all kinds of lifelong burdens. My sister is learning-disabled. I know what that path looks like. But here is my daughter. Five. A little whiny and super girlie, but she can spell, read a few words. She's a normal little girl."

Ray's friends, however, think Jordan's mom is "a little crazy" to be running triathlons.

"They say, 'Why are you doing this?' " she said. "I say, 'It's a nice day for a bike ride. It's better than a hospital bed.' "

Tomorrow she will compete in the eighth annual Nautica NYC Triathlon, where she will swim a mile, bike 25 miles and run 6.2 miles.

Over five years, Ray's efforts through her nonprofit Here's Why (hereswhy.org) have raised about $50,000, 100 percent of which has gone to charities.

The Nautica NYC Triathlon will be the last one she runs for her own nonprofit, though Ray said she would continue to race and raise funds "until I'm gone or cancer is."

Her dedication has inspired many, including her childhood friend Jason Jones.

"Before she got sick, she was never like this," said Jones, who, at Ray's urging, will run his first triathlon tomorrow. "I don't think she did anything as a kid. Maybe a bike ride once in a while. But she never raced in anything. She never raised money for a cause. She never marshaled friends together to help others the way she does now. Now, she's very caring about others and every day she talks about life itself being a gift."

Ray isn't an athlete. She's a 5-foot-9, 130-pound mother of five. At the time she was diagnosed, Ray and her husband, Dustin, had one son, Jackson, then 1, and Jordan in her womb. Since Jordan's birth and Ray's return to good health, they have added a daughter, Darien, 2, and twins, Joss and Quinn, both 1.

Her goal tomorrow is simply to finish the race.

"I'm not even trying to win," she said. "I haven't trained at all."

Ray was diagnosed with leukemia in February 2003, but thanks to a bone marrow transplant from her sister Kim Stubbs, she is healthy.

One night, shortly after her transplant, she had a vision of herself crossing a finish line.

"I was wearing a shirt with my kids' pictures on it," she said. "I was running some kind of race. Later, when I looked for something to compete in, I chose triathlons because they require the least running to cross a finish line."

When Ray set out to enter her first race, the Disney Triathlon in 2004, her sister Kim, who has learning disabilities, volunteered to enter with her.

"My sister had never been able to ride a bike without training wheels," Ray said. "But she learned. There she was at 35, learning to ride her bike so she could compete with me."

Ray also formed Here's Why so she could help others.

Each year the nonprofit picks a charity to support. Tomorrow, Ray will be running for the New York City Memorial-Sloan Kettering Cancer Center Adult Transplant Unit, which performed her transplant.

"I've been running so others may cross the finish line, too," she said. "Here's why I run. I run in honor of my children, in honor of my sister, in honor of our fallen friends and for those others."

But while she will continue to run and seek donations for other charities, she will discontinue Here's Why at the end of the year.

"I was filling out legal papers for the nonprofit and my kids said, 'Mommy, come play.' And I realized I'd lost sight of why I had started the charity in the first place," she said. "My kids were why I fought so hard to live. I've worn that shirt with the picture of my children on it across the finish line. I want to spend quality time with them."

sandra.mckee@baltsun.com

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