Waterloo native and marathon enthusiast Chris Benyo has run the Boston Marathon four times by himself, but none of them were as special to him as this year’s event.
On April 21, Chris and his wife Denise participated in the Boston Marathon in a truly unique way.
Denise was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, also known as ALS, just six months after their marriage in June 2010.
ALS is a disease of the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement, with the average lifespan being two to five years after diagnosis.
Since Denise’s diagnosis, the duo have participated in four marathons together, with Chris pushing Denise in her cart.
“After what happened a year ago (at the Boston Marathon), I thought this would be a great opportunity for us to get in and raise some more awareness about ALS,” Chris said.
He contacted one of the ALS charities and informed them of the situation.
“They invited us, so we went,” he said.
Chris described how there are always a lot of people who turn out for the Boston Marathon, but this year was a whole different atmosphere in the wake of last year’s tragic bombing.
“Boston was definitely making a statement,” he said. “Nothing is going to stop us or take away from our marathon.”
The Boston Marathon, as Chris described it, is a huge party and celebration every year.
“The place was absolutely packed,” he said. “In previous times, there were a lot of places along the way without many people.”
The race runs through rural Massachusetts until it finishes in the city of Boston.
This time, the entire route, including the rural parts, was lined with people.
“It was sometimes 10 people deep, screaming and cheering the racers on,” he said. “It was unbelievable.”
The crowd was especially receptive to Chris and Denise.
“All I had to do was make eye contact or wave at somebody, and they’d all go absolutely nuts,” he said.
In addition to the spectators, the runners were “just as awesome.”
“I thought they would think we were a nuisance, but they were unbelievable,” he said. “Denise says we had somewhere between 500 and 1,000 runners that as they ran by us, acknowledged us somehow, whether it was giving us a thumbs up or telling us we were an inspiration.”
Chris said one guy even told Denise she was beautiful because she was smiling the whole way.
“It was just completely amazing,” he said.
As the race went on, Chris said he had forgotten how hilly the course gets.
He got to the point where he couldn’t run up the hills anymore. Though many runners stopped and asked him if he needed help, he knew he needed to do it all himself.
“They understood and were just being unbelievably generous,” he said. “I still get goosebumps thinking about it.”
Chris said Denise told him she didn’t really “get” the Boston Marathon until she experienced it firsthand.
“She thanked me for sharing the experience with her,” he said. “She was so moved by it.”
Chris said the Boston Athletic Association “bent over backwards” to make it as easy as possible for Chris and Denise to participate in the marathon.
With ALS and where Denise is at with the disease, she can’t sit in a stroller for five hours because it’s very uncomfortable, he said.
The lady in charge of the athletes who are mobility-impaired found a friend who lives right near the start of the race and allowed the Benyos to park in her driveway so Denise could sit in her power chair for as long as she needed to before being transferred to the cart to begin the race.
“They made it as easy for us as they possibly could,” he said. “I can’t thank them enough.”
Chris said the moment that moved him the most was all the runners acknowledging what they were doing and telling them they were an inspiration.
“That was the No. 1 moment for me,” he said.
The duo raised just under $10,000 for ALS research by doing this race.
“That’s really good considering we reached a lot of new people,” he said.
Their goal every time they do a race together is to raise $26,000 — $1,000 for each mile.
“It’s OK that we didn’t reach that for Boston because we were just seeking to get the awareness out,” Chris said.
In addition to Boston, they participated in the New Jersey Marathon on April 27, just six days later.
“That’s kind of her hometown marathon,” Chris said of Denise, who is from New Jersey. “She grew up along the shore and several of the communities we run through.”
Several of the Benyos’ friends joined them for the New Jersey run, which Chris said always makes the run extra special.
Though he is a 1983 graduate of Gibault Catholic High School in Waterloo, he currently teaches in the Naperville school district outside of Chicago. Some of his fellow teacher friends from Naperville joined the Benyos for the New Jersey run.
“We’re looking forward to seeing family along the course and just enjoying the shore,” he said last Friday. “We’re not going to race it. We just want to have a good time.”
Sunday marked the Benyos’ third New Jersey Marathon and their fourth marathon together.
He said some of his friends had planned to help push Denise, which was good because he was still sore from Boston.
“It’s a good ambition and a good sore,” he said. “The awareness is what it’s all about.”
There is no known cure for ALS, and its effects are not reversible. Research has focused on finding the cause of neuron degeneration and stopping it.
Those wishing to contribute to Chris and Denise’s fund-raising goal for ALS research can email Chris at email@example.com.