Waterloo native Chris Benyo has run more than 30 marathons in 22 states throughout his life.
But the one he plans to run in May will trump them all.
“It will be pretty emotional,” he said.
Benyo, 46, a 1983 graduate of Gibault Catholic High School who currently teaches in the Naperville school district upstate, plans to run the New Jersey Marathon while pushing his wife in a wheelchair.
The reason is twofold. Benyo and his wife, Denise, had always talked of running a full marathon together ever since they met.
But just six months after their June 2010 marriage, the newlyweds were given horrible news last Christmas. Denise, 50, had been diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
ALS is a disease of the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement. Nerve cells typically waste away and can no longer send messages to muscles. This leads to muscle weakening, twitching, and an inability to move the arms, legs, and body. Over time, ALS sufferer progressively lose the ability to function and care for themselves.
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.
“She’s amazing,” Chris said of his wife’s upbeat nature while dealing with the disease. “She always keeps a good sense of humor.”
Denise said she has always been very athletic, working out and running frequently. She started noticing trouble signs early in 2010, but it wasn’t until a fall in which she broke her arm last December that really caused alarm.
Today, she requires a walker or wheelchair to get around, and her speech has slowed considerably.
“I can still get around, but I just need more assistance to get through basic tasks,” Denise said. “It’s not easy, but Chris and I are both tenacious people.”
It’s that strong-willed, goal-oriented desire pushing them ahead with their dream of running a marathon together, raising funds for ALS research along the way.
The couple settled on New Jersey, where Denise grew up and resided for the majority of her life. They hope to raise $26,200 — $1,000 for every marathon mile — for the Les Turner ALS Foundation in Chicago, the nation’s largest, independent ALS organization devoted to raising money for research, patient services and education.
In fact, a recent study from foundation researcher Dr. Teepu Siddique and his team identified a faulty protein pathway as a common cause of all forms of ALS, the first time a common cause has been identified.
Denise said the foundation provides a nutritionist, speech pathologist, physical therapist — even transportation — as she endures her own personal marathon.
“They really do a lot,” she said.
Chris and Denise have already earned the support of students and teachers in the Naperville area, with various fundraisers planned to help them reach their goal.
“I’m really excited about it,” Denise said about the upcoming marathon. “For me, it’s a personal goal. But we’re raising funds for the foundation to help other patients. We’ll just do it differently.”
Chris said that seeing the outpouring of support from friends, family and strangers as they attempt this challenge is heart-warming.
“It shows that good things can happen in all situations,” he said, adding that about $4,000 has been raised toward their goal so far.
“Joe (Chris’ brother) and I have been both amazed and inspired by Denise’s strength and faith,” said Sandy Benyo of Waterloo, sister-in-law of Chris. “They both have used humor to get them through these tough times, which is uplifting to all those around them.”
Those wishing to contribute to Chris and Denise’s fund-raising goal for ALS research can visit Denise’s blog online at adventuresinlosingstability.blogspot.com, or email Chris Benyo at firstname.lastname@example.org.