You probably already know the story of Morgantown Marathon founder Jamie Summerlin from his book Freedom Run or his many news features over the years. He ran across the country in 100 days in 2012 to honor his heroes: the men and women of the U.S. military. Since then, the Morgantown Marathon has raised more than $200,000 for Operation Welcome Home, a nonprofit that helps veterans transition to the civilian workforce.
But the circle of lives touched by the marathon extends beyond the service member community.
Barb Navarini-Higgins has run in about 130 races, including the shorter trials in the first Morgantown Marathon. But it wasn’t until the event’s second year that she decided to run a full 26-mile race. Her inspiration: a dying Bridgeport child.
Jack Rollins was 5 years old at the time and had been diagnosed with neuroblastoma cancer. Navarini-Higgins was overwhelmed with compassion for his family’s situation and the stories of Rollins’ kindness to other children in the hospital. She decided to run the full marathon even though she had recently herniated a disc in her spine, making it painful—even dangerous—to attempt a race of this difficulty.
“I thought if he could deal with all of the pain and the suffering that he was going through, I certainly could run a marathon in his honor,” Navarini-Higgins says. “My goal was to give him my marathon medal.”
With her injury, Navarini-Higgins knew she couldn’t run the full 26 miles in the 6.5-hour time limit. When she told Summerlin about her predicament, he agreed to reserve a medal and allow her to finish.
But before the date of the marathon, Rollins’ family informed her that he was nearing the end of his life. Upon request, Summerlin provided a medal for her to give to Rollins before the race had even been run. He died a week later.
As Navarini-Higgins prepared to run the race two months later, her friends warned her against it. Rollins, they said, would not want her to hurt herself. But she had a promise to keep.
The race began at 7 a.m. She’d expected the run to be painful and difficult, but hadn’t expected to nearly die. Somewhere around Stewartstown Road, a fast-moving car swerved into the runners’ lane, almost hitting her. “It was so close that I could feel the wind off of the car,” she says. “It scared me to death, and I thought, Jack is watching out for me. I felt that he kept me safe. I know that might sound crazy, but I felt that.”
As the race ended for everyone else, the city began to open the road to traffic, making the trek even more dangerous. Near the Kennedy Center, Navarini-Higgins’ right leg gave out and she tumbled into the road, bloodying her knee and hand. There happened to be no traffic in the lane at the moment, and again she felt protected.
Eight hours after starting the race, she finally made her way to the finish line. All the runners had gone, but Summerlin stood waiting with open arms and a second, well-earned medal. This one was for her. — KP
written by KENDALL PERKINSON