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CHICAGO — Thousands of runners will take to the streets of the city on Sunday, as part of the 43rd annual Chicago Marathon. Among them, will be WGN’s own Brónagh Tumulty. 

Below, she explains in her own words, why she decided to take on this challenge:

I’ve never been a runner. It’s never really been something I’ve enjoyed. Give me a mountain to hike and I’ll be happy all day long. But this year, I’m hoping to run 26.2 miles on Oct. 10, right here in Chicago.

And I’m terrified. 

Running a marathon has been on my bucket list for a while. It’s all because of my grandfather, Cathal Donoghue. We were always very close. Cathal ran four marathons in Ireland, back in the 1980s. He successfully completed the Dublin marathon twice and the Belfast one twice as well.

After he passed away in 2008 following a stroke, I knew if I ever checked a marathon off my list, I wanted it to be in honor of him. 

Over the last few years, I threw my name in the lottery a couple of times, for the New York City Narathon — but never got selected. After seeing an advertisement earlier this year for the Chicago Marathon, I figured I had nothing to lose by giving it a shot. I can promise you, no one was more surprised than me when I got the email saying I’d “won.” I think I would have preferred to win a Powerball lottery, but here we are!

After getting over the initial shock of realizing I’d actually have to train for a marathon, I picked up some running shoes and headed outside for my first run back in April. I figured I’d just “give it a go” at first and see how far I could get. After running for a while, I thought I’d probably conquered at least two miles. According to my watch however, I’d only managed 0.8 miles. That’s when I knew I had a very long road ahead of me. 

Since then, I’ve been pounding the pavement around Chicago. I’ve tried to stick to a running plan as best as I could, though the weather and work/life responsibilities have sometimes taken priority. It’s been extremely tough, but also satisfying to feel like you’re accomplishing something. 

Brónagh and her grandfather Cathal Donoghue.

As I started those first training runs, I started thinking about who I could help with this marathon. I knew I wanted to raise funds for other families who’ve had a loved one suffer a stroke. I started researching Chicago-based charities that fit the bill. And I found SSEEO

SSEEO stands for “Stroke Survivors Empowering Each Other.” They’ve been around for 17 years and became a non-profit in 2010. They have one paid employee. Everyone else is a volunteer. 

Over the years, they’ve helped countless stroke survivors and their families across the Chicago area. They provide a variety of services including their “Survivor to Survivor” program, which is run in conjunction with local hospitals. It helps connect new stroke survivors with people who’ve previously suffered one. They’ve now teamed up with the American Stroke Organization, to help roll that out to a wider audience.

They also run a young stroke survivor learning group, to help particularly young people going through these life-changing ordeals — because stroke, can strike anyone. 

One of the group’s new programs will kick off this autumn and is a mutually-beneficial collaboration with North Central College. SSEEO is teaming up with their occupational therapy program, to help partner students with survivors who need additional rehab, but who maybe can’t avail of it for various reasons. 

After looking into all the good work SSEEO does, I knew they were the right charity to run for. They’ve helped me set up a donation page and we’ve already been able to raise quite a bit of money. Every single cent will go directly to helping those impacted by stroke and figuring out new ways to get people back on their feet.

After choosing SSEEO, I sat down with Randy Crabtree, who is the current president of the organization. He knows all too well how scary a stroke can be, because he’s had two of them. The first struck in 2014 when he was 51 years old. He’d just won a fitness competition and was seemingly in great shape.

Randy Crabtree (left), president of SSEEO, and his brother (right). Photo courtesy of Randy Crabtree.

He was getting bagels out of his car for his coworkers, when he says he began slurring his speech and the left side of his body went numb. His brother was standing next to him and asked if he was OK. Randy instantly realized what was happening to him and told his brother to call 911. He says the only reason he recognized the warning signs, was because his grandmother, with whom he’d had a wonderful relationship, had passed away eight months previously, following a stroke. He credits her, with helping save him that day.

Randy’s brother got the ambulance there within a matter of minutes and he was whisked away to the hospital. He really was the poster child for the acronym “FAST” which is used to help people remember what to watch out for, when it comes to a stroke. 

Those letters stand for: 

  • F = Face Drooping – Does one side of the face droop or is it numb? Ask the person to smile. Is the person’s smile uneven?
  • A = Arm Weakness – Is one arm weak or numb? Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
  • S = Speech Difficulty – Is speech slurred? 
  • T = Time to call 911

Because Randy got to the hospital so quickly, he was spared from any physical disabilities and got lucky again four days later, when he suffered a second stroke. 

For him though, the mental anguish of having had a stroke, was a lot to deal with. He explained that after you have one, you leave the hospital with 10 million questions. Those include “Why me?” and “Will this happen again?”

He said he didn’t get the answers he needed help with, until he found SSEEO. Randy tells me after he reached out to them, members of the board personally showed up to talk with him and help ease his fears. 

After that, he knew he wanted to get involved with SSEEO and fundraise for them too. He then eventually became president of the board, but will soon pass the torch to fellow board member David Bowman. 

As I write this, it’s a matter of hours before I take my place at the start line of the 2021 Chicago marathon. It’s going to be much hotter than I anticipated but I have no aspirations of qualifying in record time. Armed with energy gels, electrolyte replacement tabs and a rockin’ playlist, I’m just hoping to finish the race before the road closures are lifted. 

And with each mile I complete, I’ll be thinking of all the friends, brothers, sisters, parents and grandparents who may no longer be with us, but whose memories will stay with us, forever.

Brónagh Tumulty and her mother.