On September 7, 2017 the Geneseo community was devastated by the news that one of our beloved, 9th grade students, Claire Allen, had been killed during a practice run with her friend while participating on the X-Country team at Geneseo Central School. It was a tragic accident. One in which no one was to blame. But, this knowledge did little to lessen the pain and grief.
I became emotionally overwhelmed by Claire’s loss and by my own grief. I had the unique position of not only being friends with her family but of also being the school board president of Geneseo Central School. This made the news of her death and the days and weeks to follow that much more traumatic. I also had the wonderful good fortune to know Claire. She was funny, kind, imaginative, intelligent, talented, creative and beautiful inside and out. She truly was an “old soul” and had such potential. At her young age she had already been published in state and national publications, traveled the world with her family, stood up for those who she felt needed protection and befriended anyone in need of a friend. She was involved in so many sports, clubs and various other volunteer organizations that she was well known by so many. Anyone who knew her, loved her.
Claire became interested in running a few years ago but no one in her family was a runner. She particularly wanted to run the Pink Ribbon 5K that the Breast Cancer Coalition of Rochester was hosting and one she felt compelled to run in memory of her maternal grandmother who had not survived her own battle with the disease. She was only 12 at the time, so her mother felt more comfortable with her running if she had an adult buddy to do it with. That’s where I came in. Claire’s mother reached out to me and asked if I would be willing to run with Claire and be her running buddy. I was honored and eagerly agreed. I had been running for a few years at that point and had completed a half marathon and several 5K’s. So, running with Claire was no problem and I wasn’t out to set a PR, so even if I had to run more slowly, that was fine. The day of the race arrived. It was a beautiful sunny day and Claire and I spent time before the race talking about life and her life ambitions, including being the first female President of the United States one day. When we began the race, it became obvious to me that she was far faster and much more determined than I had previously anticipated. So, soon after starting I encouraged her to leave me behind and to run as fast as she could. Her mother would be at the finish and I would be behind her if she got scared or needed me all she needed to do was stop and wait for me. As she left, she asked if I was sure that I would be okay with her running ahead and once appeased, she turned and gave me one last smile before leaving me in her proverbially dust. I cherish this memory.
After her death, this memory kept coming to me in my dreams and I realized I wanted to honor her in some way. I came up with the idea that I would run “14 for Claire.” I set out to run 14-5k’s in honor of the 14 years Claire had with us. I wanted to honor her love of running, her commitment to helping others and to find a way to also deal with my own grief over her loss. So, after getting approval from her family I began my “Quest.” I set up a Facebook page, “14 for Claire,” and began signing up for races and asking people to support my quest by donating in Claire’s name to either the Malala Fund or to the Rochester Area Literacy Council, both of which were organizations near and dear to her heart. I officially kicked off my quest with a race in November of 2017.
My goal is to complete 14 races by September of 2018. I decided at the beginning that the last race I would run would be the Oak Tree 5K in Geneseo. It seemed fitting to finish my quest with that race for three reasons. First, it takes place in Claire’s and my hometown (Geneseo, NY). Second, it was the last race she ran in 2017 before her death. Third, it would mark one year since her loss and I wanted to spend a year focusing on doing all the good I could, in Claire’s name, because I knew that would be the best way to honor her. She was always thinking of and working on behalf of others. I wanted to spend a significant amount of time consciously and purposefully continuing her good works. So far, over the course of this year, I have had people donate approximately $1,400 to the two charities I listed. I also have tried to pick 5ks this year that are fundraisers for various organizations that I know Claire would have supported. Many have included organizations that fight hunger, support families in need, that fight cancer, support children’s causes and the preservation of natural resources. I paid for all entry fees myself and considered that my entry fees for these worthwhile events as my own contribution to the cause, along with racing in them.
10 Down, 4 To Go
As I write this I have completed 10 races with another coming up in a week. The 12th and 13th will be completed in July. As I see the end in sight I am overwhelmed by the outpouring of support I have received. Numerous friends and strangers have donated money in Claire’s name through my FB page or directly to the charities. Many have signed up and run a long side me at races, even more purchased clothing, hats, and bumper stickers I had a friend donate at cost that were an additional fundraiser for the cause. They are imprinted with a winged running shoe, with “CA” in the center for Claire and the items simply state “Claire’s Crew.” They are printed in green and purple, which were Claire’s favorite colors. I occasionally run by someone who is wearing a t-shirt or hat wile out on a morning run or sit behind a car that has the bumper sticker. It always brings a smile to my face. I know Claire would be humble about it all, but so pleased. I also have found that my grief is less and that I can think of Claire now more with a smile than with tears. I also know that at one race recently, where I felt terrible, and wasn’t sure I could even run that day but ended up with a PR, that it was Claire’s spirit that got me to the finish line.
Running has always been my way to deal with stress, calm my mind, work out my problems and keep fit in the process. But, with this quest it became even more important to me as a way in which to deal with profound grief and unspeakable loss. Running gave me focus and purpose in a way it hadn’t before. Running for Claire and doing good in her name has helped my heart begin to heal. I don’t know if sharing this story will help anyone else, but if it does and you find yourself running, thinking of how to help yourself or others in the process, please take a moment to think of and to thank Claire for the inspiration. Her thoughtful, sweet and loving nature lives on in those of us who carry her with us as we persevere, take care of ourselves and of others in need and continue to run on…
-- Jenn Mehlenbacher