Keeping the promise: After race cancelation, Keelin Hodgkins DiMario runs at home for Project Purple

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LENOX — As the world around descended into chaos and quarantines, and Americans hunted high and low for a roll of Charmin, John McNinch at The Olde Heritage Tavern rolled off a length of toilet paper he felt he could spare.

Keelin Hodgkins DiMario came cruising around Housatonic Street for the 13th time Sunday morning, clad head-to-toe in purple, and broke through the 15-foot length of tissue with her arms held high.

Among the myriad of postponements and suspensions the COVID-19 pandemic has caused on the sports world, 25,000 runners had their weekend upended by the cancellation of the New York City Half Marathon.

Hodgkins DiMario was one of those 25,000.

"I was just sort of waiting for it. It really seemed that 25,000 people coming together wasn't a good idea, especially a running event with port-o-potties and nowhere to really wash your hands. It didn't seem feasible or safe," she said. "The New York Road Runners and the City of New York made the right call.

"But naturally, I've been training and fundraising since November. A lot went into this, so that's where the disappointment comes from."

Instead of letting the disappointment fester, or simply lacing up and jogging out the 13 miles she had planned much of her winter around — she broke up chunks of ice while running into the Stockbridge Bowl on Dec. 1 for Freezin' for a Reason — the distance runner opted to go the extra mile by running a half marathon at home.

"The Heritage is the heart and epicenter of Lenox, so it just seemed like a natural place to have it start and end," said the Housatonic native, who has called Lenox home since 2010. "And they were just so incredible. I reached out and told them my idea, and within 24 hours they had shared the post I did on social media, and it was just a great amount of community support."

Residents and visitors in downtown Lenox looked on inquisitively at first, but eventually apartment windows were opened and screams and cheers became the norm as Hodgkins DiMario continued her laps of Church Street and Main Street.

She was joined after four solo miles by friends Eric Smith and Kameron Spaulding for a few laps, before the last two miles were all her.

But Keelin Hodgkins DiMario never runs alone, and hasn't since her first half marathon back in 2013. She runs for Project Purple, a pancreatic cancer charity, and always with her aunt and others in her mind.

"In February of 2009, my aunt was diagnosed with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer, and was given no treatment options. I was baffled by that, because she was a two-time breast cancer survivor... You start using Google and realize that your family member has essentially been given a death sentence," said Hodgkins DiMario. "We lost her not long after. She made me promise to never forget her and never let her just become a picture on the wall. I've always held onto that. So running became a way to honor her life. She might not have been able to keep fighting, but I can keep fighting for her, and everyone else out there."

She started running as a way to grieve, and found Project Purple by accident after getting into the lottery for the 2014 NYC Half Marathon. She was clicking through emails and looked to see a pancreatic cancer charity. From there, she emailed founder Dino Verrelli saying, "I don't know how this works, but can I run for you guys?"

Sunday would have been her 12th half marathon overall, sixth NYC and 10th race for Project Purple.

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"We kind of knew. I've been doing this for 10 years and we were impacted in 2012 for Hurricane Sandy. Cancellation of races aren't that uncommon," Verrelli says of the 2020 NYC Half. "The reality set in and it was what it was. We do a lot of running events, and it's unfortunate because we had around 73 runners ready to go, and it was a pretty big deal for us. We were excited to be in New York, cheer on our team. They've collectively raised close to $100,000. I was really bummed because it's just so special to see people running who all have their own reason and they all get their shining moment in the race. New York is really special for that."

Like his Lenox cohort, Verrelli wasn't one to wait around in the aftermath. He said the organization, based in Connecticut and founded in 2010, was so grateful for all the training and fundraising those runners had put in, he wanted to encourage them to still get outside and have their moment. So, he reached out to a vendor and medals are being made up.

"Part of what comes with running for Project Purple in a place like New York City is that you're able to reach a lot of people, they run by you and see your singlet and you make these connections and it inspires hope," said Hodgkins DiMario. "Especially with everything that is going on and knowing that some of these people I'm running for are in the demographic that is more vulnerable to COVID-19, why not create my own half marathon, in town where people are going to see me run by over and over and over, and be able to at least give some type of awareness to the cause, even without the big race."

It wasn't NYC, but that doesn't matter to her, or the 24 names written in purple ink under "I run for..." on her Project Purple race bib. Those 24 include both her aunt and her aunt's husband, who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in February of 2018, and passed away 27 days later, on the morning of the 2018 NYC Half Marathon, while Hodgkins DiMario was lining up to race.

"Keelin is pretty special in her own right, and that community rallied around her," said Verrelli, who mentioned around half of the team managed to complete similar Sundays, some of whom are doctors who had to wedge their 13 miles in between shifts dealing with the coronavirus outbreak. "It was cool to see, in this day and age, when we have a very serious situation going on globally, that we can step back to some reality of what the norm was before this struck us.

"With our mission, it's crazy because we're dealing with a cancer population that is at a high risk for getting sick, very sick, and potentially dying if they get COVID-19. For our community, it's pretty amazing what they've done in wake of the cancellation. It's really, really special."

Over the years, Hodgkins DiMario has had the opportunity to join other national charities, but she keeps coming back to Project Purple.

According to Verrelli, pancreatic cancer is the No. 3 cancer that leads to death nationally, and second in New England. Project Purple has partnerships with 14 different marathons and promotes endurance activities of all kinds. A race in Nebraska was also recently canceled, but they have an ongoing Pints for PC program with a handful of Connecticut breweries, and they are always fundraising.

"We provide support emotionally and financially to families that are battling, and then we also are big into early detection and helping to find curative treatments. 80 percent of our fundraising goes to research," said Verrelli, who noted that early detection of pancreatic cancer lags behind that of others for which it has saved thousands of lives.

"She's super passionate. We are really blessed as an organization that we have some really passionate constituents. That is a testament to the effect that this disease has on families," said Verrelli, who started Project Purple when his father got sick. "It's really inspiring for us to see people who were complete strangers come together for this mission that is so near and dear to so many people. We are doing so many great things, and it's because of people like Keelin."

The feelings are mutual.

"The reason I've stuck with them for all these years is the direct connection that I see them making first-hand, one-on-one with patients and doctors. People who live a purpose-driven life, that type of stuff is contagious," said Hodgkins DiMario — who plans to run the Chicago Marathon in October — before detailing some of the speech Verrelli made from his perch on top of that chair. "That was contagious. From that point forward, there was no way I was just going to be somebody who ran for fun.

"If I was running, I was going to make my miles matter."

Mike Walsh can be reached at mwalsh@berkshireeagle.com, at @CLNS_Walsh on Twitter and 413-496-6240.


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