Featured Gretchen Schoenstein Shamrock 2024 Editorial
May 30, 2024

Passing on the Hope: What I Learned Running Two Half-Marathons on Two Coasts in Two Days

By Gretchen Schoenstein

It was the most uncomfortable flight of my life. I was wearing compression sleeves, drinking ginger shots, and doing all the things — but my body was rebelling.

I had run one half-marathon in Washington, D.C., and would start another in Portland, Oregon, the next morning. My mission: to rally people around Autoimmune Awareness Month and to raise funds for groundbreaking autoimmune disease research at Benaroya Research Institute (BRI).

As I was stretching ahead of my second race, I was ready to fall asleep on the floor of my hotel room. But then the bigger reason kicked in: I’m running these races for everyone who can’t. I’m running to raise funds and awareness. People I love and people I don’t even know are counting on me. I made my way to the starting line for all of us.

After crossing the second finish line, I reflected on this win over the more than 100 autoimmune diseases that these races represented. Here are some of my biggest takeaways from this challenge I took on — two half-marathons on two coasts in two days — and some of the moments that I’ll never forget.

This is deeply personal — to me and so many people

Autoimmune diseases are deeply personal to me. I live with at least four of them and got my first diagnosis as a kid. When I told my friends, family and the people I met along the way what I was doing, many of them had their own connection to autoimmune diseases — the pilot on the flight from D.C. to Portland, a couple at the finish line, the person at the rental car place, hotel staff, a fellow airplane passenger, a runner at the Portland start line, and so many more. It truly felt like and still feels like an honor when people would entrust me with their own experiences or their loved ones’ experiences. Some of the conversations would elicit tears and some hugs and all of them hope.

Through this challenge, I feel like I became this conduit for inspirational stories where people were like “oh my gosh I can talk to you about this.” And they felt less alone, less frustrated. I grew braver about sharing my own journey because so many people opened up to me.

When we talk about autoimmune diseases, we often hear the phrase “suffer in silence.” You live with a disease that no one can see. Some people don’t believe that you’re in pain, and many others do but they don’t fully understand. With each exchange, I was helping people feel seen and that was empowering.

I told people about fundraising for BRI in every conversation I had. And to me, sharing that an entire research institute was dedicated to learning more about our health and finding ways to improve it, felt like passing on hope. Many people were learning about BRI for the first time. They were excited about BRI’s approach of not just studying one disease, but studying the entire immune system to find answers that will improve the lives of people with all autoimmune diseases. It made these conversations not only about sharing our own experiences, but about sharing hope for a better future. 

I have multiple autoimmune diseases and I can do hard things

I’m a big fan of mindset training — go in with a mindset that you can and will do something, and it’ll happen. But this was the biggest, hardest challenge I’ve ever done.

The Portland half-marathon was particularly hard. I’ve run that route before, but I forgot how hilly it was! I wasn’t sure my legs were ever going to settle in. I realized around mile four or five that I would have to dig deep for the entire race. I thought of the many people who so generously shared their stories, enthusiasm and support. And that is what kept me going.

I had this vision of powering across that finish line. But when that moment came, my body said “nope.” Truth be told, I barely made it across, my legs were so wobbly. I didn’t feel strong, but I felt victorious. That’s when every emotion I had leading up to the races caught up with me, and I broke down crying.

I’ve completed this challenge knowing that I have multiple autoimmune diseases and I can do hard things — especially when there’s a driving purpose that is so much greater than myself.

What else is possible and how soon?

Accomplishing this huge goal has made me wonder: What else is possible? And how soon? Both for myself and for BRI.

I chose to allocate the funds raised from this event to BRI's Innovation Fund. This fund supports BRI scientists asking new, outside-the-box research questions and implementing new and state-of-the-art technologies. I love that this fund rewards innovative thinking. New ideas, different questions, innovative technologies — that’s what will make big advances.

I also love that this fund requires scientists from different labs to team up on projects. They bring their insights from different areas of expertise to do together what they could not do alone.

Now, more than ever, that idea resonates with me. I was able to cross both finish lines because I wasn’t doing it only for myself — I was doing it for everyone who lives with autoimmune diseases — to show them that a diagnosis doesn’t change what we are capable of. I was doing it for the researchers seeking cures for diseases that others deemed “incurable.” If there’s one thing I’ll walk away from this experience with, it’s this: There is no limit to what we can accomplish with a strong purpose, a motivated team, and a community by your side every step of the way.

Gretchen is still fundraising! Learn more and support her efforts.

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