- Associated Press - Monday, January 30, 2017

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (AP) - From Alaska’s rugged terrain to Florida’s sandy coast, West Michigan native Joan Hannah Darrell has completed half marathons in all 50 states.

But before she could finish her nine-year running endeavor, she discovered the road with the most bumps and curves was the road of life.

Three-quarters of her way through the 50-state journey, Darrell was diagnosed with stage 3 colon cancer in 2013 at age 60, MLive (https://bit.ly/2knxIlA ) reported.

Doctors gave her anywhere from eight months to three years to live, and chemotherapy nearly took her life, but on Nov. 5, 2016, Hanna Darrell crossed her 50th half-marathon finish line in New Castle, Delaware.

It was the culmination of a journey that started in 2007, and after all she had endured, placing that 50th medal around her neck removed a huge burden from her shoulders.

“Sometimes I’m so tired, so I was just so thankful that I was done,” she said. “You’re just so appreciative of your body that you can still do this.

“It was a beautiful course and a beautiful day. There were peak fall colors and beautiful weather.”

Hanna Darrell discovered her passion for running in the late 1960s as a student at Grandville High School, where she competed on the Bulldogs basketball and swim teams.

In her free time, she’d make 20 laps around the middle school’s cinder track for a total of 5 miles.

She graduated to the Butterworth School of Nursing in Grand Rapids, which started her path to a 39-year career at Kalamazoo’s Bronson Hospital as a surgery and pre-op nurse.

But there was one thing the school didn’t offer the young student - a running track.

“Nursing school was terrible because they didn’t have a track around there,” she said. “Back then it was really weird to see someone running on the road. At that time, I was running before running shoes came out.”

More than 40 years and thousands of miles later, Hanna Darrell has discovered the best part of running isn’t overcoming your limitations; it’s sharing the experience with fellow runners who know what it’s like to overcome the mental stress and physical fatigue and cross the finish line.

“When you share that camaraderie and that adversity, it makes running people very special people,” she said. “I play tennis, and I’m not saying tennis people aren’t nice, but the running community is incredible. I noticed that with my son, Andrew, too. His running friends are his best buddies.”

In 2004, a Bronson co-worker introduced Hanna Darrell to Becky Schuelke-Shehorn, a new radiation technologist at the hospital, knowing the two women loved to run.

They started running together and continued that routine for the next 10 years.

In 2007, they found out about a group of runners completing half marathons across the country.

The Myrtle Beach Marathon’s website lists Hanna Darrell’s time in the February 2007 race at 2 hours, 5 minutes and 56 seconds, which ranked 24th in her division.

Hanna Darrell was so focused on the race, she had forgotten that Schuelke-Shehorn and some of their other Bronson friends wanted to turn the race into a relay and divide the course among the group.

Hanna Darrell just ran to the finish line, leaving her relay partner waiting at the 5-mile marker.

“I was in the zone with my music, and I missed my relay person,” Hanna Darrell said. “I had my phone, but I didn’t have her (relay partner’s) number, so I had Becky tell her to start running, and she ran from Mile 5 to the 13-mile mark.”

In September 2012, Hanna Darrell described herself as “anemic” before running in the 21st annual Maine Half Marathon. She knew something was wrong, and her time of 3:09:48 was a symptom of something larger happening in her body.

Just before Memorial Day in 2013, doctors at Bronson Hospital told Hanna Darrell and her husband, Steve Darrell, that the long-time nurse had stage 3 colorectal cancer.

The news was a frightening shock to Hanna Darrell, who had lost a co-worker to the disease.

“I didn’t know at the time what type of (colorectal) cancer it was, and we had a nurse who was a first assistant that died of melanoma colorectal cancer,” Hanna Darrell said. “Right away, I thought it was melanoma, and I’d die in six months. In a way, I was relieved when I got the report that it wasn’t melanoma.”

Hanna Darrell began treatment in May 2013 at the University of Michigan Cancer Center in Ann Arbor.

Always inclined to find levity in bad news, Hanna Darrell told her friends the diagnosis.

“I emailed all my friends and tennis buddies that just when you get back to your high school weight, you find out that you have cancer,” Hanna Darrell said.

For much of the summer, Hanna Darrell stayed in the Ann Arbor treatment center during the week and came back to Kalamazoo on weekends.

She lost 10 pounds during her chemotherapy treatment. She tried medicine to help her nutrient intake, but said it didn’t work and turned her tongue black.

“I had to fight for everything,” she said.

The doctors told her exercise would help her recovery, so she wasted little time slipping back into her running shoes for the Kalamazoo Klassic Fun Run on June 14, 2013.

“That was a big challenge trying to continue my running through that, but they said that if you exercise with that, it’s good,” said Hanna Darrell, who took her time around the course while wearing a chemotherapy pump in a fanny pack set to dispense a certain dose.

An avid tennis player since graduating from nursing school, Hanna Darrell returned to Bronson Athletic Club’s indoor courts as her strength returned, but Hanna Darrell wasn’t used to running sideline-to-sideline with her lighter frame.

“I had lost so much weight that I remember I was like an uncoordinated teenager after a growth spurt,” she said. “I didn’t realize how fast I was a first.”

While chasing down a ball along the baseline, Hanna Darrell overran the shot and crashed into a pole, breaking her humerus.

“My arm will never be the same,” she said. “My muscles were coming back, and I didn’t realize how fast I was going.”

Unwilling to let cancer stop her 50-state trek, Hanna Darrell ran in the Route 66 half marathon on Nov. 23, 2014 - her first 13.1-mile race since her diagnosis.

Her time of 2 hours, 52 minutes was far from her best, but the race gave her a new perspective on running.

“Being sick enables you to feel a freedom that other people don’t have when they’re not sick,” she said. “I can’t say I’m healthy anymore because I had cancer, but I’m really grateful to the people at U-M Cancer Center that saved my life.”

Throughout her seven-year journey, Hanna Darrell used clever planning and endurance to check off multiple states in a single vacation. After completing the Mayor’s Midnight Half Marathon in Alaska, she flew to Hawaii for a race the following day.

But nothing tested her resolve like a 2015 trip with the running group Mainly Marathons for its Center of the Nation tour.

From Sept. 12-18, Hanna Darrell finished half marathons in Utah, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming and Nebraska.

The 13.1-mile downhill course in Salt Lake City’s Big Cottonwood Canyon taxed her quadriceps and left her hardly able to walk in time for the Montana race two days later.

“It was memorable in that I didn’t think I was going to be able to do it,” she said of the eight-day trip. “I could not walk for two days after Utah, and we only had two days to get to Montana for the next race.

“I had to walk the first two or three miles, and all the people who did the downhill race in Utah, their quads were shot because they had no stopping power going down the canyon.”

Hanna Darrell and Schuelke-Shehorn, her running partner and Bronson Hospital co-worker, completed 31 half marathons together, the last of which came on Jan. 9, 2016, in Jackson, Mississippi. During Hanna Darrell’s recovery, Schuelke-Shehorn focused her energy on triathlons instead of marathons, but her friend’s attitude and endurance were things she kept with her on the pavement, in the water and on the bike.

“She was like my mentor and inspiration,” Schuelke-Shehorn said. “Her personality was so full and so bubbly. She’s always very positive and uplifting.

“The biggest inspiration came when she was diagnosed with cancer. She got really sick but she’d still get up and persevere and then at least walk, and then after she got better, she’d just get out there and push on.

“To me that’s huge because sometimes we just lack motivation, but I can look at her and see that she’d go walk a mile or two, and that helps me get out the door.”

Schuelke-Shehorn’s mother was diagnosed with cancer around the same time as Hanna Darrell’s diagnosis, and when the friends finished the Mississippi race, the 49-year-old radiologist said she felt her mother there.

“Her and my mom were diagnosed at the same time, and my mom died within the year,” Schuelke-Shehorn said. “To see Joan back out and running and to run with her in (Jackson) was so special because she wasn’t supposed make it past May of (2016).

“It was like having a piece of my mom there knowing that Joan was able to persevere through something as terrible as cancer.”

While Hanna Darrell was running half marathons across the country, her husband was climbing to the tallest peaks in each of the 50 states. Now that she has met her goal, Hanna Darrell plans to join her husband for the final few states on his list.

Springtime trips to Georgia’s Brasstown Bald and South Carolina’s Sassafras Mountain are on the schedule, and the couple will try to find time for Maine, New Mexico and Arizona.

Hanna Darrell is now free from colorectal cancer, but she still makes trips to the U-M Cancer Center every three months for follow-up tests. Her original chemotherapy treatment spread cancer cells to her lungs, and that needs to be monitored, but the prognosis is not as grim as the one she received in May 2013.

Still, she has to fight through a slight burning sensation in her lungs, which is magnified by the dry winter air.

But like she has all her life, Hanna Darrell has overcome the obstacle and now runs on the indoor track at the Bronson Athletic Club, unwilling to let a little pain stop her from running.

“I feel like I have to run,” she said. “It’s like it’s in my DNA.”

“When the run gets tough I think of each step as one step closer to home because I love my home; I love my husband; I love my son; and I love our dog.”


Information from: The Grand Rapids Press:MLive.com, https://www.mlive.com

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