Memory of priest spurs marathon runner - Catholic Courier

Memory of priest spurs marathon runner

After a friend completed the New York City Marathon, Teresa Vossen applied some simple logic in deciding to take a crack at a 26.2-mile run of her own.

"I thought, ‘You know, if she can do it, I can do it,’" the Ithaca resident said, adding that her loved ones didn’t exude as much confidence: "I talked to my family about it. They said, ‘You’re crazy, but if you want to do it, go ahead.’"

Since Vossen, 43, had never attempted a marathon, and the feat requires more running than many people do in a year, perhaps her family’s reaction wasn’t surprising. But Vossen was more than willing to risk the pain and exhaustion of long-distance running based on the cause she was representing — people in her life afflicted by cancer.

In early 2009 Vossen began training for the Lake Placid Marathon in honor of her father, Ralph, who had just finished lymphoma treatment. At the same time Father Michael Mahler, Vossen’s pastor at St. Catherine of Siena Parish, was battling lymphoma as well.

She planned to raise funds for the Lake Placid event in support of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, so Vossen asked Father Mahler if she also could dedicate the race to him. He agreed, although "I wasn’t sure he’d say yes because he was a private guy," she said.

By May, Vossen had worked her way up to as many as 18 miles in a single run. But just prior to the June 14 marathon, Vossen had to drop out due to a leg injury. That mishap was followed by a genuine tragedy: Whereas Vossen’s dad’s cancer had gone into remission, Father Mahler died from the disease on June 29 at age 63.

Vossen said Father Mahler’s death came as a shock because he had just been reappointed to a new six-year term as St. Catherine of Siena’s pastor the previous month, and was assumably on the mend. Six months after his death, Vossen remarked that the parish is "still having a hard time with his absence."

Father Mahler’s passing made Vossen even more determined to run on his behalf. She set her sights on the Marine Corps Marathon on Oct. 25 in Washington, D.C., planning that as a fundraiser for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society as well. She once again stepped up her regimen, training with a mentor and a coach and raising $2,800 — with a sizable combination of donations and prayer support coming from St. Catherine of Siena.

"Everything happens for a reason. I realized now I had a real reason to run, and I didn’t care if this injury came back," Vossen said. "On those long (training) runs I was praying a lot and Father Mike was with me."

The Marine Corps Marathon is one of the largest road races in the United States, with nearly 21,000 runners having finished the most recent one — including Vossen. She said she stoked her motivation during the run by chatting with spectators about their favorite baseball teams and where they were from. Vossen recalled feeling strong most of the way, but that "it was tough those last four miles" and that she got through the bumpy moments by "thinking of the people who had helped me or inspired me."

The finish line was a glorious sight: "I just remember feeling so good. That was really exciting, just to know I finished," she said. "I knew I would finish. I wasn’t worried about not finishing."

Vossen completed the course in 4 hours, 44 minutes.

"I wanted to beat Oprah," she remarked, noting that she came a bit short of Oprah Winfrey’s time of 4:29 in the 1994 Marine Corps Marathon. But the important thing is that she completed the race, thus logging a milestone individual achievement.

"This was really mine. I think it’s the one thing in my life that was by me — the fact I was able to follow through and do this, to test myself," said Vossen, a social worker at Boynton Middle School in the Ithaca City School District. She and her husband, Gary Bucci, have sons Massimo, 12, and Joe, 16.

For somebody who originally got into running for social purposes and stress relief, Vossen has deepened her commitment to the sport and now says she’d "definitely" run a marathon again. She’s also come away with a deeper connection to God.

"I didn’t realize the complete spirituality of it until I ran this. Part of it had to do with Father Mike," she said, adding that jogging long distances has turned out to be her most prayerful time of the day.

"When I took the time to listen, I heard God. That’s what I realized — that’s my time to listen," she said.

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