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Thunder Road Marathon a time of healing and inspiration

THUNDER_ROAD
TODD SUMLIN - tsumlin@charlotteobserver.com
Erika Brannock, left, joins her sister Nicole Gross as she waves the green flag Saturday to start the Thunder Road Marathon in uptown Charlotte. Both were injured at the Boston Marathon bombing in April.

It was a time of healing for a family of survivors at Saturday’s Thunder Road Marathon in Charlotte.

Nicole Gross, the official starter for the ninth annual event, her husband Michael, and sister Erika Brannock, along with the sisters’ mother, Carol Downing, were together for the first time at a race since the Boston Marathon bombing changed their lives. The Grosses and Brannock were among the injured in a blast that killed three people and injured 264 others.

Wearing T-shirts with the words “Be Strong, Stay Strong,” they all crossed the finish line, a symbolic gesture of how far they’d come in seven months. Friends turned out to show support, and there were many emotional moments as the family tried to move past the tragic April 15 explosion.

“We feel no fear here,” said Nicole Gross, 32, of Charlotte. “It’s about moving forward.”

When the blast occurred, Downing was unhurt, but the other three were injured. Nicole Gross received serious leg injuries and damage to her ear drums. Brannock, 29, was recently fitted with a new prosthetic for her leg. Her own leg was removed below the knee after the explosion.

Brannock and Downing, both from Baltimore, participated in different races Saturday.

Downing ran the half-marathon and Brannock did the 5-k race in a wheelchair. Along the way, she said, spectators offered encouragement. As she went up a hill, a man yelled “‘Keep going,’ and I said ‘yes, I will,’” Brannock recalled.

About 50 yards from the finish line, as onlookers applauded, she stood up and used a walker to cross over, accompanied by Gross and her husband. This weekend was the first time Nicole Gross had seen her sister stand and walk since the explosion.

Gross, who ran in Thunder Road last year, said that even though she was mostly an onlooker Saturday the energy and excitement made her “feel like myself again.”

Ten percent of the gross income from the event goes to local charities and nonprofits. On Saturday, race director Tim Rhodes presented checks of $13,000 each to Novant Health Hemby Children’s Hospital, Ronald McDonald House of Charlotte and the Gross family to help pay medical bills.

Rhodes thanked Michael and Nicole Gross “for the spirit you bring to the races. We are humbled and honored to have you. We all root for you to continue that spirit. Don’t give up.”

Encouraging messages

About 1,500 runners took part in the marathon, 3,000 in the half-marathon and 1,200 in the 5k race.

After singer Neal Jones did a spirited version of the national anthem, marathon runners hit the pavement to a recording of Bruce Springstein’s “Born to Run.”

Along the route, many spectators held up signs with messages of encouragement to participants.

Frances Mabry of Rock Hill cheered her three young grandchildren in the 5k race. “This is a day of pride for me,” she said. “I’m happy they’re into running. It’s so good for them, and they like it.”

Maura Rutemiller of Harrisburg watched as her 16-year-old son, Patrick Hunter, took first place in the 5k.

Calling him a “a very dedicated runner,” she said he’d even gotten her into the sport. “When your son inspires you to run it’s the best feeling in the world,” Rutemiller said.

Laura King Edwards of Charlotte ran the half-marathon holding one end of a bungee cord while a sighted guide held the other.

For Edwards, it was a first-of-a-kind run that honored her 15-year-old sister, Taylor King, who suffers from Batten disease, a fatal disorder that attacks the nervous system and has left her blind.

Edwards had a photo of Taylor attached to her arm.

“I thought of my sister the entire way,” she said. “She wasn’t able to be here today, but she was here with me in spirit.”

Friends for life

Amanda North came from San Francisco in a show of support for Brannock and her family. They first met in April in the chaos after the Boston explosion. North was standing on the sidelines waiting for her daughter to finish the race.

Suddenly, a blast knocked her down. On the pavement beside her, North saw a badly injured young woman who turned out to be Brannock. Ignoring her own injuries, North crawled over and held Brannock’s hand.

“I told her, ‘Don’t leave me,’” North recalled. “I’m not going to let you go.”

North called for help.

In the months that followed, North said, Brannock became “a source of inspiration. We’re friends for life.”

Michael and Nicole Gross, Brannock and Downing met with the media after the race, saying they planned to continue the family reunion over the weekend and celebrate Downing’s 58th birthday on Sunday.

As for the family’s plans about next year’s Boston Marathon, Downing said: “We’re going back.”

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