Jim Kenyon: Hanover High graduate makes 4,000-mile run in memory of parents claimed by cancer

  • Jim Kenyon. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Columnist
Published: 8/3/2019 10:30:30 PM

Since mid-June, Caroline Watson has spent many a night sleeping on church pews (preferably, padded) and high school gym floors from coast to coast.

Watson, who grew up in Lyme and graduated from Hanover High School in 2012, is up by 4:30 most mornings, and shortly after dawn, she begins another day on the run.

She’s run along city streets and rural town roads, sometimes with the heat index soaring above 100 degrees. She’s covered 14 states in 49 days.

Not bad for a self-described “casual runner.”

The 25-year-old Watson is part of a young adult relay team making a literal cross-country run from San Francisco to Boston this summer.

Fourteen months ago, Watson, who played soccer and lacrosse at Hanover High, couldn’t have imagined throwing her body and mind into such an all-consuming endeavor.

But that was before she lost her father, Bill, and her mother, Robin, to cancer within a four-week span last summer.

Caroline and her older brother, Will, a 2009 Hanover High graduate, buried their parents seven days apart.

Bill Watson, 66, wasn’t sick for long. A month before he died on June 27, 2018, he was still working for an asphalt paving company.

Robin Watson fought a lengthy battle against breast cancer before her death on July 25, 2018. She was 64.

After her parents’ back-to-back deaths, Caroline Watson said she was so “miserable, I had to do something to clear my head. I also figured this would be a way to honor my parents.”

She signed up for the 2019 4K for Cancer, an annual run across the northern tier of the country that is associated with the Ulman Foundation, a Baltimore-based nonprofit. The 4K isn’t 4 kilometers; it’s 4,000-plus miles.

Watson joined a team of 28 runners from throughout the U.S. who are raising money to support young adult cancer patients and their families. Watson has received nearly 100 pledges totaling more than $14,000. (She’s still a bit shy of her $15,000 fundraising goal. More information is available at https://ulman.z2systems.com/caroline-watson.)

“After what happened with my parents, I had to find a way that maybe I could help someone else,” she said.

A Google search turned up the Ulman Foundation, which got its start in 1997. It’s named after Doug Ulman, a former Brown University soccer player and cancer survivor.

Watson liked the idea of raising money for a cause of that focuses on helping young people. Her parents certainly would approve.

Her dad coached her and her brother’s youth sports teams. Her mother didn’t play basketball, but that didn’t stop her from stepping up to coach Caroline’s team for a season when no one else would.

This summer’s 4K for Cancer team includes two cancer survivors. Other runners have had family members succumb to the disease.

“Pretty much everyone has some connection to the cancer community,” said Watson, who graduated from the University of New Hampshire in 2016.

“That’s how we tolerate running,” she joked.

Under the relay format, each runner pounds the pavement for a few miles before being spelled by a teammate, only to repeat the run-rest-run regimen throughout the day.

To let Caroline know that they were thinking about her, runners wrote the names of Bill and Robin Watson on their legs on the one-year anniversaries of their deaths.

“Obviously, none of us can wrap our heads around what she’s been through,” said Brenna Kirkpatrick, of Nashville, Tenn. “We haven’t been through anything that compares.

“I don’t know how she does it, but she has such a positive attitude.”

The team runs — literally — on a shoestring budget. They travel in two vans and do everything they can to limit expenses so the money they raise goes to providing services for young adult cancer patients.

With its route well-mapped in advance, the team relies on churches, social service agencies and the generosity of strangers for meals and sleeping quarters.

The trip’s best digs: In Salt Lake City, they slept on the locker room floor of the NBA’s Utah Jazz.

When they’re not running or sleeping, Watson and her teammates are talking to as many people as they can about the challenges often facing young adults with cancer.

Cancer isn’t often thought of as a disease that hits the young, but more than 72,000 people ages 15 to 39 are diagnosed annually, many of whom don’t have health insurance.

As Watson herself has learned in the last year, “you can have this life-shattering thing happen to you, but you can get through it.”

Last Sunday, the team arrived in the Upper Valley. Before spending the night at the First Congregational Church in downtown Lebanon, Watson and her teammates headed to Etna for dinner.

Parents of Watson’s high school friends prepared an outdoor feast, featuring chicken tacos, at the home of Charlie Barlow and Amy Stephens.

“I can’t imagine anyone handling something like this with more courage and maturity than Caroline has,” Stephens said.

On Saturday, a dozen of her friends and their parents watched Watson cross the finish line at Boston Common. She’d run 450 miles in 49 days, including 20 miles of the Boston Marathon route Saturday.

He brother got the first hug. “Welcome home,” he said. Then in typical older-brother fashion, he told her she needed a shower.

Echoing the runners’ gesture from earlier in the summer, on one calf Watson had written, “Mom,” and the other, “Dad.” But even a much-needed shower wouldn’t wash away their memory.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.




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