Emma Benton, recent graduate of Louisiana State University, has long been a runner. To Emma, the significance of running reaches far deep. Through her father’s long battle of cancer, his death, and the constant memories of his life, Emma continues to run.
Emma’s father, Jimmy Benton, loved the sport of running. The entire family of seven participated in the sport. He would officiate LSU track meets and Emma remembers, “begging him to take me along to see the ‘real runners.’” In third grade, she was informed that her father was diagnosed with kidney cancer. In 2004, after six years of remission and the beginning of Emma’s freshman year, she was told that her father’s cancer was back and had spread to his lungs. That year, Emma’s track team dedicated their season to him by wearing yellow ribbons in their hair. This was a constant reminder of who they were running for- their biggest fan.
During the remaining years of Emma’s high school career her father went through extensive radiation treatments, experimental drugs and surgeries. Just as hope was diminishing they found a clinical trial at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Emma’s father underwent an adult stem cell transport.
In her senior year of high school Emma was recruited by Rhodes College in Memphis, TN. Her final season was dedicated solely to “daddy.” As her final state meet approached Emma declined the offer to run at Rhodes, in order to go to LSU and stay close to her family. Her team won second place that year. But a year later she received a call from her old teammates with news that they won the title- for her and her dad. “This was probably the first time I thought of running as a community,” Emma says.
Unfortunately, on the morning of Emma’s graduation her father was readmitted back into the hospital with Graft vs. Host Disease, in his GI tract. The new immune system created by the stem cells was attacking his healthy cells, rather than the cancer cells. Without the ability to consume food, an IV provided nutrition to Emma’s father. “He liked to call it his steak and potatoes when they hung the IV bag—he was always so good-natured about everything.”
The morning of July 23rd, Emma’s sister Nancy called while visiting their father and told the family things had gotten worse, and they should come to Maryland. Family members gathered and traveled to the hospital. They were able to spend a day and a half with Mr. Benton. On July 25th, Emma recalls walking into the ICU and hearing her mother say, “We have some really tough decisions to make today.” Despite their efforts, there was nothing left that the doctors could do. “We each had a chance to tell Daddy goodbye, then they started to unplug the machines.”
In the final days of her dad’s life Emma promised him she would remain a strong runner. As she transitioned into college and went through the hardships of not physically having her dad with her, she still remained true to her promise. She ran two to three times each week, which led to her sophomore year when she decided she wanted to complete a half-marathon in his honor. She began training alone and says, “I can’t remember if I cried more because of the pain of shin splints and inflamed knees or the pain of remembering who I was running for and knowing that he wouldn’t be there to catch me at the finish line.” Emma stopped at five weeks.
She tried several other times, with or without partners, injuries along the way, something preventing her from ever reaching above seven miles. But, she continued to run. Emma set small goals until running became a daily habit. Eventually she realized, “running was healing me.” “I enjoyed having time to talk to Daddy and tell him what was going on in my life, and what I needed help with. One day I became conscious that those talks with Daddy were really talks with God.”
Emma finished her first half-marathon in January 2012 at The Louisiana Marathon. She plans to continue her running career and one day run a full marathon. Her biggest advice to runners is to stay active and cross-train. To those dealing with the death of a loved one, there is no “cure-all” Emma says, but she found “a place to channel my grief and sadness into something positive, and a place to grow closer to Christ.”
Through running, Emma conquered the loss of her father. What have you conquered through running?