Eli Mahnken loved to run. It was a love that he shared with his mother, Heather; they ran his final mile together last October, the day before he passed away from brain cancer at the age of seven.
Eli’s earthly presence is gone, but he will be in Heather’s heart when she runs the New York City Marathon to raise money for the Children’s Brain Tumor Foundation in his honor. The marathon is also a way for Heather to celebrate what running has brought to her life – healing, community, and an ability to see life differently.
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Eli was a typically-developing, precocious little boy. Then shortly before his second birthday, Heather noticed changes in his movement and he was diagnosed with brain cancer. He underwent an 11-hour surgery, but the tumor returned more aggressively and grew at an even faster rate. Next they tried radiation treatments. “I felt a pressure within myself that I had to remain positive and I never really talked about what we were going through,” Heather recalls. “I got extremely lonely and sad and I was like, ‘I can’t keep doing this.’ There was a flier or something about a marathon and all these people smiling, and I was like, ‘That’s what I’m gonna go do. I’m gonna go run a marathon.”
She became part of a group of 12 who went to Memphis in 2018 to run the St. Jude Marathon. “It was fabulous. One of the runners that was with our group came in second place for his age group and he gave his award to Eli. I was in the back end, but I finished, and that’s the whole point. Going through that, I never felt lonely. It’s one of those things of a community that just comes out and embraces people wherever they are and you cheer people on. And that is definitely what I needed at that point in my life; I needed to be cheered on.”
The sense of community was invaluable to Heather, but so was the sense that the act of running itself gave her. “I’ll never forget, one day when I was running, I rounded the corner and the sun was coming up. It was the darkness with the lightness and the tranquility of it all. And I just realized that I was spending my life trying to find peace, and really, peace is in the chaos. When I was younger, I thought of peace as this quietness and stillness, like everything will stop and it will feel like peace. And I never understood the duality that it’s possible that you find peace in other situations. And I think that I needed a picture to realize that when you have to overcome something that’s really hard or challenging, sometimes it’s not like it all just clicks and there’s perfect peace or a perfect path. It’s really embracing all the different colors that come into those moments. Taking strides towards that has always, since then, been extremely healing for me.”
Eli went on an experimental treatment for two years, and when he took a break from it, the cancer seemed to be in remission. “There was this far-fetched belief that maybe he was cured, that we beat all the odds. And during that time, Eli started chasing his friends around; he had more energy; he got so much faster. It was a huge priority for him. And because it was a priority for him, it was a priority for all of us.”
In the spring of 2020 though, he started to lose the ability to run. It was the tumor coming back, although they didn’t know it at the time. But that gave Eli an even stronger drive to be able to run, to be able to ride a bike. “And so he just pulled me along with him and he’s like, ‘This is something you have to do, mom.’ And so I did it. And what amazed me is even with everything he had against him and even when he struggled, he always had this belief he’d get back to running.” His belief was justified; he’d been unable to even walk, but he relearned the motor skills and started to run again.
In December, he had to relearn those skills once more. He’d gone on a different drug which damaged his nervous system. The day before Christmas, his parents had to carry him in to see the doctor. Early in the new year, he was back to running.
After that last time of losing the ability to walk, Heather started talking to him about other people and athletes who had gone through hardship. She told him about Wilma Rudolph, who had polio and left-sided weakness, like he did, and went on to win a gold medal at the Olympics. They went to Clarksville, Tennessee, and Eli got his picture taken with Rudolph’s statue there. He told Heather, “I’m gonna get a gold medal just like her,” and, she says, “His drive to run fast went into overdrive and it was so cool.
“So when we told him that the cancer had spread all over his nervous system and the only thing that we had in our ability was to slow the spread of the disease, he said, ‘Okay.’ And then I said, ‘So buddy, what’s three things you want to be able to do?’ And he said, ‘Well, I wanna go to kindergarten’ and then he said, ‘I wanna run in the Olympics like Wilma Rudolph,’ and then his third wish was that he wanted to go to Great Wolf Lodge. I was like, ‘Okay, we’ll make those things happen.’”
Kindergarten and Great Wolf lodge were easy. The Olympics took more planning. “This whole experience has helped me understand that the power of a village, it makes miracles happen,” Heather says. “All I said was ‘Eli wants an Olympic event’ and I told my coworkers this, and I was like, ‘I don’t care if we hop over a fence and just run on a track. He just wants to be able to run the 100.”
The community came together to make that happen, and more. The local high school donated the use of their track. Parents came with their kids; adults from different parts of Eli’s life attended. Besides the 100 meters, there was a 400-yard dash, a relay, an obstacle course, a long jump, and they played Sharks and Minnows. “Everybody was running and being active and playing games and laughing and that’s what Eli loved. I think that’s one thing that he got from running was that community of what brings people together. He was joking around about everything; it was amazing.”
Afterwards, the high school invited Eli to race the mascot at their homecoming game. Heather remembers that “as he was running out with the football team, all you heard in the entire stadium was everyone cheering Eli’s name, and they all had posters, and they were like, “Go, Eli! Go, Eli!” And he thought he was a king; he thought he was royalty. So he did, he raced the mascot during one of the breaks between the quarters and the band played. And everyone was loving Eli’s running love.”
That was the start of Heather asking Eli what three wishes he wanted to make, and trying to fulfill them. One of his wishes, he told her, was to run the mile and be on the Hall of Fame wall at school, for being one of the ten fastest kids in his class. “I was like, ‘Oh that may be a tall order.’ And he’s like, ‘No, it’ll be okay. We just need to train a little bit more’. And every day, we would get on the treadmill and he would do his own HIIT training and we would make jokes about it, and then afterwards he would do his strength training that he was given by his PT to keep his legs as strong as possible, and then he went and ran it. And remarkably, he was the seventh-fastest little boy in his school for first grade.”
Eli making those wishes, and setting those goals, was important for the entire family. “It gives you something that you do have control over, helps you to focus on the joy of life. Because even in the darkest days, in the saddest moments, there’s always joy. And I think that’s what helped our family. We were able to find those moments where we could celebrate each other, where we could just have those moments of genuine love and appreciation. And that is something I treasure.”
Heather remembers his final set of wishes. “When Eli was told that medicine could no longer control his cancer, we asked him what his three wishes were for life. We had planned to go as a family to New York City, Spiderman’s City, in October of 2022. He said that he would rather go ride roller coasters than go to New York. However, in true Eli style, his hand grabbed mine and he placed it on my heart and said, ‘Don’t worry, mom. You can take me to New York City in your heart.’ And so when the possibility to run the marathon came up in New York City, I knew for a fact, this is Eli and he’s helping me heal.
“Eli ran his last mile with me the day before he earned his angel wings. When we finished (and yes, he beat me), he told me, “Mom, you really need to start training.” Every time I want to quit and give up, I remember the hours he put in on the treadmill, doing box jumps, and all his therapy home programs. We all can do hard things, we are all warriors, and in November, I will run and celebrate all 26 miles because I can.”
Besides running, Eli also loved to read. His parents founded “The Pegasus Project” in his honor.
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