Sometimes a hero runs toward the thing that everyone else is running away from. And sometimes a hero just runs…
Such is the case with Mason, OH resident Megan Shew, who is preparing for her long-awaited shot at the October 22 Marine Corps Marathon. It’s tough enough to secure a slot in the Leatherneck race, let alone to finish the grueling 26.2 mile course. And it is tougher still when you suffer from a chronic illness that saps your strength and feeds on your exhaustion!
Megan grew up dreaming of becoming a Marine. Military service was a way of life in her family: Her father served in the Army, her stepdad and her sister in the Air Force, and her brother, Brian, is a Marine.
“Brian has always been my hero, and, as silly as it may sound, running this marathon is very emotional for me. It is the closest I will ever get to my dream of being a Marine,” Megan explains. “I know there is no comparison, but running this race, in some tiny way, makes up for my impossible dream.”
Her dream became impossible before it even had time to blossom. In 1982, at the age of 11, she was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. The diagnosis came after an extended period of abdominal pain, nausea, loss of appetite and exhaustion. Although Megan didn’t know it at the time, Doctors were grimly predicting cancer.
She had just entered the sixth grade and weighed in at a meager 52 pounds. “I had no energy, no strength… just getting on and off the bus was a challenge. My bus driver would stop and wait for my mom to get to the bus door so she could help me into the house.”
When Megan was finally admitted to Children’s Medical Center in Cincinnati, a week of relentless tests and examinations produced the sobering diagnosis of Crohn’s.
The chronic condition has a broad range of symptoms but typically involves inflammation of the digestive tract that leads to severe abdominal pain, weight loss, diarrhea or vomiting, and numerous other issues. It would be a challenging diagnosis for anyone, but especially for a young girl on the brink of her teen years.
Living With Crohn’s
Megan quickly found herself adjusting to a new way of life that included steroid injections and up to 22 assorted pills per day. It was a frustrating and confusing time and Megan’s friends attempted to draw her out and get her involved in activities that might distract her from the indignities of Crohn’s.
When she was invited to join the Cross Country team, Megan’s first meet resulted in an excruciating run that seemed to stretch on forever, leaving her embarrassed and exhausted. “Not only did I come in dead last, but the next race started and they just kept lapping me, time and time again, until that race finished too! I was running and getting out of breath and then walking, then repeating the same sequence over and over…but when I finally crossed the finish line, everyone was screaming for me. Both teams! Both teams’ friends and family congratulated me for sticking it out and finishing the race,” Megan recalls.
Despite the encouragement from onlookers, she was mortified by her performance and never returned to the team. But the desire to run had taken root, in spite of her body’s lack of cooperation. She tried running again after graduating from high school, but she could only manage a couple miles at a time. Still, it was at this point that she began to cautiously and quietly dream of someday running a marathon. But there were other races to be run in the meantime…
By the year 2000, after giving birth to her son Michael, Megan was still facing an uphill battle with the symptoms and side-effects of Crohn’s.
“I was terribly overweight after my pregnancy and I began running again, thanks to the encouragement of a former boss who had become a friend. But I still couldn’t get past three miles,” Megan recalls. “To make matters worse, I was diagnosed with asthma! Every time I’d try to increase my miles, the Crohn’s would get worse.”
Once again, she was forced to abandon the idea of ever pressing beyond that three-mile limit. Then, in 2009, she was admitted to the hospital during a severe Crohn’s attack; so severe, in fact, that she thought she might be dying.
“I’m not convinced I wasn’t,” she says now. “I was so dehydrated that my veins were blowing up each time they tried to insert an IV. I had to have a special device implanted in my chest to help the medicine go into my body without destroying my veins.”
She was placed back on steroids and given high doses of other medications, including one called Remicade that worked well for about 18 months…“until my body began rejecting it, which sent me into anaphylactic shock. The doctor had to discontinue it altogether.”
The Breaking Point
She had no sooner begun to mend from this episode when she had yet another serious flare-up that resulted in a ten-day hospital stay. She was exhausted, in pain, depressed, and unable to function in any normal manner. “The steroids packed on even more weight, and I was now on antidepressants in addition to everything else. I lived like a hermit, terrified to leave the house for fear of having a Crohn’s related “accident.” I couldn’t even work a three-hour-a-day job or walk through a parking lot without getting winded. I could barely stand up straight…”
But, then, one night, she dreamed that her father, who had died in 2010, sat down with her and explained that if she didn’t make some lifestyle changes, she would be spending her next birthday with him. It was the wake-up call she needed.
Once again, Megan began to push herself; this time with a sense of urgency and a new resolve. She started slowly this time, walking regularly, beginning in April 2013.
“My first goal was to lose 10 pounds. My next goal was to be able to slide my engagement ring back onto my finger. The day I hit 25 pounds lost, I tried the ring and it reluctantly slid on,” she recalls. “I pray that I always remember exactly how I felt that day. My husband Kevin was standing next to me, totally clueless about what I was doing. When that ring fit over my finger, I burst into tears and collapsed into his arms, completely overcome with emotion. The poor guy had no idea what was going on!”
That little victory spurred her onward, though not without the occasional stumbling block. Several days later, she was half-a-mile into a two mile walk and already feeling frustrated with her progress. She passed an old man tending a garden, and noticed that his legs were bandaged and banged up, and that he was steadying himself with a walker…yet there he was, doggedly weeding a patch of land around a flagpole.
“Here was this man who was in much worse shape that I was at that point, yet he was still outside doing yard work! I got so angry at myself for MY pity party, that I walked seven miles instead of two.”
Megan caught him outside several days later and thanked him for his inspiration. “His name is Roy and I’ve never seen him since. I drive that road every day, sometimes four times a day and, every time, without exception, I look for him,” she says.
In the wake of that life-altering experience, she began to push herself harder…jogging the last quarter mile home until she was breathless, then walking for a bit, then jogging again, if only for a few seconds, then resting, and then pushing through again and again.
Megan recalled that a friend from high school was a runner and she began quizzing her about methods and inspiration. Through Regina, Megan learned about Olympian Jeff Galloway’s run-walk-run method. This technique, coupled with her friend’s encouragement, was the final piece to the puzzle. Suddenly Megan’s dream of competitive running seemed within reach.
And though she knew she would never become a Marine herself, a new dream was born: to complete the Marine Corps Marathon. One of the top marathons in the country, the very best runners vie for a slot in the Marine Corps run.
As Megan’s endurance and determination increased, she mastered longer and longer runs. In fact, after repeatedly being turned down for the Marine Corps race, she set her sights on running in the Air Force Marathon. And in September 2016, she achieved that goal.
“I finished in six hours and 47 minutes, with just 13 minutes to spare. I stopped to shake hands with, and thank, every service member I encountered along the course. It was an incredible experience,” she says. “I don’t know how to explain how it felt to cross that finish line, and to cross it in time. I sobbed as an airman put the medal around my neck. Once I caught my breath I was on cloud nine, it was like being on a high. It took a week for me to realize it was real.”
Finally finishing a marathon was part of the dream – but it wasn’t the WHOLE dream.
In 2017, Megan got the news she had been waiting for…she was in; come October she would be running the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington DC! In a Facebook post asking for sponsors, Megan explains that, “This fall, I will be waiting behind the starting line, waiting for the starter’s gun, waiting for the most important 26.2 miles of my life, waiting to ‘run with purpose’ and ‘finish with pride.’”
But she isn’t simply running to prove a point or even to thumb her nose at her Crohn’s; instead she’s running to honor her heroes and to support America’s veterans.
Her purpose, first and foremost, is honoring her brother Brian and those like him who sacrifice and serve in our nation’s Armed Forces. “Without men and women like Brian, who protect and defend us, we wouldn’t have the freedoms we enjoy in this great country we call home,” she explains, adding that she is also running on behalf of an organization that enriches the lives of American military veterans through physical and social activities. Team RWB (Red, White and Blue) focuses on creating quality relationships and experiences for veterans that will contribute to their life satisfaction and overall wellbeing. The organization emphasizes enrichment consisting of three core components – health, people, and purpose – and they achieve their mission via two core programs: a Chapter and Community Program and a Leadership Development Program.
“While running this marathon is a tribute to my brother’s service, and to all who have served, it is also a great opportunity to raise awareness and funds for American veterans in need. While I am putting in the hard training miles, and finally finishing my own 26.2 mile journey, I want each step to be a step forward for Team RWB, so they can continue to help our veterans every day,” Megan explains.
Support ‘Team Megan’
Her Facebook post includes a link to support her effort – https://donate.teamrwb.org/fundraiser/982292 — and she writes, “As you go to the fundraising page to donate, please think about the veterans in YOUR life. I want to use this as an opportunity to recognize as many as possible. It would be great if every donation were associated with a specific veteran or active duty service member. If you want to honor your brother who served, please donate and be sure to list his name in the comments. If you want to honor your sister and your grandfather, make your donation and name them both in the comments. Any donation, large or small, will help Team RWB continue to do their great work for veterans. And it would mean the world to me to have hundreds of veterans to carry in my heart, to remember, and to honor as I train and compete.”
After a lifetime of fighting — and overcoming — daunting challenges, Megan Shew is running this race and reaching for this inspiring dream not to draw attention to her own battle but, rather, as a way to celebrate the service and sacrifice of others. And although she admits that she does not accept praise comfortably, she just may have to get over that. For it is clear, even if she never steps across another finish line, that she is already a champion – and the living embodiment of the Marine Corps motto – Semper Fi (always faithful).
Please sign up today to support this courageous woman in her effort to honor our veterans and achieve a dream.