Liz Grywczynski, 41, lost her husband, Tom, to leukemia in August 2009. Tom, a Newark native, was 40 years old. Liz was left to care for their four young children alone.
“I was just so tired and almost beaten down,” said Grywczynski, a full-time mom and former teacher at who now lives in Dublin.
But the one-year anniversary of Tom’s death was a catalyst.
Grywczynski had started the Tom Grywczynski Foundation, a nonprofit organization to help other families affected by blood cancer. “Things were starting to stabilize,” she said. “It was an ‘aha!’ moment. I really wanted to do something else.”
A close family friend had completed a 100-mile bicycle race in Tom's honor to raise money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society as part of its Team In Training (TNT) initiative. TNT is one of the world’s largest endurance sports training programs and helps individuals prepare for fundraising marathons, bike rides, triathlons and hikes.
Grywczynski wanted to participate, but she had never been particularly active. “I would look at runners and think, ‘You’re crazy,’ ” she said. Yet running seemed like the most palatable option.
“I’ve never enjoyed running unless there was a soccer ball in front of me,” said Grywczynski. “But I thought that maybe a half marathon would be doable.”
She logged onto the TNT website and discovered that training started the very next week for the Oakland Half Marathon in March. Even so, she was a little wary.
“I didn’t want to keep asking people to donate money,” said Grywczynski, who needed to raise $1,800. “We do fundraising every October. Now I would have to ask for more money.”
But her need to participate was about more than raising money. She wanted to move beyond her comfort zone.
“I wanted to do something painful and difficult because my husband went through 21 months of treatment and pain,” said Grywczynski. “I thought that if he could go through that, then I could go through five months of training.”
So she signed up. But it wasn’t an easy beginning.
She started running two miles a session, and for the first couple of weeks felt like she could barely breathe when running up the hill to her house.
On one such occasion, she was struck with a painful memory. When her husband was ill, his lungs were rife with infections, making it difficult for him to breathe. His fear was that he would not be able to breathe when he reached the top of the stairs, said Grywczynski. She used this memory as a source of strength.
“I looked up and said, 'Help. If you could do this, then I can get up this hill,'” she said. “I get quite emotional speaking about it. It was very cathartic in a way.”
From there she worked her way up to running six miles twice a week and doing 12 miles on a stationary bike every other day. She felt healthier than she had in years.
“It was a healing process for me,” she said. “I got healthier mentally, emotionally and physically.”
Come race day, Grywczynski felt nervous. This would be her first time running 13 miles at one stretch. But her TNT teammates were a great inspiration, she said. Each person was linked to somebody who had blood cancer or who had died from the disease, and wore the person’s name during the race.
“That was very inspirational when I was running, to catch up with teammates and see I’m not the only one that had suffered a loss,” said Grywczynski.
Every time she got tired, her mantra was, "I can do this." She would think of all the cancer patients sitting in chemotherapy treatment rooms. “I thought, ‘I might be sore for a few days, but I’m healthy and I will be OK,’” she said.
Grywczynski's goal was to finish in under three hours. She crossed the finish line at 2 hours, 47 minutes. Her whole family was there to cheer her on.
“I was like, ‘Wow, having them see me finish this,'” said Grywczynski. “For them to see me stay committed to it was very emotional, as was knowing that Tom was watching over me.”
Grywczynski never felt more focused. Her mission was to do the best she could, in part to honor her husband, who she said defied all odds.
“When he relapsed after his bone marrow transplant, they didn’t think he’d live much longer,” said Grywczynski. “But he lasted a full year.”
Getting physically stronger has made a profound difference, she said, and has given her the strength to go forward with more confidence and optimism.
“I always knew I could get through this grief but now I really feel a newfound appreciation for my health and my life,” said Grywczynski. “It’s taken the weight off my shoulders, that weight of grief that can affect your health.”
But she is still working to come to terms with her husband’s death.
“I’m not alone in my grief for Tom but I’m alone in my experience,” she said. “Losing a spouse, you have to navigate a different path than you thought you were going to. It’s very difficult.”
But the support of her friends, family and community, especially when she ran the half marathon, was overwhelming, she said.
“My husband always spoke about the goodness of people,” said Grywczynski. “I think this kind of renewed my belief.”
She now has her sights set on running the Nike Women’s Marathon in October. Training helps her be the best she can be, Grywczynski said, for herself and for her family.
“I just look and feel different,” she said. “It makes me a better parent and friend and person to be around, physically, emotionally and spiritually.”