By Luke Kenton
This bereaved mother turned her tumultuous grief into a tear-jerking triumph, after running through 50 US national parks to honour a promise she made to her daughter during chemotherapy.
The Schaenzle’s, from Denver Colorado, USA, have always been “an out-doorsy family”, according to Gil.
The nature-loving trio, consisting of the 61-year-old along with her husband Fred, and daughter Anna Rose, would choose to spend their holidays hiking and back-country skiing, rather than relaxing on sandy beaches.
But when Anna, 21, was suddenly diagnosed with stage-four neuroendocrine (NET) cancer in June 2016, open fields and mountain ranges were abruptly swapped for hospital beds and operating tables.
Doctors would go onto administer aggressive chemotherapy in an effort to stem her rapidly spreading cancer.
Attempting to raise her daughter’s spirits during one of her harshest chemo rounds, Gil shared with Anna a “crazy dream” from several weeks before, of running through all the national parks in America.
Hoping to make that dream a reality together, she asked her daughter if she would want to drive the safety car alongside her as she ran.
But her defiant daughter sharply replied “No”, leaving Gil momentarily stunned before Anna added, “I’m going to run them all with you.”
Tragically, Anna would never make it to the starting line, as on March 26, 2017 – after another grueling round of chemo – she lost her battle with cancer, after a nine-month fight.
Vowing to keep her daughter’s memory alive, on November 10 – National NET Cancer Awareness Day – a heart-broken Gil took her first strides in Mammoth Cave National Park, Kentucky.
Clutching her daughter’s teddy bear for all fifty journeys, Gil finished the final run in Denver’s Rocky Mountain National Park on August 4.
Gil said: “When you lose a child, the grief becomes so consuming.
“It feels like you heart has just been ripped out.
“You have no energy for your own; you care about nothing; you have no strength – it’s devastating.
“But Anna was a warrior and she had a fighting spirit.
“She was loving and warm, but she wouldn’t hesitate to kick-your-butt about something she didn’t like.
“Anna hated unfinished business and I know she would’ve been kicking my butt to get me up and out to do this – I knew I had to.
“I know she would’ve wanted to turn this grief into something good for others, so that’s exactly what I needed to do.
“Everything from that moment happened so quickly, it almost seemed to have a heavenly touch about it.
“Three days before I started the challenge, I was told I had osteoporosis [brittle bone condition] and wouldn’t be able to run – but I would’ve crawled to the finish line if I had to.
“Starting out slow, I eventually began to run and summoned the strength to keep going.
“During the hard times I definitely felt Anna there with me.”
Described as a ‘very athletic student,’ Gil and Fred grew increasingly more concerned about their Anna when she began returning home from her beloved volleyball practice feeling faint and with a numbness in her legs.
Following a number of heart issues, trapped arteries in her legs and a diagnosis of asthma, Anna’s seemingly separate symptoms were eventually determined to be caused by a collective of tumours in her stomach – leading to a diagnosis of aggressive stage four NET cancer.
Just nine months later, Anna was dead – but Gil was determined to not let her daughter’s tragic demise be in vain.
Spanning 35 states and covering 350 miles on foot, Gil’s runs varied anywhere between 5k in length, all the way up to a half-marathon dependent on the terrain.
Already raising $11,000 (8,500 GBP) for NET cancer awareness, Gil hopes her daughter’s story will encourage others to educate themselves about the rare disease.
Gil, whose interest in running kindled a decade ago, said: “I’ll never get over the grief of losing Anna – I still cry for my baby-girl everyday wishing she was here.
“This journey hasn’t healed that, but the thought we might be able to use our grief to help save another life is what kept me going.
“As a grieving mother I had no strength, but meeting the incredible people in the NET community allowed me to channel some of theirs.
“As Anna beautifully portrayed, when life shocks you it’s how we conduct ourselves in those moments, that define our lives.
“She was so strong and so fearless to the very end.
“I think we all need to be warriors like Anna.”