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A Promise Kept

On Monday, April 15, Jessica Orvis will line up, at the Boston Marathon and wait for the starting gun to sound.  Orvis, who works in the Office of University Advancement, and her siblings began running the 26.2-mile race with their mother five years ago.

It started out as a promise. Truly a last wish.

In 2014, as Orvis’ stepfather Walter F. Brown neared the end of his battle with cancer, he asked his wife to promise that the next spring she would run in the Boston Marathon. Brown had been the official starter for the race for more than 20 years. However, his wife, Candace Smith-Brown, had never run the race and had health challenges. “Once she made that promise,” said Orvis, it became her mission to learn about running and start training.”

Although Orvis was a runner in high school, running track and cross country, the furthest she ran was a half-marathon and as an adult she had run 5k’s. The Boston Marathon is different. In 2015, the first year that Orvis, her mother and her twin sister Jennifer participated, more than 30,000 ran in the race, which is considered the world’s oldest marathon with its inception in 1897.

To prepare for the race, the trio trained together and supported their mother’s efforts to finish the race in memory of Walter. “It really became a journey of healing from our grief,” said Orvis, who ran the race while she was 17 weeks into her pregnancy with daughter Clara. “We stressed over how impossible it seemed. We laughed at ourselves in our running gear. We cried over our loss, but every time we thought about why we were doing this, we became more committed to finish it.”

It became a family affair. Orvis’ sister Julia provided support by watching her sisters’ children and making sure she was at the starting and finish line, along with the rest of the family. Julia had never run before, but after that race, she started and has since finished two marathons with their mother.

“Marathon training is no joke, especially for the Boston Marathon in April. You have to train throughout the winter, which means you have to be okay with running in the snow and cold,” Orvis explained. And you could be out there from two to four hours or more she said. This year, Orvis is training alone. She no longer lives near her family since moving to Virginia Beach and the mental training is harder because the weather is nicer and she doesn’t have the notoriously hilly Boston to run in. But the group shares selfies and posts their runs through an app. 

That first race in 2015 was special. “My eyes started to well up as soon as we made the turn on to Boylston Street, and the finish line was just in front of us,” she recalled. “I saw my family cheering us on from the sidelines, and I was so overwhelmed with emotion. I thought of Walter, and I knew we made him so proud.”

In the past five years, Orvis has run the marathon once (2015), with the second one this year. Her sister Jennifer has run twice (2015 and 2016), and was 20 weeks pregnant in 2016 with daughter Madelyn. Her sister Julia has run twice (2016 and 2017). Her mother has run every year (2015-2018) and has lost more than 80 pounds and no longer needs medication for her diabetes.

As she thinks about this year’s race, Orvis reflects on what it has meant, especially for her mother. “She has run this race every year since Walter passed, even after a knee surgery,” she said. “Her commitment to the Boston Marathon, her health and running all stemmed from her promise to Walter, and I have never been so proud or inspired watching her every year. I don’t think Walter could have predicted what his last request would have done for her and for us.”