When Sara Smith's mother was diagnosed with liver cancer in December 2008, the news left her bewildered. She was very close to her mother and had never given a thought to her mortality.
"It was absolutely devastating," Smith said. "Everything you can think of just goes through your mind. Will she be OK? What does this mean? I know people lose their parents, but the full impact of that was so difficult, especially when you're not prepared for it."
The Missoula native said watching her mother undergo treatment made her feel helpless. Chemotherapy left Peggy Smith, 62, frustrated, tired and weak. There had to be something she could do, Sara thought.
Last May, she ran in a San Diego marathon, qualifying for the Boston Marathon this April. While there, an idea came to her - one that could help her mother. She saw people running for causes, raising awareness and money for health research.
So she signed on with the American Liver Foundation's Run for Research team in the Boston Marathon. Smith will be one of 239 runners from 26 states, as well as Washington, D.C., and Canada, participating this year, each of whom is raising money independently.
Run for Research is in its 22nd year and is the oldest and second-largest charity team of the Boston Athletic Association, said Mimi Golub, an American Liver Foundation representative. The group generated more than $13 million over the years and looks to raise another $1 million this year. Each team member must raise at least $5,000.
"The more we can teach people that we are an organization and that liver disease is one of the fastest-growing diseases in the country, the better chance we have of saving lives," Golub said in an e-mail interview. "Our presence in events such as the Boston Marathon ... gives us hope that someone who may have liver disease or knows someone with liver disease will be able to find us and get the knowledge and the help they need."
Awareness of the dangers of liver disease is crucial, Golub said. A few hundred runners dressed in bright orange singlets are a great way to bring liver disease to the forefront of people's minds. After all, they're hard to miss, she said.
Sara's involvement with the organization is more than a show of support for those fighting liver disease, her mother said. Running for the cause is a sign of family love.
"I was very, very touched when I found out she was doing it," Peggy said. "It made me aware of how much my illness impacted her. She's a very upbeat person, always thinking on the positive side of things."
Money Sara raises by running with the liver research team will help not only her mother, but also the 30 million other Americans suffering from liver disease. Peggy, who lives near Joliet, said Sara's selflessness isn't surprising to her because she's always had passion and a strong work ethic.
"I'm very proud of her for doing the marathon," Peggy said, "but also for reaching out to that organization for research. Even though we talked about it, that's still a huge commitment that she's made. She's an outstanding human being."
While her mother's condition motivated her to get involved with Run for Research, Sara said she uses her mother for personal inspiration during races, too. Completing a full marathon can take up to four hours, providing plenty of time alone with her thoughts. There are moments during a race when she starts to wear down, but thinking about her mother often keeps her going.
"You go through a hard run and you start to think you can't go any further," Sara said. "And then, I think about what my mom's going through. It helps me manage my own pain when I think hers has got to be much worse."
That sort of compassion for others is what's helped make Run for Research so successful, Golub said. Runners usually already know or are put in contact with someone afflicted with liver disease, she said, which gives them a new perspective of the good they're doing.
"What makes Run for Research unique is that after these people join our team, they become very connected to the cause and ultimately raise well above and beyond their minimum," Golub said. "They do this because they meet patients with liver disease, feel a great sense of team spirit with all the team related activities and learn a lot about liver disease."
Sara and 25,000 others will leave the starting line on Monday, April 19 in rural Hopkinton, Mass., for the 26.2-mile trek into the center of Boston. To donate, go to liverteam.org.