Less than six months before the biggest race of her life, Emily LeVan could no more run than fly. She was constantly at the hospital, remedies and treatments taking precedence over running and training. Even when the Oklahoma native wasn't at the hospital, she often had neither the energy nor the desire to run. The health problems weren't hers. They were her daughter's. LeVan's little girl was diagnosed last fall with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. It's a disease that's every bit as awful as it sounds. If untreated, it can be fatal in only a few weeks. "You just feel like your entire world has been pulled out from underneath you,” LeVan said of the diagnosis. Maddie, after all, is 4 years old. How was LeVan supposed to keep training for the U.S. Olympic marathon trials? She couldn't leave her daughter while doing 10- or 15-mile runs and logging hundreds of miles every month. She couldn't imagine how she could help Maddie get better and still find time to train. Maddie's trial had to come before hers. Indeed, it has been the priority, but early this morning in Boston, LeVan will toe the line for the start of the Olympic trials. She will try to turn a long-time dream into a fairy-tale reality. The Casady School alum returned to running after missing about a month of vital training time. She didn't do it despite Maddie's leukemia. She did so because of it. They have two trials.
‘A mental game'Emily LeVan laughs when she talks about the things Maddie loves — dolls, dresses, dancing. Those are interests LeVan never had as a kid. Her passion was sports, and she played everything. Field hockey and track became her specialties at Casady, and she continued playing field hockey at Bowdoin College in Maine. After college, LeVan thought doing a marathon would be a fun challenge. "Marathoning is such a mental game, so much more than any other sport I've ever done,” she said. "You have to be able to maintain this focus on a daily basis over three or four months as you're training.” LeVan flourished under the pressure. In her first marathon, she ran a time that qualified her for the granddaddy of them all, the Boston Marathon. Then a few years later, she qualified for the 2004 Olympic trials. A year before the trials, though, she learned she was pregnant. She would only have three months to train before the race. That wasn't enough time. "Oh,” LeVan joked with husband, Brad Johnson, "there's always 2008.” Nine months after giving birth to Maddie, LeVan ran a marathon. She felt good about her time and even better about her body. The 2008 Olympic trials didn't seem so far-fetched.
‘Worst nightmare'As autumn turned to winter last year on the Maine coast, LeVan ramped up her training. Only about six months remained until the trials, and everything was on schedule. Even with a full-time job as an emergency room nurse — the family also owns an organic farm in Wiscasset, Maine — LeVan felt good. Maddie, on the other hand, had a cough. A few days later, she started running a fever, too. The doctor prescribed antibiotics, but instead of improving, Maddie's health declined over the next few days. Blood work revealed her white blood cells, red blood cells and platelets all had low counts. The only answer: leukemia. "In some ways, I kind of felt like I was having this out of body experience,” LeVan remembered. "‘Is this really happening to me? Are we really here at the hospital?'” One night, LeVan clutched Maddie as the nurse stuck in a needle again and again. The more they prodded for a vein for the IV, the more Maddie squirmed and screamed. "This is my absolute worse nightmare,” LeVan thought. Finally after more than a week, Maddie improved enough to go home and continue treatment. So began a steady stream of cancer drugs, blood transfusions and bone marrow biopsies. Trips to the doctor became more frequent than ones to the grocery store. LeVan spent so much time running around that she had little time for running. The 2008 Olympic trials seemed completely far-fetched.
‘Such a long journey'Life had been turned upside down, and yet, Emily and Brad wanted to keep it as normal as possible. "It's important for us to show Maddie that life goes on,” LeVan said. "Life doesn't need to stop because you get sick or because you have a bump in the road.” That notion led LeVan back to marathoning. LeVan returned to her training about a month after Maddie's diagnosis, and she did so with more than an Olympic goal. The family decided to start a fundraiser for the Maine Children's Cancer Program. The name: Two Trials. A few days ago, the fundraiser totaled more than $64,000, surpassing its goal. Today, LeVan will reach hers. No matter how she runs or where she finishes in the Olympic trials, just making it to the starting line is accomplishment enough. She knows she likely won't be as competitive as she could be — she has the 14th-best qualifying time — and making the Olympic team is a long shot. "But I'm pretty confident that my sense of accomplishment ... just being there at the starting line will be much greater than I ever could've imagined,” she said. "That starting line not only means the starting line for the trials; it means we've persevered through Maddie's treatments and made significant strides. "We've come on such a long journey in the past several months.” Maddie still has steps remaining on her road to recovery. She has just finished a three-week round of steroids, and there is more treatment to come. But today, no one is worrying about the work that remains. They are celebrating how far they've come. Their trials are different, but the journey is shared.
Marathoner Emily LeVan poses with her daughter Maddie near the finish line of the Olympic trial and Boston Marathon in Boston. Associated press