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Tenacity and grace: Train to end stroke keeps woman going

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WALNUT CREEK, Calif. - Betty Grace had made up her mind. She wasn't going to stop until she reached the finish line.

In her 82 years, the retired nurse had beaten worse odds. She survived open-heart surgery. She survived breast cancer. She survived a stroke.

So the 26.2-mile trek that she part ran, part walked through the smothering humidity of a June day in Kona, Hawaii, was just one more thing to survive - and she could do it.

Onlookers couldn't believe what they were seeing. Some honked their car horns in appreciation for her plight. It was not only her age that earned their admiration. Her 5-foot-3-inch frame looks especially fragile, due to a severe case of osteoarthritis that has shaped her spine in the letter "C."

Grace, a Discovery Bay, Calif., resident, had to pause to straighten her back every time she wanted to take in a full breath. When she became really tired, the injury made it impossible to raise her head fully.

Part of the motivation that kept her going was her teammates, whom she met through Train to End Stroke, an athletic-event training program sponsored by the American Stroke Association. For months, Grace inspired her younger cohorts with her determination at training walks and runs, so much so they paid her way to another race in Hawaii to be their cheerleader.

Sandy Hagerty, a 57-year-old stroke survivor, met Grace at a training event and was in awe of her tenacity. "Betty would always say the obvious," says the Walnut Creek, Calif., resident, who also raced in the Kona Marathon. "On a hard day if we were doing extra miles, she would say something like, `What could be so hard about putting one foot in front of the other?' That kind of statement would come back and we would remember."

Grace kept up her pace "pretty good" for the first 13 miles. She knew she had only nine hours to complete the marathon, an official race rule. But the miles just got "longer and longer and harder and harder," Grace says.

With six miles to go, a Train to End Stroke coach from Atlanta saw that Grace was struggling and walked with her for the remainder of the race.

"I really wasn't worried about her health," says Karen Kaye, also known as Coach Mom. "She did (mile 20) in 17 minutes. And I said, this lady is tough as nails!"

Grace remembers that when Kaye joined her race, she slowed her pace down to accommodate her new walking partner.

"I would have been going faster if I had known she was a coach," Grace says. "I was taking it a little bit easy."

As the race was winding to a close, Grace was becoming something of a celebrity. So many runners and walkers had already completed the race that the roads had been reopened for traffic. Carloads of people drove by cheering wildly for her. At race end, many participants hung around for its conclusion. Kaye likes to say that the whole island knew Grace was approaching the finish line.

As soon as she saw it, Kaye says Grace stood straight up and took off.

"I was trying not to laugh," Kaye recalls. "She was sprinting so hard! I have never seen anything like it."

It took Grace nine hours, six minutes and seven seconds to complete the course. Though she was a few minutes over, race organizers decided not to ding her for going overtime. After all, she had taken first place in the age-70-and-older category.

Later on, racers and coaches from around the country were approaching her for hugs, kisses and snapshots. Even at the airport she had an entourage.

The fuss doesn't faze Grace much, though.

Once again, she says the obvious.

"I just kept going because I wasn't to the finish line yet."



For information on American Stroke Association's Train to End Stroke, including local training events, contact 510-904-4000, or


(c) 2005, Contra Costa Times (Walnut Creek, Calif.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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