WEST JORDAN — As I watched Lota Ward accept an invitation from Salt Lake Marathon officials to be their celebrity starter for this year’s race, I felt tears slip down my cheeks.
At first, I was embarrassed, and I even wondered aloud why such a seemingly small thing evoked such strong emotion. I quickly, and rather thoughtlessly, decided it was because I was exhausted.
That moment came at the end of a long, stressful day, and was a commitment I’d made during one of the most demanding stretches of both my professional and personal life. So while I wanted to be in that West Jordan park to see Lota Ward, surrounded by my friends from Team Red, White and Blue, accept the honor extended to him from Salt Lake Marathon owner Steve Bingham-Hawk, I also felt weary both physically and emotionally.
Lota wasn’t expecting the invitation.
And I wasn’t expecting the gift that experience became.
As I listened to Lota accept the honor of sending 7,000 runners out onto the Salt Lake Marathon course on April 22, I thought about the 7-year-old boy I met three and a half years ago.
Lota, his father and two older sisters were preparing to run the XTERRA trail half marathon at Snowbasin, and that alone would have been a compelling story. But little Lota had decided they should use their race to try to raise money for two brothers who, struggling with a genetic disorder, needed new wheelchairs.
It was a pleasure to meet the Wards, but Lota was definitely the highlight from that first introduction. He was a quick-witted, tough-minded young man who’d begged his parents to let him run what most adults would consider extreme distances.
I left their Layton home impressed and inspired.
Just a month later I learned that delightful little boy had been diagnosed with a brain tumor.
In the three and a half years since, I’ve watched the countless physical, emotional and intellectual challenges and changes each of the seven surgeries have left on Lota’s life. Somehow, however, he’s held onto his generous heart, even as he struggles with what he can no longer do — like Little League football and ultra runs.
I’ve talked with him, run with him and written about him. I’ve been inspired by him, cried for him and had him cheer me on in my own challenges and adventures. I leave every conversation with him enlightened and more grateful.
Wednesday night, I arrived at the park at the same time he and his family did. He thought he was meeting Team RWB at the park for a training run.
About the same time Lota began battling his brain tumor, the Salt Lake Marathon created a special relationship with Team RWB, a group that works to enrich the lives of veterans through social, physical and service activities, that includes a relay that allows the group’s members to run for those who’ve served or lost their lives in service.
Last year, Team RWB invited Lota to run with us, and he managed the last six miles of the race. He was, without a doubt, a highlight for many of us.
When Salt Lake Marathon officials heard Lota’s story, they began to plan the surprise invitation that occurred Wednesday night.
I felt my fatigue fading as I talked with him about little things like favorite foods and upcoming races. As we approached the halfway mark, Bingham-Hawk and marketing director Jennifer Nelson waited with gifts and the invitation.
At first, he said he needed to check with his family because, as he explained to Bingham-Hawk, none of his racing adventures would be possible without his family. When Bingham-Hawk explained they’d already gotten permission from his parents, he excitedly accepted.
After a couple of television interviews, Lota rejoined Team RWB on the training run, where the conversation returned to the beautiful monotony of life.
We enjoyed a peach and rose sunset and unseasonably warm temperatures. But the real gift was basking in the warmth of Lota’s special soul. He has enjoyed remarkable support from Utah’s running community, but he’s returned a lot of that love in the affection he offers us.
He misses running on a regular basis, just like he misses football. He talks about playing in the NFL, even though the tumor currently prevents him from playing any contact sports.
He dreams big, and those dreams usually include all the ways in which he can make someone else happy, whether it’s one of his siblings or a friend from the neighborhood. When we told him that those who participate in the relay run for someone who has served in the military, without hesitation, he said he’d be running for his cousin, who was currently serving in the military.
The beauty of Lota is that he’s genuine. He doesn’t pretend, and he acknowledges his fears, his frustrations and his heartbreak.
But he doesn’t live there in those dark, soul-consuming places. He drags himself back into the sunshine, often with the help of his family, and some days he drags people like me along with him.
I was tired — emotionally and physically — when I arrived at that park. The tears, I decided later, were born of gratitude.
It was on a run the following day that I realized what Lota gives me every time I see him is so small, it’s easy to overlook or lose it.
It’s the realization that the world is improved through the smallest acts of compassion — a smile, a card, a hug or a run on a day you didn’t think you had a few miles in your legs. He understands that it’s not enough to put one foot in front of the other. He shows us that by pointing out beauty, paying a compliment or just offering encouragement, we shed just a little of the weariness caused by our own troubles.
It isn’t always in solving our own problems that relief comes. Sometimes the only way to find peace is to reach out to someone else.
In the days since our run, I’ve thought often about how he reaches out to others and how that loves comes back to him in so many ways. What I learned from him Wednesday is that he never expects it and never seeks it. He is also never disappointed in its package. There is no insignificant gift to a little boy who’s lost so much to an illness he’s not sure will ever be cured.
And that might be the gift I would have missed this week if I hadn’t been blessed with the friendship of this little boy and his amazing family.