A Charleston mother pushes through 26.2 miles in memory of her "guardian angel"

As we celebrate this year's running of the Morgantown Marathon, we're sharing one determined runner's inspiring story of her commitment to honoring a special boy.

I am just a runner, with a passion.

I believe that we were all put on this earth for a reason, a reason to do some good…and that is what I try to do every day. For the last five and a half years, lacing up my running shoes is one of the ways I choose to do it.

Athletic activities have been a part of my life since I was young. I love the competition - not against others really, but against myself. I’m always trying to improve my time. Sometimes I do, most of the time I don’t. The most important thing to me is to be an inspiration. I run for those who can’t, and bring as much awareness to childhood cancer as I possibly can. This is where Jack Rollins comes in.

I started following Jack several years ago on social media. I didn’t know him or his family, but his story grabbed my heart - hard. He was just two and a half years old and had cancer. Jack’s cancer was aggressive; it was stage 4 neuroblastoma, a type of cancer that forms in certain kinds of nerve tissue. I couldn’t imagine, as a parent, feeling so helpless and watching my child suffer like that. I have two boys I love more than life itself, so I wanted to do something.

Cancer doesn’t care who you are, what you do, or who you love. I know firsthand that it steals people that you love, as I lost my mom to colon cancer when she was only 67 years old. She would have been 90 in December. The more I read about little Jack, the more I felt I needed to do something. 

Now, every race and every training run going forward is dedicated to #JackRollinsJourney. All of the races I run, and I’ve run approximately 125 to date, must support a charity. I used to race about every weekend, but back pain forced me to slow down in late 2015. However, I had already made the decision to run a full marathon for Jack. No matter what

Five year-old Jack Rollins received a 2015 Morgantown Marathon medal from Barb Navarini-Higgins and race director Jamie Summerlin in July, 2016.

In February 2016, I signed up for the Morgantown Marathon. My goal was not only to run it, but to give my medal to Jack in person. That would have meant the world to me, but it was not to be. Precious Jack was fighting a mighty battle too big for anyone to fight, let alone a five year-old child. I had met with one of Jack’s family members, who told me Jack was nearing the end.

I immediately contacted race director Jamie Summerlin and asked him if he had the full marathon medals in hand.  He didn't, but he said he had extra ones from the previous year’s marathon. I told him I had to get something to Jack real fast, and Jamie made it happen. 

Sadly, Jack Rollins passed away one week later, July 19, 2016, two months before the running of the Morgantown Marathon.

What a tremendous loss for the world. This child had done more in his short five years on this Earth than most people do in a lifetime. It didn’t matter what obstacles I was facing, Jack faced much more and there was no way that I’d go back on my promise to him or his family. The regret of “not doing it” would be too much for me to bear. I explained my injuries to Jamie and I asked if he would allow me to finish at my pace, which would have me finishing well past the race’s official cutoff time, and - if he could - put back a medal for Jack. I set out on that overcast Sunday morning at 7 a.m. with Jack on my mind.

This was my first full marathon. I wasn’t sure what to expect or how I would do, but I guessed it would take me around eight hours to finish, as I knew the majority of it would be me walking the course. It was quite an eventful morning, which turned into mid-afternoon. At mile six or so, I nearly got hit by a car. But Jack, my guardian angel, was watching over me.

The driver swerved into the runner’s lane, but luckily, out of habit, I was on the berm of the road. I felt the wind of the car brush by me so closely that it scared me and caused me to jump. What I jumped onto was pretty nasty. I landed on a dead raccoon - a very large, squishy dead raccoon. (That isn’t something that anyone should ever experience.)

I can look back on it now and laugh, but it wasn’t funny at all at the time. I’m sure I was quite the sight, stomping my feet to get raccoon stuff out of the crevices of my shoes so I could stop sliding around on the asphalt. That didn’t work, so I had to find a stick.

Okay, enough about that.

I continued to make my way along the course. I was the lone runner out there. I would be last, but I just wanted to finish. Jamie was gracious enough to leave the mile markers out for me. I was so appreciative of that. I also had a good friend (Debbie Gaskins) tracking me using an app; she knew where I was, even if she couldn’t see me. She asked me if I had eaten anything, and when I said no, she asked what I wanted. Crazy enough, I wanted a burger and the biggest Coke she could find, so I think it was at mile 15 in Sabraton, she handed me the food and I stopped and inhaled it all in about a minute.

Around mile 18, my right leg decided to give out on me. I fell into the road, where just a few seconds before, cars were speeding by, but for the second time that day, my guardian angel Jack was with me and there were no cars in the road. I busted up my knee and hand, but I was determined to finish the race. I kept going; there was no reason to stop. I would never stop.  I did get lost around mile 20 or so, and I think I may have put some extra mileage in - but it didn’t matter. A childhood friend and her husband (Tonia and Kenny Griffin) found me and guided me out of the area. That was his mail route, thank goodness. They stayed with me also.

Then came Beechurst, the hill like no other. “Just get to the top, just get to the top,’ I kept saying to myself. Finally, I made it. As I approached the WVU Coliseum, who do you think was there waiting on me, to drape that medal around my neck, after being there since probably 2 a m., hours after the last finisher crossed? None other than my race director, Jamie Summerlin. 

Jamie waited at the finish to cheer Barb home and place her finisher's medal around her neck.

I can't even begin to tell you what that meant to me.

For him to wait on me, the last runner, for Jack and his medal - and you know what? He didn't have to do that. He was tired, he had just spent many months (actually since the end of the last marathon) getting everything ready and the race ended at 1:30 p.m., but there was still a lone runner out there making her way up and down the hills of Morgantown with one little boy on her mind. 

I just wanted to finish. I wasn't breaking any records, I just wanted to finish it for Jack, for his family. No fanfare, technically no finish line to cross, no clock; I wasn't expecting anything at the end, I just wanted to finish. I didn't want to cause Jamie any extra work. But to him, I wasn't just some slow runner. I was his runner, determined to finish. He's the epitome of what a race director should be, caring about each and every runner out there, fast or slow, no matter the distance - we are all equally important. 

Barb shared Jack Rollins' medal with his family.

I was given the honor of presenting my medal, Jack’s medal, to his family in December.

I expect more of the same in this year’s race. I am still battling injuries, I am still running it for Jack Rollins, I am still hoping for an eight hour finish - but I will do the following things:

  1. I will avoid swerving cars.
  2. I will not step on any dead raccoons.
  3. I will stay vertical the entire race.

And, if there is ever a race that you should consider running, it's the Morgantown Marathon. You won't ever regret it. #YesItsHilly, but why wouldn't you want a challenge? #RunMotown

Barb Navarini-Higgins, 55, is a Charleston resident and Clarksburg native. The proud mother of Alex, 26, and Jacob, 13, Barb is a tireless advocate for childhood cancer awareness and is a member of the WVU Medicine Children's Leadership Council.