Friends Come Out to Honor Former Marathoner

Dan Wright is surrounded by family and friends just prior to a multi-stage marathon held to honor the former runner.

The sunlight on Dan Wright’s face was outshone by the smile he displayed on a recent Sunday as friends honored him by running a multi-stage marathon for the former runner.

The Brian Center, a health and rehabilitation facility situated along a picturesque lane out of Fincastle, was the site of a mid-day gathering of Wright’s friends and family.  They were there to help the former president of the Star City Striders, a running club, meet a life-long goal of running 20 marathons.

Wright had completed 19 marathons when in 2006 he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. He became a resident of the Brian Center in 2007 when his condition required him to be placed on a ventilator, according to his partner, Brenda McDaniel, a former member of Roanoke City Council. She was there to help Wright oversee the activities of the day.

The 63-year-old Wright watched from his motorized wheelchair as five friends lined up to run 5.25 miles each. Other runners formed a relay and ran from Roanoke to the Brian Center.

Rick Watkins, a friend of Wright’s, walked the entire 26.2 miles in nine hours. “We had about 28 or 29 people this weekend who ran or walked various distances in honor of Dan, including six teams of from two to five people who combined to do the equivalent of a marathon (26.2 miles). The total mileage run / walked by everyone this weekend was the equivalent of almost ten marathons,” Watkins noted in an email.

The event was a forerunner of an ALS walk to be held October 10 at Hollins University. Wright plans to be at that event in order to cheer on participants. “He usually challenges others to a wheelchair race,” McDaniel said.

The Brian Center is a walk sponsor, and a team of employees will participate as they have in previous years, Gary Watson, facility administrator, said.  “My daughter, who was eight last year – she even walked it,” Watson remarked.

The Brian Center is one of only three facilities in the state that offers ventilator and tracheotomy care to patients requiring breathing assistance. “We’re extremely fortunate that it’s right here in our backyard,” McDaniel said as she waited for runners to return to the facility parking lot. “It allows his family and friends to stay in touch.”

The facility, which can house up to 60 residents, including 25 ventilator residents, recently received the 2010 American Health Care Association Bronze Award. The national award recognizes the quality of the healthcare operation, Watson said.

“We’ve had referrals from as far away as Hawaii from people wanting to come here,” he added, noting that the healthcare facility serves 11 different states on a regular basis. “We’re taking people from all over.”

ALS is a degenerative disease of the nervous system that causes muscle weakness. There is no cure. About 300,000 Americans have the disease at any given time, according to the ALS Association.

Wright’s sister, Brenda Burnham, spent the summer training in order to be able to walk 13 miles, or about half of a marathon, McDaniel said. The South Carolina woman walked her miles Sunday at the Dan Wright Trail, which is part of the Murray Run Greenway in Roanoke. McDaniel planned to present her with a medal marking her achievement before the day ended.

Wright may have never finished his 20th marathon, but in the bigger race of his life, his friends and family have let him know that he is a true winner.

By Anita Firebaugh
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