Running with a Purpose

By Erin Santos

Screen Shot 2016-06-21 at 3.00.16 PM I know the benefits of running. I know that it’s good for your body; it keeps you in shape and is one of the most effective sources of exercise. I have known that forever, but sometimes it’s just not enough to get you outside. I go through periods of time where I run and will stick with it for a while. But, something always gets in the way and I take some fork in the road and I find myself losing motivation.

As the President of a local charity, I was researching what drives people and a reoccurring theme was purpose. Millennials especially are driven by purpose. Not just in their giving strategies but in life. They will take jobs that may not fall in line with their income goals because they feel an attachment to something in the position and feel it somehow gives them purpose. I loved thinking that people were being driven not by financial goals but by helping others, feeling a sense of community, or contributing to a higher purpose.

This research initiated a thought in my head about running. I ran a marathon for a charity in my early 20s. Back when training for a marathon was easier than when you train as a wife and mother. I didn’t know much about the charity. I listened to their stories, met great people and even got a tattoo at the end of the marathon that I regret daily. But looking back on the training, I am not sure if I really pushed myself or blew anyone away with my fundraising efforts. The story didn’t touch me personally and while I felt sympathy for those who were affected by the charity; I still kept the story at arm’s length. I was sympathetic, but I wasn’t sure it ever crossed over to empathy.

Screen Shot 2016-06-21 at 3.00.56 PMI lost my 7-year-old daughter Isabella to cancer 4 years ago on June 28th. It was the most horrifying experience of my life. I imagine it’s like going to the front lines of war and I feel the PTSD from witnessing it first hand every day. I’ve helped grow the Isabella Santos Foundation into a very successful charity that raises money for Neuroblastoma research and it has helped me so much in the healing process. The best part about having a foundation in her name is that she continues to live on through others. This is all you want after losing someone close to you, especially a child. Things were progressing and growing with the foundation and I thought this was how things would be with her charity year after year.

Two years ago I heard rumblings that someone wanted to create a running group for the Thunder Road Half Marathon (now known as the Charlotte Marathon) and the goal would be to train together and raise money for ISF. Since I had done this kind of thing before, I immediately joined the team. It was a small but fierce team with many new names and faces. Some people on the team knew her, but some didn’t. They followed her story and felt inspired to run. She had been gone just two years and it was a great way to take my mind off things and focus again on Isabella’s wish of a world with no more cancer. There were about 20 of us and together we raised close to $34,000.

The following year we grew to 60 runners. It was becoming something else entirely. Each run I attended I would meet new people and learn how they came to know my daughter’s story. The amount of people that never knew her was outweighing those that did. These total strangers were waking up before the sun to run in purple with my daughter’s name on their back. There is nothing more motivating than watching someone whom you have never met, run in front of you as you read, “We run for Isabella, and other children fighting cancer.” It wasn’t their daughter, their niece or their friend. But they were out running for her.

Tim Dream TeamSomething had happened that moved them from being sympathetic to having empathy. The hand they once put up that didn’t allow a story to get too close to their heart was taken down and they embraced our story as their own. They ran their hearts out; they fundraised and cheered for each other. They became a family. She was not only my daughter, she became theirs.

So many times people would tell me about personal goals they accomplished and they only completed it because they were motivated by Isabella. Whenever they thought about giving up or quitting, they new they couldn’t because she never did. It’s an amazing honor to think that even in death you can motivate someone. She was somehow giving them purpose. I’m always blown away by the commitment and dedication you will receive when you have purpose. You begin to accomplish things you never thought you could when you have purpose. This second year team of 60 people raised over $100,000.

I often wonder what is going through their head when they run. Do they talk to her? Do they feel her in the wind at their back? What makes them beat their fastest time? What pushes them to run the extra mile they thought they couldn’t or suppresses the voice that tells them to walk? It’s her. She comes in just when you need her by putting that familiar Taylor Swift song on their running mix. She comes when you think about walking but someone passes you and says, “Keep going for Isabella!” out of nowhere. She comes when you see that dragonfly cross your path or notice someone running towards you in purple. She motivates you because you know you are doing this for her and other children who are fighting cancer. You find purpose in this run.

What these people do for me is something they will never comprehend. I often times feel so screwed up from the grief process or lack of grief process that I have gone through in her death. I put her away in a box and bury it deep inside because I don’t know how to deal. But I know that once training starts in July, I am able to bring her out and allow her to run alongside me. I start to share close personal stories with total strangers because I feel safe with them. We have a common purpose and they are my family. I run to make her feel real again. Erin next to grave DT

There should be more things we do with our life that make something feel real or give us purpose. Purpose can be the most motivating thing when it comes to setting and accomplishing goals and running can be a part of this. I have worked out the majority of my life and oddly, I find myself, at 39 years old, in the best shape of my life. Maybe because in my 20s I was looking for purpose and couldn’t find it. I’m one year away from 40 and I finally found it. It’s Isabella’s Dream Team.

We share a common purpose. She runs alongside us and our goal is to find a cure for cancer in her name. And we will do it, together. This year we are hoping to be 200 strong. Who knows what we will accomplish together, but it’s guaranteed to be one of the most fulfilling things people will do with their life this year.

Find your purpose and run for it.

Learn more about us? Watch our video then email Tom Patania at to join Isabella’s Dream Team, powered by OrthoCarolina.

Want to learn about the Dream Team?

Dream Team

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