Why TJ Gardner runs for Annie

Annie Mac Evans, my incredible cousin, was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia (AML) on February 10, 2016. She was only 25 years old. She was immediately referred to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, and on February 11, she had her first appointment with her mother, father, and future husband by her side. They were so grateful for how they were treated there from Day One, and Annie’s mother, Sally, called Dana-Farber a “well-oiled machine yet warm and personal at the same time.” By February 22, they had a plan in place and began a nearly four-year battle of countless rounds of chemo, bone marrow transplants from two different donors, graft vs. host disease, immunotherapy medications, and a trial procedure, all to make Annie well again. She even got married in the middle of it all. Her mother wrote in Annie’s Caring Bridge journal, “Her medical team is crazy smart and dedicated to her. The nurses and staff on her floor are beyond amazingly compassionate and knowledgeable.”

Annie lost her fight on November 7, 2019. She was 29. She had said yes to every potential intervention, no matter how uncomfortable or risky, up until the end, when she finally said yes to managing her transition in a peaceful and painless way while her siblings returned home to be by her side.

When it was clear that this was going to be the outcome, nurses and staff with Dana-Farber and the Brigham were coming from all floors to see her and say goodbye. Doctors in tears, telling her what she meant in terms of kindness, patience, and bravery. Throughout this journey, she spent most of her time worrying about how it was affecting those around her. She made her husband, Dan, her siblings, and her parents, Mike and Sally, promise that they would have a happy life. A promise they have all pledged to keep.

I had never been a runner, nor did I ever want to be. Running was for crazy people. Hockey was my sport. I had tried one marathon in 2001 and hung up my shoes right after, or rather, I threw them in the trash. When Annie was diagnosed, I felt the strong pull to do something to show support for her and her family. Over the following two years, I ran several half marathons, three full marathons, and a Beastman duathlon (56 mile bike, 13.1 mile run) in honor of Annie.

One day in late 2017, I was invited to a group run on the trails of the Arizona desert. This experience opened up a whole new world of running that changed my life. I left road running behind and became a trail runner with hopes of soon partaking in ultra-marathons. I started exploring beautiful places I never knew existed and credit this path as a key factor to the positive changes I recently made in my life. I began training harder, running farther, and participating in more races. By the end of 2019, I had raised almost $10,000 for leukemia and lymphoma research.

Annie and her family put so much time and commitment into raising money and awareness for Dana-Farber that, in 2020, it only seemed fitting to continue their fight and help this research institution eradicate cancer for good in the hopes someone else can be spared this pain.

I chose, with guidance from her mother, to have the money I raise help fund Dr. Robert Soiffer’s AML research at Dana-Farber in memory of Annie. I ran 1600+ miles and 8 races throughout 2020 for Dana-Farber’s Run Any Race program to raise a minimum of $10,000 for the fund. I also worked on building a team of runners to join me in this effort by running races of their choosing during 2020, each pursuing their own specific fundraising goals to Dana-Farber. As an individual, one can accomplish much, as a team, we will be even stronger.

On February 15, I ran the first race of the series. It was a 100K journey through the desert mountains of central Arizona. I had never run this distance before. At 7 a.m., set against the backdrop of the morning sun rising over the surrounding mountains, over 700 fellow trail runners lined up at the starting line. It was a beautiful day, and there was an electricity in the air.

Throughout the race, no matter how difficult the climbs were or how sore my legs felt, I never stopped smiling and somehow knew the entire time that I would finish. To find that inner drive, I only had to look at the bracelet on my wrist with Annie’s initials and her quote “Live Life with Content,” knowing that her fight was tougher than anything I will ever experience running on these trails, and she did it with strength and grace. This race was for Annie, and I would not quit. Fifteen hours later, I crossed the finish line 62 miles away from where I started, ready to keep pushing and do my part in the battle against cancer in memory of Annie. Thank you to Dana-Farber and the Jimmy Fund for giving me this opportunity to share her story.

TJ Gardner

Learn more about Run Any Race in order to fundraise for patients like Annie here.

TJ Gardner’s 2020 Races:

– San Tan Scramble 26K, January 4, 2020 (AZ)

– Black Canyon Ultras 100K, February 15, 2020 (AZ)

– Mesquite Canyon 30K, March 7, 2020 (AZ)

– Limitless Vertical Challenge, 67.1 miles 29,084 ft vertical gain, May 25-29, 2020 (AZ)

– Sinister Night Runs 54K, August 29, 2020 (AZ)

– Javelina Jangover Night Runs 25K, September 26, 2020 (AZ)

– Minidona, 105 miles, October 17, 2020 (AZ)

– Cave Creek Thriller 50K, December 2020 (AZ)