'Non-runner' finishes Irish marathon, running for leukemia research funds
Kristina Kontgas Thomas had a goal in mind: Finish a 26.2 mile marathon.
But it wasn't just about participating in a marathon. This was more than that for her.
Not only was it her first ever time running in a marathon, but it would take place 4,500 miles in faraway Dublin, Ireland at the Dublin Marathon.
More so than that, she traveled the great distance for a purpose. For a loved one.
Her younger brother, Stephen Butkovich, 13, was diagnosed at 23 months old with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, Pre-B leukemia or ALL for short. Thomas, 27, was running in support of Stephen as she worked with Team in Training, a nonprofit started in 1988 that raises money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society through marathons, triathlons and 100-mile bike trips.
Thomas, a former Price resident who now resides in Holladay, wanted to do something in honor of her brother, especially after watching him deal with the effects of fighting an illness soon after his life had just started.
Little did she know how participating in a marathon, a world away from Utah, would have on her life.
Leading up to the marathon, Thomas trained for months by building up her stamina and getting her body ready for the race. Little by little she would run, a few miles each day for 40 to 50 minutes followed by a longer run every few weeks.
Despite the consistent preparation, Thomas still had to get over the one thought that hung over her head while in training.
"I was really nervous the week prior to running the marathon," she remembered. "I kept thinking "Oh my God, I can't believe I'm going to be running in a marathon.'"
But the meaning of taking part in the marathon would also hold a special place in the heart of her husband. Tristan Thomas, Kristina's husband, has seen the effects of cancer hit home. Tristan's father, David, passed away from cancer 14 years ago. The location of the marathon also held special meaning to him as David had served a mission in Ireland many years before.
Her work with Team in Training was a major part in traveling to Ireland for the marathon. According to the Team in Training web site, they have helped train over half a million runners, walkers triathletes, cyclists and hikers, raised over $1.2 billion to fund cancer research and has over 200 different endurance events for people to choose from. Now the group has over 40,000 athletes of all types who participate in the world's endurance events on behalf of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.
Before the marathon, she helped raise $4,800 to help fund research for the LLS in trying to find a cure.
Seeing the effects of cancer up close
Stephen lived with the disease as a young child, dealing with the effects of the cancer shortly after his life had just been started. Dino Kontgas, Stephen and Kristina's father, remembers well the late nights he had to stay up helping his son in whatever way he could. One of those ways was cooking full meals, sometimes well past midnight, for Stephen whose appetite had become insatiable thanks to the chemotherapy treatment and the steroids he had to take.
As a father, it was the last thing Dino ever wanted any of his children to experience.
"It was definitely nerve-wracking and heartbreaking to have to go through all of this," Kontgas said.
While the marathon, at 26.2 miles, might seem like an eternity, it pales in comparison to a person battling cancer, Thomas said.
"Their battles with leukemia and cancer can last for years," she said.
Thomas remembers seeing her brother deal with the effects of the illness, sometimes with the family isolated away from him for fear of him getting more sick.
"I can remember seeing him laying on the couch, looking really swollen and sick from the steroids he had to take," she recalls.
Moments like that one provided the backdrop in pushing Thomas to do something to help out years later. She did so, even going as far as paying her own way out to Dublin for the marathon.
"I know I'm not a runner"
Thomas lined up with over 10,000 other runners, including seven from the Team in Training team from Utah, who came from all over the world to participate in the yearly event. It was held on Oct. 31, a day that held a special meaning to Thomas, maybe more than all of the other runners.
It was Stephen's 13th birthday.
"Going through the pain of running a marathon is nothing like the pain people feel from dealing with an illness," she said.
Thomas thought she did everything she possibly could have done while training both mentally and physically for the marathon. One benefit she did have was the change in elevation, going from the higher elevations of Utah down to the sea level elevation in Dublin.
"I just tried to remind myself, 'You're a lot stronger than you think you are," she continued.
With a lot of thoughts going through her head, including finishing the marathon for Stephen, it was something she heard the night before the marathon at an inspiration dinner. Thomas and others present heard a story from a survivor who said when he was going through treatments, he would look out the window and wish he could be going through the pain of running.
"I would look at the houses as I was running by and think of a cancer patient who was sitting there, wishing they could be doing what I'm doing," Thomas said in an email to her parents after the race. "It sounds clichÃ©, I know, but it did make me realize that I have a lot to be grateful for."
Nearing the finish line of the marathon, she was cold, wet and exhausted. Just ahead of her, she faintly saw a marker indicating how much of the marathon was left. To her dismay, there was still a long way to go. But ultimately there was nothing else left to do, but push on through the last three grueling miles. After all, before beginning the marathon, she made a promise to finish the entire marathon.
Finally, with the encouragement from spectators and her teammates, and after 5 hours and 54 minutes, she had completed the marathon. A little short of her target time of 5 hours. But no matter. No matter that she placed 10998 overall or that it took her nearly six hours to complete start to finish. All that mattered was that she finished.
"I know I'm not much of a runner," she said, "but I'm just really happy that I finished."
"Words can't describe the feelings"
Kontgas, heard the phone ring sometime at his home on Oct. 31. It was a call from Thomas.
"Words can't describe the feelings we had when she called us and said she completed the marathon," he said. "For her to go halfway around the world to do all of that...it's quite rewarding."
While Thomas says that she is not a runner, that thought did provide her with some humor that came from her father before the race.
"They thought I was crazy for going all the way to Ireland to run in the marathon," she said.
Dino, however, had a different take on the entire experience. Only one a father could provide.
"She's (Kristina) stubborn," he acknowledged. "When she gets her mind set on something, she usually goes out and does it. She always wanted to do something to honor his (Stephen) courage and strength while dealing with cancer."
Now Thomas, a mother of two children, Rileigh, 4, and Aidan, 9 months, says she is considering participating in another marathon in the U.S. or out of the country like in Dublin. Each day she runs a few miles to stay in shape and be prepared for another marathon.
For now though, she has everything she needs. She has a family of her own, Stephen is cancer free and now she developed a passion for running.
"I have a lot to be grateful for," Thomas said.
As for Stephen, a student at Mont Harmon Junior High, he's just your average everyday teenager says Kontgas. He plays sports, hangs out with friends and does everything else a teenager does. But more importantly, in both Kristina's and Dino's eyes, he displays something they had a hard time seeing when he was first diagnosed with cancer.
"He is now just full of life," said Stephen's dad. Stephen's come a long way since he fought cancer as a baby, that sometimes Thomas must remind herself of what he had to fight against.
"It's really amazing to see," she said. "When I look at him now, sometimes I forget that he even had cancer."