Nothing is going to stop Jamie Slack from running the Boston Marathon on Monday. She’s got to get to Heartbreak Hill at Mile 20 because that is where physical pain delivers grace. There, on that grueling incline on that storied course, is where burning legs cleanse aching hearts of any grief. The kind of sorrow that only a mother who has lost a young child would understand.
Monday is the anniversary of the birth of Maddox Slack, younger of two Slack boys. Maddox would have turned 13 next week. But instead of cake and candles, or Maddox at all, there will just be Jamie on the course in Boston, and dad Stephen and older brother Owen watching from the curb.
This is how the Slacks of Collegeville have gotten through every spring since March 8, 2012. This is how they remember Maddox, who died that day when a tree fell on him during a family hike in Upper Providence Township.
Maddox was 5. A kindergartner and Sunday school regular. He had been walking near Perkiomen Creek with his mom and big brother, himself just a little guy only 7 years old.
This marathon, this column, they’re not so much about Maddox as they are about surviving. All of this is about Jamie. It’s about the women in her life who locked arms with a grieving mother and lifted her up. It is about finding superhuman emotional power in your very own two feet.
The prospect of Boston each year is what pulls Jamie, a social worker, and her husband, a Plymouth-Whitemarsh physical education teacher, and their son through Christmas and all the other holidays. Boston is where this now-43-year-old mother went to run a month after Maddox died. It is where she ran the next year, too, during the terrorist bombings. It is where the trio journey, year after year, for the love of Maddox. There is prayer in watching Mom put one foot in front of the other, and then the other, and then the other.
“You can’t cry while running,” Jamie said.
It is why she trains in the mornings, on weekends, during Owen’s soccer practices after school. This granddaughter of central Pennsylvania farmers understands the value of moving your body, of working hard to create opportunities in life. Even if all you want is just an opportunity to find peace from sadness.
By her side to help have been a gaggle of Collegeville girlfriends, all in their 40s, all moms themselves. The women have been running with Jamie for years at the crack of dawn. They even ran Boston together — all six of them — in 2017.
Boston Besties, they call themselves.
They laugh while running. They talk trash and talk life. They are why Jamie is running the marathon this year for a charity that promotes women finding power through running, a group called 261 Fearless.
“We just have each other’s backs all the time,” said 44-year-old Nikki Watts. “I remember at Maddox’s funeral, her mother pulled me aside and said, ‘I thank God for you guys.’”
These ladies have 16 kids at home among the six of them: Kim Lewullis, Anna Brogan, Beth Green, Nikki Watts, Liz Motley and, yes, the mother of them all, Jamie. On the day we met for a photo and to talk, one arrived flustered. She had rushed from work to the dentist for her son, and then rushed to Ursinus College, arriving late, to meet up with the group.
Wisecracked Nikki: “That’s why we run.”
Jamie knows all too well, as a school social worker, how mental anguish can twist people up and unglue them. So she doesn’t talk about the day she lost Maddox. Over a cup of coffee, she managed but a partial sentence before her lean runner’s frame buckled ever so slightly over her Styrofoam cup and words came to a halt. The same happened as she recalled how a dear girlfriend, three years after Jamie and the family had sworn off church, invited the family to Christmas Eve Mass.
“In my mind, without heaven there’s no Maddox,” she said, choking up while trying to stuff the emotion back into an invisible box inside of her. “As angry and as frustrated as I was, this foundational belief had to exist. It had to. And we went.”
Maddox’s death was not a public affair. There was a news release from police. Maddox was not named. Only because Jamie didn’t initially qualify this year for one of Boston’s 30,000 bibs did I learn about him and her.
There was no way, on Maddox’s birthday, that she would not run Boston. So she applied — and was one of a very few chosen — to run for 261 Fearless. The Boston-based nonprofit was founded by Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to run that marathon. It seeks to help women worldwide link up with others in their own communities and start running. Through an online fundraising page, Jamie is aiming to raise at least $8,000.
Women must lift women. She believes this to her core.
“A significant part of our life was shattered,” Jamie said. “And, you know, there were a lot of really strong women who dropped everything to help me pick up my life.”
(On Monday, all but one of Jamie’s Boston Besties from the 'hood will be there to watch her run. The ladies surprised her with the news just a few days ago. What a group of women indeed.)
Jamie wants the world to know: You can survive life’s cruelest heartbreaks if you run — heck, even if you walk. Just find good people to call your tribe. Put one foot in front of another. Move yourself into pain. And when you’re done, you’ve moved beyond it.