In April 2012, Frances and Kevin O’Donnell ran the half marathon in the inaugural San Luis Obispo Marathon. A photo at their Los Osos home shows the couple after they finished the 13.1-mile run, with wide smiles and medals around their necks.
“We were all healthy,” Kevin O’Donnell recalled this week. “By the end of 2012 we had an entirely different life.”
This weekend, the O’Donnells and their 14-year-old daughter, Maddie, will once again lace up their shoes and join thousands of other runners and walkers in San Luis Obispo.
But this time, they’ll also be wearing bright orange shirts to honor their son, Riley, who died last year of acute lymphocytic leukemia.
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They are the head of Team Running for Riley — the largest team participating in SLO Marathon events this year, with more than 70 relatives, friends and co-workers running the 5-kilometer race on Saturday or the half or full marathon on Sunday.
“We just wanted to do something,” Frances O’Donnell said. “I was hoping to get 12 to 15 people, and then it blossomed into this.”
Most of their team members are running the half marathon, she said. Frances O’Donnell is a court clerk at San Luis Obispo Superior Court, and many of the runners are court staff or district attorneys, with at least one bailiff and one judge.
“The motives are selfish for us,” said Kevin O’Donnell, who owns Kevin O’Donnell Landscape & Design. “It brings him back to life for a day.
“If there’s a bigger cause, if this turns into something that will benefit someone someday, then yay,” he added.
The charity beneficiary of the race is the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Team in Training. In addition, the couple encourages runners to visit two booths at the event’s expo this weekend: Jack’s Helping Hand, which assists children with illnesses and disabilities, and Be The Match, which manages a bone marrow registry.
Riley was 13 and an incoming freshman at Morro Bay High School in summer 2012 when his parents first suspected something was wrong. Football practice left him utterly exhausted, and he struggled to walk a block to a friend’s house.
After he spent the Cayucos July 4 parade lying in the back of a friend’s car, his parents took him for a blood test, where he nearly passed out.
Two weeks later, Riley was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia.
After one year of a three-year treatment program, Riley was in remission, and he was granted a Make-A-Wish trip to New Zealand with his family. He’d completed a report on the country in sixth grade, his mom recalled, and he wanted to see penguins in the wild.
It was cold, Maddie said, but “he likes the fog and the rain.”
Riley relapsed in November 2013. He received additional treatment, but the chemotherapy wasn’t working, his dad said. He died on Valentine’s Day 2014.
“It’s overwhelming for us, the support that we’ve had,” Kevin O’Donnell said. “The comfort for us is having people around who knew him.”
Maddie is signed up for the 5K race. Before her brother died, she wanted to become a nurse; watching him go through treatment just strengthened her resolve.
She’s looking forward to the 5K, “just not to the running part. I might walk a little bit.”
On Sunday, she’ll cheer for her parents.
“You go through such sickness in the hospital,” Kevin O’Donnell said. “This is a great counter to that.”