Running with a purpose: Ryan Ward continues family tradition, raises money for cancer research

  • Ryan Ward gets ready to run a marathon to benefit the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute with the help of his wife, Katie, Monday, on the Manhan Rail Trail near their home in Easthampton. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ryan Ward of Easthampton crosses Route 10 in Northampton on the bike path overpass while running a marathon to benefit the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Monday, April 20, 2020 on the Manhan Rail Trail. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ryan Ward of Easthampton crosses Route 10 in Northampton on the bike path overpass while running a marathon to benefit the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Monday, on the Manhan Rail Trail. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ryan Ward begins a marathon to benefit the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute as his wife, Katie, watches, Monday, April 20, 2020, on the Manhan Rail Trail near their home in Easthampton. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Ryan Ward gets ready to run a marathon to benefit the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute with the help of his wife, Katie, Monday, April 20, 2020, on the Manhan Rail Trail near their home in Easthampton. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Sports Editor
Published: 4/21/2020 2:28:02 PM

Ryan Ward was only a few miles into his run on Monday when he came across something that caught his eye – two women on rollerblades, wearing pajama onesies.

The closer he got he heard them cheering him on. He wasn’t expecting it.

When the Easthampton resident started his 26.2-mile run he assumed it was going to be just him and Jerry Garcia. But along the way, from the Manhan Rail Trail in Easthampton to Look Park in Northampton and back, every few miles brought supporters who helped him to the finish.

It wasn’t exactly Main Street in Hopkinton, the Scream Tunnel at Wellesley College or the closing stretch on Boylston Street. The Boston Marathon, which was scheduled for Monday, was postponed last month due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But Ward, like others, made a commitment. He joined the Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge team and raised money to fight cancer. His family has been affected by the disease and raising money through the marathon is a tradition.

“This history and gravity of everything, it’s very real,” Ward said. “That will give you a lot of strength on its own. You think about the people that you’ve loved and lost, it’s a lot. When you think about what people have gone through with cancer, what their families go through, it makes a marathon distance seem like nothing. You can harness some of that and put it into your run.”

Ward, 35, ran his first road race just over a year ago. He was using an elliptical at the gym to stay in shape when he saw a flier for the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Road Race. He signed up, even though he never enjoyed running. He played baseball and hockey as a kid, then football at Medford High school.

“The laps before any kind of practice were always one of my least favorite parts,” Ward said.

Funny thing though, Ward caught the running bug. His family teased him that he was going to be the next marathoner.

His aunt, Janice Byrnes, whom everyone calls Apple, ran the family’s first Boston Marathon in 2005 in honor of her brother, Johnny LeBlanc, who lost his fight to melanoma in 2000. She also ran in 2006.

Ward’s cousin, Haley Byrnes, ran Boston three times, while his uncle Joe LeBlanc, who started the Run Club of Malden, has completed it twice.

“I’d always say no, no,” Ward said. “Six miles is something, 26 is something else.”

But last May Ward’s father-in-law, Bob Pion, was diagnosed with T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Sometime after that, Ward’s co-worker at Trader Joe’s in Hadley, Arthur “Woody” Hoagland, was diagnosed with lymphoma.

“I became very aware of how important the work that Dana-Farber is doing is, and it also made me think if I can raise money to help cancer research then 26.2 miles is nothing really,” Ward said.

Pion was in the hospital for six months before he died on New Year’s Day. Hoagland recently completed treatment. He received chemotherapy at Cooley Dickinson and was accompanied by Ward and several friends during treatments. They passed the time by playing Dungeons & Dragons.

“He’d start off having a good time and by the end of it you’d just see the toll that that medicine can take on somebody,” Ward said. “This was a healthy guy who was almost exactly my age. It made it an easy decision for me to say, you know what, this is the year. It was impacting my life in such a way that it seemed obvious. It was the right year to do it.”

With the decision made to run Boston, Ward joined the Dana-Farber team. He spent the last 18 weeks following the team’s intermediate training program. He also solicited advice from his experienced family members.

“I had a pretty good idea of what I was getting myself into, but that said, after the 20 miles it seemed like pure will,” Ward said. “I was talking to my uncle (Monday) and he said there’s a saying: ‘A marathon is a race in two parts, the first 20 miles and the last six.’ I have to say, I couldn’t agree more with that.”

Ward had a goal of 4 hours, 30 minutes. With his wife Katie watching, he started on the rail trail behind his house in Easthampton. As a surprise, Katie and some of Ward’s coworkers organized a support group along his route.

While Ward, who plays bass for the bands Lost Film and Gold Dust, motored along to live Grateful Dead music, he was pushed along every so often by spectators.

“It was strangers, friends holding signs,” he said. “Every four miles I would run into somebody. It really helped.”

Ward’s finish line turned out to be his driveway. He came down Cottage and Union Streets then turned on to Chapman Avenue. He hit 26.2 miles in 4:13. The more important numbers were for Dana-Farber. Ward raised $12,310 to bring the family total to $149,498 through the years. His goal is to get that figure to $150,000 and he wants to get it there by the time he actually runs the Boston Marathon.

“Whenever it’s held next I will be running it,” Ward said. “My hope is that it’s September 14th when it was rescheduled for. If it’s not until next April then I’ll do it then, and if it’s not until September 2021, I’ll do it then. I have to have the Boston experience. I want to run through those streets.”

Mike Moran can be reached at mmoran@gazettenet.com. Follow on Twitter @mikemoranDHG.


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