Arizona Rock 'n' Roll Marathon: Sunday. Marathon 7:40, Half-marathon 8:30
Rebecca Flanagan first met Cliff Neal at law school at Wake Forest University. They sat next to one another in class, and their first conversations centered around state education — how he thought it needed a complete overhaul and how she thought it was on the right track.
Though some of their opinions differed, Flanagan knew one thing: “He was just the kindest person I’d ever met,” she said. “He would give anything to anyone at anytime.”
The feeling was mutual, and the pair was engaged to be married.
However, on Dec. 20, 2004, Neal — an Atlantic Coast Conference champion in the hammer throw for Wake Forest as an undergraduate — suffered a heart attack and died while working out at a gym in Chapel Hill. He was 24 and showed no prior symptoms.
Neal’s congenital heart condition had gone undetected for years, and he had succeeded in athletics despite the ailment.
On Sunday, Flanagan will run in the P.F. Chang’s Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon in honor of her late fiancé.
“When the running gets really tough I think, ‘He did this for years, I can do it for another mile or two,’” Flanagan said.
Flanagan, 29, was originally planning to honor Neal by running in a marathon last year, but couldn’t because she was in the hospital recovering from open heart surgery.
After Neal’s death, Flanagan’s grief counselor insisted she take a physical.
Three days before she took the bar exam, Flanagan was alerted by her cardiologist that she, too, had a heart condition.
There was a hole in Flanagan’s heart, and it took four months to figure out just how bad it was. She had surgery on Nov. 29, 2005. She then spent one week in the hospital and three more at home recovering.
“He absolutely saved me,” Flanagan said.
“(The hole in the heart) never would have been found. I probably would have had a stroke.”
Flanagan moved to Tempe in July to take a job at Arizona State’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. While she has run marathons before, Sunday will be Flanagan’s first since Neal’s death.
During the race she will have a locket draped around her neck with strands of Neal’s hair in it.
“I’m very much looking forward to crossing the finish line in honor of Cliff,” she said.
Flanagan won’t be alone. About 37,000 runners will be participating in either the full marathon, the half-marathon or the kids race.
There will be 2,300 people running to raise an estimated $5.8 million for the 13 charities involved, said Jennifer Grady of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
In the past four years $15.4 million has been raised.
“It’s so inspiring to see all these people — a lot of them don’t even have the diseases they are running for,” Flanagan said. “They just care so much.”
Arizona Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon
Marathon begins at 7:40 a.m., half-marathon begins at 8:30 a.m.
Where: Starts in downtown Phoenix at Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza by the
state Capitol and finishes in the parking lots surrounding Sun Devil Stadium.