ELMHURST – Six years ago, Elmhurst resident Joan Knippen walked her very first Komen Race for the Cure in Chicago dreaming she would one day run it.
“I had more to give,” Knippen said.
This year, she is Race Chair for Lombard’s third race. The 5K has become much more than a one-time outing as she’d expected. Knippen first heard about the race on the radio the day after she’d talked to Dawn Kruse, a neighbor and friend, about her fight with breast cancer.
Although the two have lived on the same block in Elmhurst for more than 20 years, they weren’t very good friends until about eight years ago. Their children didn’t share the same interests, so they didn’t often cross paths, but once Kruse’s kids left for college, the two grew closer.
“Dawn is really a very private person,” said Knippen. “She rarely talks about [her cancer].”
When Knippen heard about the Komen race she thought it sounded like a fun girls outing for some of the neighbors to support Kruse as a breast cancer survivor. She called up her neighbor, Phupinder Gill, and asked his company to sponsor their team, which Knippen said he did happily. In September 2008, the team dubbed “Gill’s Girls” piled into a van to Chicago where they walked what would be their first of many races together.
“When we were crossing the finish line on that first race, I wondered what it would be like to run across the finish line,” Knippen said.
Growing up she’d learned every excuse to get out of gym class, but Knippen
remembers seeing more than just a flood of pink that first race. She said she saw hope and promise. She felt inspired. So, the next spring, she put on some gym shoes and started running.
Anger and frustration quickly replaced her feeling of hope. Knippen hung up the gym shoes, but five weeks before her second race, the running itch returned.
“It was miserable,” said Knippen. “It was hot. I hated every minute of it.”
As difficult as it was, she didn’t give up this time. Side by side with one of her teammates, Maggie Gill, Knippen ran past the finish line of her second Komen race just like she’d been imagining.
The novice runner was thrilled to accomplish her goal, but it just left her more determined to keep pushing herself.
“Running, by no means, can be compared to cancer and fighting for your life,” Knippen said.
Kruse is one of her closest personal connections to breast cancer, but Knippen said the stories she hears from survivors every year continue to inspire her. After years of growing involvement behind the scenes of the race, Knippen is this year’s Lombard Race Chair. While she can no longer participate in the race because she’s busy running the event, Gill’s Girls always walk the course.
“I’m very sad I’m not walking out there with them,” Knippen said, her voice breaking like she might cry.
The group of neighbors, friends and teammates have developed a system. The team texts Knippen when they get close to the end of the course, and she meets them to cross the finish line together, just like their first race six years ago. It’s a tradition they have no intention of breaking.
“We are going to keep going as long as we can,” Knippen said.