Dead set on accomplishing a goal she had since eighth grade, Mariah Berner was not going to let a pandemic shut down her dreams of running a half marathon.
When Grandma's Weekend — a popular 13.1-mile race in her hometown of Duluth, Minnesota, that was scheduled for June 21 — was canceled due to the coronavirus outbreak, Berner executed her plan a day earlier in Chattanooga alongside good friend Ronnie Dickson.
Both beamed with joy after finishing the route they mapped themselves with steam at the end of the Walnut Street Bridge above Coolidge Park just before 9 a.m. Saturday. Soon after that, two young passersby dressed in super hero capes eagerly posed for pictures with the two half marathoners who both had below-the-knee amputations as children.
"I remember meeting Ronnie at a climbing gym in Memphis nearly two years ago, and he was talking about how he runs," said Berner, who has worked at St. Jude's Children's Hospital in Memphis for more than two years. "He found someone through his work in Chattanooga who wanted to donate my running leg to me. That was huge."
"I asked him to run a half marathon with me, and we have been training since January. At first it was just three miles three times a week, and then we built from there. To complete this dream is so exciting."
Each was fueled by the other's desire and determination as they followed a route along the Tennessee River, passing the Hunter Museum and the old Wheland Foundry site together.
Dickson, who is the president/lead clinician of Prosthetic and Orthotic Associates of Tennessee — he celebrated a remodeling of his office at 2116 McCallie Avenue soon after the race with friends and clients — originally planned only to support Berner in reaching her goal. His friend's drive inspired him to complete the race with her.
"Mariah was persistent and wanted to run the race with me," Dickson said. "I gave in, and I am glad I did. I think it speaks volumes to her tenacity to not only keep up with this goal, but she is following her love, too, for helping others.
"She had her leg amputated when she was 2 and survived a devastating disease. When you don't give up on your goals, you can do anything."
While the training was sometimes brutal, Berner's third trip to Chattanooga will be one she'll always cherish. Strangers, friends and her mother cheered as she crossed the Walnut Street Bridge and finished in 2 hours and 37 minutes, with Dickson just behind her as they easily beat their goal of 3 hours.
"I am so excited," said Berner, who finished second in her 20-25 age group during a Valentine's Day 5-kilometer (3.1-mile) race this year. "Seeing my friends and family at different checkpoints just pushed me to keep going. This was something I have wanted to try since I ran my first 5k in eighth grade.
"This race was just as much mental for me as it was physical. You just have to work through whatever you are going through in life and get through to that finish line."
Her refusal to make excuses goes beyond running. She recently graduated from the University of Minnesota and was accepted into Baylor University's cancer research program, which she will join July 15.
"I am a cancer survivor, so I want to raise money for osteosarcoma research," Berner said. "Science and helping people with cancer is my passion. I still have side effects from my treatments, so running has been very important to stay heart healthy. Running is something I enjoy. This marathon is special to me, and to run with Ronnie and have the support we had was amazing."
From meeting one another by happenstance through adaptive climbing on the other side of the state, Berner and Dickson look forward to the road ahead. They've had a positive effect on each other, as well as many of those they've met — and they'll undoubtedly cross paths with more people they can encourage, inspire and motivate.
"It's really cool to be a part of people's stories," Dickson said. "That energy fuels me to help others. It's funny how these connections come together. You meet people in your life that can have such a huge impact. Building community with one another is so important."