Wings for Life World Run winners in each location are offered the unique opportunity to participate in the following year's run at any WFLWR location across the globe. When Jeannie Rutherford finished first in 2014's Santa Clarita, California race, she chose to travel to Ypres, Belgium, to run in 2015.
Read a Q&A with the champ on her trip and her plans for 2016 below.
You had the choice to run wherever you wanted last year — why Belgium?
Rutherford: I have family that I had never met in Belgium, I thought the town [Ypres] seemed awesome with its history — I’m a history buff — and the shots I saw on the Wings for Life site were amazing.
When you walk into the town you go through the Menin Gate Memorial, a memorial to the British and Commonwealth soldiers who were killed in World War I. The gate is impressive and it's where the race starts. Along the course in Ypres you run through Flanders Fields, the battlefields the epic poem [John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields”] was based off of. Can you imagine? Talk about adversity, perseverance, determination and will. It’s everything that Wings for Life stands for, and it was a humbling experience to run through such a significant part of history. I remember the light sprinkling of rain as I ran past thousands of headstones in a pasture dedicated to men that gave their lives to fight for something that many of us take for granted. The location is amazing and I would go back in a heartbeat.
Any memorable stories from your time there?
One of the coolest moments was when a Belgian runner with a spinal cord injury came up to me and said, in perfect English, “We are honored to have you here and it means everything to me that you selected our small little town.” I thought of her as I ran each mile, about how small things can end up making a huge difference at any moment.
The energy was electric in the town — we mostly had no idea what people were saying, but we still felt welcome. We were laughing at the starting line when they counted down — "3, 2, 1 GO!" — but they really could have been saying anything, I had no idea. They also offered a kids race and my daughter Peyton ran just like her mama, not understanding a word from the kids talking to her left and right.
I ran on cobblestone for 6 miles of the race — that was a first and something I didn’t anticipate. I also didn’t expect that it would rain for the whole race — and I mean really rain. I was wringing my clothes out as I was running. I’m a Southern California girl, so ... But it was totally normal to everyone else.
You're running again this year — what does the Wings for Life World Run mean to you?
Wings for Life is all about getting out of your comfort zone and challenging yourself. You never know when life can take unexpected turns — you have to embrace them and keep going. Your mindset is 75% of the battle in recovering from any injury.
Has its significance and impact on you changed since the first time you ran?
Absolutely! There is never a run that I don’t think about how quickly everything can change. I don’t think I truly thought about that when I started running this event. Meeting the ambassadors has at times shaken me to my core, their courage and determination is remarkable.
Another thing that has been eye-opening is the technology that is already out there for spinal cord injuries, allowing people to continue to flourish in life — driving and walking suits, improvements in home care, new developments in wheelchairs, brain stimulation — I honestly didn’t know about most of it before participating in the event. There has to be a cure out there, and we are close.
Join Jeannie Rutherford on May 8 — sign up now to run in Santa Clarita.