In the spring of last year, longtime Centreville resident Leslie Neiss began running for the first time in her life at age 56. As of this summer she now has a marathon, a 10k and several short-distance races under her belt and is currently training for the Marine Corps Marathon scheduled for Oct. 30.
Neiss says the sport has given her a newfound outlook on life, but her biggest inspiration comes from her 7-year-old granddaughter. Jade Bates was diagnosed with leukemia on Thanksgiving weekend of 2009 just weeks before her sixth birthday on Christmas day.
So Neiss is training to run the Marine Corps Marathon together with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's ‘Team in Training.'
"All the money raised goes towards research for drugs and to help people who already have it,” Neiss said. “Some of the drugs my granddaughter is taking would not even have been in existence 20 years ago. So all the people who have been raising money the past 20 to 30 years have really made it possible for Jade to be alive and kicking right now.”
Neiss began the rigorous training for her second marathon a few weeks ago and will continue working out with ‘Team in Training’ for 18 weeks until the big race. Neiss, who could not even run one lap around the track 15 months ago, gives all of the credit for her achievements to her granddaughter and “her confidence and spunky character.”
Jade has an abnormal case of leukemia, which led doctors to start her on a two-year program of chemotherapy and radiation. Doctors told Jade’s mother Linden Kinkead and Neiss that the success rate is much higher in children who take part in their own treatment. So at five years old, Jade began drawing her own blood. She spent the first year after diagnosis living in Fairfax Hospital 24 hours a day. Now she lives at home and only goes back to the hospital for emergencies and treatments.
“She’s a trooper and I find all of these kids being treated at the hospital amazing. One day this kid went flying by on a big wheel and his dad was holding the IV bag and Jade jumped out of bed and started unhooking herself from all of her equipment,” Neiss said. “Jade told me ‘Grandma, unplug this from the wall’ and I looked at the nurse and said ‘you do know she’s only five?’ and the nurse said ‘she’s fine.’ The kids are always playing at Fairfax Hospital.”
The proud grandmother says everyone who knows Jade sees how positive and outgoing she is about life. She has never become depressed or mad because of her illness. Instead, she makes the most out of each hospital visit by meeting as many new friends as possible.
“It's not an easy case. She is a year and a half into the new phase. Her good counts are abnormally good but too high and the chemotherapy is not staying in her system long enough,” Neiss said. “But she is very robust and had a great 4th of July weekend out and we took her to a Nationals game.”
Neiss always felt she had a positive outlook as well but knew she lived a stagnant lifestyle as an executive assistant. She watched as Jade woke up each day in the hospital with excitement and decided she needed to make a change in 2010 in her activities and career. Kinkead helped her become a realtor. Neiss' oldest daughter Caitlin, 29, who qualified for the Boston Marathon two years ago, helped motivate her mother to take up running.
Neiss said she was slim, but not in good shape and became embarrassed neighbors might see her run. So she initially drove to Burke Lake to jog in a more isolated environment.
"Once I felt good at Burke, I then felt good running in my neighborhood. Because of Jade, I’m trying things I thought I would never do," Neiss said. "I think most of us go through life self-limiting because we were never open to trying [new things] and that has changed for me. Now I will say ‘sure I will do that.’”
After meeting up with some old and new friends, she entered her first major competition in a race called a Ragnar relay. It involved 12 people per team with more than 300 teams covering 204 miles from Cumberland, Maryland to the National Harbor and took anywhere from 24 to 36 hours to finish.
“This group I know had done one before and I asked them how good do you have to be. The most I had run was four and a half miles. One guy said, ‘if you can do five miles, you can do seven,” Neiss said. “We each had a leg of the journey. We were racing to finish and we knew we weren’t competitive. You’re stinky, you’re gross, but I felt great and thought ‘I can’t believe I did this,’ and I ran 15 miles.”
The thought of running a marathon had always dwelled in the back of Neiss’ mind but she never thought it plausible until her friends told her ‘if you can run this Ragnar, you can run a half marathon.’ But Neiss took it further and thought if she could run a half marathon, ‘why not train for the whole enchilada?’
So this past March, less than one year into her running career, she finished the SunTrust Marathon in 5:24:00 after training in freezing temperatures during the fall and winter. At the 20-mile mark it gets very desolate, which prepared her for even more strenous tasks.
Now gearing up for her second marathon, Neiss knows what to expect – which can be both positive and negative, mentally. And if she ever feels like quitting, she just thinks of Jade and immediately picks up her pace.
“If she can get up and have a great attitude every day, I can certainly run another two miles. I’m really looking forward to the Marine Corps Marathon in October,” she said. “Now I understand the spirit and camaraderie and with finishing that marathon I did not feel like a pretender.”
Everyone who runs with ‘Team in Training’ has his or her own website for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society where the public may make donations. Neiss will also hold an independent fundraiser on July 18 at Foster’s Grille in Chantilly from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. Everyone is invited to attend.
Neiss says she plans on completing the Marine Corps in less than five hours but has set her own secret personal goal and believes she can reach her fundraising mark of $10,000 as well.
Throughout the bonding and journey she and Jade have shared during the past 18 months, Neiss has kept only positive thoughts in her heart and is grateful for the strength her little 7-year old granddaughter has given her, cherishing each moment the family has together.
“I appreciate the relationships and feel that it woke me up. I feel more grateful of the little things and much more of a person who is grateful of things,” she says. “When I wake up I feel happy that I’m alive and we still have Jade, we’re all together and whatever we have to face today, we are going to face.”
To read more about Jade, visit: jadesjourney.com
For information on how to donate to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society visit Leslie’s Team in Training website.