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UMass ALS Cellucci team ready to run virtual Boston Marathon

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Jonathan Smith

Jonathan Smith of Worcester had to get up early on a recent day to put in a 20-mile training run before heading to work as assistant store director at Big Y supermarket in Holden.

Almost all road races, including the 124th Boston Marathon, have been called off for 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But the Boston Athletic Association, which organizes the marathon, decided to make the race a “virtual experience.”

Smith and two other members of the UMass ALS Cellucci Fund Boston Marathon team will soon be running their own virtual Boston Marathons, in separate locations during the Sept. 5-14 race period, as they strive to raise money for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) research under the direction of Robert H. Brown Jr., DPhil, MD, the Leo P. and Theresa M. LaChance Chair in Medical Research, professor of neurology and director of the Program in Neurotherapeutics. 

The UMass ALS Cellucci Fund Boston Marathon team has raised more than $500,000 for ALS research since 2012, when it became a partner with Boston Marathon principal sponsor John Hancock in the Marathon Non-profit Program, according to Julie Bowditch, advancement officer for community fundraising at UMMS.

“It was tough to get the news,” Jonathan Smith said about cancellation of the in-person race, “but I definitely want to be part of it.”

He plans to run virtual Boston, his first marathon, on Sept. 12. He has planned a route from his home in Worcester to his in-laws’ house in Brookfield and has stocked up on a backpack with a hydration bladder and several water bottles to sustain him on the way.

Fundraising events were hindered by COVID restrictions, but he has raised more than $3,600 through his charity GoFundMe page as well as Super Bowl and other sporting event “squares” contests he hosted early this year.

He said he is dedicated to raising money for ALS research in memory of his grandmother, who died from the progressive neurodegenerative disease.

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Alyssa Smith

Alyssa Smith (no relation to Jonathan), a high school teacher in Woodstock, Vt., has raised more than $9,000 of her $10,000 goal for the UMass ALS Cellucci Fund. She plans to run a 26.2-mile loop near her home on Sept. 13, which will be her birthday.

“It was a little tougher to get out there and put my sneakers on and go for a run,” Alyssa Smith said of handling the format change. “But I think about my good friend, who was diagnosed with ALS at age 26, in 2015, and he’s the reason I’m running. I think he would love to be doing this right now. So, it is the least I can do to raise money and help an important cause.”

Her family and friends will set up aid stations and may accompany her for part of the journey.

“We still get the opportunity to run for our charity,” she said. “That means a lot more to me than the actual event. Representing the UMass ALS Cellucci team and just being able to finish what I started; really, that’s what matters when it comes down to it.”

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Jennifer Bolanos

Jennifer Bolanos, an education assistant in Wilmington Public Schools, said that the Boston Marathon virtual experience will give her the opportunity to run her race by the house of her friend, whose husband died from complications of ALS nearly a decade ago.

“This is something new and exciting. This could be the only time they ever do a virtual one, right?” she said.

The hot, humid summer weather has made it difficult to train for what will be Bolanos’ fourth Boston and 13th marathon overall. And the pandemic has cut into planned fundraising events. But she has raised more than $4,400 for the virtual race, which she plans to run Sept. 12.

“I’m still raising money for a good cause, because ALS hasn’t stopped,” she said.

Two other members of the UMass ALS Cellucci Fund team, Vinay Sampson of Monroe, Conn., and Ivy Mumbi Mwangi of Worcester opted not to run the virtual marathon but are still raising money, Bowditch said.

“Our runners have worked hard to fundraise, despite their personal disappointment in the Boston Marathon changes this year,” said Bowditch. “We are encouraged and impressed by their resilience and determination throughout these unprecedented circumstances, and grateful for their hard work. ALS does not observe postponements or cancellations, so neither can our efforts to help find a cure for it.”

For more information about the Boston Marathon team or to make a donation, visit the UMass ALS Cellucci Fund webpage.