Gorman: They ran for Erica who lived for the marathon
Patty McArdle was positioned Sunday in the same spot as every Pittsburgh Marathon, passing out peeled oranges and bottles of water from the corner of 16th and Carson Street on the South Side.
She couldn't help choking up while cheering on the runners, especially the young women who reminded McArdle of her daughter.
“I see so many girls running past with dark hair and a baseball cap on,” McArdle said. “That was Erica.”
And Erica McArdle Kubler-Johnston, who got everyone she knew to run the Pittsburgh Marathon with her, wasn't there.
Erica was the picture of health, an accomplished swimmer and runner whose contagious enthusiasm could convince you to climb the stairs from the bottom of 18th Street to atop the South Side Slopes.
Erica also had a way of making everyone feel like they were her favorite. Her aunts Shirley Brace, Linda Bobak and Maureen McArdle and cousins Brittany Brace, Alexanna Kubler and Jessica and Kelly McArdle introduce themselves that way, as do her best friends.
Suddenly, she was gone.
A blood clot caused a pulmonary embolism, which led to a heart attack Dec. 27 and left her in a coma. She died Jan. 2 at age 32, leaving her loved ones stunned.
“That was the hard thing. She was so active and really healthy. She was the last person you'd expect that to happen to,” said Lindsay Graham, one of Erica's best friends. “The marathon was Erica's day. This is our first without her. It still feels so fresh and raw. This is our way to honor her.”
They honored her in the Pittsburgh Marathon way, by forming a Run4Erica relay team, by running the 13.1-mile half-marathon or full 26.2-mile race — or by cheering on other runners below a green shirt on a telephone pole that read, Run 4 The Love of Erica, at their spot.
“She was the glue that held us together,” said Jessica McArdle, 26, who ran the second leg of the relay. “Erica spearheaded it, and we all jumped on the bandwagon. I don't know how we're all standing here, but we did it.”
They did it for Erica, who lived for the Pittsburgh Marathon and whose death touched Sunday's race in a way she never could have imagined.
Erica's parents, Patty McArdle and Ken Kubler, separately called the show of support “amazing” — even if Patty allowed that it also was a “bittersweet” moment.
“I'm hurting because Erica is not here,” she said, “but I'm bursting with pride because Shawna is running for Erica.”
That's something even Erica would never have conceived. Shawna Kubler Anderson, 31, is a hairdresser in Haines City, Fla., just outside Orlando. She was a swimmer but never had run so much as a 5K.
But Erica always had been there for Shawna, just 14 months younger. There is even a family video of the girls getting roller skates one Christmas, and Erica talking a timid Shawna into trying them out.
“I'll hold your hand,” Erica said, reassuring Shawna.
At the wake, Erica's husband, Justin Johnston, suggested to Shawna that they run the marathon to honor Erica. So with her sister's voice in her head, Shawna trained for her first race.
On Saturday, the four-month anniversary of Erica's death, family and friends had their traditional pre-race pasta dinner. They reminisced about Erica, sharing laughs and tears.
On Sunday, Shawna and her husband, Josh, a golf pro, ran side by side until the course split with Lindsay Graham, who celebrated her son Caleb's first birthday by completing her first full marathon.
Lindsay did so out of obligation to Erica, as they had signed up to run the full marathon together. In some ways, Shawna ran to save a day that was on par with St. Patrick's Day for her family.
“Not only did I feel like I needed to complete it for Erica but to give my family a reason to be here still, even though she isn't,” Shawna said. “I loved that she was such a big part of so many people's lives and really happy to know that she still is.”
In a way, Erica was with them: Cousin Brittany Brace wore Erica's bib No. 20266, and the girls wore necklaces with crosses or shamrocks containing her ashes.
Shawna wore a homemade T-shirt that read, I Run for My Sister, as well as Erica's favorite pink running sweatshirt and a locket that had a picture of her smiling sister and some of her remains.
For so many years, Erica had carried them. Now, the role was reversed. They would carry her every step of this Pittsburgh Marathon.
It wasn't until Shawna crossed the finish line that she broke down in tears, realizing the gravity of her grief and the reality of finishing her first running race.
“I told her I'd take her across the finish line,” Shawna said of Erica, “but she was the one who carried me across.”