Long-distance running is not Ashley Buerkett’s sport of choice.
Although she’s run in the relay at the Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon each of the last two years, she really prefers a sport with a ball.
But she’s been training to run the half marathon at this year’s Illinois Marathon.
She’ll be doing so in memory of her parents, Jon and Dana Buerkett, and her younger sister, Morgan. Her family members died in a plane crash near Rantoul in July 2011.
“My family and I are beyond honored to have such support from the community. Nothing can bring my parents, sister or dogs back, so the most we can do is keep their memory alive and well, and I think we’re doing a good job so far.”
Dana was a committed long-distance runner who had completed two marathons. She and Morgan ran a half marathon (Morgan’s first) in California last year, using the race to raise money to help with the medical expenses of a family member battling cancer.
Morgan also was a college volleyball player, and Jon was an all-around athlete who had once received an offer to play minor-league baseball.
Ashley began organizing friends and family members to run in the Illinois Marathon races in memory of her parents and sister, with help from close friends Katie Sholem and Katie Crawford.
“This is about friends and family coming together and remembering them,” Sholem said.
“The marathon is such a huge Champaign community event,” Crawford added. “Since they were so well-known in the community, (Ashley) wanted people to come out and run for them and remember them.”
Ashley designed powder blue T-shirts with the names of her family on them, and about 150 people have ordered shirts to wear during the race. But more than 400 responded to a Facebook invitation to run in memory of the Buerketts.
“When we started this, I assumed it would just be my close friends, family and a few close friends of my sister and parents,” Ashley said. “I had no idea that it would be this big. ... We never thought we’d have that many at all.
“I’m also impressed at how many nonrunners are running this year on their behalf and how many people are upping their distance,” she said. “I think it’s a great way to show you care.”
The sale of the T-shirts will raise money for memorials for the Buerketts — a volleyball scholarship at The High School of St. Thomas More in memory of Morgan; donations to the Grace Lutheran Food Pantry in memory of Dana; and donations to the National Brain Tumor Society in memory of Jon.
Co-director of the Illinois Marathon Mike Lindemann arranged for a tent near Memorial Stadium for Team Buerkett to meet before and after the races.
“I think it’s important for Ashley to know no one has forgotten them,” Sholem said. “Their legacy still lives on and they made a big impact in the community. (Ashley) said, ‘I think people need to be reminded that life goes on and people still need help. There is still good to be done.’”
Sholem added: “Give an extra cheer for anyone in a powder blue Buerkett shirt.”
“(Morgan) was such a geeky little kid, and to see her grow up into a model and college volleyball player — she totally blossomed,” Crawford said. “She was funny and beautiful and an amazing volleyball player. She was an amazing girl.”
Jon and Dana Buerkett “were people people,” Sholem said. “They had a thousand friends. Super social. Super involved in the community.”
Dana Buerkett volunteered for community organizations that included the Grace Lutheran Church food pantry and Roundhouse, Sholem said, and Jon Buerkett was “a strong presence.”
“When he walked into a room, you knew he was there,” Crawford added.
“They were so generous, always letting us come over to their house,” she continued. “You didn’t ring the doorbell. You knew the garage code or just walked right in.”
She hopes the Buerketts’ example will inspire others to volunteer in their communities.
Their lives will be Ashley’s inspiration for finishing her half marathon.
“I imagine that I will be filled with a mix of emotions on race day,” Ashley said.
“But I think it’s important to push myself through this, and I think seeing all of those blue shirts along with the thought of my family will just give me energy to do so,” she said. “I’m not aiming for a good time. I’m just aiming to ‘finish upright and smiling,’ like my mom would always say.”
Photos: Top: Dana Buerkett, center, with her daughter Ashley (right) and her sister-in-law Jan Buerkett (left) at the Illinois Marathon; center: Dana and Morgan Buerkett at a half marathon in California last year; bottom: the Buerkett family: Morgan, Jon, Dana and Ashley.