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Mary McGrew planned to walk the Christie Clinic Illinois 5K this year, her first time as a participant in the weekend’s races. After the races were canceled, McGrew walked her 5K as a virtual race on May 23. She wasn’t going to let anything stop her from completing it — not coronavirus and not multiple sclerosis.

McGrew has volunteered for the races, doing various jobs both on the course and behind the scenes, but she’s never participated. She was a longtime runner before multiple sclerosis forced her to give it up. She was diagnosed 24 years ago.

“I’ve done remarkably well with that diagnosis. I attribute that to the grace of God and to my refusal to give up on exercising,” McGrew said.

She planned to volunteer again this year, and she signed up to walk the 5K because of a new feature — the Double Dippers club, which offers free custard from Culver’s once a month for a year to people who both volunteer and complete one of the races. McGrew planned to walk the 5K with husband Bob and daughter Ellie. After it was postponed from April to the fall and then canceled due to the pandemic, McGrew decided to do the virtual 5K.

“I thought, I’ve really got to do this race now. The 5K is going to be a challenge to me. I don’t even know if I can finish a 5K. I don’t want to wait a whole year,” she said.

Even though she no longer runs, McGrew walks regularly, usually up to two miles, and she does weight training and yoga.

“I can walk two miles pretty easily, but then I have to take a break. I think I can do three miles, but it won’t be pretty. But I’m going to do it,” she said in the week before she planned to do the 5K.

McGrew thinks a lot about perseverance and a Bible verse she came across early on as a runner that resonates with her: “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” She wanted her 5K walk to encourage others who think they can’t do something. “Whether it’s to walk a 5K or walk to the mailbox, don’t give up,” she said.

One benefit to doing a virtual race: McGrew asked marathon co-director Jan Seeley to join her. That could never happen on race day because Seeley is too busy overseeing the event. McGrew and Seeley have been friends for 30 years. They met through running and were running partners for years, training for a marathon together and running half marathons. McGrew was co-director with Seeley of the Women’s Fitness 5K for many years.

“She really is emblematic of how you don’t let a disease stop you. Part of her successful management all these years was because she was so active. She’s very disciplined with getting up super early and doing her workouts,” Seeley said of McGrew. “She’s just an awesome human being — kind, loving, a great mom, a great wife.”

On May 23, McGrew, her husband and daughter and Seeley walked the 5K race course, although they couldn’t finish on the official finish line in Memorial Stadium.

McGrew hoped to finish within 90 minutes. She knew the third mile, when she was tired, would be the hardest and take her the longest. She carried walking sticks that she started using around two and a half miles. She finished in one hour, nine minutes and six seconds.

“I felt great. I haven’t done three miles in a long time. I was glad I could make it. I wasn’t sure how long that last mile was going to take. I was having a good day,” McGrew said.

The group finished near the stadium and took pictures.

“It was a really awesome experience for me to do that and spend time with her,” Seeley said. “I feel really honored she wanted to do that with me, and it’s something I’ll never forget.”

“Maybe this will inspire other people, whether with MS or some other chronic condition that you have to manage in your life,” McGrew said. “And with the pandemic, people are getting freaked out about the future. You just have to take things a day at a time. Like with MS, you never know what’s coming and how it will affect you. You can’t always make plans for the future, because things change from day to day or year to year.

“It’s about persevering, doing whatever you can to keep yourself healthy and active. It impacts your quality of life so much,” she said.

Jodi Heckel, a writer for the University of Illinois News Bureau, is a runner and triathlete. You can email her at prairieathlete@gmail.com or follow her at twitter.com/jodiheckel. Her blog is at news-gazette.com/blogs/starting-line/.