Kim Stemple didn't want this story to be about her. She was wearing a blue singlet, still on her feet after finishing the Marine Corps Marathon in late October, when she made the request. She was holding a finisher's medal from another race with a note etched in permanent marker on the ribbon. It would go to a doctor or a sick patient or a veteran—someone, 51-year-old Stemple said, who needed recognition but was not able to finish a race.
The medal in her hand was one of thousands Stemple’s organization, We Finish Together, has donated. Through Facebook, Stemple has inspired hundreds of runners who send their finishers' medals to people around the country.
“We are sharing our strength and our thoughts with people who need it,” Stemple said. The medals can go to anyone a runner or triathlete wants to recognize; the ribbon just needs a handwritten inspirational note and an attached personalized card.
These medals—and the people who receive them—are the real story, Stemple said.
But, none of those children in hospitals or doctors or veterans or police officers would have received a medal had Stemple not started the organization in 2012. And she would have never started the organization if she hadn’t learned she was going to die.
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So, despite her wishes, this story has to be about Kim Stemple.
* * *
Six years ago, while living in Boston, Stemple said she “looked like a principal,” with dark straight hair and an affinity for pearl necklaces. She was a special education teacher and cross-country coach. She was a competitive runner, an age-group contender obsessed with her performance in triathlons and road races, always finding fault with even her best times.
“Racing wasn’t fun,” she said. “I was there to get to the finish line as fast as I could.”
Then, in 2009, she got sick. Doctors thought it might be pneumonia, but a series of tests over several months revealed she had a rare mitochondrial disease, one that causes progressive mental and physical deterioration.
Over the next several years Stemple’s doctors found more and more problems: lupus, benign bone tumors, lymphoma, a painful nerve condition called sodium channelopathy.
With each new diagnosis, the formerly clear-skinned Stemple got a tattoo. She now has them on both sides of her back, up to her shoulders.
She no longer looks like a principal. Her hair is short and light blonde. Sometimes it’s dyed with bright colors. She goes to doctor's appointments in costume.
And she hasn’t stopped running.
“I smile through every mile,” she said. “It’s fun now. Doctors believe for me, running is what’s kept me alive.”
Stemple has lived two years beyond the average life expectancy after a diagnosis for someone with her condition. She’s currently in palliative care on a weekly chemotherapy regimen, one stop before hospice.
Yet, through her treatments and grim diagnosis, she’s helped donate thousands and thousands of medals.
Stemple said she founded We Finish Together in 2012 for herself. After a series of further health issues, she sunk into a depression. She wanted to run the Rock ’n’ Roll Las Vegas Marathon but was too sick to travel. So a friend who ran the race gave Stemple the finisher’s medal.
She hung it on her hospital bed and started getting positive comments from patients and doctors. She had plenty of medals at home and realized she could donate them to the people on her ward.
“The thing is, we rise by lifting others, and I needed a rise,” she said. “It took me knowing this to realize every single moment counts. We tend to forget that in our everyday lives.”
Along with starting We Finish Together, Stemple continued to register for road races.
She promised doctors that her last marathon would be Boston’s Jimmy Fund Walk in September 2014. They couldn’t believe she was even trying to complete it. She finished the 26.2 miles—her fourth marathon—and got a tattoo of her finishing time on her feet to mark the accomplishment.
Then, in order to receive specialized care, she moved with her husband to Washington D.C.
* * *
When Stemple told one of her doctors she was going to run the 2015 Marine Corps Marathon, he asked her what mile marker she wanted to die at.
He believed her condition so fragile, she wouldn’t live through the race.
She signed up for one more marathon anyway, this time in honor of her husband Jim, a former Marine.
“I am going to die; we are all going to die—I just have a little different perspective on it.” Stemple said. “So, I’m doing what makes me happy instead of laying on the couch looking at the loose hair on the pillow.”
During the race, her hair started falling out. Yet Stemple said she smiled the entire time. “The whole experience was wonderful,” she said.
At mile 26, there’s a short, steep hill before the final right turn to the finish. Stemple saw her husband just before charging up the incline. She had one thought race through her head when she crested the top: “I just fucked with these diseases. I said a big screw you to them even though every odd was against me.”
She crossed the line, and a Marine put a medal around her neck.
She’s already donated it: The last marathon medal she will ever earn went to her husband. The handwritten note etched on the ribbon says, “I will always hold your hand.”
Stemple is not sure how much time she has left. It isn’t long. But as she lives the rest of her life, she doesn’t want the attention to be on her diseases. She wants it focused on her organization We Finish Together, and the medals she can share with others.
“People can hold them in their hand and know that someone is thinking about them,” she said. “The medal is that reminder to believe in yourself, to fight whatever it is you are fighting.”
So, she insisted the story be about that message and not about her. Yet her story can’t be separated from that message.
Here's one reason why: She finished the 2015 Marine Corps Marathon in 4:15.
It was a two-minute PR.