Local runner hopes to inspire others
By Steve Smith - Staff Writer
Vernon/Stafford - posted Thu., Oct. 6, 2011
Vernon resident Jessica Willis was selected to participate in the ING Hartford Marathon, as part of the Elite Inspiration Team. The team, a new innovation to the marathon, was “created to recognize the many inspiring personal journeys that compel participants to run ING Hartford Marathon events,” according to a press release.
Team members were nominated based on personal achievements, positive leadership roles within the community and a dedication to living healthy lifestyles.
Willis grew up in Stafford, and will be participating in the half-marathon on Oct. 15. Born with Hemifacial Microsmia - a condition in which the face is underdeveloped and can affect the skull, ears, jaws, teeth and facial movements - Willis started out life facing many obstacles. She had skull surgery at five weeks, open-heart surgery at age 4 and facial reconstructions at 8 and 11 years old.
“That's just been my life,” she said. “I don't know any different. I've had major surgeries and have been in and out of hospitals since I was a kid.”
She said that running became a big part of her life since she had to leave another passion of hers about a year ago. “I'd say it's what saved me,” she said, “because last year, I had to give up horseback riding, and I'd been riding for 26 years. It was all I knew. I was a professional. I had won championships and had my own farm. I had to walk away.”
Running, she said, has been great for her on other levels, as well. “The people you meet and the places you get to go,” she said. “It's been fantastic. I love it.”
Despite dealing with some issues related to scoliosis, Willis said the biggest challenges for her while running are asthma and allergy problems. “It's gotten better,” she said. “I hope to run a marathon next year.”
Willis, who has also started trying triathlons, has participated in many runs for various charities, which she has listed on her website, www.runwillisrun.org. To celebrate her 30th birthday last March, instead of a party and gifts, she raised more than $6,000 for the Ronald McDonald House of greater Washington, D.C., which assisted her family around the time she was born.
“I asked people to donate to the charity,” she said. “My party was running that half-marathon. When I was going through open-heart surgery, my parents stayed at that Ronald McDonald House. It was probably one of the best moments of my life – to give back to people who had given my family so much.”
Willis is running in this year's half-marathon to benefit the Connecticut Children's Medical Center, and said her sponsors and supporters have been very helpful. She said she feels ready for the Oct. 15 race.
“I've already done a couple of 10-mile runs, so I know I'm in good shape,” she said. “I know I'll finish. I'd like to finish under my time in March, but we'll see how it goes. I think it's about having that attitude that you can do it.”
While she said she is honored to be running as part of the Elite Inspirational Team, running is still about her personal goals, and she would take part in the Hartford Marathon no matter what.
Long term, Willis said she plans to continue to work in her family business, and hopefully run the company someday. She also wants to qualify for the Boston Marathon, and compete in Ironman competitions, while traveling and continuing to work for charities.
“I hope to be able to go to other cities, and raise monies for a local children's hospital or another charity that deals with children,” she said, “and I hope to be an inspiration whenever I can.”