Dawn Penrod started running in 2009 when the stress in her life demanded some release. She had been active in the past, knew that exercise made her feel good, so she found an on-line training program for beginning runners.

She talked some friends into running with her, and before long they were all gearing up for their first marathon.

There is a picture of Dawn in the middle of that marathon. She’s running past a street sign with a single appropriate word on it – Hard.

It described more than just the race. Dawn’s youngest son, Zack, had been ill since he was four months old. The early diagnosis was severe chronic constipation, and as bad as that sounds, it couldn’t begin to foretell what would transpire throughout Zack’s young life.

Since the middle of 2013, Dawn has chronicled her life with a special needs child through her blog, “Crazy Messy Love.” If you read it from the beginning, you’ll begin to understand how hard life’s been for Zack and the entire Penrod family.

And so Dawn began running to relieve stress, and to have time to process the challenges in her life. “When I run, the stressors in my life seem doable, even the really hard things,” Dawn said.

She finished the marathon and kept going. No physical challenge was too daunting.

She began doing Insanity and Body Pump classes. She ran in Tough Mudder races. She did it all because, “Sometimes getting dirty and sweaty is just what I needed to feel better.”

It wasn’t just a selfish pursuit: she also did it for her family. She wanted to be a well-balanced wife and mother.

But then, during a 10-mile race in March 2013, her IT Band started hurting. She barely finished, and could hardly walk afterwards. She was forced to stop running after that race, and every time she tried to start over her IT Band became reinjured.

Since then, Zack has had many surgeries to circumvent his uncooperative bowels. The surgeries have been followed by long, painful days and new, exhausting routines. Worst of all, there hasn’t been a final solution, every fix seems temporary, so uncertainty has become the norm.

In one blog post, Dawn announced that Zack had gone more than 10 weeks without a set-back. “While that may not mean much to you,” Dawn wrote, “in our house this is a big deal.”

But it didn’t last. There have been more surgeries since then, each one followed with hope that something would finally work.

Dawn joined a Flying Feet program for beginning runners in 2015 because she was afraid of hurting her knee again. “I was overwhelmed by all things medical,” she said.

We were able to offer some strategies to overcome the IT band issue, and last fall she successfully ran a 10-mile race. She’s continued into this year, and she’s preparing for a half marathon this spring.

I’m glad I’ve been able to help Dawn return to running, but I’m sorry I didn’t appreciate how important it’s been to her. I knew she had a sick son, I just didn’t realize how sick until I read her blog.

When you’re dealing with extraordinary challenges, you begin to appreciate the normal things we sometimes take for granted. In early February, after Zack returned home from his most recent hospital stay, Dawn updated her blog.

“Zack was very excited to come home, and giggled when he climbed into bed. He said he missed his pillows and his cozy sheets. I felt the exact same way. To make our first night home even better, Zack slept through the night for the first time in months. I’m pretty sure I heard rejoicing in the heavens…or maybe that was just me.”

This past Tuesday, my Flying Feet group met as normal. I called everyone together, and they gathered around to see what I had to say before starting the run. In that moment, I realized something I hadn’t really considered before. Some of the people waiting to hear me speak were in the midst of enduring the hardest days of their lives.

I’ve always known that I offer more than instruction on running. In my lifetime, I’ve been the benefactor of all the benefits a running life offers, and I coach because I want others to have a similar experience. But sometimes it goes beyond that.

Sometimes running satisfies a desperate need. It gives us a break from all the hard things in life. We can remove ourselves from our troubles, if only for a brief time.

And while we do, we present ourselves with challenges on terms we can control. We overcome fear. We willingly accept pain. And when we’re finished, we realize we’re not defeated. We can keep moving forward, and that’s a pretty important thing to believe.

Zack’s doctors are working on a new plan, trying their best to uncover a lasting remedy. In the meantime, Dawn will be his comfort, and she’ll share her courage and strength with Zack.

At times, she’ll feel empty, like she has no more to give. And so she’ll run, restoring herself, so she can be a mom to a boy who needs her more than anything.

Dave's new book, IN THE DISTANCE, is available on Amazon.