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Remembering Alanna

Irish Runner shares the touching story of Keith Russell and his daughter Alanna, on the second anniversary of her passing. Their running partnership brough great joy and happiness and everlasting  memories, writes David Doyle

It’s 11.39 pm. In front of me sits a cold, half empty coffee. I am surrounded my notes and quotes. Since I spoke to Keith Russell 48 hours ago, his words have been going around and around my head. As an interviewee he is honest, open and very engaging and there is a natural flow to our discussion. Yet, I sit here, a bit like the guy in the roomful of presents with the wrapping paper but unable to find the end of the sticky tape. At 11.41pm, the blank Post-It note is decorated with a heart and I begin to relay the greatest love story I have ever heard.

Amazing Alanna
Alanna Russell was born in 2009 with spastic quadriplegic cerebral palsy with no speech or use of her arms or legs. As is relatively commonplace for young children night time became a struggle and like numerous parents throughout the country the Russells went through a trial and error process of seeking sleep. Alanna was aged four when her father Keith began taking her out walking at night. “We just couldn’t get Alanna to sleep at all. Walking at night seemed to both stimulate her and tire her out, so we stuck with that.” Little did either Alanna or Keith know at that time, the journey they were about to embark on.

Lightbulb moment
The story took a further twist when Keith, in Athlone supporting a friend who was running a half marathon to raise funds, noticed a parent of one of the participants fold away a wheelchair into his van. At that moment, the seed was sown, and Keith left Athlone with the intention of encouraging Alanna to participate. Keith and Alanna’s maiden voyage was the parkrun in Navan where race director, Ken Landy ‘could not have been more helpful’. Initially, Keith tilted Alanna’s wheelchair back while he ran. In addition to being a practical solution it enabled him to visibly witness the joy this was bringing Alanna. “She absolutely loved it from day one. She used to look up and could see me over her, people would run by us and say ‘hi’ or share words of encouragement, she really embraced it and pretty soon it became the norm for her.”

New adventures
Keith and Alanna had found a new common ground, which elevated their bond to a higher level. In late 2016 and early 2017 they progressed to the club circuit and identified a series of local club races to participate in. In each situation, Keith contacted the host club in advance to seek permission. “Any of the clubs we contacted could not have been more accommodating and they all welcomed us with open arms. Usually, we were let off first and we would be applauded by the other athletes, which was a lovely experience.”

Over time, and largely through social media, the story of Keith and Alanna began to reach a much wider audience and they became instantly recognisable at races throughout the county and region and other runners would pat Keith on the back as they ran by. Spurred on by this, the duo set their sights on Dublin Marathon 2017.

Weekend mornings were spent in the tranquil surrounds of the Phoenix Park, its network of footpaths providing the ideal training venue for Keith and Alanna, and the the sights and sounds within providing stimuli for Alanna also. On these mornings, Keith would wake Alanna at 5.30am by gently tugging her legs to the end of the bed. A stretch and a yawn were followed by a smile as her Dad broke the news to her of the morning’s expedition: “Wake up Alanna, it’s time to go running.”

The running journey culminated in the Dublin Marathon 2017. Keith describes the experience of standing on the start line: “The wheelchair athletes always start first, followed by the elites, and it was an amazing experience having the elite athletes pass us by. The whole experience gave Alanna a new perspective on life, but in a way it was Alanna who gave us a new perspective on life.”

Keith Russell with Dublin Marathon race director, Jim Aughney, prior to the 2018 SSE Airtricity Dublin Marathon. Keith ran that marathon in memory of Alanna. Photo: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile.

Lord Mayor’s Medal

In 2018, Keith Russell was awarded the Lord Mayor’s Medal at the Dublin Marathon. When he an Alanna competed in 2017, Alanna was the youngest-ever competitor, pushed along the entire course in her wheelchair by her devoted dad. Not only that, but they managed to raise nearly €65,000 to buy a new minibus for the Meadows Respite Centre in Navan, which Alanna attended.

Bittersweet moments

Alanna passed away unexpectedly in December 2017 at the tender age of eight, leaving an indelible mark on everyone she met during her all-too-brief life. For Keith, a return to the solo pursuit of something that had given him and Alanna so many happy, shared experiences and memories was initially very bittersweet. “I remember going to races on my own and it was like missing my right arm. Sometimes, it became overwhelming. I could be driving to work or starting out on a long run and the tears would start streaming down my face. I would just feel like turning around and going home but I just tried to refocus. I tried to remember all of the happy times we spent together. Sometimes, I had to just try to take a step back to take in everything that happened. “Time became the ultimate healer and the solitude of three to four hour runs allowed Keith the space to simultaneously grieve and remember Alanna. “I always run with the frame of mind that she is here with me and, ultimately, that is what keeps me going, the club were brilliant in helping me back.” Keith’s running journey is ongoing and he remains one of the most recognisable faces on the local running scene.

Memories made
The story of Keith and Alanna Russell holds a special place in the hearts of so many who witnessed their journey. To this day, it continues to inspire, enthral and captivate in equal measure. In many quarters, it is construed as a running story, but it is, and will forever be, a story of a father-daughter relationship that blossomed through time spent and memories made. It holds up a mirror to our souls, driving us inwards with the most searching of questions. What would you do? How far would you go? How deep is your love?

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