Blog Main Gretchen Schoenstein 2024 Editorial
March 12, 2024

2 Halfs, 2 Coasts, 2 Days: Gretchen Schoenstein Takes on Challenge for BRI and Everyone with Autoimmune Diseases

Longtime BRI supporter Gretchen Schoenstein is taking on a bold new challenge: 2 half-marathons, in 2 days, on 2 coasts. And she’ll raise $20,000 for autoimmune disease research at Benaroya Research Institute (BRI)

Gretchen shares what inspired her to take on this challenge, why she supports BRI, and her experience running more than 120 half-marathons while living with multiple autoimmune diseases.

Why take on this challenge? What motivated you to run 2 half-marathons, on 2 coasts in 2 days?

I’ve run both the Rock N’ Roll Run in Washington D.C. and the Shamrock Run in Portland, Oregon before. But the schedule changed this year so Rock N' Roll was on Saturday, March 16 and the Shamrock Run was on Sunday, March 17. I was entered in both races, so how would I choose? I realized in the middle of the night that maybe I didn’t have to. 

I found a direct flight from D.C. to Portland the evening after the first race. I really wanted to do both because March is Autoimmune Disease Awareness Month – the perfect time to rally people around awareness and fundraising for autoimmune disease research. 

I’m passionate about this because I’ve lived with these diseases since I was a kid. My most recent diagnosis was sarcoidosis in 2006. This disease affects the lungs and in my case the joints. The doctors said I’d never run again, which honestly wasn’t a huge deal because I wasn’t a big runner at the time. I spent the first few years walking on eggshells. Then, I decided to prove those doctors wrong. Now, I’ve run 120 half-marathons and counting. 

Featured Gretchen Schoenstein Medal 2024 Editorial
Photo courtesy of Ryan Ward Bethke (@rwbmultimedia)

Why make this a fundraiser? Why is BRI your organization of choice?

Running has always been bigger than me. I want my running to mean something. I want to make an impact. 

As anyone with an autoimmune disease knows, there’s no cure. The majority of treatments manage the symptoms, but they don’t treat the root cause. I’ve spent so much of my life wanting answers — enduring the frustration of waiting for a diagnosis and the trial and error of searching for the right treatment — all while living with pain, fatigue and more. 

I became part of the BRI community 10 years ago, when I attended a BRI luncheon while visiting my mom in Seattle. There was a big banner listing more than 80 autoimmune diseases. When I saw that banner, I finally felt seen.

I learned about the BRI researchers relentlessly working to predict, prevent, reverse and cure these diseases that I’ve lived with for most of my life. And I learned that they weren’t just studying them one by one. Instead, they study the entire immune system, in people with and without immune system diseases. 

Their goal is to better understand what a “healthy” immune system actually looks like, and what goes wrong in disease. They use discoveries in type 1 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis to further their understanding of multiple sclerosis and lupus. Their work not only benefits people with more common autoimmune diseases, but also rare and little-understood ones. That’s why I know that if anyone finds a cure, it will be BRI.

Running back-to-back half-marathons is no small feat. How do you train? How will you rest and recover?

For me, living with multiple autoimmune diseases, I try to be vigilant and listen to my body. I typically train in moderation more than pushing myself too hard. It’s always a balance to figure out if today is a push day or a rest day. I still constantly get it wrong. I’m actually coming off of an intense flare up. But thankfully, I worked with my doctors to get through it quickly and to scale back my training without stopping altogether. After all, I’ve got a big goal on the horizon.

The six-hour flight at 36,000 feet between races will be a unique challenge. I usually take a nap after a race. But there will be little time for napping and a definite chance for the inflammation to flare up on the flight. 

To combat this, I’m kicking up my strength training. I’m hoping this will deepen the well I can pull from for both races. I’m focusing on keeping the same rhythm and pace throughout both races. This will help my body know what to expect. I’m also getting more rest leading up to the event.

I’m not sure exactly what I’ll feel after both races, but I think it’ll be some combination of elation and exhaustion, of feeling energized and then crashing. I’m going to try really hard to listen to my body and watch for signs that my health needs more immediate attention. I’ve learned some hard lessons of pushing it too hard and not getting the rest I need. 

I run with the ghost of these diseases. I run for everyone who can’t. I run for everyone who is waiting for a diagnosis or the right treatment and doesn’t yet see that it can get better.
Gretchen Schoenstein

What keeps you motivated?

My motivation is simple: I do this because I can. I know that I don’t always feel good. So when I do, I take the world by storm.

In 2006, when I was lying in that hospital bed, I would never have believed that I would one day run 120 half-marathons and counting. I run with the ghost of these diseases. I run for everyone who can’t. I run for everyone who is waiting for a diagnosis or the right treatment and doesn’t yet see that it can get better.   I’m motivated by the fact that this isn’t just about me. It's for everyone who has felt lonely, frustrated and small in the face of a life-changing medical diagnosis.

I also take each race step by step. Every step is a gift, every mile is an accomplishment and every finish line is a victory. I know that there will be a day when I cannot do this. But today is not that day. 

How can we support you?

Visit my Just Giving Page and make a donation! Gifts of any size make a difference. All donations are tax deductible and go toward life-changing research at BRI. I am so grateful for any and all support!

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