On Aug. 12, 2001, Lidia Simon of Romania ran the women’s marathon in a time of 2:26:01 to win gold at the iaaf World Championships in Edmonton. It was the greatest victory of her career. It was also a big moment for Marni Panas, a 45-year-old woman who lives in Edmonton.
Panas was not a runner then, but cared about the race because Simon, her husband, a physician and a teammate were all staying at her house. Clearly inspired, Panas pledged to run a marathon the following year. “I hadn’t run a block in my life,” she recalled. But she did it. She joined a Running Room clinic, finished a few 5ks and 10ks, and broke the four-hour barrier at her first marathon in Sydney on Sept. 15, 2002.
“The race itself was hard but it was one of those few moments in life where you finish in tears because I know I had accomplished something and it was all me,” she said.
Up until this point, Panas had mostly avoided organized sports. She grew up in Camrose, a small city in central Alberta, and from a young age had a sense that her gender identity did not match the male sex she had been assigned at birth. She had difficulty fitting in and living up to others’ expectations, and kept away from sports because she knew she wasn’t on the path to become a star football or hockey player. “I avoided any opportunity to be laughed at,” she said.
Running, however, seemed like a great fit from the start. She could do it alone, when she had time, and could set her own goals. She discovered that she was a decent runner, typically finishing in the top 10 to 15 per cent of the field in races. In 2005, when the World Masters Games came to Edmonton, Panas won a bronze medal in the 30–34 age category of the men’s 10,000m. Running also offered an excuse to travel, whether for the World Masters Games or bucket list marathons, like New York, which she ran in 2005.
Four marathons later, on Nov. 29, 2006, Panas and her wife welcomed twins, Alex and Andrew, into the world. But they were born three-and-a-half months premature. Each boy weighed less than 2 lb. This marked the start of a long and challenging period for the family, as they all spent months in the Stollery Children’s Hospital neonatal intensive care units and the boys underwent numerous medical procedures. At times, Panas slept on the hospital f loor. She didn’t run for months, but started again in February. The regular runs helped lift her up from what she remembers was the lowest point of her life so far.
Panas needed all of her strength for the months that followed. In April, Andrew’s heart stopped beating and he died in his parents’ arms. More than 400 people came to his funeral later that month.
That summer, Panas ran the Edmonton Half-Marathon. About 100 metres before the finish line, Panas could see her son Alex in his mother’s arms. She carried him across the finish line.