The Pied Piper of Shelburne

Jan Leja, in front, with the 2010 TNT Triathlon team at the Mooseman Triathlon. Photo courtesy of Jan Leja
Jan Leja, in front, with the 2010 TNT Triathlon team at the Mooseman Triathlon. Photo courtesy of Jan Leja

BY MARIA CIMONETTI

I am another victim of Shelburne’s own Pied Piper, Jan (pronounced yän) Leja. Like the infamous Pied Piper of Hamelin, Jan has a way of tempting people to follow the irresistible sound of his “flute.”

He nabbed me a few years ago in the vegetable aisle at the Shelburne Supermarket. I stood transfixed, but not really listening to his enthusiastic report of some race or another because I was drawn in by the lilt of his Eastern European accent, sparkly blue eyes, and effervescent smile. Moments later, with a trance-like nod of my head, I had agreed to become a volunteer coach for the Leukemia/Lymphoma Society’s (LLS) Team in Training (TNT).

Team in Training promotes itself as “the world’s leading sports charity training program.” Like many inspired undertakings, TNT’s combined mission to raise money and train for a sporting event was born out of a father’s grief and hope for his daughter, a leukemia survivor. In 1988, this father and a small group of friends raised over $300,000 for LLS while training for the New York City Marathon. Since TNT’s inception, the organization has grown to include more than 40,000 participants nationwide. In the last 23 years, its members have competed in marathons, half marathons, century bike rides, triathlons, hiking expeditions, and have raised over 1 billion dollars for LLS. As a coach I am humbled by the spirit, generosity, and determination of TNT The Pied Piper of Shelburne participants who race not for personal glory, but to support and to honor patients. In every way, TNT truly lives up to its billing as “the experience of a lifetime.”

Jan is the long-standing TNT running coach and the 200 Vermont runners and walkers he has trained have raised over $600,000 for LLS. When asked why he does it, Jan replies, “In September it will have been 10 years of my coaching for TNT, and it seems like just yesterday. I have met such a wonderful, eclectic, diverse group of people. But this clearly is not about numbers. ‘Run with Jan’ has become a family and a close knit community of runners, TNT’ers, and friends.”

Like the Pope, Jan owns Sunday mornings. His “Run with Jan” training group meets every Sunday at 8:15 a.m. in rain, shine, blizzard, natural disaster, and you name it: they run. A very chatty list-serve group (runwithjan. com) keeps members aware of which cold, windswept road the team will meet that week. Every run begins with the challenge of squeezing eager, brightly dressed runners and bouncing dogs into a group photo. During the run, Jan flits about, checking in with runners, keeping tabs not only on mileage or fundraising goals, but also on the coming and goings in each individual’s daily life. During races, it has been said that Jan runs each marathon at least twice, encouraging people along through tough sections, helping them get to the finish line, only to return to the course to help others. Sometimes he just strides alongside a runner, listening to their tales of cancer survival, or the struggle of a loved one for whom they run, his silent presence providing powerful support and encouragement. “I do my best to distract them from their pain and fatigue. The response, later after the race, has been unbelievably gratifying as they seek me out in the crowd to thank me, their smiles the best reward.”

In 2010 alone, “Run with Jan” group members ran in 62 marathons, 55 half marathons, 10 Ultra events (50K, 50M, 100M, or 12-24 hour runs), rode in three century rides (100 miles), completed 21 triathlons, and participated in two “Death Races” (don’t ask, you don’t want to do one). These are not professional athletes sponsored by running shoe companies. They are your neighbors, your kids’ teachers, IT guys, radio deejays, farmers, poets, moms and dads, students, and cancer survivors all sharing a common goal: to find a cure for blood cancers.

Sometime this winter, the group will be heading out on its 400th Sunday run, which as usual, will end at a local breakfast joint where endorphin-filled runners slurp down coffee, shovel in carbs, plan fundraising events, and recover to their resting heart rate in a circle of true friends and heroes. In this group of champions, Jan is the quintessential superhero, wielding charm as his superpower, his power of persuasion legendary. One recent Sunday morning I found myself once again succumbing to the Pied Piper lure of his call. We agreed to a challenge: if he completes an Olympic distance triathlon, I, “Never-say-never Maria” will compete in a marathon. I couldn’t help it. It was something in the way he stretched out his vowels as he spoke. Anyone want to join me? We will be in good hands.

For more information about TNT or TNT events contact TNT director Robyn Haberman at robyn.haberman@lls.org, TNT Vermont coordinator Gail Deuso at gail.deuso@lls.org and the upstate NY/Vermont TNT at team intraining.org.

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