Mullen runners exemplify Lasallian spirit

By Neil H. Devlin
Mullen Sports Information Specialist

They could have run away, but Adele Cardenas and Emma Hahn chose to literally run into the situation.

The Mullen juniors were participating in the Arvada West Invitational, a regular stop on the cross-country circuit that was contested at the Lutz Complex on Sept. 15, when they spotted a runner from Alameda International who obviously was having extreme difficulty about a half-mile into the junior-varsity race.

Fittingly, her name was Destiny Case.

“We were running and we saw that she was behind and she seemed upset and was struggling,” Cardenas said. “We just decided that if that was us, we would want someone to cheer us on and run with us.”

“Adele and I just joined cross country not in it to win it, but to just do it for fun and we thought this is what cross country is all about, meeting new people and making friends,” Hahn added. “And we definitely were not going to win that race.”

So they stayed with Case, encouraged her, wouldn’t let her slow down to a walk, which she was prone to do, and finished the 3.1-mile (5K) together in a very high 35 minutes, 5 seconds – more than 14 minutes behind the winner – for places 236th-238th. But this had nothing to do with numbers.

“Those girls have been so spectacular with my daughter,” said Heidi Case, Destiny’s mother, who admitted to tears when she saw the three of them together.

Destiny Case, a freshman, is new to high-school sports and suffers from ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) as well as Asperger’s Disorder, a severe form of autism. But since the special-needs student with the genuine smile met Cardenas and Hahn, they are just three high-school girls who are becoming fast friends.

“After the race, we finished and she was exhausted, and we were pushing her again to go to the tent,” Cardenas said of Case. “We hugged, talked with her and met her mom … it was fun.”

Hahn admitted “that while we were running, she probably hated us for pushing her, but at the end she started to cry and gave us a hug, and thanked us.”

Destiny has to be reminded about the first names of Cardenas and Hahn “because I sometimes forget them, but they didn’t let me walk at all and encouraged me to keep running, stuff like that. And they gave me compliments.”

Adele Cardenas and Emma Hahn exemplified true sportsmanship at a recent Mullen Mustangs cross-country meet when they stayed behind with Destiny Case of Alameda International and encouraged her until they all crossed the finish line together. (Photo provided)

Having finished last and seriously considering quitting the team, Destiny has since changed her mind thanks to Cardenas and Hahn, and her mom is beside herself with glee.

Speaking about her daughter and of others like her, “emotionally, they hate themselves and think they can’t do anything right … a lot of it is mental,” she said.

But what really gets to her, she said, is that Cardenas and Hahn “went beyond sportsmanship. They could have [beaten] her down and had a really good time. But they chose to help somebody else.”

The kind act probably would have been enough to stand alone as well as be retold for years to come; however, the opportunity arose again the past weekend at Englewood’s Windjammer Invitational. Yes, Cardenas and Hahn were there as was Case. Only this time the three met up before the race and decided to do it again.

“We saw her walking and when she saw us she started laughing,” Cardenas said.

“[Case] was surprised. She saw us and we came up to say ‘Hi’ and we just ran with her again.”

For the record, they finished in 35:25, taking places 255-257 (of 262).

But in terms of companionship, compassion and understanding, Cardenas and Hahn – as well as Case — probably won by light years.

Alameda International coach Jon Turner said what Cardenas and Hahn “did was special … they sacrificed for another.”

Mullen Mustangs cross country head coach Joe Welling said “well, I told this to the team after the first time that, to me, this is more important than a state championship. What that is is a Lasallian core principal of inclusive community in action. That’s what we want our kids to take away from cross country and that’s what they demonstrated in real life.”

Janell Kloosterman, Mullen Principal and Chief Academic Officer, concurred: “For Emma and Adele, providing support for Destiny transcended winning. At that moment, the race became about running in solidarity with another human being who was in need and just simply needed their support.  Emma and Adele exemplify what it means to be a Mullen High School student-athlete — treating others with respect and dignity. They make us proud to be Mullen Mustangs.”

Mullen has received numerous positive e-mails, mostly sparked by Turner, and one of the best things about all of it, he said, is Destiny has vowed to continue with cross country. She also hungers to try basketball and soccer with the Pirates, but for someone who felt inadequate with her peers, she is brimming with confidence.

“I think she’ll stick with it,” Turner said.

Heidi Case says her daughter “is taking it day-by-day and she keeps telling me the Mullen girls inspired her. And she said to me, ‘You know, Mom, I didn’t give up.’”

Plus, Turner said, “you can see the social change in her.”

For their part, Cardenas and Hahn wave off any praise, although Heidi Case says she just about melts when they refer to Destiny as their hero. “But I think they’re all heroes,” she said.

Hahn insists “we just wanted to help her run. We didn’t do it to get recognized for it.”

And Cardenas didn’t hesitate on her response.

“Yeah, I mean, we didn’t think much of it,” she said. “We just saw someone struggling and wanted to help her out … after the race she was hugging us. It shows how grateful you can be for the ability you have when you see someone like her, super-inspiring and she was so overjoyed. And, yeah, I’d definitely do it again.”

Destiny Case said she’ll be thinking of Cardenas and Hahn.

“I have one of their phone numbers and I want to get the other one,” she said.


COMING UP: Run, Betty run!

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Run, Betty run!

Even at 89, Betty Willis just keeps on running

Twenty years ago, the Denver Catholic Register (now the Denver Catholic) featured a local 70-year-old who had recently run her 23rd marathon.

Betty Willis went on to finish four more marathons as well as numerous half-marathons, 10K and 5K runs. Set to turn 90 on Oct. 23, she plans to run a 5K on Oct. 7 to benefit her parish’s school, Sts. Peter and Paul in Wheat Ridge.

“I ran in it last year,” Willis said about Sts. Peter and Paul’s Cool Duo race. Laughing she added, “I was 89 and I got first place in the 80 and older group—there wasn’t anyone else in my age group!”

That’s how it’s been since she started running in 1979 at age 52 when she competed in a 10K.

“I had never done a race before in my life,” Willis said. “I walked and ran and walked and ran. I finished next to last.

“Actually, I came in second place in my age group—50 and over,” she clarified. “There were only two of us.”

Two years later—after training—she participated in her first 26-mile marathon, placing first in her age group. She went on to compete in a total 27 marathons.

“I did 27 to honor my birth year, 1927,” Willis explained.

Her best marathon time? An impressive 3 hours, 55 minutes in 1985, which according to wellness website VeryWell, is 50 minutes less than the median marathon time for women of 4 hours, 45 minutes.

Her most memorable race? The Oct. 28, 2001, Marine Corps Marathon, which took place in Washington, D.C., just weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and was dedicated to those who died, the survivors and the first responders. Runners carried flags as they ran by the damaged Pentagon.

Betty Willis, 89, shows just a few of the medals shes’s acquired in her many years as a runner. (Photo by Andrew Wright)

“That was the most patriotism I’d seen since World War II,” Willis recalled. “It was my favorite marathon.”

Born and reared in Springfield, Ill., Willis came to Denver in 1949 with just a small cardboard suitcase. She was 21 and on her way to San Francisco but needed to earn some money. She ended up finding a 39-year career with Security Life insurance. Starting as a file clerk, evenings she attended college and earned a degree in education and psychology. She retired from Security Life as an assistant vice president in 1988.

“I’ve had a very full life,” she said. “Lot’s of interesting things have happened!”

After retiring, Willis earned a master’s degree in Christian community development. She also completed the Catholic Biblical School’s four-year program. For 23 years, she directed the homebound ministry at Sts. Peter and Paul, where she’s been a 65-year parishioner.

Today, she still serves as a back-up extraordinary minister of the Eucharist and opens the door for the 7 a.m. Sunday Mass, which is convenient as she lives across the street from the church.

“Jesus has been my best friend for my whole life,” she said of her faith. “I’ve got through with help from the Lord, the Good Shepherd, who sent me good shepherds.”

A daily communicant for “many, many, many years,” Willis said simply of her dedicated Mass attendance: “You have to be close to the Lord. You have a reason to get up and get going, not just sit around.”

The same goes for her running habit.

When I get to where I can’t finish a race, that’s when I’ll call it quits.”

“It’s good for your health—mentally, physically, emotionally and spiritually,” she said. “It keeps you agile and it’s a lot of fun. I run for all those reasons, and for the camaraderie with other runners.”

The benefits of running include slowing peripheral artery disease, which she was diagnosed with five years ago. She likes that runs benefit charitable causes and believes running has given her “bonus years.”

“I enjoy the challenge and just doing it,” Willis said. “I would really like to encourage older people to get off their duff and not shuffle their feet … to keep moving! They’ll be stronger and happier.”

These days, Willis limits herself to 5K races.

“When I get to where I can’t finish a race, that’s when I’ll call it quits,” she said.

Willis is looking forward to Sts. Peter and Paul’s 5k as last year some of the school’s teaching nuns ran in full habits, and the pastor and many students participated. The same is planned for this year, which she praised.

“I especially want to congratulate all the children who will run,” she said.

Twenty years ago Willis expressed a desire to travel, to write and maybe finally move to San Francisco. Running has allowed her to make trips there, and to Alaska, Hawaii and Ireland. Currently she’s working on freeing up time to write.

And some days, the dream of moving to San Francisco, where she lived a year as a teen, beckons.

“I loved the ocean,” Willis said. “But it might be to Los Angeles because my parents are buried there and my brother (her sole living sibling out of four) lives there.

“I still have my one little cardboard suitcase I brought with me,” she said. “I still might continue that journey to California.”

Benefits Sts. Peter and Paul School in Wheat Ridge
Sunday, Oct. 1, 8:30 a.m.