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Amy Donaldson: Running saved Payson woman after accident stole her brother's life

PAYSON — The agony of losing her brother was so suffocating, Rachelle Wardle felt as if she’d died with him.

In a desperate attempt to save herself, she turned to a sport she’d never known, hoping it could help her save a life she wasn’t sure she wanted.

“He was my life,” said the 27-year-old Payson woman. “We were inseparable, best friends. … It was tough — really, really tough. In that moment, my life was over. I couldn’t imagine moving forward at all. My brother was my whole life, and it felt kind of like I died too in that moment.”

But she didn’t die in the late-night rollover accident that stole her brother’s life on Oct. 27, 2009, at the age of 21. He’d struggled with mental illness (schizoaffective disorder), and even attempted to take his own life when he was 16.

“It’s the most terrible thing you can ever imagine,” she said of the illness that her brother dealt with every day. “Physical pain is so different. You can always take something, medication, but that mental pain they go through, that’s something that never goes away. They deal with it all of the time.”

Trevor Wardle hid his illness from most of the people who knew him. The exception was his family, who did their best to help him navigate the pain, fear and anger that accompanied an often misunderstood illness.

“He struggled every day,” she said. “Life was just a constant battle for him. He heard voices, things in his head, telling him to do things, and a lot of times he would just act out. … He was misdiagnosed a lot. First it was depression, then bipolar. It was just a constant battle.”

Trevor and Rachelle turned to each other as the struggled with the demands of life. He was staying with her the night he died, and had decided to go for a drive on his own, unbeknownst to Rachelle.

When she woke up at 4 a.m., her parents were standing in her bedroom and her world shattered in ways she still can’t completely describe.

At first she was preoccupied by the funeral and loving embrace of family and community. But about three weeks after Trevor’s death, she found herself still calling him on her drive home from work.

“Life kind of went back to normal, but I was struggling so hard, and it was almost a month after he’d passed away,” she said. “One day I called and when there was no answer, I pulled over to the side of the road and I remember just breaking down — throwing my cell phone, banging my head on the steering wheel and realizing my brother wasn’t coming back. He was gone forever.” In that moment she realized she had a choice to make.

“There were two ways I could go: I could dig myself into a deep hole, or I could move forward and live my life for and in honor of my brother,” she said.

She chose to honor Trevor by doing something she’d always wanted to do but never quite had the courage to try — running.

“I couldn’t even pass the Presidential Fitness Test 13-minute mile,” she said. “But I’d always thought it was really cool, and I remember thinking, 'I want to do something with my life. I want to live in honor of my brother.'” So what she could never do for herself, she decided to try for Trevor.

“One of the quotes I read that night said, ‘The miracle isn’t that I finished; the miracle is that I had the courage to start,’” she said. “I’ve struggled my whole life with self-confidence to pursue dreams and aspirations. It’s kind of like a light bulb went on. I could do it for Trevor.”

She bought a pair of Wal-Mart brand running shoes and went running the next day.

“It was really, really hard,” she laughed. “I didn’t know what I was doing, and when I met running friends, they said, ‘Don’t you need to get specific running shoes?’”

She eventually did. Her goal was simply to lose the 25 pounds she and her brother talked about losing before he’d died. Their weight-loss efforts were a contest he was winning until the car accident claimed his life. She decided to finish the contest a winner.

Finding herself living a healthy lifestyle after struggling with an eating disorder opened a lot of doors, many of those she never imagined. She decided to run a 5K at Lavender Days in Mona on July 4, 2010.

“I actually placed third in my age group,” she said, still sounding a little shocked at her 24-minute time. “It was really exciting for me. I was just running to get back into shape, to lose some weight, just for fun. It was like, ‘Oh, my gosh! I’m kind of good at this!’”

What Wardle found every time she stepped outside to run was something she’d lost forever — Trevor.

“Running is my time with my brother,” she said, admitting she talks to him and often feels his love when she’s logging training miles, something she writes about on her blog. “I think the reason I’ve had so much success is that I feel like I can fight through anything because my brother lived with that mental illness his whole life.” Wardle actually invested in running shoes and became curious about just how good she might be. She ran the Halloween Half Marathon on Oct. 31, 2010, exactly one year from the day of Trevor’s funeral.

“It was just catastrophic for me,” she said. “It was huge. I never ever believed that this girl who couldn’t run a 13-minute mile in high school, who’d dealt with weight her entire life, could finish a half marathon. It was just so incredibly exciting.” The last mile she kept repeating, “You can do this for Trevor. You’re running for Trevor."

"Especially the last mile of every single race," she says, "it’s for my brother.”

She started a blog and started training harder, with more purpose. A friend dropped out of the Ogden Marathon and offered her a chance to run 26.2 miles for free. Wardle was already signed up for the Utah Valley Marathon and thought a trial run would be fun.

“It was hard,” she said. “I was very, very unprepared. I didn’t really know what I was doing, and I finished in 3:53.”

Despite the difficulty of that first-time experience, she ran Utah Valley two weeks later and qualified for the Boston Marathon.

“When I first started I couldn’t fathom finishing a 5K,” she said. “It’s been so eye-opening and miraculous in a way.”

She ran the Boston Marathon in April 2012, even after officials suggested runners should defer their entries because of record-high temperatures. Wardle’s parents accompanied her on the trip and were worried, especially because she’d struggled with hydration.

“There was no way I was backing down,” she said. “I told them, ‘My brother is going to be with me, and he’s going to take care of me.’ I ended up finishing in 3:22 and was the third-place female from Utah.”

Maybe most impressive to Wardle was the fact that bib numbers are given based on times. She started in the 13,000s and finished 2,035. That number still hangs on her refrigerator as she prepares to run the Salt Lake City Half Marathon on April 20.

“It was a light-bulb moment and a breakthrough of my running career really,” she said. “It was incredibly exciting. My time wasn’t that great compared to what I’ve run now. But it was such a breakthrough, and it was that moment where I went from I’m just a runner and I can run a marathon to I’m becoming an athlete. Running is becoming more to me than finishing a race.” In September 2012 she ran the Top of Utah Marathon in 2:58, which led to Salt Lake Marathon officials offering her an elite runner entry.

“It’s all happened so fast. It’s been really overwhelming,” she said. “I haven’t had any coaching, but I have influences, friends, who have helped me along the way.”

In fact, nearly all of her friends are people she’s met through the sport.

“It’s changed my life in so many ways,” she said. “Running absolutely 100 percent saved my life. It helped me cope with my brother’s death. The thought of living without him was ... well, running saved me. It taught me I can move forward. I can fight.”

Her favorite aspect of the sport is that runners of all abilities share so much of what makes the sport special.

“It doesn’t matter what anyone can do,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re fast or slow. It’s the shared passion that makes running so unique. … It’s all about being out there and being grateful for every, single step.”

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