Personal Pep Rally race helps cancer survivors, their families

2022-03-12 06:27:39 By : Mr. MIKE XU

They're getting ready to get dirty again in Stuttgart. March 12's Endure the Dirt 5K obstacle race, benefiting Personal Pep Rally, is back to its live incarnation for the first time since 2019. The race was canceled in 2020 due to covid-19 and was held virtually last year.

Misti Coker, who heads the race and the organization behind it with her daughter Lauren Stringer, said she's delighted to see the event back again, this time in live and virtual formats.

"We started the virtual part during covid because we have so many people wanting to participate and support us," she says. "Last year, there were so many people that just wouldn't travel to a race site so we added the virtual. We continued to go ahead and do that this year, because there are people from all over the United States that join in the virtual because they can't actually come to the mud run in Stuttgart, Arkansas."

The event, now in its fifth year, helps the nonprofit Personal Pep Rally prepare and ship gift boxes to cancer patients as a way to encourage them to stay in the fight. Coker says the packages have reached 100 communities in Arkansas as well as patients in 37 states and several in Canada.

"We're close to 500 patients," she says. "Everybody needs a cheerleader."

Personal Pep Rally is a ministry of love borne out of the family's own grief over losing a loved one to cancer. Marc Stringer, Lauren's husband, was a former college athlete and boys basketball coach at White Hall High School who was diagnosed with esophageal cancer a little more than a year after the two were married in 2015.

The diagnosis was grim. The sixth most common cause of cancer deaths worldwide, per the Mayo Clinic, survival rates for esophageal cancer patients at the five-year mark are typically less than 20%. Over the next three and a half years, Lauren and Marc (who she and everyone in her family refer to as "Stringer") would walk a harrowing path of doctor visits, hospital stays and treatment that they knew had little chance of saving him.

Lauren Stringer today describes the period in turn as the most traumatic and yet in ways the most inspiring of her life, seeing how bravely her husband -- dubbed Superman by his basketball players -- faced the disease right up until his death in January 2020.

"Stringer was so disciplined; he'd go get chemo and then he would go to work because that was his job. He was expected to be with those boys," she says. "He always had this mindset of, 'This is just something I have to do. Cancer is part of my life, but I'm not going to let it take away what I enjoy.'

"I still have his phone and his alarm. At 5 a.m., the alarm says, 'Wake your ass up.' That was him."

Lauren was no shrinking violet herself. A nurse by training, she knew even more than he what lie ahead. Yet, the pint-size daughter of the Grand Prairie never yielded an inch, quizzing doctors, doing research, sleeping in hospital room chairs or curling up on the bed with her husband as the ravenous cancer chewed his ribs to the surface and his eyes deeper into their sockets. Marc fought back hard and made Lauren promise she wouldn't stop fighting, either.

"People didn't understand why I would push him so much. But I made that promise. I know he didn't want to give up and I wasn't going to let him," she says. "There were times where it was a tough-love type thing. I knew that he did so much better when he was doing what he enjoyed. I saw it as up to me to get him there to do it, whatever it took."

Throughout much of the cancer ordeal, Coker walked alongside her daughter and son-in-law, driving them to appointments and offering all the moral support she could. Personal Pep Rally grew out of her desire to do more.

"A friend of mine in Stuttgart had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer," Coker says. "She's since passed away, but before she did, she started a group called the Chemosabi Sisters. These women have all had cancer, they lost people to cancer. They were like their own support system."

"I asked the Chemosabi Sisters to send encouraging notes to Stringer, and that grew into care packages. Then Lauren asked me if we could expand that to help other families. That became Personal Pep Rally."

The organization funds its cancer care package ministry through charitable donations and its online Pass On Joy store ( where individuals can order premade or custom gift boxes. But Endure the Dirt is easily the biggest fundraiser of the year, with 2022's goal being $100,000 or more. The money not only pays for the Personal Pep Rally's boxes sent to cancer patients, but also funds several scholarships for athletes and for students whose families have been affected by cancer.

"The organization is one way to keep Stringer's memory alive," Coker says. "But it's also a mission for others walking in the same shoes he did. There's more to our organization than just a name and cancer; I get phone calls and emails with questions or just wanting somebody to talk to. Personal Pep Rally is really about caring for people."

The race drew more than 650 participants to the 2020 event prior to being canceled, and organizers are hoping to hit or exceed 500 runners this year. Lauren Stringer said the choice of an obstacle race over a standard 5K was a nod to her late husband on several levels. First, he ran such races himself and second, it reinforces the overall theme of endurance and perseverance, even when life gets messy and throws obstacles in one's way. And given the hundreds who've supported the race in the past, pandemic notwithstanding, it's clear the theme of resiliency strikes a chord with many.

"It's overwhelming because it's the reality that there are so many people who are affected by cancer," she says. "We all know somebody, if not ourselves, who has been in this fight. We all have someone we love that is fighting or has fought. I'll never forget one of the first years we had the race. A lady who is around my grandparents' age came up to me the year we did Endure the Dirt right after her daughter had passed away from cancer. She was like, 'This is the one day that we stop and take a minute to actually remember.'

"We live in such a fast-paced world, that a lot of times we just know this bad thing happened and we have to push forward and we have to continue to live our life. If your loved one passed away, you have to continue to live your life in honor of them, but it also helps to stop and remember, too."

The 2022 Endure the Dirt 5K, held at Mack's Prairie Wings in Stuttgart, will also feature food trucks and a Mini Mudder race for children. Memorial yard signs will be for sale; personalized to remember a loved one, the signs are a tradition and line the course to spur runners on.

For full details of the event, to register or to make a donation, visit or

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