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Grandma's Marathon: Mary Lahti running in memory of her son

Mary Lahti, mother of Will Schlotec, who died jumping into the Deeps last summer, attends to a homemade memorial at the site of his jump above Amity Creek in Lester Park on Tuesday morning. She's wearing a "Running for Will" T-shirt that she will wear while running Grandma's Marathon on Saturday in memory of her son who had planned to run the race this year. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 2
Mary Lahti has a tattoo featuring her deceased son, Will Schlotec, standing on a hay bale in his favorite place in Cook. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 2

Mary Lahti and four of her five children ran the John Galo Memorial 5K last July in Duluth.

Her oldest child, 15-year-old Will Schlotec, was the lone holdout.

 #running4will and #weloveyouwillyj. Bob King /  DNT"He said, 'Mom, I want the first race I run to be a full marathon, so I'm going to sit this one out,' " Mary recalled.

Instead, Will penciled in the 2018 Grandma's Marathon as his running debut.

Sadly, that won't happen after Will died tragically last August after jumping into Amity Creek at a spot known as "the Deeps."

In his place, several family members and Duluth East peers are planning to run the marathon or the accompanying Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon.

All will be wearing "#running4Will" T-shirts.

"Everybody is running because he isn't here to run," said Mary Lahti, who will run the marathon along with her fiance, Matt Livingston. Will's father, Joby Schlotec, and his stepmother, Courtney Schlotec, plan to run the half.

For Mary Lahti, 41, the marathon and the memory of her son are intertwined.

Ever since her children were young, Mary would bring the brood down the four blocks from their Lakeside home to London Road to watch the race.

It was at that site, only a month after having her fourth child, that Mary came up with the idea of running a marathon herself.

"I stood there with my baby and said to myself, 'I want to do that next year,' " she recalled.

Mary ran her first half-marathon in 2009 and then completed Grandma's for the only time in 2012.

She used a double stroller while jogging as Will rode his bicycle in the early mornings or, after the kids were in bed and her husband was home, she would run at 9 or 10 at night.

"You have to do it when you can or it will never happen," she said.

Mary was training for Ashland's Whistlestop Marathon last summer when Will died.

After the funeral, it was difficult to find the motivation to just put one foot in front of the other, much less train for a 26.2-mile race.

Though registered to run the marathon, Mary did no training until she had what she calls a "pivotal" moment in the middle of winter.

"I had a really defining moment in January, when I thought, 'If you're really going to run, you have to start (training) today,' " she said. "It was a snowstorm and I just went out and ran in five inches of snow. I never suffered from depression, but losing a child will put you in that place.

Mary Lahti stands at the spot where her son jumped into the Deeps last summer. Bob King / DNT"Some days it was my only motivation for anything besides my kids. It's been my only coping mechanism for getting through the days. And it's when I feel well. I feel him with me.

"I still think about him constantly, but I can move and it gets me out the door and out of that dark place."

Running can be a healing process, and Mary Lahti has found this training period to help her cope with the unthinkable for a parent.

"It's my alone time with processing the loss of Will," she said.

She still walks daily to the Lester River and the spot where Will, as many teenagers have done over the generations, jumped into the creek.

"I don't know how the world works, but that's where I feel the closest to Will," his mother said.

There's a makeshift memorial there to her athletic son, who was involved in lacrosse, rowing and soccer and always kept busy.

"He was super high energy, an intense spirit, funny — he was so funny," Mary said. "We never parted without hugging and saying, 'I love you,' even at almost 16 years of age."

And so now his loved ones and friends will honor his spirit by running on Grandma's Saturday and remembering the vivacious teenager.

"In the end it does bring us all together," Mary said. "Even if we're all training separately, we'll be running down the same road and we'll all be thinking about Will. I will be thinking about him every step of the way."