Steve Linsley looks forward every year to running in the Knoxville Cancer Relay. Whether he looks forward or backward, though, it’s not hard to find inspiration, he says.
That starts on the back of his relay team T-shirt with the message: “STILL SCHWEATTY.”
It’s a tribute to his mom, Erika, who died of lung cancer in 2011. She was born in 1939 in Nuremberg, Germany.
“She’d been here since 1963 and she didn’t think she had an accent anymore. She talked funny! She always called me Schteve or Schtevy,” Linsley chuckles. You’ll always find SCHWEAT on his shirts, in tribute to his mom.
But Linsley takes cancer very seriously. Among this year’s runners, he’s the last of the original team from the 2014 Cancer Relay, which featured 10 guys sweating their way from the eastern and western borders of Iowa to meet in Knoxville.
This year, he’s sweating the details as leader of a team that hits the town’s streets at 7 p.m. Oct. 24 for the sixth annual relay. In its first five years, the relay has raised $93,556 to bolster Knoxville’s best-in-the-nation Coaches vs. Cancer event.
The relay supports the American Cancer Society’s research and services to patients, and Linsley says that’s important to him. His family regrets that it couldn’t have done more to make Erika’s last days better after her Stage 4 diagnosis. The lung cancer metastasized and spread to her brain.
“Cancer is a terrible thing,” Linsley says. “It’s so depressing at the end because the person that’s there is not the person that was there.”
But Erika showed her true self when she told Linsley about her diagnosis. “She was more concerned about the fact that she wasn’t gonna be around to help her family out and she was disappointed in herself that it happened,” he says. “She was wonderful to people. Everybody loved her. That’s where I got my empathy from.
“The only thing she thought about was the fact that she couldn’t help anymore.”
With his mother on his mind during the 2014 relay, Linsley encountered more inspiration as he ran through his hometown of Oskaloosa. He was cheered on by the family of Dave Roepke, a boyhood friend who died in 1992 at age 26.
“His diagnosis was a gut-shot,” Linsley recalls. “We were 25- or 26-year-old kids. He was in the prime of his life. He took care of people, too. He would do anything for anybody. He was probably one of the nicest people you’ll ever know.
“Cancer picks those people out.”
Linsley picked the relay leg that included Oskaloosa in 2014 and enjoyed a sweaty, sweet moment with his friend’s parents and sister.
“It was pretty important to me that I did that,” he says. “I always wished that there was more that I could’ve done to help him.”
Five years later, Linsley will ease most of his miles in this year’s relay down to a walking pace, but his desire to fight cancer still runs high. Like most relay team members this year, he relays for a reason.
“When things get tough, I think about how hard she fought for a couple of years to be around and help her family,” he says, recalling his mom. “When you think about that, the running ain’t that tough.”