A long walk in the fight against cancer

October 19, 2022

Ever since sharing apartments at Denison in the mid-2000s, Julie Wilson ’06 and her college roommates have stuck together. You could say they’re teammates in this marathon called life — a metaphor that became a lot more literal when Julie and her late husband invited her friends to walk the Boston Marathon course to raise money for cancer research.

In 2013, on their first wedding anniversary, Julie Wilson and Travis Sauerwald traveled from their Cleveland-area home to Boston for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute’s Jimmy Fund Walk, a fundraiser in which participants walk the entire Boston Marathon course.

Avid hikers but not distance runners, the couple did it largely for the bragging rights: How many people can say they’ve completed the Boston Marathon?

They figured it was a one-and-done experience — until 2016, when Travis, a wildland firefighter and volunteer EMT who loved his cats and was fiercely protective of the environment, was diagnosed with a form of brain cancer called glioblastoma and given less than a year to live.

One night, Travis shook Julie awake and asked if they could do the Jimmy Fund Walk again and raise money for brain cancer research. They recruited a group of about 20 friends to join them and dubbed themselves Team Wolverine, so named because Travis emerged from his craniotomy believing he was Wolverine from the X-Men. (The scary hallucination lasted about a week, after which the character became something of a “cancer-fighting alter ego,” Julie says.)

Travis threw himself into marathon training and fundraising. The team more than doubled their $10,000 fundraising goal, and on a day when he was supposed to already be dead, Travis not only walked a full 26.2 miles — in a kilt, no less — he also finished more than an hour ahead of his next teammate.

Among those teammates were June (Trimble) Torres ’06 and Krista (Reese) Lehde ’06, two of Julie’s roommates from her junior and senior years at Denison. As sophomores, rugby teammates June, Krista, and Kate Armbrust ’06 (who for years supported Team Wolverine financially before walking the marathon in 2022) shared an apartment. They invited Julie, June’s Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority sister, to join them for the next two school years.

In the decade-plus since graduation, the quartet has stayed close despite living in four different cities.

“They’re still my best friends,” Julie says. “When I went through my darkest days, they were there for me.”

Krista and June returned to Team Wolverine in 2018, this time pushing an ailing Travis in a wheelchair the whole way. After his death at age 45 in early 2019, the team honored his memory by returning to Boston that fall for another Jimmy Fund Walk. They kept it up virtually in 2020 and 2021 due to Covid.

On Oct. 2, 2022, they returned to Boston, now with Kate in tow — the first time all four roommates have reunited at the walk.

It’s not easy to walk a marathon. Even the preparation can be brutal. Case in point, Julie broke her ankle during a training hike just weeks before this year’s event. Instead of attempting the 2022 marathon on crutches, she greeted her teammates with signs and snacks every few miles. The other three Denisonians walked in lockstep at what June called turtle pace. Whereas one year the weather was so hot some walkers were treated for heat stroke, Krista says this time it was windy enough to chap her lips.

“It was like a small miracle that I finished,” Kate says. “But I did it.”

To date, Team Wolverine has raised almost $200,000 toward the fight against brain cancer, much of it earmarked for neuro-oncology expert Dr. Patrick Y. Wen’s research. June says that money — and this tradition — are an ideal monument to Travis and Julie’s marriage.

“Their love was always founded on service,” she says, “and they brought their friends into it, too.”

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