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Freihofer's Run celebration of life for mom, daughter

Freihofer's Run celebration of life for mom, daughter

Carol Phillips has fought off melanoma, Brianna Phillips has rebounded from a suicide attempt
Freihofer's Run celebration of life for mom, daughter
Carol Phillips, left, and her daughter Brianna take part in a Freihofer's Training Challenge workout.
Photographer: PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER

In 1999, Brianna Phillips was the little girl in the stroller, while her mom, Carol, ran in the Freihofer's Run for Women.

When Brianna was in second grade, she had her whole life mapped out, to someday become a physical education teacher.

By high school, she was a two-sport athlete at Guilderland, on the field hockey team and what were some terrific lacrosse teams, and a diligent student who preferred studying to partying. When she graduated in 2012, SUNY Cortland was the natural next obvious step toward her goal that had crystallized way back in second grade.

Then during sophomore year at Cortland, Brianna tried to kill herself. The sparkling gem that started forming in second grade had become a hard, unflinching diamond, too coldly brilliant to be looked at directly.

The Freihofer's Run for Women will mark its 40th anniversary on Saturday, June 2. There will be Olympians, there will be high school and college stars and there will be your everyday runners in the middle of the pack, women who come out to the race because, ultimately, it's simply a celebration.

It's a celebration of athleticism, of course, but frequently it is also a celebration of what it means to be a daughter, and a mom, who loves her child without qualification or condition, even -- especially -- when her heart breaks over and over.

But not on this day. Carol Phillips will be somewhere in that thicket of runners, and her heart will be bursting with joy and pride, for herself, but because 23-year-old Brianna will be in there, too. Carol hasn't run Freihofer's since the 1999 race, a few months before she was told the melanoma on her foot likely would cost her her life.

She just had surgically implanted screws removed from her foot in March and doesn't even know if she'll finish the race. And it wouldn't matter in the least.

"A couple things. My daughter was one thing; trying to get back in shape is another," Carol said last week, after she and Brianna had finished a run as part of the 10-week Freihofer's Training Challenge. "Just trying to ... not give in and keep fighting.

"For me, it's going to be emotional. Just to be able to do it again is a big thing."

She and her daughter could not have foreseen what Brianna's high school and early college years would entail, and, anyway, they had enough on their plate as it was.

For a fair-skinned, blue-eyed person who never used sunscreen, Carol was a prime candidate for long-term skin problems, which came to a head shortly after she ran the 1999 Freihofer's.

She said she's had dozens of moles removed over the years and still sees a dermatologist every six months to look for abnormalities.

"[In 1999], not a lot was known about that," she said. "They took a biopsy, and I was like, 'Take my foot, do whatever you have to.' They said, 'You don't understand, we have no treatment for you.'"

Fortunately, the biopsy came back negative, but Carol still required a skin graft and a big cast. "We set up a bed in the living room," she said. "I didn't wear a shoe for at least six months."

The youngest of her three children was just going into kindergarten at the time, and it didn't take long for the precocious little girl to figure out what she was going to be when she grew up.

That all appeared to be on track in high school, but beneath the surface, the plan was derailing, compounded by Carol's hard divorce from the father of her three children, which she said nearly drove her to bankruptcy. Prone to wearing her hood up around the house, Brianna became distant. "We were like this," she said, bumping the knuckles of her fists together.

But -- finally -- college, right? And Cortland would be the perfect school for her to realize her dream.

It didn't happen. Worse, Brianna began to doubt her entire identity, much of which had been formed on the playing fields at Guilderland.

The first semester seemed to go OK, but as terrifying doubt became overwhelming, she came home on medical leave second semester and was hospitalized with her first panic attack. As a sophomore, the cycle happened again, but this time she ran out of possible solutions. It was hopeless.

"The biggest thing I would say is I was a fraud," Brianna said. "I was an athlete, and I wasn't running, because I couldn't get myself out of bed. I couldn't get myself to classes. That was the hard part. 'I'm a complete fraud. I'm claiming that I'm going to be a teacher or in fitness and health, and I can't even take care of myself right now.' My whole identity was crashing down.

"This time, instead of being able to call my mom and say, 'I can't do this,' I tried to end my life. It's not that I wanted to end my life, but I didn't know how to change my life."

"It wasn't until recently that we actually talked about it and brought this out in the open, and it still brings tears to my eyes to get that phone call from the hospital, 'Your daughter's here in the hospital, she tried to kill herself,'" Carol said.

Brianna said it took a lot of "undoing and a lot of unlearning about who I thought I was and who I thought I wanted to be" before she finally turned the corner and got her life together.

A  big part of that, with the help of mental health therapy, was realizing that she had the power to create who she wanted to be and that she was responsible for achieving that.

Volunteering with the Shelters of Saratoga turned out to be a big development, then Brianna got involved in outreach through Community Action for Parents Teens and Interested Neighbors (CAPTAIN) in Clifton Park and found her calling.

After graduating from Empire State College with a degree in community and human services with a concentration in integrative health and wellness, Brianna is a case worker for CAPTAIN who connects with runaways and homeless teens and directs them toward resources that could help them.

She sometimes sees a glimmer of her teenage self in those kids.

"Absolutely. I feel like I have the honor of meeting them at the point when they have the opportunity to turn the corner," Brianna said. "And I want to be a person for them to realize that I can help them walk through that, and be there if they don't want to do it. Be there when the time is right. That's really important to me, trying to be a steady person.

"I've got a youth who took off and didn't want our services, but now calls me just to say hi, and that's great to me. Great. All I want to do is know you're OK."

It's a position Carol knows only too well.

Besides the ever-looming presence of melanoma, she's had multiple surgeries on her feet to repair collapsed arches and ripped tendons.

So much has happened since that Freihofer's Run in 1999 that even if she doesn't get to the finish line, "To me, it'll be like full circle."

"The older I get, my bucket list gets longer, and my time gets shorter," Carol said.

"I'm going to cry."

"Yep," Brianna said with a grin.

"But, everybody's got a story," Carol said. "That's what I find amazing.

"We're not the only ones."

Reach Gazette Sportswriter Mike MacAdam at [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.

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