The unfinished race: Amy’s run with Tim

River Bank Run

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — With tears welling in her eyes, Amy Polega watched as a souped up muscle car and shiny motorcycle sped through the intersection of Knapp and Diamond in Grand Rapids. It was a warm July day in 2018 and it was all Amy needed for the comfort she so desperately sought.

The car and motorcycle were symbolic  — her fiance Tim Laninga had a passion for both, matched only by his love for her. He was drawn to the flashy, loud muscle cars and motorcycles. And as a small group of friends and family huddled on the corner near the Shell Gas Station each letting go of a handful of balloons, Amy says seeing both of Tim’s loves was reassuring that it would all be OK. Living without Tim is the most difficult thing she’s ever done.

“He made me believe in me, my abilities and built my lost confidence,” Amy said of Tim. “He watched out for me, my family and friends constantly. He always had a smile, wanted to have fun and would do anything for you. “

Tim and Amy lived life fast. They met through the Grand Rapids running community. Amy is a Road Warrior in the River Bank Run and now a five year RW Coach; Tim was a team member of the Gazelle run club. 

Tim was a talker, full of energy and smiles. He hawked Amy at community runs and training days until he finally asked her on a date.

“Would you go to church with me?” He asked.

He quickly swept her away, proposed months into dating, and changed the way that this dedicated runner approached each mile.

“He made it a lot more fun. I was always so driven to hit my marks, do all these things and we would be able to just go out and run and have a good time. He talked all the time,” Amy positively emphasized. “It was something where, yeah without thinking about it, the miles just kind of flew when you ran with him.

Running was how they met and racing was how they fell in love. There summers were filled with registrations and bib numbers. From Seaway to Cedar Point to the Las Vegas Marathon, they raced through life.

“Everything happened so fast. It didn’t take long. He said he loved me way before I did. It was scary,” Amy said those three words came about a month into their relationship.

If Tim met a runner on a course, they parted ways knowing he loved to talk, swear, laugh and drink Fireball. But above all, he loved helping get them to the finish. It was something he and Amy shared. The River Bank Run is where that spirit was displayed most proudly.

“River Bank day was a huge day for all of us,” Amy said with her River Bank Run medals sitting behind her. “He just was always out there encouraging and helping somebody.”

On July 2, 2018, they were helping each other. Neither felt good, both called in sick to work. It was a warm Monday afternoon, Amy and Tim decided to take a walk, hoping it would shake out the sick feeling plaguing both of them.

When they got home they decided to go pick up a package of tank tops for Amy’s mom from JC Penney. Her mother had been in the hospital since December and Amy ordered them for her. They hopped on Tim’s motorcycle like they had so many times before, not knowing it would be their last bike ride together.

“I remember getting to the four-way stop at Knapp and Diamond and I remember turning toward Fuller and it’s a short block,” Amy said as she fought her emotions. “I remember turning the corner and that’s it. I don’t remember anything else.”

Most of the rest is black and fuzzy. Amy woke up in the hospital with her best friend Joann Karpowicz by her side.

“I remember asking about Tim and they said that, he didn’t make it. And that was really, really hard,” Amy said as the tears fell from her eyes.

“That smile, that energy, that fun, who knew that the day you didn’t feel good, you know we didn’t feel good and we were just going to do something nice for my mother and that something bad happens,” Amy said about losing Tim. “Hard when you lose your best friend. And the person that, we had so many plans for the rest of our lives.”

The two were set to run in a race that weekend for the Fourth of July, train for a half Iron Man and to be married in 2020. Instead of planning for those events and the weekends of races in between, Amy began a long road to recovery.

She broke her wrist, ankle, two ribs, and bones in her face during the crash. Doctors used titanium mesh to hold her eye in place and added a metal plate in her cheek. She had five or six surgeries — she can’t remember the exact number.

“Just being without him for 10 months is heartbreaking. On some days it’s crushing and I wish he could be back,” Amy said. “I miss his confidence, love and support every day, but especially on race day. He always calmed my nerves.”

Amy still hasn’t received clearance from her doctors to run. But that hasn’t stopped her from starting and finishing the plans her and Tim had.

Saturday, she’ll line up alongside thousand of runners in the 25K. Most will be part of the community that Tim cultivated with kindness race after race; a community that has wrapped Amy in their love and support over the last year.

“I wouldn’t be where I am today without them. Tim was part of that. And so we won’t forget. Not any one of us,” she said of the running community. “He may not be physically with us but I think every single one of us will carry him, for sure across the finish line.” 

Wearing her red Tim shirt, Amy plans to walk from the start to the finish of the 2019 Amway River Bank Run. It’s part of her larger plan to live life with his contagious smile and energy.

“I have to get up and put a smile on. That’s what he would want. And some days are harder to do that,” Amy said. “Everybody’s been so strong and they’ve surrounded me with love and that gives me strength to do it. I just think that, it would be really easy to curl up in a ball and cry but it’s not who I am.”

“It took me a hot minute to figure out that it’s OK to be sad. And some days are better than others, but Tim wouldn’t want me to be curled up in a ball and if everything was changed and the shoe was on the other foot, I wouldn’t want that for him either. He’s still supporting me, he’s still there,” she added.

And if muscle cars and motorcycles will continue to remind Amy of what Tim loved, running will keep him alive in her.

“We promised each other to continue to go forward if we didn’t have each other and find our happy,” Amy said.

Right now, she’s trying her best.

“I try and find a little bit of happy every day,” she said.

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