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Sandy Journal

Alta High assistant principal to run Boston Marathon to help fund cancer research

Mar 01, 2024 02:27PM ● By Julie Slama

Alta High Assistant Principal Melissa Lister, a trail runner and mountain biker, competes in races that reach the top of ski resorts and back down and next month, she’ll race in the Boston Marathon. (Photo courtesy of Melissa Lister)

Growing up to Turkish immigrants who practiced their traditional customs, Melissa Lister didn’t dream of running the Boston Marathon. It was a stretch for her to have permission to try out for her high school JV soccer team.

In April, the Alta High assistant principal will lace up her running shoes to race 26.2 miles of familiar roads not just for herself, but to help those battling cancer.

Lister’s journey began growing up with her siblings in Fort Lauderdale; her parents moved there in the 1970s. Her dad, who used to sell newspapers on the subway stations as a boy, and her mother both worked hard in Florida. He was the true Turkish man, having a passion for eating feta cheese and olives every day.

“Literally, for 50 years he worked as a waiter every day, so he wasn’t around for Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter; I barely saw him because he was working seven days a week,” she said.

Lister bonded with him over soccer.

“My dad played pickup soccer as a kid in Turkey and he would watch the Turkish satellite TV to watch the Turkish soccer games, so he let me try out for the JV soccer team,” she said.

When the captain and goalkeeper got hurt, the coach told Lister she would take over both positions.

“I had never played soccer in my life other than that year. When my dad found that out, he said. ‘we’re going to the park. I’m going to kick balls at you and you’re going to catch them,’” she said. “He approached that like everything, with that hard work ethic. He always appeared to be in good health. I never thought anything would happen to my dad.”

Lister graduated from high school while taking honors classes. She was involved in student government, worked at a supermarket 35 hours per week and got a year of college completed while in high school. That allowed her to graduate college at Florida State one year early and land a teaching position before a hiring freeze. She eventually earned her master’s degree at Florida Atlantic.

“It’s that work ethic that my parents ingrained in me. I can’t even think about how my life would be not having an education,” she said.

While in Florida, Lister had a rocky relationship and began running to overcome that. Without racing a 5K or 10K, she ran the Fort Lauderdale Half Marathon in 2009 and again, in 2010.

“Those were my first races. That unhealthy relationship kickstarted my journey into running, just recovering from the trauma. A lot of people go to therapy or take medication, for me, racing was my answer,” she said.

Soon after, Lister moved from Florida to Boston, where her sister and family lived. She ran the Boston Half Marathon three times and the New York City Half Marathon, five times.

She also got into Spartan racing, which “helped me heal from that relationship.”

Spartan races are a series of obstacle races with varying difficulty, ranging from three miles to ultramarathon distances, Lister said.

“I wanted to push myself. I was doing CrossFit six days a week to prepare for the Spartan Races that I did in the summer. It’s 15 races each year,” said the previously nationally and world-ranked competitor. “My mom was OK with the running, but as soon as I started obstacle course racing, the mountain running and high mileage running, she wasn’t so sure. She wasn’t as worried as my dad. My dad was always worried I was going to run too much and die of a heart attack.”

In 2014, Lister’s dad started coughing and he figured it was allergies.

“He never went to the doctor because in his mind, he was fine. But at 71 years old, and still coughing, he went to a hospital and was told he has fluid in his lungs. They found blood in the fluid and on Christmas Day 2014, he was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. They determined because he was a nonsmoker that it must have been the secondhand smoke from being a child selling newspapers in the smoke-filled subways and then, also from being a waiter at restaurants where smoking wasn’t outlawed then,” she said. “For two months, he went through radiation on his brain because the cancer had spread to his brain.”

On Ash Wednesday in 2015, Lister’s father died. 

What helped was her obstacle races.

“Those obstacles needed mental toughness,” Lister said. “I thought of my dad, and what he went through, without complaining to provide for us. My dad used to always say that to me: ‘You go to work, you go to school, you don’t complain. You put your head down. You do your job. You go home.’ That is what I would do with the races. Put my head down, do the obstacle, not complain. It would be painful, but I knew I would get through it.”

Fast forward a few years, Lister and her husband moved to Utah. The South Jordan resident has taken up trail running and mountain biking—competing in races that reach the top of ski resorts and back down. She averages 12 races from April to August and has goals of running area marathons.

“My dad would go ballistic if he knew I was doing these things, but I did it because of him. I feel that connection every time when I run and do these crazy races,” she said. “Running gives me a feeling of joy. It’s a euphoric experience when you run. It feels good. It feels powerful. I have a picture in my office of my 40,000 medals that has become a conversational piece. When students ask me about it, I tell them I got started running to help me deal with my anxiety. It’s become a way for us to talk about their anxiety and find a way, maybe it’s running, that can help them.”

Lister decided to run and was training to race her first marathon, the REVEL Big Cottonwood marathon, last fall. She hoped to qualify there to run the Boston Marathon this April.

It didn’t happen.

Sidelined with strained calf muscles, she didn’t race and turned to another way to qualify— running for charity. 

Before her 16-week training schedule began in late October, Lister shared her story on her race application with Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

“Dana-Farber is one of the top three leading cancer research hospitals in the world and everything they do, their innovative research, is trying to find a cure for cancer. I want to help Dana-Farber make those advances in medication and treatment because I don’t want another child to lose their father,” she said about her goal to raise $15,000 as the only Utahn dedicated to helping race for the cause. “I want to give awareness. Telling my story, whether it’s people who currently have cancer or who have had loved ones they’ve lost, I want people who are in pain to know the importance of early detection. I still can’t believe my dad died of lung cancer. He was just someone who worked hard for his family and was one of the healthiest guys on paper.”

To support Lister in raising $15,000 for Dana-Farber Cancer Institute: go to λ