Visit BenchmarkToKona.com or visit LLS.org OR contact Fran Schefer, campaign director for Team in Training at 404-720-7810
Robert Cornett has a lot of time to think when he’s running.
Whether he’s pounding the pavement in training or trudging through thick woodland terrain of a 100-kilometer race, the marathoner always finds his thoughts drifting back to his daughter Norah.
Sometimes, it’s about the 6-year-old Norah of today, a professional tumbler on couches and all-around ball of energy on and off the softball field.
Other times, it’s about the Norah of just a few years ago, when she was lacking the energy to play or even eat.
“Unless we tell people the story, no one knows she even had cancer,” Cornett said on Wednesday, from his home in Hoschton while Norah climbed on his back. “She’s a happy, healthy first-grader. But when you see the pictures, you know it wasn’t always that way.”
He was recently chosen as one of three worldwide candidates who will represent Team in Training with the LLS society in the Ironman World Championship Oct. 8 in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.
With the support of his family, friends and company, Cornett has laid down a six-figure challenge: He’s hoping to raise $100,000 in charitable donations to the LLS in a move he hopes will ease the pain of future families who need to undergo treatment from blood cancers.
Following a two and a half year long battle with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, Norah took her final chemotherapy pill and has since enjoyed a healthy and normal life.
“One of my coworkers told me, ‘This isn’t a yeah, it’s a hell yeah,’” said Robert, who is a regional director for Benchmark Physical Therapy. “That was the moment I realized it was about using the influence we had to make a difference in the bigger picture. That’s essentially what we’re trying to do.”
Cornett, a Gainesville native, has become the family’s primary documentarian of their journey from cancer through remission. He maintained constant updates to friends and family during Norah’s treatments that quickly reached followers from across the nation, and is continuing to do so for his new website benchmarktokona.com, which is the main outlet for donations.
Robert started to blog after Norah was first admitted to the Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, which allowed his best friend Jeremy Kemp, who graduated with Cornett from North Hall High in 1995, to stay abreast of Norah’s condition.
Kemp and Cornett have been best friends since the age of 4, having played baseball all through public school. Kemp said he felt inspired by Robert and his family’s ability to deal with adversity, which included welcoming the family’s fourth child and recovering from Robert’s unexpected surgery to deal with melanoma just 14 months after Norah’s diagnosis.
“I think the greatest fear in your childhood is to have something happen to yourself,” said Kemp. “But when this happened to Robert, with Norah, he handled himself so amazing. The whole way he dealt with it was unbelievable.”
Robert became an avid runner after a college baseball career and two year in the Toronto Blue Jays organization, describing himself as a “competitor.” After starting out with small triathlons, he and his wife Sarahlyn are both experienced runners, with Robert training to begin his third Ironman race.
Typically, the couple will rise as early as 4:45 a.m. four days a week to train at least two hours a day, with longer biking or running sessions on the weekends.
All throughout Norah’s recovery, the Cornetts often used their exercise as a therapeutic battle against stress. In October, Robert will use it to represent the LLS in the largest fundraiser he’s ever spearheaded.
The family has previously helped to host annual Kicking Cancer 5K races for the past four years, as well as donating funds to the CURE Childhood Cancer non-profit research foundation.
“It was a challenge,” said Sarahlyn. “We’re thinking ‘How are we going to have time with a newborn and the demands that come with that and a child with a compromised immune system that causes her to be extra sick and stuck in the hospital?’ But it was a blessing in disguise for us.”
Robert uses Norah as inspiration every time he feels himself slowing on a training session.
Norah and Sarahlyn once took a four-hour ambulance ride from south Georgia up to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta after Norah came down with a high fever, a condition that can be dangerous for children with weakened immune systems.
The response to Robert’s $100,000 challenge has already surprised the Cornett family: All 225 Benchmark clinics nationwide are receiving information on how to donate to the cause, and the Georgia chapter of the LLS recently voted Norah as its Girl of the Year for 2016.
And if what the Cornett family can raise helps a family down the line, that will easily validate all those long nights spent in hospitals, praying for peace.
“This is what we’re supposed to do,” said Robert. “This is just a chapter, to continue serving and hopefully use this story and the influence to benefit the future Norahs.”