ST. CHARLES – Susan Des Roches had not run a competitive race in 16 months until Sept. 17.
Donning purple T-shirts – the color of domestic violence awareness – and promoting a message of hope, "May you always be brave enough to fly," family and friends of Moorea Marguerite Des Roches propelled the deceased 19-year-old's compassionate and vibrant spirit forward with each step.
Mile by mile they ran – carrying her memory through the Fox Valley half marathon, and #TeamMoorea printed on their backs to push them onward.
"We don't have a pulpit to preach from," Susan Des Roches, Moorea's mother, shared via email prior to the race. "We don't have a state senator making speeches on our behalf. But we are here, standing, no, running together, to try to do our part. For women everywhere. And for Moorea."
Moorea, a former St. Charles North High School student and mother of a young son, was found murdered in June 2016. Her boyfriend, Michael G. Kulpin, is accused of the murder, and faces charges of first-degree murder, aggravated domestic battery and concealment of a homicide.
In the seven years prior to her daughter's death, Susan ran 16 marathons, but stopped running in the wake of the tragedy.
Shortly following the incident, Susan's friend, Christine Bastone, heard the story of Elizabeth Gray – A domestic violence survivor, who runs marathons raising awareness regarding the issue and conducts speaking engagements across the United States.
At the time, Gray was involved in a massive contest – over 1,000 entrants – to be featured on the cover of Runner's World magazine. Bastone then contacted Gray on Facebook to share Moorea Des Roches' story.
In Gray's second marriage, her abusive ex-husband laughed at her and told Gray "You'll never be able to run a marathon". A family friend helped inspire her to reach her goal to run one. In March 2012, Gray completed her first marathon. In 2015, she was named to then-South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley's Domestic Violence Task Force.
Gray, a former four-year active duty marine, is now attempting to run 50 marathons in 50 states. To date, she's run 34 marathons in 31 states while representing her self-started "Marathons Against Domestic Violence" campaign. She projects to complete the prestegious task in her hometown of Colorado Springs, Colo., next September and averages two marathons per month.
"I just want to inspire those that are in an unhealthy relationship [to realize] that they can get out," Gray said. "The one thing I really try to always tell people is, 'Hey, you're not stuck in this situation. There's a whole other life out there for you. You just have to reach for it – you have to desire it."
Last year on Labor Day, Gray ran and dedicated a race to Moorea's memory. Gray then made the trip to St. Charles last weekend to race side-by-side with Susan and her team.
"Elizabeth wants me to find my love of running again and to try to keeping moving forward as I struggle with this devastating loss," Des Roches continued. "Neither of those are possible to do when you are going through something like this."
Up until last weekend, Gray hadn't met the Des Roches family in-person, but had been in constant contact with Susan over social media. Gray said she helped connect a friend of hers, who also lost her 19-year-old daughter to a domestic violence incident, with Susan.
Flanked by Gray, family, friends and Moorea's toddler son leading the way, the team crossed the finish line – Susan with her arms outstretched above her head – completing the 13.1 mile race in her daughter's memory in three hours and 12 minutes.
As for what message she'd like to tell others, Susan said: "Don't let this happen to you. It has absolutely crushed our family, and we will never be the same. I don't want anyone to have to go through what Moorea was subjected to, and what we are going through after the fact.
"I want people to realize that domestic violence is everywhere. It can happen to anyone."