Running partners Diane Heffernan and David Kuhn keep pace through philanthropy

By HM Staff

Further. It’s the word Hinsdale resident Diane Heffernan’s husband, Paul, says best describes his wife. “She always takes everything one step further,” he said. “That word will be her epitaph.” It’s true. When it comes to anything relative to the several charities she heavily supports, it never ends. Once she cares, she’ll always care. Meet Diane once and you’ll understand that this is simply who she is. From serving as a Make A Wish granter, to teaching inner city kids to cook, to guiding her blind running partner through marathons, she always goes above and beyond. In keeping with the theme of our issue, read on to understand how one person can influence so many ‘new beginnings’ in those around her. What drives a life like this? Having lost her brother and only sibling, David Hoganson, at the age of 27 to Hodgkin lymphoma, Diane feels that she’s living for two.

His death forced her to take a hard look at life. If there’s an opportunity to help, she’ll take it every time, and likely take it one step further. A lifelong runner, she completed her first marathon in 1991. While that feat was significant, something else she noticed that day stuck with her. She was struck by the athletes with disabilities competing alongside her. “I wondered how people with two prosthetic legs could run such a distance,” she said. “The thought stayed with me.” At the time, Diane did not realize that there were many service organizations throughout the country that assist athletes with disabilities. She began calling local running clubs to offer help guiding blind runners. A brief blurb in a Dick Pond newsletter she happened to see in the winter of 2010 helped her find David Kuhn, a blind runner looking to qualify for the Boston marathon. At that point, Boston had been on her radar as a personal goal of her own. She called David and asked if they could train together for the upcoming Chicago marathon. Unbeknownst to either of them at the time, the phone call marked the beginning of a solid friendship.

The Boston marathon is a lofty goal. Arguably the world’s most famous marathon, the hilly course is difficult. Seasoned marathoners and novices alike fall off at “Heartbreak Hill,” a steep, uphill stretch at the 20-mile marker, but nearly every runner dreams of saying he or she “ran Boston.” Athletes must complete a qualifying marathon within a certain time- determined by gender and age- in the 19 months before the race to be considered for registration. But that’s only the first step. After the registration cut-off, if too many runners have registered, qualifying times may be compared, and only runners with the fastest times in each eligibility group earn the right to run the marathon. The Chicago marathon is used by many Boston hopefuls as “the qualifier,” because it is a flat and fast course. Diane and David took a “try-out” run together in the winter of 2011 on a road near David’s house in DeKalb, to see if Chicago could be a possibility that October. Compatibility of pace is the link to a successful partnership between guide and runner. On their inaugural run that day, Diane held a tether rope knotted at one end and led David, holding the rope at the other end, on a two-mile run.

“Diane is a light in my darkness. I don’t think she has ever had a down day.”

The rest, as they say, is history. Diane held the rope at the Chicago marathon that year and has held it ever since. “Once you get Diane started on something, the trick is to get her to stop,” David laughed. He now has over 50 marathons- and six Iron Men (a marathon, 112-mile bike ride and 2.4-mile swim) competitions- to his name. Three of those medals are from Boston, including 2013, the year of the tragic bombing, and the following year, dubbed “Boston Strong.” David largely credits Diane with these accomplishments. “If not for Diane, Boston never would have happened,” he said, thoughtfully. “I don’t get as aggressive in looking for guides. She reached out to me.” To successfully run a marathon as a blind person, David is typically allowed three guides- one leading with the rope, and two others who act as spotters on either side of him, as they run. The spotters “see out loud” for him, warning other runners of his presence, but also describing the interesting things along the route. Organizations such as Achilles International offer this help at no cost to the runner. Typically, it’s on the volunteer’s own dime.

Usually, it’s not just race-day needs that are addressed, either. A ride from the airport and coordination of equipment and drop off to the runner’s accommodation is often part of the package. The outpour of volunteer support is truly what enables this type of competition for persons with disabilities. “If it hadn’t lost my sight,” David commented, “I never would have been able to see this side of humanity.” Diane and David are deeply dedicated, not only to running, but also to philanthropy. Around the time David began to gradually lose his sight, due to retinal damage from a car accident with a drink driver, he participated in a cross-country triathlon with many blind athletes to raise funds for children with disabilities. A 3,100-mile course saw David riding a bike, running, and swimming from Santa Barbara to New York City.

Diane Heffernan at the 2022 Chicago Marathon

At each stop, a children’s charity received a gift of funds. Spending two months with blind athletes afforded David the opportunity to gain knowledge for handling his impending blindness. Simultaneously, he helped a variety of charities. He also regularly raises money for Cystic Fibrosis, a disorder which afflicts his granddaughter. For her part, Diane’s generosity of time guiding blind runners was not her first philanthropic endeavor. A trained chef from Culinary Institute of America, Diane volunteered for years with Common Threads, an organization that focuses on teaching inner city kids to cook and eat healthy food. From helping them plant produce gardens, to distributing cookbooks to the students, to teaching the ins-and-outs of knife safety, she taught and fundraised for the non-profit. She also serves the Make a Wish foundation as a which granter, a role in which volunteers get to know the families of sick children.

The responsibilities of helping a child define his or her wish, planning events up to the wish delivery and fundraising to make the wish possible are in the hands of the wish granter. “I wrap my arms around the families of my wish kids,” she said. She often keeps in touch with family members after the inevitable. For years, Diane and husband Paul have served as mentors for Jane, a victim of human trafficking from Zambia, whom they came to know through a soccer program they started at an inner-city high school for girls. “I get a lot of inspiration from Jane,” said Diane. “She has overcome so much.” Still close, she now runs with Diane, having guided David at the Chicago marathon a few years ago. Some things come full circle. Jane, along with Diane, will likely have many more opportunities to guide David, who has no plans to retire. Now approaching 70, he is getting faster! “I only have three Boston medals,” he laughed. “But I have four grandchildren, so I need one more.” For faithful guide Diane, that’s reassurance that nothing will change anytime soon. And she’s happy about it.

*Photos provided by Diane Heffernan