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Daughter Runs Marathon To Commemorate Slain Mother's 70th Birthday


Back in 2003, a stranger shot and killed Nancy Dunning in the doorway of her home in Alexandria, Va., a suburb of Washington, D.C. It took more than a decade to solve the case. Eventually, a conspiracy theorist with mental health problems was convicted of that murder and two others. This Saturday would have been Nancy Dunning's 70th birthday. And when her adult daughter Liz thought about how to acknowledge that moment, she decided to run a marathon on that day. Liz has been raising money for a gun control group and blogging about her physical and emotional preparation for this weekend's run.

When she came into our studio today, I asked about the last time she ran a marathon, 26 years ago, when her mother was there to cheer her on.

LIZ DUNNING: My mom was this tiny person. I mean, she was 5'2", 5'1". And I saw her four times on the course somehow. And she would pop out of, like, nowhere with orange slices in a little bag and she would say, go, Lizzie, run. And then she would disappear again. And so run, Lizzie, run is what I heard from her throughout the whole course. And then she was magically also at the finish line. So when I thought about running another marathon, it was really hard to imagine doing it without her here. So I thought, well, maybe I could have everybody else say run, Lizzie, run. And that doesn't make up for it, but it's a different kind of connection.

SHAPIRO: People find different ways of dealing with grief. And I know that running has always been part of the way you have processed what you went through. Can you tell me about how that has helped you?

DUNNING: Well, I've always - so I joke with my 7-year-old, who's becoming a runner, that I've always used running to manage my big feelings. And it gives - gets me out of the house. It gives me a little bit of space and a little bit of kind of privacy to think about things that don't occur to you when you are working full time or trying to catch the bus or making a sandwich. And this isn't a story that I'm ready to tell my kids yet. So I need a little bit of private space to talk about it and - or...

SHAPIRO: With yourself, you mean.

DUNNING: ...To think about it. Yeah. I started writing about it because the first run I did after I made this plan, everything felt different. I've always used it to manage my big feelings. But when it was - when I was doing this for her it was all of a sudden oh, boy, I hadn't thought about that in a while and, oh, my gosh, I'm remembering what it was like the day she was killed. Or I'm thinking about a weird moment in the trial, which was, you know, a month long. And it occurred to me very quickly that I needed to practice that thinking, too, (laughter) or I'd be in real trouble at mile 14 or whatever.

SHAPIRO: I know this race is your mother's birthday.


SHAPIRO: And it's in your mother's honor.


SHAPIRO: Your father was devastated by her death.

DUNNING: He was.

SHAPIRO: And for many years, he was under a cloud of suspicion.

DUNNING: That's right.

SHAPIRO: And he died before his name was cleared.

DUNNING: He was - yeah, he did.

SHAPIRO: And so where will your father be in your thoughts this week?

DUNNING: Oh, front and center. I mean, my - both of my parents and definitely my dad, you know, always sort of said, well, just do your best and the rest will take care of itself, and trust yourself. And I relied on that advice when my mom was killed. And I relied on that advice when my dad died. And they'll be with me. I know that for sure.

SHAPIRO: It does seem like your mother's murder and the suspicion and the trial all played out in the public eye.

DUNNING: They did.

SHAPIRO: And this is an event where you have sort of taken control of the public nature of this and created a community that is engaging with you on it rather than just putting you under a microscope...


SHAPIRO: ...About it.

DUNNING: Yes. I couldn't have said that better myself. And that's been really important to do. And it's also been really important, at the same time, to keep some little parts private. I mean, I've had friends that have said, I'll hop on and I'll run with you and I - which was a awesome thing to offer. But I've said, no, no, no, I want to run it myself. I want to, you know, be connected and - but I want to have that practice, just like all of the training runs. You know, that's also - that's also me with my folks. And so keeping a little bit for myself but at the same time really getting to decide how I talk about it and how I share it has been really energizing and really empowering.

SHAPIRO: Liz Dunning is running the Rock 'n' Roll Marathon here in Washington, D.C., this Saturday, which would have been her mother's 70th birthday. We'll be cheering you on. Thanks for coming in.

DUNNING: Thank you.