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Sunburst runner keeps her promise, carries on her sister’s legacy

Dominique Armstrong and her sister Cheri.

Dominique Armstrong started running several years ago to keep up with her kids.

Over and over they would ask her to play freeze tag, insist that she join backyard soccer games and plead with her to race them. It took an incredible amount of stamina to keep up, so she decided to take up running, something she hadn’t done since middle school track.

An obstacle run led to a 5K, and the 5K led to a 10K, and more races followed.

“What I like about running is how you get to see what you’re capable of and that helps you build confidence,” the 31-year-old South Bend woman says. “There’s something about becoming part of the running community and the feeling of having so many supporters all around you.”

But no supporter meant more to her than her big sister Cheri.

A few years apart in age, the sisters spent much of their lives leading fairly separate lives. What brought them closer together was the 2019 Sunburst Races.

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Cheri’s personality was larger than life.

She was sassy, fun-loving and adventurous. She was also artsy, creative and loved to read. She believed in living life to its fullest, always wanting to make others smile or laugh. “She took being a mom to a new level. All the kids in the neighborhood loved her and were always at her house,” Dominique says. “She was so loving and intelligent, too. A kind soul. Someone you wanted to be around for their pure, good energy.”

But the 51-year-old Elkhart wife, mom and sister also had a weight problem and pancreatic cancer.

After the doctors told Cheri she had to lose weight, she decided to join Dominique at the Sunburst. She entered the 5K and walked the 3.2-mile course.

It brought true joy to Dominique.

“It made me realize how many walkers don’t think they are on the same level as a runner,” Dominique says. “My sister struggled to get herself out there for so many years, to believe in herself enough that she could do it. And she did it. To witness that, I was so proud of her.”

This was also the first time these sisters shared something special together.

“We never had a lot of time to hang out together because of our age difference, but we had this. This was ours.”

After the 2020 race was canceled because of COVID, Cheri planned on and looked forward to running in the 2021 Sunburst. She looked forward to spending more time training.

Then she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Despite chemo and the complex Whipple procedure, her cancer metastasized into her abdomen. Dominique held onto hope, but Cheri never had the chance to reach her goal of running again. She went into hospice care and spent her last days at home with her family.

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Two nights before the 2021 Sunburst, Dominique went over to her sister’s house. The family gathered around her bedside to say their good-byes.

At one of the toughest moments of her life, Dominique made a promise to Cheri. She promised her sister that for as long as she can run or walk, she will participate in the Sunburst every year for the rest of her life – in Cheri’s honor.

Cheri started crying, and she leaned forward and gave Dominique a big hug.

“I wanted to let her know how important she was to me, and I know how much it meant to her. I wanted her to know I’d carry this on for her, that she was leaving a legacy.”

Cheri couldn’t speak, so she mouthed the words ‘thank you’ and ‘love you.’

The next morning, Cheri died.

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Dominique arrived about 15 minutes late for Friday’s packet pickup.

She wanted to keep her commitment to volunteer and hand out T-shirts and bibs and maps to her fellow runners. There was nowhere else she would rather be than with her friends in the running community, even though her sister had passed that morning.

“She wouldn’t have wanted me to miss it,” Dominique says. “I committed to helping out and didn’t want to let anyone down. Everyone was so overwhelmingly kind to me that day.”

Early Saturday, Dominique joined the throngs of runners at the starting line.

But instead of a race shirt or running tank, Dominique wore a special T-shirt with hearts and butterflies that read, “Heaven loved my sister so much that they made her an angel.”

Several other 10K runners sidled up beside her on the course to say they were sorry and let her know “she’s looking down on you.” The kindness meant everything. “It took me everything not to cry, but I held it together the entire way and just tried to keep smiling for Cheri. That day felt very surreal.”

As she crossed the finish line, Dominique raised her hand toward the sky, a smile on her face.

“We did it, sis, we did it,” she said softly.

Moments later, overcome with emotion, she wept.

“It felt overwhelming. I can’t put the experience into words, and how much it made me smile to finish for her on a day filled with so much sorrow,” Dominique says.

Cheri had told Dominique many times how proud she was that she was running.

“I think she’s looking down just happy and grateful to see how much people loved her and always will,” she said. “I think she would be elated to know that I carry her with me every time I run the Sunburst.”

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The countdown to race day is on. If you want to participate in the 5K fitness walk, 5K run, 10K run or Half Marathon, click here for more information or to register for the Saturday, June 3rd event.

Click here for more information about how to volunteer and help us on race day.