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Year later, family, friends remember late college cross-country runner

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In the distance, Jenna Parlette could see the finish line.

Running hard through Johnson County Park, the cross-country athlete from Wilmington College was about to win her first ever collegiate race.

But just a few yards from the finish, she stumbled and fell. She would never regain consciousness and died three days later.

One year after Parlette’s tragic collapse and death, Franklin College will again host more than 100 runners from all over the Midwest for the Grizzly Invitational. A small piece of that event will honor Parlette’s memory.

The college cross-country runners will try to treat the competition like any other race. But for those who were on the course with Parlette last year and the people who knew her, it will be impossible not to think about her. Organizers and Parlette’s family want to keep the focus on the race, but everyone will gather afterward to honor her.

“It’s going to be bittersweet, but I’m so grateful to be part of this community,” said Lisa Parlette, Jenna’s mother. “Everyone from the Franklin College team to the people at (Johnson Memorial Hospital), they’re family now. I feel like Jenna keeps giving me gifts.”

Those involved with organizing the meet struggled to find a way to honor Jenna Parlette at the race this year. The perfect idea came from her mother.

As runners finish the race this weekend, they’ll find a bin filled with apples.

Jenna Parlette used to eat one each day, part of her regular routine. So her mother is buying 200 apples to have ready for the runners when they finish.

“I felt that was kind of representative of being a runner, of having to go out and do it every day even if you didn’t feel like it,” Lisa Parlette said. “That attitude is a gift that we can all share in and have.”

Everyone will gather around for a small moment to remember Jenna Parlette, a 20-year-old junior from Miamisburg, Ohio. She was upbeat, positive and funny, often singing even though she couldn’t carry a tune, her mother said.

A longtime runner, she excelled at long-distance races. But it wasn’t competition that kept her pounding out miles.

“She loved running, but she loved being part of a team more,” Lisa Parlette said.

Throughout her life, Jenna Parlette had dealt with epilepsy and an irregular heartbeat. After collapsing during a race in 2008, she had a defibrillator and pacemaker surgically implanted.

The equipment controlled the condition and allowed her to race. It led to a motto that she lived her life by: “You run with your legs, but you win with your heart.”

On Aug. 29, 2013, the day she collapsed during the race, it was believed that she suffered a grand mal or tonic-clonic seizure. But tests revealed that Jenna Parlette suffered from mitochondrial disease. Her body couldn’t produce the fuel needed to keep her moving, lactic acid built up in her system, and her organs started to fail.

The tragedy is still fresh in the minds of everyone who was there.

“It doesn’t feel like it was a year ago. It feels like it was 10 years ago,” said Paul Sargent, cross-country coach at Franklin College.

For Franklin College’s team, it was difficult to see one of their competitors — someone so similar to them — die, Sargent said. The team all visited Jenna Parlette at Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital in Indianapolis, where she was taken after initially being treated at Johnson Memorial.

The members were waiting when Lisa Parlette learned that neurologists couldn’t do anything for her daughter and that she would die. At her lowest moment, when Lisa Parlette said the world had turned black and gray, she agreed to meet the team.

Walking through the doors and seeing those young people instantly provided a lift, she said.

“It was a like a breath of fresh air. All of the color returned to the world,” Lisa Parlette said.

The Franklin College team hasn’t talked much about Jenna Parlette leading up to the meet. The focus has been on running and competing, Sargent said.

But they discussed her during the summer. Sargent talked with Ron Combs, the head coach at Wilmington, about a way to honor Jenna Parlette.

“We thought that drawing any attention prior to competition was not what we wanted to do,” Sargent said. “But we wanted to make sure we remembered that legacy.”

Everyone agreed on the small shows of support after the race — the apple barrel, the photograph and a celebration together.

The race this year has moved locations, being run at Shelbyville’s Big Blue Memorial Park. The course is specifically designed for cross-country runners and is considered one of the top routes to run in central Indiana, Sargent said.

Lisa Parlette is excited to see the new location, but more important will be getting to see all of the people who have maintained a show of support over the past year.

In the aftermath of tragedy, Lisa Parlette has found support among the different players thrust together through her daughter’s death. She stays in regular contact with Sargent and talks with the nurses and staff at Johnson Memorial Hospital who initially cared for Jenna Parlette.

She and her parents will make the trip to Shelbyville to see everyone together.

Doctors say that the mitochondrial disease affecting Jenna Parlette was not made worse by all of the running that she did. The activity may have helped her live longer, Lisa Parlette said.

“One of the last things Jenna tweeted was, ‘Life is too short to be anyone else.’ That was exactly how Jenna thought,” Lisa Parlette said. “She was a runner, and that’s what she loved to do.”

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