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Martin Fennelly Columns

Keeping the faith by staying in the race

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Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 04:22 PM
TAMPA -

The wedding party finished in stages. Eventually, everyone waited on the mother of the bride. Lynne Martin, new to this long a running race, was out there, helped along by her sister, Julie, and, of course, by her Michael, in Sunday's half marathon at the Gasparilla Distance Classic.

The bride, Danielle Martin, kissed the groom, Anderson Stinespring, after they crossed the finish line. They'll marry Friday night. Danielle and her Andy, a former youth pastor, are starting a non-profit organization to help fund mission work in Honduras. Danielle smiles, because that's what her father would have loved, that was him all over.

Michael Martin didn't finish Sunday's race. He didn't start it. He was 58 when he died last October -- on his only child's 24th birthday.

"I though about him a lot today," Danielle said. "At the six-mile mark, I just felt him there with me."

Lynne is a first cousin of longtime Gasparilla executive director Susan Harmeling. Yes, Lynne ran with her sister Sunday.

"But Michael was with me," she said.

Michael Martin wasn't a racer, but he put in his three miles every day, dutifully, quietly, even in the days last May before the doctors told him the cancer was back.

Running Sunday were Danielle's two bridesmaids, one a best friend, one a cousin. And there was her cousin the groomsman. There was her uncle and aunt and another best friend. We knew this because they wore lime-colored shirts identifying them. Danielle's shirt said Bride , Andy's said Groom .

The half marathon was a way to celebrate the union.

"And to not think about the other things," Danielle said.

What do you say to a 24-year-old who dreamed of having her father walk her down the aisle?

Running makes Danielle feel closer to her dad more than most anything. Michael had always wanted Lynne, his Lynnie, to run along with him. She wished she had done it more. Sunday, she ran farther than she ever had.

They met while he was working for a hotel chain in Orlando and she was singing with a group that entertained traveling trade shows. Lynne took one look at Charles Michael Martin and told a friend that she was going to marry that guy. They hadn't met yet. Michael told Lynne they were going out no matter what. They just knew.

Michael called their only child Angel Girl, or Monkey, because there were mountaineers who couldn't have scaled a bedroom dresser or bookcase like 3-year-old Danielle.

The Martins live in Longwood, near Orlando. Michael was a successful businessman. He was caring and he was funny and he always listened.

"Anybody who ever came into contact with him would just think he was the kindest human being, so accepting, so genuine," Danielle said. His faith was so strong. He did prison ministry two weeks a night. A former prisoner spoke at Michael's funeral.

The Martins own an art shop in the Orlando area, a co-op for local artists. Michael wanted to do more. He helped people in desperate need in Honduras, which he had visited. His heart was in mission work, medical missions, an orphanage, anything to help.

"He really represented what Christianity should be like," Danielle said.

Michael was diagnosed with colon cancer several years ago, but beat it back. Then came last May: it was in his liver.

Danielle and Andy met last April. Danielle had been doing mission work (imagine that) in Jordan. She was a mission leader and two of the girls she led told her about their youth pastor in Georgia. Later, Andy was in Florida for a wedding and they got together for lunch. And they just knew.

In September, Andy asked Michael and Lynne for Danielle's hand. Michael didn't have much time.

At the very end, everyone prayed that it wouldn't happen on Danielle's birthday. But Michael slipped away in the early evening.

"It was hard and it will always be hard," Danielle said. "But I keep thinking that we got to share the most amazing days of our lives -- I get to celebrate my birthday and he gets to celebrate going home."

She climbed onto her dad's bed a few days before he died. His eyes were closed.

"I told him I wanted him to keep fighting, for him to stick around, but if he ever saw God and felt more like running toward him, I would never blame him and I will always love him."

Michael Martin opened his eyes.

"Monkey, that took a lot of courage," he said.

There'll be a wedding Friday night in Apopka, a wonderful thing, filled with love and life. Sunday, Danielle stood in the bleachers and cheered her mom across the line. You do all you can with joy and what you can with sadness. You keep the faith and stay in the race.

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