Boston Strong: Team MR8 named for 8-year-old Martin Richard, the youngest victim of 2013 bombing

NAPLES, Fla. - The Boston Marathon has meant more to Fran Fidler than he can put into words.

Now the 58-year-old Naples, Fla., personal trainer is using his hometown race to give back to others.

As a kid, Fidler spent the third Monday of April on the corner of Newberry and Hereford streets in Boston, watching the famed race half a mile from the finish. In high school, he jumped into the marathon without registering, the first of several times competing as a “bandit” runner.

Officially, Fidler has run Boston about five times, though he doesn’t know the exact count. He’ll do it again Monday after spending the past three months raising money for the charity formed in honor of the youngest victim of last year’s bombing.

Fidler is a member of Team MR8, named for 8-year-old Martin Richard, the only child among three people killed when a bomb went off near the finish line a year ago.

“I’ve tried to jump in and really just be supportive,” Fidler said. “I really wanted to let the (Richard) family know that there’s help just outside of prayer and well wishes.”

RELAYING MARTIN’S MESSAGE

Fidler and his wife, Gina, are running for Martin, but their fundraising will help countless other children. Team MR8 is dedicated to improving communities through education and athletics.

The goal is to teach Martin’s message “No more hurting people — Peace” in schools. The foundation also aims to create and improve athletic opportunities for the physically handicapped. Jane Richard, Martin’s younger sister who is now 8, lost her left leg in last year’s bombing.

Bill and Denise Richard, Martin and Jane’s parents, also were injured in the blast. Bill has had two operations to repair blown eardrums, and Denise is now blind in her right eye.

As of Wednesday evening, the day before the Fidlers left for Boston, the couple had raised $12,063 for Team MR8. A majority of the money came from Naples, Fla.,-area donors. Collectively, Team MR8 had raised $953,105 and expected the total to be well over $1 million by race day.

Runners had to fill out an 11-page application to join Team MR8, and almost 300 people applied. Of the 72 members, 50 are from Massachusetts, and only six are from outside the Northeastern portion of the United States.

The Fidlers haven’t let distance stop them from providing personal support. They’ve been to several team events in Boston, where Fran’s son, Sam, attends law school.

Three weeks ago, Fran participated in the filming of an ESPN documentary about the anniversary of the Boston bombings. The footage, which aired this week, shows Fidler running alongside about 20 Team MR8 members with the names of survivors written on their arms and legs.

The Richards are not doing media interviews. Family spokesman Larry Marchese has seen how much the Fidlers have meant to the team.

“There are challenges a foundation faces when you have to do things from a distance,” Marchese said. “That hasn’t been an issue with Fran. He’s been very present, engaged, and very popular among teammates.

“It’s been wonderful for the Richards to watch the runners come together. A lot of friendships have formed. Fran has been at the center of a lot of those friendships.”

CELEBRATION OUT OF TERROR

The Fidlers are so dedicated because they saw the horrors of the Boston bombing firsthand.

Gina Fidler was about four miles away from the finish line at last year’s Boston Marathon when police abruptly barricaded the road. Fran, who was recovering from knee surgery six months prior, and Sam were there watching, and started getting calls from friends asking about their well-being.

The Fidlers were ushered into nearby St. Ignatius Church on Boston College’s campus for safety. The family stayed for three hours while the scene was cleared. They worried about their friends, Dan and Jill Burzynski, a Naples couple who accompanied the Fidlers to Boston.

As the chaos settled, the Fidlers found the Burzynskis. No one was harmed. A year later, all five Naples residents, as well as Sam Fidler, have returned to the race.

“For me, I really wanted to come back and treat it like a celebration of the human spirit and resilience, especially of this family,” Gina Fidler, 44, said. “You see a picture of Martin, an adorable kid, and you see the picture of his sister with only one leg still being able to smile — how can you not run for that charity?”

Fran Fidler is thrilled to use something he loves — running — for good. Athletics have been a huge part of Fidler’s life since he was a kid. Growing up he had a severe speech impediment, and sports gave him confidence. The athletic field was a place where he didn’t need to communicate verbally.

Fidler swam in high school, and hoped to make the 1980 U.S. Olympic team in the sport. When that didn’t work out, he took to running. He ran his first triathlon in 1982.

After moving to Naples in 1986, Fidler could train year-round. Since then, he’s run in some of the country’s biggest marathons — Chicago, Boston, New York, San Diego — and done Ironman Triathlons from Hawaii to Ireland. Fidler has been a trainer at Briggs Wellness Center, part of NCH Healthcare System, since 1996.

Fidler also met his wife through running. He and Gina joined the same team during a relay race in 2007, and were married a year later. While they dated, Fran rode his bike from Naples to Sanibel Island to visit Gina at work.

Gina Fidler isn’t a veteran marathoner like her husband. Last year’s Boston Marathon was just her second 26.2-mile race. Monday’s race will be only the third time she’s attempted the distance.

Finishing times don’t matter to the Fidlers come Monday, which will be the 118th running of the world’s oldest annual marathon. The couple is running solely for a cause, Team MR8, and the Fidlers have been taken aback by the support 1,500 miles away in Naples.

Ninety-three people have donated to Team MR8 through the Fidlers. Ten of them donated more than $100, Fran said, including a $2,500 donation from a friend who wished to remain anonymous.

“I really wanted the Naples community to be represented because we have a lot of great athletes here.” Fran Fidler said. “The amount of local runners who have come out to support Team MR8, it’s really been incredible. I’m really humbled by so many people wanting to help out.”​

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