Donna Schulze is on borrowed time.
And that’s OK.
“I’ve had a wonderful life. I’ve been able to do everything I’ve ever dreamed about and help other people,” the 89-year-old says.
Known as the “Lavender Lady of Kilauea,” Schulze has long inspired those around her.
A longtime runner and fitness fanatic, Schulze refuses to give in or let those around her get soft, either. She won’t stand for it.
“Friends would call me up, ‘Donna, I need your help. I need to be motivated,’” Schulze says while sitting in her cozy, comfortable, lavender-colored home. “That’s what my running has done for me, to motivate people to be healthy, to just do it. My running has motivated so many people,” she continues. “People tell me, ‘You got me into running.’ ‘I used to run with you.’ ‘We know you. You’re the running lady.’”
Running lady, indeed.
She has finished 218 races, including four marathons and five half-marathons. She was a fixture for 28 years, in the Haena to Hanalei 8 miler before saying no more.
On a wall in her home hangs a blanket made from shirts of her many races. The Maui Marathon. The Great Aloha Run. Honolulu Marathon. The Sugar Mill Run. The dates stretch back, 10, 20 and 30 years ago.
“Running has given me so much more to do,” she says.
But even for someone committed to health as Donna Schulze, age eventually catches up. The muscles grow weaker. The heart beats slower. The back creaks a bit more in the morning.
That’s all OK. Schulze can handle it. She perseveres with optimism each morning, greeted daily by her loyal dog, Patches.
On April 25, her doctor delivered news that surprised even this forever upbeat woman.
She was diagnosed with aortic stenosis. Schulze pulls out a piece of paper that explains what this means:
“Your aortic valve has a problem opening. The ventricle has to work harder to push the blood through the valve. In some cases, this extra work will make the muscle of the ventricle thicken. In time, the extra work can tire the heart and cause the heart muscle to weaken. This type of stenosis can quickly get worse.”
The doctor put it as gently as he could. But bottomline was this: “This is what you have. There’s no cure for it.”
“That’s what happened to me. I was shocked,” Schulze said. “They can’t operate on me, not for this. I’m too old.”
But she won’t stop doing what she does best, what she was born to do, what she loves to do.
“My job is to motivate people. What I do, I do by example,” she said.
And what she does by example, is live.
“I’ll show you my motto,” she says.
The woman known to some as “Coach Grandma” rises, walks to the corner of the room, and returns holding a rock with words etched on it: “Winners never quit. Quitters never win.”
It was a gift, she says. People are kind enough to often present her with gifts. She treasures each.
She’s been blessed, she says.
“These things keep happening to me all the time. Good things.”
Schulze sits at the table in her home and sorts through pictures, articles, letters, certificates, race numbers and awards. They are decades of recognition for her achievements, a lifetime of stories and photographs are before her.
She casually, but proudly, flips through them.
• Kauai’s outstanding senior woman for 1997
• Aloha Spirit, 1995
• Volunteer of the Year, Kauai YMCA, 1984
• YMCA Professional.
• 50 and over, first place
• Family court volunteer
• #1 Wahine Runner Award
• Presidential sports award, from President Jimmy Carter, June 78 for “Jogging.”
“All these pictures of me in the paper. Everybody knows me,” she says with a shake of her head.
She is proud of her running, and boasts of being last. More glory to last than first, she says.
“The reception is fantastic when you’re the last one,” she says, laughing. “I never had to quit. I’m not a quitter. I don’t mind being last.”
Despite logging thousands of miles, Schulze says her knees are fine. No pain. Ever.
“Nothing, because I never tried to be first,” she said.
Her running career is over, though some have tried to coax her back.
She said that three years ago, the organizers of Haena to Hanalei begged her to return and walk with Patches. She had to, reluctantly, decline.
“I don’t train anymore,” she said. “I’m too slow.”
She displays a newspaper article on the 30th annual Keiki Fun Run, and says it could be coming to an end if another organizer doesn’t step up. Since she was one of the founders of the race, it’s special to her.
“I started this race 30 years ago,” she said.
Patches, a Chihuahua, used to run with her, too.
“Patches is little, but she’s very fast,” Schulze says.
George and Donna
Her husband George stood 6 feet, 7 inches. He was a bus driver for 20 years, a lifetime runner, and a “wonderful ballroom dancer.” His nickname was “Greenbeans.”
Schulze and husband George bought their Kilauea home in 1972 for $44,000.
“For five years, I worked as a YMCA director. All my money went into the bank, to pay this all off in five years. Smartest thing I ever did,” she said.
Donna beams as she tells of running a marathon on Kauai. She had started early with the walkers and was struggling a bit. George, who had trained hard and had hopes for a record race, caught up to her.
When he saw his wife was hurting, rather than push on alone, rather than keep running, he stopped and walked with her.
“We finished hand in hand,” Donna says. “That’s love.”
Such was their love and devotion, she and George were interviewed for the book, “Inner Views: Stories on the Strength of America.”
George, her husband of 36 years, died New Year’s Eve, 2007. Donna still misses him.
Years back, she discovered an essay written by her husband, “My Life Runneth Over.” She found it in an envelope, tucked away in a book, never knew it was there.
“I’ve read it 36 times since he passed away,” she said. “I was in tears.”
She is proud of her family. She walks to the hallway, where a wall is filled with pictures. There is her oldest daughter, Melody. There’s Happy, Jolly, Gay and Honey. Yep, those are their names.
Why such, well, merry titles for each child.
“Because, that’s who I am,” Donna says.
Friends still call Donna and ask, “Will you please motivate me?”
Of course, with a few conditions.
“If you do exactly as I tell you,” she answers.
Open the refrigerator, she says, and get rid of everything you have that’s been in there too long, that’s no good for you. Then, exercise. Run, walk, whatever. Just go. Be committed. Believe in the impossible.
Schulze says she used to have diabetes and high blood pressure. No more. She beat it with exercise, diet and positive thoughts. She played basketball on a senior team right up to her doctor’s diagnosis.
People, Schulze says, are responsible for their lives. There is no trick to good health. No secret.
“Pills and doctors, can’t do everything,” she said.
The Oregon State University graduate was in her 40s when she earned her physical education degree. Some say she was too old and couldn’t, shouldn’t do it.
Donna didn’t listen. She did it. This is a woman, after all, who finished her first marathon when she was 54. Again, people said she couldn’t do it. She did.
“I motivate people to do things, health, fitness, shopping, save money, vacation,” she says.
There was even a book written about her “The Lavender Lady of Kilauea,” by Lori Dill. On the cover, Donna wears, of course, a lavender sweater while holding her best friend, Patches. It is a touching tribute.
On the back is a Bible verse, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” — Philippians 4:13 “The Lord controls my life,” says Schulze, who attends North Shore Christian Church. “I do what he tells me to do.”
So, her days numbered, Donna Schulze will do what she does best, what the Lord tells her: Encourage, motivate, inspire, lead. Not by words only, but actions.
She will, she says, live gracefully for all her days.
“That’s how you face death,” she said.