Denver Post: Running the Colfax Marathon to remember a family member, a friend

By Kathleen St. John | May 12, 2015

Several runners make their way in to Huston Lake Park on a training run for the Colfax Marathon. The group is registered to run to honor Peter Ewbank, a teacher who died suddenly. Ewbank also had planned on running the half-marathon. (Kathryn Scott Osler, The Denver Post)

Several runners make their way in to Huston Lake Park on a training run for the Colfax Marathon. The group is registered to run to honor Peter Ewbank, a teacher who died suddenly. Ewbank also had planned on running the half-marathon. (Kathryn Scott Osler, The Denver Post)

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When Peter Ewbank signed up for the Colfax Half Marathon, there was no reason to think he wouldn't see the starting line on May 17.

At 25, Ewbank was an experienced runner who'd completed multiple half-marathons. An eighth-grade English teacher at Denver charter school KIPP Sunshine Peak Academy, he planned to run with his fiancée, Emily Davaney-Graham, and his best friend, Jeff Bandel. All three taught at KIPP Colorado Schools.

And then, suddenly, he was gone.

On Feb. 9, Ewbank visited his doctor with flu-like symptoms. He was sent home. Later, Davaney-Graham and Bandel took him to the emergency room, and within hours Ewbank was on life support.

He never recovered. He died on Feb. 11. His family still doesn't know what happened; an official cause of death has not yet been determined.

Amid their grief, Ewbank's family and friends mobilized. Bandel and Davaney-Graham will still run the Colfax Half in his memory. About 170 KIPP staffers are running to raise money for the school, wearing jerseys with the motto "Work hard. Be nice. Run fast." and "In memory of Peter Ewbank" — in University of Oregon green and gold for Ewbank's' beloved alma mater.

A family marathon relay team coalesced, with Ewbank's younger sister, Molly Ewbank, running the four-mile "Screaming Downhill" leg.

Their tributes extend beyond race day, though. The Ewbank family organized the PEAK Foundation in collaboration with Peter's school to bolster the college-preparedness skills taught in the KIPP curriculum. (The PEAK acronym stands for "Peter Ewbank and KIPP.") The "PEAK Achievers" program for eighth- and ninth-graders is the foundation's first project.

The plan, according to Scott Ewbank, Peter's father, is to continue Peter's work.

"When he died and we were struggling for a focus, we said, 'That's it,' " said Scott. "We're going to pick up Peter's work and carry forward."

Peter developed an interest in the factors that contribute to college graduation while doing Teach for America at a KIPP ("Knowledge is Power Program") school in Tulsa, Okla., and completing a master's degree in education at the University of Oklahoma, said Peter's mother, Tina.

"When Peter worked in Tulsa," said Tina, "he found that kids are very good at getting to college, but found that it was life skills that held the kids back ... (Students) have a lot of structure under them in high school, but what do you do when you get to college?"

"Peter recognized that (issue)," Scott said. "Is it life skills, time management, money management? A lot of these kids are the first in their families to go to college."

The PEAK Foundation created its first class of PEAK Achievers weeks after Peter's death. Sixteen eighth-graders at Sunshine Peak Academy applied to join the extracurricular program that emphasizes the habits needed to complete college — including character traits like perseverance, problem-solving and communication skills — through guest speakers and activities.

"There's been a huge amount of work done in nine weeks," Scott said in April. "A lot of good people and good ideas coming together to make sense of something that was pretty inexplicable."

After completing the 20-week course, Achievers receive a $500 savings bond to apply toward their future post-secondary education. Later, the foundation hopes to award a merit-based scholarship to a graduating Achiever at KIPP Denver Collegiate High School.

"We wanted to give opportunities to kids who were really achievers, and help them financially," said Tina.

Adrian Sanchez, 14, is one of nine eighth-graders accepted to the PEAK Achievers program. Peter Ewbank was his composition teacher.

"Every day when he came to class he always taught with a passion," Sanchez said. "He felt like everyone could do more than we thought we could, and he showed us that every day."

"The program is meant to mold us into really great leaders — for our future, and for us to be able to carry that legacy on to the next generations of the program as well," said Sanchez, referring to the program's requirement that Achievers share their experiences with future members.

Longtime runner

Born and raised in Phoenix, Peter Ewbank found his passion for running early, said his parents. He ran cross-country in junior high school, and continued to run through high school, college and beyond.

"I think he liked the personal competition aspect of the sport," said his sister, Molly, in an e-mail. "He was always trying to beat his previous time with each race he ran. I never ran with Pete because there is no way I could keep up — he was much faster than me!"

Ewbank moved to Denver in 2013, eventually settling in the Washington Park neighborhood with his fiancé, Davaney-Graham, who teaches seventh-grade reading at KIPP Sunshine Peak Academy.

"Peter was one of the kindest and gentlest teachers I've ever met," Davaney-Graham said in an e-mail. "He cared so much about his students and genuinely believed in every one of them."

Outside of school and running, Ewbank enjoyed camping, hiking, snowboarding and home-brewing with his friend Bandel, said Davaney-Graham. He liked to hang at Renegade Brewing Co. and listen to Yonder Mountain String Band, classic rock and an Oklahoma outfit called The Turnpike Troubadours.

Ewbank's family will gather over the Colfax Marathon weekend to remember Peter and celebrate his life, including a post-race party in Washington Park.

"It was just the natural thing to do," Scott Ewbank said. "Denver was his home."

"He was so much fun," said Tina Ewbank. "He was a fantastic person and he surrounded himself with fantastic people, and it's just so evident, in who he chose as a life partner and as his friends.

"He just lifted other people up."