Neng Thao didn’t have a chance to run across the finish line at the Two Cities Marathon, a race he participated in as a volunteer. The 18-year-old Edison High School valedictorian drowned while swimming in the San Joaquin River in June, just a week before his high school graduation.
Described by his former teacher and Hmong Club advisor, Cheng Yang, as somebody who “cared for the well-being of all,” Thao had plans to major in political science and pre-med at U.C. Berkeley, and spoke of eventually returning to Fresno and running for mayor. He was already on track for a role in public life, having initially been appointed a member Fresno’s Youth Commission by former mayor Ashley Swearengin in 2016.
It was one of many ways Thao sought to give back to the community, says Yang. While in high school, he says, Thao campaigned against drinking and driving, addressed Fresno Unified’s school board about the need for creating safe spaces for undocumented students, and was an active member of Boys and Men of Color. He mentored younger students and, as president of Edison’s Hmong Club, encouraged fellow members to volunteer at the annual Two Cities Marathon. The club sends a large volunteer contingent to the race each year, making it one of its largest volunteer groups.
“He always looked for something to keep himself occupied,” says Sunshine Thor, an Edison student and current Hmong Club president. “Our club is usually based at the finish line, so [he helped] pass out the rewards and passed out fruit and sundaes.”
Yang, an avid runner who first ran the Two Cities Half in 2015, recalls asking Thao if he was interested in running last year’s race. “I told him that if he was willing to participate in the race, I would sign up with him so we could run together,” he says. “He chuckled and said that his goal was to help ensure everyone finished the race … He said he felt there are too many people in the world competing and not enough people supporting, so this was his way of showing [club] members that life isn’t always a competition.”
But Thao did make his teacher a promise: They would run the half marathon together this year.
Yang will keep that promise. When he toes the starting line on Sunday, he’ll race with two bibs: one for himself, and one bearing Thao’s name.
“Although he is no longer with us, I really need to see this through,” he explains. He approached race organizers with a request to provide a bib and medal for Thao, which he and current Hmong Club members plan to present to his family.
In addition, Hmong Club volunteers have received permission from race organizers to temporarily leave their stations and join Yang on the course as he approaches the finish line. Around 9:20 a.m., spectators can expect to see a mob of up to 100 students — running no more than 5-wide and keeping out of the way of other runners trying to meet time goals — carrying a poster of Thao across the finish line.
“Crossing the finish line with a remembrance of Neng is very important,” says Thor. “This is an accomplishment we’re making for him as his good friends who miss him dearly. It’s been five months, but there hasn’t been one day where we don’t think of him. A lot of the things we do, we always want to do it for someone. I think for most, Neng will come to mind. Everyone in some way was impacted and inspired by him because he truly was a great guy.”