By Tom Held Special to Published Feb 15, 2013 at 9:02 AM

Gael Garbarino Cullen will share a sacred time Saturday morning, with extended family and nearly 1,000 strangers helping to fight the heart disease that killed her husband, his father and two of his brothers.

Nearly 18 years have passed since Steve Cullen died of a heart attack, at age 40, leaving behind a wife, four daughters and promising political career. It’s likely few of the runners who turn out for the Steve Cullen Healthy Hearts Club Run know of his family story, or the significance of their contribution.

Their efforts and their money support cardiovascular research at the Medical College of Wisconsin. Over 16 years, the Cullen Run has generated more than $250,000 for that research, including the work being done by Dr. Ulrich Broeckel.

An associate director of the Children’s Research Institute, Broeckel has identified specific genetic markers that place otherwise healthy individuals at high risk of heart attacks, people like Tim, Paul and Steve Cullen, who all died before turning 55, like their father.

"What Gael does is an example of how you take a tragedy and turn it into a positive," Broeckel said. "There are a number of runs out there, but this is a wonderful example of how someone becomes active in the community and makes a difference."

The Cullen Run contributions for research are relatively small, compared the millions in grants awarded to large studies funded by the National Institutes of Health. The seed money is vital, though, to support the pilot projects that lead to remarkable discoveries.

"You need someone like Gael who understands the value of supporting early research," Broeckel said.

The results and the support have been gratifying and somewhat surprising for Garbarino Cullen.

Her brother-in-law David, a former legislator and current county supervisor, suggested the first tribute run in January 1996, to coincide with Steve Cullen’s birthday. More than 150 joined the family for that first cold outing, and the numbers have grown steadily since.

The family still plays a key role, cooks chili for nearly 1,000, helps organize the event and reminds people how heart disease can devastate wives, siblings and children.

"We’re doing it for families like ours," Garbarino Cullen said this week. "We’re putting dollars directly into the researchers’ hands, and they’re doing some amazing things. That’s rewarding in and of itself for me and my extended family.

"It’s kind of a cool thing to have the legacy of this run and walk and to have it as something that my four daughters can see as something we do to give back in the memory of their father. It has become a sacred kind of time for the Cullen families."

Sign up: The 17th annual Steve Cullen Healthy Hearts Club Run is Saturday and starts at 10 a.m. in the Underwood Parkway, Wauwatosa, outside the Wil-0-Way Clubhouse. Registration costs $30 for the 8K run and 2-mile walk, and opens at 8:45 a.m., inside the clubhouse.

Tom Held Special to

Memories of running cross-country for the Slinger Owls motivated Tom Held to get his body moving again when he turned 30. Almost two decades later, he's still on the move. The 49-year-old bikes, runs and skis, and covers news for similarly active people as a freelance writer and blogger.

He spent 26 years as a daily news reporter, and applies that experience to dig out stories about athletes, races, endurance sports, fitness and self-propelled transportation. His work has appeared in Silent Sports Magazine, Wisconsin Trails and Cross-Country Skier.

Held lives in the Bay View neighborhood, where he counts being Dad to twin daughters part of his daily workout.