Seven Miles with Kelcey Harrison
“Of course,” I replied, “I’d run slow too if I had to cover 30 miles a day.”
I was texting with Kelcey Harrison, outlining the details of our meet-up tomorrow morning. Kelcey left NYC two days before with the goal of running 3,500 miles to San Francisco to raise awareness for lung cancer. She’s doing it for her childhood friend, Jill Costello, who passed away in 2010 at age 22, less than a year after being diagnosed.
Kelcey’s story tore me out of my seat when I first read about it in Katie Couric’s tweets. It was a completely selfless act to honor the memory of a lifelong friend, fellow athlete and fighter. It was brave and enormous and naïve enough to permit most people to talk themselves out of it. It would’ve been easy to say But what about work or family or that trip I want to take?
I sent an email to Kelcey that afternoon: Can I join you for a run?
Of course, I should’ve read deeper into her web site before meeting her in Annandale, NJ the next morning. Because then I would’ve known she played soccer for 3 years at Harvard and ran the Boston Marathon in March 2010, finishing in a blistering fast 3:39.
As we galloped off at around 6.5 mph on Kelcey’s third day of 30-milers, I prayed that I’d be able to keep up.
“So how are you feeling?” I ventured.
“I’m good,” she said and meant it. “Quads are a little tight.”
I learned that Kelcey started running when she was in high school and has completed the Phoenix, Boston and San Francisco Marathons in the past 2 years. Since deciding 6 months ago to run for Jill, she’d been putting in some long training runs. Forrest Gump kind of runs.
“How did people react when you told them about your idea to run across the country?”
“I texted my sister,” Kelcey begins, “and asked if she thought the idea was bat sh*t crazy or kind of crazy cool. She mulled this over for a while and said, I think it’s kind of crazy cool.”
“Did anyone want to do the run with you?” I asked.
“Nope. Not the whole thing. Just parts of it.”
“Did you consult any doctors to see if you could sustain 30 miles a day for 4 months?”
“Yeah, obviously they said it’s not a good idea and your body’s not meant to do that, but it really didn’t matter what they said because once I had the thought I was committed to doing it.”
Kelcey is nonchalant about what she’s doing. She likes to run. She doesn’t acknowledge the magnitude of her journey, the money she’s raised ($109K), the people she’ll meet, or the lives she’ll impact.
“What does running do for you?” I want to know.
“It makes me happy. I feel elated after a run. More confident and friendly. If I don’t go to the gym for a couple days, I get cranky.”
“That’s not to say I always want to run. There are days when I don’t feel good or I’m tired and I want to stop. But I feel most content when I run. Strong and capable. That was the way it was for Jill with crew.”
Jill was the coxswain for the varsity crew team at Cal Berkeley. That’s the person that sits at the front of the boat, figurehead-like, and keeps the 8-person team pulling together. While undergoing aggressive chemotherapy, Jill led her team to a first place victory at the PAC-10. There’s a great Sports Illustrated story about it.
I thought about the days I didn’t feel like running, when I willed my body to keep going and it responded. Illness robs us of those capabilities. Your body inexplicably stops working. There are those that want to but can’t, so I promised myself that as long as I can, I’ll get my butt out of bed.
You would think that illness weighs on athletes the heaviest, because they have the steepest fall from peak form. Kelcey and I agree that it’s just the opposite. Athletes know pain. Training often involves zeroing in on a weakness and chipping away at it. There’s a relentless motivation to overcome and emerge stronger.
Kelcey comments, “There was times when we thought: Hey, Jill looks good. She keeps showing up for practice. She’s going to get better and everything will be okay.”
“When was the last time you saw Jill?”
“I saw her throughout the last month, to the final weeks when she was in the hospice. I was back in San Francisco after graduation. Jill had just graduated too. It was a very bittersweet time. Here we were with the world in front of us…” Her voice trails off and begins again.
“My father is a surgeon so he had been in touch with Jill’s doctors all along and one night we were sitting around the table and he started: Jill… And I said, It’s bad, isn’t it?” Yes.
“What did you say to Jill on the days that she was down?” I ask quickly so we’re not left to dwell in an unhappy place.
“Jill didn’t have too many down days. If there were, she kept them very private. She wanted to be strong for us. Crew gave her a sense of purpose and resolve. Something to focus her attention on. Jill never had to say, I quit. That’s how I know I can do this, because she never quit.”
One of my favorite friends, Johanna Skilling told me about B.J. Fogg’s concept of micro-behavior: The idea that big behavioral shifts must be achieved thru smaller actions. If you want to lose weight, first set your sneakers by the bed. The next day put them on. The next day make a date with the neighbor to go to the gym. Small steps, big results.
I remember my sister, Laurie’s high school yearbook quote: “The cure for anything is salt water—sweat, tears, or the sea.”
I close my eyes and see my new friend running alongside 18-wheelers on a rainy stretch of Route 78. Maybe everything would be okay if we just went for a run.
For more information on The Great Lung Run, visit www.thegreatlungrun.com. Although lung cancer is the #1 cancer killer, its survival rate (15.5%) hasn’t changed in the past 40 years because of the stigma attached to it. People think it’s a smoker’s disease.
Jill never smoked. She was a healthy young woman with no family history of lung cancer. Every year, there are 21,000 women like Jill. The time they have left after diagnosis is measured in months, not years.
You can get involved in a number of ways, by running with Kelcey, sponsoring a place to stay along her route, or making a donation in Jill’s name. All proceeds go to Jill’s Legacy, an Advisory Board to the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation.
Follow Kelcey’s progress via her blog.