Coast to Coast for Cancer Program Director Steve Cannon (left) and Jarred Harkin were presented with the “Million Dollar Mudder” award after a long night of digging the Above + Beyond Cancer van out of the dirt!
I woke this morning on a church floor somewhere in eastern Oregon, exhausted and caked in mud. I’d spent most of the evening before traipsing around the woods in one of the state’s more desolate areas as the sun disappeared and rain trickled down. There was no time or place for feeling sorry for myself – for I had an easy night compared to other team members. And that fact was my fault.
When the program director of the Million-Dollar Marathon, Steve Cannon, laid eyes on the support van last night, I could see him searching his mind for ways in which I could have possibly gotten it lodged in between a fallen tree and thick underbrush, perpendicular to the most precarious of paths and sinking down into a mess of mud. I braced myself for a good scolding. He took the high road and pretended that it was no big deal and assured me that these types of things come with the territory on adventures of this scale. Once he fully assessed the situation, we made eye contact again, and our looks confirmed to one another that this was going to be a long night for some of us. Oh, and by the way Steve, the runner I was attempting to follow into the muddy abyss, which rumor has it is roamed by cougars and bears, yeah, he’s still nowhere to be found.
This seems to be a good place in the story to explore how all this happened. The circumstances can be traced back to North Carolina in the middle of January. As Executive Director of Above + Beyond Cancer, Charlie Wittmack, sat in a cozy chair in Charlotte, his eyes grew wider while he traced the proposed route for this expedition on the screen with his finger. As an adventure athlete himself, the fact that the roads on this particular day of the run were narrow, windy and mountainous seemed like a bonus at the time. But what he and Robert Frost hadn’t taken into account is that on a 4,000-mile, coast-to-coast marathon, sometimes the road less traveled isn’t the most ideal, especially after unusual amounts of heavy rain.
Our crew debated whether or not it was a plus that it was a 30-year-old, experienced local trail runner that had volunteered to complete this section of the course. The one who darted off into the woods on the proposed path before the support vehicle had time to catch up. On one hand, it seemed comforting to know that this runner was properly trained and familiar with these parts. On the other, that’s likely what gave him the confidence to take off down the trail before my wife, Lesley, had the key in the ignition as I was being handed his belongings from the cross-country coach through the window.
It was the last time we’d see the runner. Included in his personal items was his cell phone. All he had were a pair of fast legs and a mental map in mind. All we had was a two-wheel-drive van on a series of unnamed roads that continued to fork at every turn. I took over the wheel because I felt more comfortable driving as quickly as possible down these bumpy paths, and frankly, I was prepared to save the day.
When I got to the point of no return, I made the decision to go further. My only goal at the time was to find the runner before a bear could – not to assess the quality of the roads. And since I was on the correct avenue that Charlie had mapped out, I figured things would turn out all right. The mud would turn to gravel and then pavement. We’d spot the runner in the distance, catch up, offer him an apple and make him promise not to continue on again without support in sight. Maybe we’d even have time to laugh about how wild those roads were over dinner. But none of this happened.
Being the man in charge, Steve took the problem, which was created by an ambitious route-planner, a confident cross-country runner, and the least-skilled support driver this side of the Oregon Trail, and made it his own. He called a rescue team to locate the missing runner and also for a tow-truck as day turned to night. Steve’s right-hand-man on the project, Jared, and my wife Lesley and I waited in suspense in hopes of hearing any good news at all as Steve’s role of program director was growing more serious by the minute. Would the Million-Dollar Marathon come to a crashing halt only a few hundred miles in?
Just as the tow truck arrived on scene, we’d gotten a call informing us that the runner had been found alive and well. What should have taken him an hour or so took over three. The winding woods had gotten the best of him, too. Our support team celebrated on the gravel. The most important issue of all had been resolved. Now it was time to take on the most complicated of our problems – the van I’d driven deeper into the forest than anyone could fathom.
Lesley and I reluctantly left the scene at Steve’s request and caught a ride to town with the tow-truck driver, who decided he needed to switch vehicles and gear after assessing the situation. He was quite curious about the undertaking we’d embarked upon. He seemed to get why a group of cancer survivors and caregivers would want to run 4,000 miles across the entire country. He deeply appreciated the fact that Above + Beyond Cancer was attempting to raise $1 million for cancer research and survivorship programs. He understood how struggles often make a person stronger. But there was one thing he just couldn’t grasp – “But why were you driving down that road again?”
With the loud roar of his truck’s engine and a lack of sleep, I opted to tell him the shorter version – that basically I was an idiot and there was no good reason as far as I could tell. He dropped us at the doorstep of the church, which was graciously putting us up for the night, went on to switch trucks and drive the 30 miles back to Steve and Jared. Lesley and I joined the rest of our marathon team in the communal room. They were fast asleep after an equally long day of running, driving and logistics. Such an intense schedule has been everyone’s life this week. We took our place on the floor and fell off to sleep, covered in guilt and a whole lot of mud.
I dreamt of bears and cougars, darkness and helplessness. I woke wondering what was real versus the storyline of my nightmares. I was informed via text message that the van had in fact been rescued from the woods after 10 hours of winching, wrestling and sweaty, grueling work between Steve, Jared and the tow-truck driver.
I heard that they’d parted ways well after dawn by discussing the endeavor we are undertaking this summer and the meaning behind it all. The tow-truck driver shared that his mother was going through her third round of chemotherapy. He even wrote her name on a flag in tribute to her and placed it into the baton that the runners will carry all the way to the east coast.
Jared explained that the team would be running a long way in their honor, and that in fact the driver had played a major role in the success of the cause. A few tears were shed after an exhausting evening.
Hearing this story made me recall a line I’d once read, written over a century ago. “The cure for anything is salt water – tears, sweat, or the sea.”
Two out of the three of those fell onto the trail late last night. Today our team continues on its quest, accompanied by the names of the many we carry with us along the way, bound for the salty Atlantic in attempt to help find some comfort in the face of all these struggles surrounding us.