There is a long-practiced misunderstanding about running: the belief is that people run from things, or that running is a physical embodiment of the desire to be separated from someone or something. The sport is one of solidarity. When you run, you depend on only yourself—there is no team to save your rebound, no coach to guide you from the sidelines, and no ball to direct you onward when things get hard. And the further you run, the harder it gets. The sport requires you to feel it in every fiber of yourself: from the impact of the ground spreading up through the soles of your feet into your shins, to the way your lungs and arms ache from the constant pumping needed to keep you going. According to some people, runners are crazy for putting themselves through such a taxing activity. Some people can’t understand what drives people to endure the extreme.
For Boston College senior, Joe McConaughy, A&S, running takes on a whole new meaning: he is not running from anything, but towards making an impact; he is not separating himself from anything, but bringing people together. This summer, Joe is going to pursue the extreme by running the entirety of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), all 2,650 miles of it, in under 59 days. For those of you unfamiliar with the PCT, it spans the west coast from the California-Mexico border, continues through California, Oregon and Washington before finishing in Washington’s Manning Park. Joe will be starting in Campo, Calif., and his run will take him through seven different major mountain ranges, through unpredictable weather ranging from snow to severe droughts—leaving him without the streams that will otherwise be the source of his water—through obstacles common to California, like extreme heat and dehydration, and up into altitudes ranging from sea level to 13,000 feet. If it sounds crazy, it is, and Joe admits it (kinda).
But, if anyone can do it, I would place my bets on Joe. Since he was young, growing up in Seattle, Joe has been a passionate runner, outdoor explorer and adventurer. His decision to traverse the country for college is reflective of his nature, “You can go anywhere for four years, why not make it an adventure?” At BC, Joe has continued his sense of adventure by continuously pushing himself—as a double major in English and Economics, he is also finishing up a minor in German by overloading for a third consecutive semester, and has been working on applications to be a Fulbright scholar with his eyes set on a teaching program in either Austria or Germany. Additionally, Joe runs cross country and track for BC with people he describes as some of the best BC has to offer. He volunteers through the Student Athletes Activities Council and combines his passion for working to help children with his possible teaching career by volunteering with a pen-pal program at a local, underprivileged Boston elementary school. With all of this on his plate, Joe has a lot going on.
All of these pieces of his life have shaped Joe into the perfect candidate to take on the PCT. An Eagle Scout, seasoned hiker, dedicated runner and self-described “big wild man,” Joe is physically trained for the task. What is even more impressive is how much Joe has researched the land and trail. He shows me carefully studied maps (the trail is so expansive it divides into 28 maps, each map around 13 pages long) and explains how to tell where water sources are, what mountain ranges are at which altitudes and where he’ll be able to meet up with Jordan Hamm, Joe’s close friend and a BC’13 grad, who will be assisting him on his journey. As Joe runs, Jordan will be following the trail by taking close by roads so that if anything goes wrong, Joe will have someone there for medical assistance. The two will go anywhere from one to four days at a time without contact, depending on Joe’s mileage per day, so both will have phones programmed with a constant GPS tracking device for safety. Jordan is also an experienced long-distance runner, and lovingly described by Joe as “the track captain from last year who’s incredibly controlled and a really fun guy to be around.” Joe explains to me that Jordan will serve as a strong source of encouragement—an essential trait for his companion- since Joe will be going 59 days almost entirely in solitude, except for when Jordan meets him at the end of the day to exchange Joe’s day pack (food, water, first aid) for his night pack (first aid, water, 1-pound tent for sleeping along the trail).
Despite how well educated Joe is about the logistics of his remarkable goal, I ask him how he’ll actually do it. Almost two months of isolated and intense physical endurance is a difficult task, regardless of how well prepared a person is. Joe’s smiling face softens, and his excitement shifts into an indescribable passion that I can feel from across the Hillside table. Joe tells me that his mental motivation is what has to be the strongest:
“I can idealize as much as I want that it will be beautiful, rewarding, satisfying, that everything I’m doing is for good, but the truth is, yeah, a lot of it is going to be lonely, solitary, and hazardous. How do you prepare for running 45 miles every day? How do you prepare for seeing only one or two people and not showering for two months? How do you prepare for aching muscles, torn joints, lost toenails, and overcoming everything physical? In two months there is going to be so much to overcome. A lot of it is thinking about why am I doing this.”
Joe is doing it for Colin.
As he describes to me his incredibly intimate and undeniably strong motivation, something crazy happens. Joe explains that a man named Sam Fox once ran the PCT to raise money for Parkinson’s disease. Although he was unable to break the record due to wildfires that broke out along the trail, he did end up raising $150,000 for his cause. When Joe’s cousin’s two-year old son, Colin, passed away from a rare cancer found in young children called Neuroblastoma, Joe and his family were left in a whirlwind of tragedy, heartbreak and confusion. Colin had not been holding down his food, and his parents took him to the doctor, concerned he had the flu. When the doctors diagnosed Colin, Joe’s family learned that Neuroblastoma was an incredibly aggressive form of cancer that not many people have heard of. Nine days after the diagnosis, Colin passed away. As Joe describes hearing the news while on a service trip in New Orleans, I can hear the heartbreak in his voice. He describes to me how much Colin means to his entire family, how devastated and broken his cousin was, and because of how rapidly everything happened, how surreal it all felt.
Joe is running for Colin. His motivation is to spread a message of familial love and recognition; he wants people to realize what Colin means to them, and what family means. “Losing Colin was the most tragic thing to happen to my family. It has had an incredible impact on all of us. Tragedy makes you really look into your core values and try to understand what family means to you. In doing this run, I want people to hear Colin’s story and look at how they see their own families. By doing that, Colin’s legacy of love will live on. That’s the biggest goal of the trip. The other stuff, the publicity, the record—all of that is just used to broaden the impact of Colin. My ideal is to have someone read our story, and say “I love you” to all the people who they mean it to, to stop taking people for granted, whether it’s in the hallway, in their families, or at home.”
Joe’s desire to make something of himself and make an impact on the world is inspiring. As he describes to me that, after reading about Sam, he became filled with the urge to reflect on his upcoming venture, I can physically feel myself being pulled into his story, into Colin’s story. “I want to reflect on: What have I done to make the people around me better? What have I done to improve their lives? I’m not saying that me running this trail is going to do that, but it is an opportunity to show my cousin and his wife something I can do for them to have Colin’s memory live on. Their big thing is that even though his body has left the world, his mind and his spirit haven’t. To have everyone read our story, to have everyone see what we’re going through, that’s tough, that’s personal. But they’ve been amazing, and were ecstatic about me doing this. They’ve adopted it as their mission to show people just how lucky you are to have a healthy family; no matter what problems there are, family is a blessing.”
Joe is doing more than just ensuring that Colin’s memory lives on. His urge to make his run as perfect as it can be is reflective of his determination to do as much as possible for Colin, and families with similar stories. Joe is using his run to raise money for people who have received cancer diagnoses, to help them pay for medical bills, and for the families of cancer patients. “So much of cancer charities’ financial support is thrown into research, but a lot of families need the money for the aftermath. Having places to go to talk about everything, attending workshops, all of that makes a difference and the money I raise will help families to afford that. Colin has an older brother, and seeing how he’s been impacted, that’s really tough to swallow—how it’s changed his life. My goal is to raise $30,000 for Cancer Care, an organization that uses the money for the families.”
It is important to note that all the money donated to Cancer Care goes straight to the cause; Joe does not use any of it.
To help pay for him and Jordan to afford the necessary equipment, medical training and supplies, and food for Joe’s 2,650 mile journey, Joe founded Run for Colin Co., a company used to raise the $7,000 to $8,000 dollars the run will cost. Joe shows me his carefully calculated budget, and explains that along the trail there are people called “trail angels” who welcome travelers and help supply them with advice, or—in the mountainous areas—with ice picks to help the hikers and runners make their way through.
Still, with a combined goal of nearly $40,000 to raise, Joe is—true to nature—not sitting still with fingers crossed. Instead, he has planned out plenty of funding opportunities to both raise money and keep spreading Colin’s story, the central goal of everything he is doing. He has a Run for Colin marathon team in the works, in which people interested in spreading Colin’s message will register to run the marathon in the spring under Joe’s team and in Run for Colin shirts that Joe is working on to help him raise the money. He also plans on making magnets and posters, and during his intensive training between graduation and the start of his run, he is going to start a sort of “guess my mileage” raffle. Within this raffle people will pay to bet on how many miles Joe will run throughout his training, and whoever is closest will win half of the money that was bet—the other half will be donated.
Jordan also has plans of starting a marathon Run for Colin team in New York. Excitedly, Joe tells me about an opportunity for the whole adventure to be made into a documentary about the run, about Colin and about the message behind it all. While the documentary isn’t confirmed yet, Joe has high hopes that it will work out so that even more people will be touched by his and Colin’s story.
By the time my conversation with Joe is done, I too am feeling like I’ve just run a marathon (maybe not a 2,650 mile one, but a marathon, nonetheless.) Joe’s passion and well-thought-out plans are all expressed clearly and with a sort of charisma that makes me believe with certainty that he will be successful in both breaking the record and in making Colin’s story known far and wide. His overwhelming enthusiasm and inspiring desire to impact the world and help people leaves me with my own runner’s high, and I feel motivated to do my part in honoring Colin. Here’s how you, too, can express how Colin’s impacted you and help Joe in his journey:
To explore Joe’s website and read more specifics about the trail and Joe’s plans:
To donate to Cancer Care to help families: http://community.cancercare.org/runforcolin
To support Joe: https://www.facebook.com/RunForColin and @runforcolin on Twitter
To join the Run for Colin marathon team: contact Joe at email@example.com
Most importantly, take Joe and Colin’s story to heart, and share it with your own family and friends. Like Joe said, life is too short to not tell the ones you love how much they mean to you. While we might not be able to replicate Joe in his run for Colin, we can all love for Colin.