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It was a Sunday morning like any other. Mike McCoy, the sheriff of Peoria County, Illinois, and Tom Kahn, school superintendent for Elmwood, Illinois, were jogging in the chilly January air. McCoy had frequented this particular stretch of road for a quarter century. He knew it like the back of his hand. Nothing could surprise him on this overcast but beautiful day.
McCoy and Kahn jogged together often. They loved to run, and especially for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Twenty-five years ago, McCoy helped develop the Memphis to Peoria Run, a grueling 465-mile run from the doors of St. Jude to the Civic Center in Peoria. Their jog this early Sunday morning was part of their training for the event in August—its 25th anniversary.
But at 6:50 a.m. everything changed. A truck drifted across two lanes and struck the runners. McCoy was knocked out of his shoes and thrown 30 feet, suffering a pelvis injury. Kahn was thrown forward, skidding on his face and was dragged by the truck some 70 feet.
The thought of running in the silver anniversary of McCoy’s event would have to wait. Now, survival was at the forefront of their minds.
McCoy began the Memphis to Peoria Run in 1982, along with his friend Gene Pratt. Running had become a popular activity. And McCoy and Pratt wanted to find a way for runners to help St. Jude. After holding fund-raising runs in parking lots, Pratt and McCoy began to think bigger.
“The idea came to us that we should be able to use this running craze to make a connection between the hospital in Memphis and the St. Jude Midwest Affiliate in Peoria,” McCoy said, referring to the affiliate clinic at Children’s Hospital of Illinois at OSF-Saint Francis Medical Center.
Their first idea was to run from Peoria to Memphis and then back again. But quickly, reality set in. “We realized that was the stupidest idea in the world,” McCoy said. “That’s about 1,000 miles. But, we thought we could drive to Memphis and run home. And that’s what we did.”
That first year, 21 brave souls made the drive down and the subsequent run back, raising $22,500 for St. Jude. “In 1982, that was a lot of money for a fund-raising event,” McCoy said. “We were pretty excited.”
The excitement has continued as the event has grown. This year, about 185 runners will participate in the Memphis to Peoria run. In addition, 17 satellite runs have also sprung up across the Midwest in recent years. The cities of Elmwood, Decatur, LaSalle/Peru, Tri-County, Galesburg, Canton, Bloomington, Chicago, Macomb, Lincoln, Champaign, Quad Cities, Springfield, Pekin and St. Louis all have runners that meet up with the Memphis to Peoria runners. By the time the group reaches Peoria, some 1,200 runners will make their way to the Civic Center. Their arrival serves as the kick-off for the Peoria Telethon, which seeks donations for the hospital and the affiliate clinic.
To participate in the run, each runner must raise a minimum of $3,000. But the average raised is about $5,000, McCoy said.
The runners are divided into two teams and alternate running during the relay-style event. Motor homes drop off the runners at their starting point, then drive six miles up the road. Once the runners reach the motor homes, the next set of runners begins their run for six miles and so on for 8 hours or 48 miles. Meanwhile the other team has driven to the 48-mile point where they will switch with the team that just completed the running. The team that just finished will then drive 48 miles ahead. “They have to get gas, eat, do laundry, clean the motor home, and hopefully, get a little rest,” McCoy said.
To date the runners have raised more than $11.9 million for St. Jude with another $1.5 million expected from this year’s event. The growth of the Memphis to Peoria Run and the additions of the satellite runs leaves McCoy in awe.
“I’ve been fortunate enough to meet so many great people with the run – people who give up their vacation and their time with their family to raise money for the kids,” he said. “The real benefit I get is seeing the survival rate for ALL (acute lymphoblastic leukemia) go from 4 percent to 90 percent.”
McCoy said that when he speaks with groups about St. Jude he tells them, “You only invest your time, effort and money in things that return good dividends. You don’t invest in bad stocks. You invest in good stocks. And investing your money in St. Jude shows such a positive return. Every year there are things coming from St. Jude that are just amazing.”
For McCoy and Kahn, their investment in St. Jude may have been what saved their lives that January day. Their love for running and for St. Jude was so much that in December 2005 they participated in the marathon portion of the St. Jude Memphis Marathon, Half-Marathon and Memphis Grizzlies House 5K. They continued running as they trained for another marathon in Indianapolis. And for the Memphis to Peoria Run. “The doctor said that the reason we both lived was because of the good shape we were in,” McCoy said. “So training for the marathon and from last year’s run and continuing to run after is what saved us both.”
The accident hasn’t dampened either’s spirits, McCoy said. “We are both going to be able to run a little bit this year, when nobody thought we would. And next year, we are going to be back a lot better than we were this year. Our running may be limited this year, but our enthusiasm won’t be.”
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