It started small — a handful of runners, a motorhome, a couple of vans and a crazy notion.
They’d raise money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital by riding to the hospital’s Memphis campus, and then running back home. They’d run, relay-style over four days in the heat of summer, 465 miles back to Peoria, Ill., site of a St. Jude affiliate clinic.
Turns out even the easy part wasn’t easy, that first year.
“Nineteen of us took off to Memphis,” co-founder Mike McCoy said, recalling how it all began, 37 years ago. “We headed out from Peoria on the expressway, across the bridge. Got about two miles up the road and the motorhome caught on fire and burned to the ground.”
He can laugh about it now. Because look at what’s risen from the ashes of 1982: The St. Jude Memphis to Peoria Run — one city’s great act of charity to a hospital two states and four days’ hard running away — has raised $56.2 million in its history, including $5.4 million in 2018.
Along the way, it’s become one of St. Jude’s most enduring and endearing fundraisers. Some three dozen shorter satellite runs, featuring 3,000 regional runners, orbit the 200-person main run. And the locals in one small Illinois town turn out to serve the runners cinnamon rolls in the middle of the night.
Nearly 80 miles into their trek, the runners pass through the town of Dyersburg.
The 465 mile journey begins with a cowbell-ringing, pompon-waving crowd lining the sidewalks of the St. Jude campus.
“It’s not easy,” said McCoy, longtime sheriff of Peoria County and now police chief in nearby Washington, Ill. “I think that’s part of the mystique of it that people like.”
Runners must raise a minimum of $3,000, mostly from pledges, to earn the right to run the main route. Then they’ll spend the better part of a week running and living on the road, in close quarters. And don’t even think about a full night’s sleep. Better to be, like the co-founder, a master of the 45-minute nap.
McCoy, a 69-year-old whose commanding presence suggests his law enforcement background, created the event with friend and fellow runner Gene Pratt. He had already participated in St. Jude fundraising, but wanted to do more, and wanted to incorporate running, which was enjoying a boom at the time, in a major way.
Doing so, they’d be deepening the ties between St. Jude and Peoria — and furthering the work of Peoria civic legend Jim Maloof. He met St. Jude founder Danny Thomas at a 1957 fundraiser and spent the next 50-plus years working on the hospital’s behalf, raising money, serving as a board member, and leading the charge for Peoria becoming home to St. Jude’s first affiliate clinic, in 1972.
Maloof served as Peoria’s mayor for 12 years, and was a prominent realtor and businessman. But when he died in 2013 at age 93, his obituary in Peoria’s Journal Star newspaper called his St. Jude affiliation his “crowning achievement.”
The torch that Peoria carries for St. Jude has since been passed to McCoy, a member of the ALSAC/St. Jude Boards of Directors and Governors. But, even more importantly for the Memphis to Peoria Run, he still runs every year — though he’s been slowed by the wear and tear on his knees, and the plate holding together his pelvis. His nine-minute-mile days are over. He’s struggling out there now. But it’s not about running. It never has been.
“We talk to people from Day 1,” McCoy said. “It’s not a running event. It’s a fundraising event. We’re raising money for St. Jude to help the kids, and that’s it.”
Mark Heinz, another Memphis to Peoria runner, put it similarly. “I’m not a runner,” he said while accepting an award as a 20-year participant. “I’m a St. Jude runner.”
Some participants are running to honor family members who battled childhood cancer. They’re running to say thank you to the hospital that offered help — and treatment at no cost.
Others are actual St. Jude survivors. An average of six or seven former patients take part in the main run every year, according to McCoy.
Then there are those like Julie Comfort. She was recognized in 2018 as a 30-year runner, but said, “I don’t have any of the stories” of cancer threatening a beloved young one.
“And you know?” she said. “That’s why I do it. How blessed have I been?”
Scrambled eggs and a laugh
The journey of 465 miles begins with a prayer and police escort, with a cowbell-ringing, pompon-waving crowd lining the sidewalks of the St. Jude campus as the runners begin the long trek home.
But it is a long trek. On foot. In August.
And there’s no cheering crowd lining Highway 51, south of Newbern, Tenn., when you pass by at 1:52 a.m.
Lucky for the runners, there are some familiar faces, and good grub, always waiting up the road a piece.
Meet the chef team — the 11 who feed the 200. The leader is Ed Grant, who runs his team the same way some people like their eggs — over light. He laughs off the notion that he and his teammates are serving both literally and in a loftier sense.
Being a chef is “easy,” as he explained: “Order enough food for the crowd. Load up equipment. Go to Memphis. Hand out hugs, sandwiches, a few hot meals and sprinkle it with ice cream. Move ahead of the runners, get out the equipment, prepare a meal, serve them, tell a joke, or six too many, to get them smiling, then clean it up, pack it up and move to the next stop.”
Runners stop for a hearty breakfast at Columbus-Belmont State Park, which is steeped in Civil War history and situated on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River.
Grant is, in many ways, the personification of the Memphis to Peoria Run — happily turning a grueling event into a good time for a great cause. He and his teammates arose at 4 a.m. on the second day, on four hours’ sleep, to prepare a breakfast of eggs, bacon and pancakes for runners at Columbus-Belmont State Park, a Civil War-steeped plot on a Kentucky bluff overlooking the Mississippi River.
He’s the personification of this event in another way — he has a St. Jude story.
When Grant married his wife Mikki in 1978, her son Matt was 6 years old and being treated by St. Jude for acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). Years of treatment and remission followed. There was a relapse that required more radiation, more chemotherapy.
Finally, it’s 1992 and Matt is 19.
“They have him go through a series of tests,” Grant said. “We wait for the outcomes. All good. Then they declare, with some reservation, that Matt is considered ‘cured.’ ”
A month after Matt’s last visit to St. Jude, he died in a car accident.
Listening to Grant, watching him greet runners as they arrive just after 7:30 a.m., you’d never guess the sadness behind the smile.
But that’s how it is, sometimes, out on the road to Peoria.
It’s “just a rollercoaster” of emotions for chef team member Darcy Riddle, a bereaved St. Jude mother whose daughter, Lanie, diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2006, died in 2016.
“Yesterday, when we walked into the gates of the hospital, I started crying,” Riddle said. “And then within an hour, we were laughing about stuff. Now, I’m starting to cry — ”
I’m sorry, she’s told.
“No, that’s what I mean. It’s good. Sometimes you’ve just got to let it out. And if I cry with any of these people, they cry with me.”
Runners arrive at Dongola High, home of the Demons. They’re treated to pizza — maybe it’ll take their minds off the 280 or so miles remaining on the long trek home.
It’s the middle of the night, but a crowd has turned out to greet the weary runners — and serve them cinnamon rolls.
A small-town hello, with cinnamon rolls
It took Julie Holthaus a few years to figure out what was afoot in the lot next door.
Once a year in her little town of Assumption, Ill., in the middle of the night, the motorhomes and strangers in running gear would materialize from the darkness — a respite before setting back out on the road.
“You’d hear them cheering,” she said. “After a few years, I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to walk over and see what’s going on. That’s how we came to know they were St. Jude Memphis to Peoria runners.”
A few years after that, in 2006, the town started the Assumption Community Pride Association. “They were looking for ideas to bring the community together,” Holthaus said. “I spoke up and said, ‘I don’t know if you’d be interested, or even realize, but at one in the morning this awesome group of people come through our town.’ ”
Ever since, Julie and the Holthaus family have hosted the dark-of-night stopover, joined by residents of Assumption and nearby communities such as Moweaqua and Bethany. They cheer the arrival of the runners — among them, the Holthaus’ daughter, Sarah Holthaus Minott — feed them cinnamon rolls and turkey sandwiches, and present them with the money they’ve raised for St. Jude.
“Where else in America can you go, eat until you can’t stand it anymore with great cinnamon rolls, and walk away with $23,000 in the middle of the night,” said McCoy, wearing his Assumption t-shirt (“Every year it gets smaller. The cinnamon rolls get better and the t-shirt gets smaller.”), before sending the runners back on the road.
It’s 2 a.m. and still 115 miles to Peoria.
After three-plus days on the road, the runners are almost home. It’s less than 25 miles to the Illinois River, and then across the bridge to Peoria, where they’ll be greeted as the heroes they are.
Home sweet home – the runners finally arrive in Peoria, Ill. to crowd-lined streets welcoming the weary runners.
The journey of 465 miles ends as it begins, with crowds cheering and cowbells clanging.
But as McCoy stood on a downtown Peoria street, sweating and basking with his fellow runners, proclaiming, “Nice to be home,” the thought occurred:
St. Jude isn’t 465 miles and two states away. It’s right here, in the hearts of these runners. It’s here on these streets, filled with some 3,200 fundraisers-in-sneakers and lined with thousands more cheering every last step, and everywhere you look, the St. Jude logo — on hats, T-shirts, tattoos — and handmade signs about hope, strength and kicking cancer’s butt.
It’s why the Memphis to Peoria Run, which began with a handful of runners and a motorhome in ashes, with $22,500 raised that first year, has become one of St. Jude’s most potent fundraisers — and Peoria one of its most devoted friends.
And if McCoy can’t claim he knew this all along, he does tell a rather prescient story. It was that first year, when the runners convened at St. Jude. While on a tour of the hospital, they noticed a plaque recognizing a $1 million donation.
“I remember one of the nurses saying to us, ‘Well, do you runners think you’ll ever raise $1 million? Everybody laughed.”
Everybody, apparently, but McCoy.
“I said, ‘Yeah, we might someday. You never know.’ ”
Memphis to Peoria Run
The four day, 465-mile journey reaches across three states and has raised more than $56 million in its 37 years.