When Jaymie and Randy Huffman of Mahomet started running, they had an invisible boy at their side.
The boy was going through chemotherapy, and when the couple started working with the Team in Training – a fundraising-through-running program that's part of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society – they thought of him.
"We thought, 'If he can get through chemotherapy, I can do this,'" said Jaymie Huffman. Though they didn't know the boy, the society provides each person information about a person they call the "patient honoree," Huffman said. "It's just a nice way to connect what you're doing with someone."
The Huffmans and many others like them say exercising for a cause can be a great way to get or stay fit as well.
Amy Fuller of Human Kinetics in Champaign helped organize this year's run from Champaign to Peoria for St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital. Pastor Gary Grogan at Stone Creek Church in Urbana bikes as far as his age – 58 this year – for a different charity each year. Debbie Hicks of Christie Clinic in Champaign walked all night in a Relay For Life cancer-awareness event.
And then there's the Illini 4000, who bicycle across America to raise money for cancer.
Hitting the road
By July 23, the Illini 4000 had already biked from New York City to north-central Idaho this summer – about 3,300 miles, said co-director Sean Laude. He spoke for his co-director Brad Topol, who was somewhere in Idaho on the ride and without Internet access.
Laude biked the route on its first trek in 2007, when it was begun by two University of Illinois alumni "who had a passion for cycling and making a difference in the world. One of the founders, Anish Thakkar, conducted research in early detection technologies and also had a close relative deal with cancer. These experiences inspired him to fight against cancer through the ride."
He said participants can't help but get fit after the long, sometimes difficult rides, day after day. "At first you struggle to climb steep hills out East, but after three weeks 80- or 90-mile days are no longer a big deal," Laude said.
The people they met along the trip provided strong motivation to keep going.
"It is definitely easier when you're tired and climbing a mountain in extreme weather to know you're doing this for a cause," he said. "The riders speak to a lot of people about their experiences with cancer. Hearing someone's story about undergoing chemotherapy or the emotional distress of a loved one dealing with cancer make a difficult ride seem much less painful; you keep these stories in your mind and you think 'this is nothing compared to what they're going through.'"
Closer to home, Fuller takes part in the St. Jude runs – a relay of sorts where runners do segments of an overnight run about 90 miles long to St. Jude Midwest Affiliate in Peoria – for the past nine years, running anywhere from five to 17 miles of that over the years. Last year, $18,500 was raised for the organization, and this year hopes to at least match that.
She said the run provides a good incentive to improve her fitness. "The only reason that I run is for the St. Jude run," she said. "It might be hot, I might be in pain right now ... but I'm doing this for the kids at St. Jude's – because they can't.
"It was a great motivation because I was being counted on by somebody else to do it, so I felt a responsibility," she said. "You're part of a team, so you don't want to let the other people on your team down."
Going the distance
Before the Huffmans began training in 2005, "the most we had run before was like 3 miles," Huffman said.
"You could be a total couch potato and (the Team in Training) will provide you all the training that you need and they will make sure you get to the end. Anyone can do it," she said. "You have to put in the hours and you have to work, but, yes, you can do it."
Since then, they've run half and full marathons and raised several thousand dollars for their cause. Their next race is Aug. 2. Huffman says doing the run for a team keeps them moving, even when pausing seems really appealing.
"Maybe you're having an off day and your teammates can inspire you, your honoree can inspire you," she said. "This'll be our ninth marathon and we always wear our Team in Training jerseys. ... We'll definitely keep doing it."
In July, Grogan and friends hit the roads of Champaign County to bike a 58-mile loop they infomally call a Bike Hike, in the process raising about $10,000 for charity. Each year the event increases by a mile.
"I've been riding a mile per my birthday since my 50th birthday," he said. "As long as I have good health, I'm going to keep doing it."
This year, he found motivation in raising money for a youth mentoring program in Boston. "If the kids don't make it in this program, they go to prison," Grogan said.
So, accompanied by people from his church and other friends, he takes to the road. "Our last mile, we call it the Magnificent Mile. People walk and jog and push their babies in strollers" alongside the bikes, Grogan said. "It's just a fun activity to do together for a good cause, plus I get the benefit of exercise."
Why they go
These charitable events "are the kinds of things that make Americans great, that make America great," Grogan said.
"It gives people an individual sense of worth and accomplishment. It's one thing to do a race to win a trophy yourself or win a prize yourself, but when you're doing it for somebody else, it just gives you this incredible, worthful sense of purpose."
That's how Debbie Hicks of St. Joseph felt in June, when she walked all night to raise cancer awareness. And as much as a 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. amble tired her, walking for a cause was more exhilarating than anything else.
"My mom is a breast cancer survivor. This is my first year doing (the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life), and I will do it every year from now on. It was so uplifting and so inspiring," she said, adding that she saw people ages 10 to 70 in the relay.
Walking, partly with her mom's company, made her mom proud of her, "and I of my mom," Hicks said.
Despite the long hours, the time passed quickly. "When you're out there, you befriend people and the laps just fly by and you don't realize it," Hicks said. "It's almost like exercising with the buddy system – it's much easier when you do it with somebody else."
Knowing the relay was coming up also provided motivation to exercise more. "It's healthy, and I think once you get people up moving, they find out how much better they feel," she said. "It could be a start for a lot of people if you can start putting one foot in front of the other."
HOW TO GET INVOLVED
Want to take part in an exercise-for-charity event? The Muscular Dystrophy Association has teamed up with the Mettler Center for a "cycle-a-thon" from 7 a.m. to noon Aug. 29 at the center, 2906 Crossing Court, C. A minimum $25 suggested donation to MDA enters a person in "Peddle for a Purpose," where a cycling instructor leads participants through a workout, with a new session starting every half-hour. To sign up, call 356-6543.
Erin Jones of the local MDA said the event is "a great way to celebrate our abilities and to help people with disabilities in the process, who would love to do what we do but maybe unfortunately can't."
More information about other events mentioned:
— American Cancer Society's Relay for Life: www.relayforlife.org.
— Illini 4000 for Cancer: www.illini4000.org.
— Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's Team in Training: www.teamintraining.org.
— St. Jude Children's Research Hospital: www.stjuderuns.org.
— Stone Creek Church's Bike Hike: www.stonecreekwired.com, 344-5455.