A group of several dozen runners will leave Champaign on a Friday evening later this summer. They will cover 100 miles relay style, running through the night and arriving in Peoria late on Saturday afternoon.
They’ll be among 30 teams coming from various cities, and collectively they’ll have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis.
The Champaign-Urbana team will include a Peoria native who grew up in a family and community that strongly supported St. Jude, a St. Joseph family of runners and fitness buffs who participate in the run together and a former St. Jude patient who began running to Peoria with his mother.
St. Jude is the largest pediatric cancer research center in the world. The hospital does not ask families to pay for treatment not covered by insurance.
The St. Jude Memphis to Peoria Run began in 1982, with runners covering 465 miles from Memphis to Peoria to raise money for the hospital. Over the years, other communities started auxiliary runs. This year is the 16th year for the St. Jude Champaign-Urbana to Peoria Run. Teams also run to Peoria from Springfield, Bloomington-Normal, Decatur, Mattoon, Chicago and St. Louis, among other cities.
The run is usually held the first weekend in August. This year, it’s been moved up to July 20-21 because WEEK-TV will broadcast the Summer Olympics in August.
Kathleen Smith of Champaign grew up in Peoria. As a child, she raised money for St. Jude with her family, and as an adult, she worked at WEEK-TV and helped with its annual St. Jude telethon.
“St. Jude is just huge in Peoria,” she said, noting the Children’s Hospital of Illinois at OSF-Saint Francis Medical Center in Peoria is the St. Jude Midwest Affiliate hospital.
She first ran the Champaign to Peoria run two years ago, and her husband, Ed, ran it for the first time last year.
This year, the Smiths are the run coordinators, and they are hoping to raise the profile of the Champaign-Urbana to Peoria run. Because Champaign-Urbana is not within WEEK-TV’s coverage area, the telethon and the run are not as well-known here, they said.
“We thought our first goal was to get the word out,” Ed Smith said.
He became an enthusiastic supporter of the run after participating last year.
“I was literally stunned to see all the roads blocked off and thousands of people greeting the runners. I was caught up in it,” he said. “To me, it’s not about running. It’s about helping the kids.”
You don’t need to be a hardcore runner for this, Ed Smith said.
“For casual runners ... you hear 100 miles and think, ‘I can’t do that,’” he said. “We don’t care if you run 5 miles or 40 miles.”
Team members can choose how much distance they’d like to cover, with some running a few miles and others covering 40 or 50. The relay segments are 1 to 5 miles long.
At least two runners from a team must be on the road together at all times — other than a two-hour Saturday morning break for breakfast and showers and an early afternoon swimming pool break.
A tour bus transports the Champaign team members from one relay exchange point to the next, while a police escort and chase van stay with the runners on the road.
The Paden family of St. Joseph became involved after hearing about St. Jude and the run from a member of their church. This year will be the third that LoriKay and Jimmy and daughter Jolee have run, and the first for Justen, who is now old enough (16) to participate.
“The more you look at what the organization does and how they work with kids, the more it grows on you and the more you want to do,” Jimmy Paden said.
“Most of the time, people don’t sleep. We just sit up and talk about different things,” he said. “Plus, it’s a challenge. There’s nothing like running at 2 a.m. with the chase van blaring music.”
Jolee, who ran track and cross-country for St. Joseph-Ogden High (she just graduated), enjoys running for a good cause and getting to know other runners, as well as the workout.
“We’re out on the road when it’s pitch-black, and you talk about anything and everything,” she said. “My parents are kind of crazy in that they like to keep hyped up and keep the energy up. People enjoy running with them.”
All the runners must raise at least $750 in donations to participate. All the money goes to St. Jude hospital. Teams also raise additional money for their expenses, including transportation, gas and food. The organization helps runners with fundraising by providing sample letters they can send seeking donations and setting up a website for donations.
The run covers the same route each year, and the runners see some of the same people along the way.
A supporter meets them at the McDonald’s in Mahomet every year and hands them $50. They reach Mansfield around 11 p.m. on Friday, and they are greeted by patrons of a bar who give them the donations they’ve collected that evening.
Later, the team passes a gas station in another small town, where an older couple hands off a check. And as they near Peoria, a farmer and his son wait outside their home with their donation.
They arrive in Peoria to thousands of people cheering them on.
“Even though you are dead tired ... the energy you feel waiting for all those runners to come in is incredible,” Kathleen Smith said.
“The crowd in Peoria is awesome. There are patients, families of patients, friends. They are lining the streets and cheering, and other teams are coming in too,” Jolee Paden added. “We think we’re doing such a small thing, but they think it’s so huge for us to be there.”
Joe Lee of Springfield was once one of those children with cancer. At age 12, he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease. He was lucky: His disease was highly curable, and eight months after beginning treatment at St. Jude hospital, he went into remission.
Several years later, his mother, Nancy Lee of Pekin, took up running and learned of the St. Jude run. She’s participated 11 times, including with a team from Memphis to Peoria three times.
Joe Lee, now 29, first joined her six years ago on the C-U to Peoria run.
“The first reason why I run is to give back just a little bit of what they gave to me,” Lee said. “They gave me hundreds of thousands of dollars of health care treatment, with no condition of repayment. That policy that they don’t turn anyone away ... you just want to give back, and the best way I thought I could do it was raising money for the run.
“It’s a happy feeling, seeing the number of people out there supporting (St. Jude) and giving back to research and treatment and prolonging the lives of cancer patients. It’s a good feeling that what you are doing is going toward something that is worthy and life-impacting.”
The St. Jude Champaign-Urbana to Peoria Run will hold an open house from 6:30 to 8:30 Wednesday at Flightstar at Willard Airport, Savoy. Runners will be able to ask questions about the run and about fundraising, get fundraising supplies and meet other team members.
For more information, contact run coordinators Ed and Kathleen Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org  or go to www.custjuderun.org .
Photos: Top: LoriKay, Justen, Jimmy and Jolee Paden of St. Joseph will participate in the St. Jude Champaign-Urbana to Peoria Run in July. Photo by Vanda Bidwell/The News-Gazette. Bottom: Joe Lee of Springfield and his mother, Nancy Lee of Pekin, pose for a picture during the 2011 St. Jude Champaign-Urbana to Peoria Run. As a child, Joe was treated for cancer at St. Jude. Photo provided.