Back on September 19, 2014 when a friend of mine named Kaitlin Boland posted a comment on my Facebookwall about considering running The Hope Express. I remember thinking that it was the craziest idea that I had ever heard of in my 27 years of existence. But, it got me thinking. And that night I went home and the wheels in my head began to turn as I thought about the idea more and more. And the more I thought, the more I realized that this would be one heck of an awesome way to involve myself in the great student-run philanthropy in the world that had become so close to my heart during my four years of involvement at Penn State. So, two days later, on September 21, I submitted my initial application.
I remember for the next week I was constantly checking my email more than five times a day to see about whether or not I was considered to be a “Hopeful.” The day I got the email telling me I was an official “Hopeful,” I remember having an excited burst of energy, but also that slight nervousness of “What the heck did I get myself into?” The next months were a complete whirlwind—having the initial fundraising conference call with Carolyn learning about the ins and outs of raising funds, planning fundraisers and working on an execution plan, writing letters and emails to potential donors, setting goals for myself, and scheduling the highly anticipated phone interview with Autumn.
The night of my interview is still as clear as day in my head. I remember my palms being incredibly sweaty and when Autumn answered the phone her first question was something along the lines of “What would you do if I said I was the meanest person in the world?” I was a bit taken aback by the question, but remember answering withsomething like “I wouldn’t believe it.” Autumn made me feel very at home and I had no problem having conversation with her and sharing my true passions and feelings about the questions that she asked—and she made me think—very hard and deep down into my heart’s truest emotions and feelings.
The next week or two were filled with the final push for people to get their donations in for the initial fundraising period. (And I must admit that Carolyn was not kidding when she said that you get incredibly happy every time you receive a donation. I for one was always doing a little dance in my room every time I got an email from Carolyn about online donations or check in the mail!) I remember waking up Thanksgiving morning and being so anxious to either receive the call or email about whether or not I had been selected to be a part of the 2015 Hope Express. I kept loading my email on my IPhone as I watched the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and frowning each timewhen it told me there wasn’t a new message.
And then, it was there! I took a deep breath and I remember reading through Hank’s email thinking that it was worded telling me I was not chosen and my heart sank, but he was a trickster! Toward the end paragraph he wrote that the list of runners was attached. I took a deep breath and opened the attachment…and I cried. My mom was right there with me and I gave her the biggest hug in the world out of complete joy that I was being given the honor to be a part of something so incredible. The next week was full of runs around my town in beautiful weather and just enjoying the scenery around me and taking every moment in. I remember receiving another email from Hank a week later on December 2 that told us who had been chosen to be a “Mountain Runner” and I saw my name listed. Hank told us in the email that there was no greater honor than being selected for a mountain, so I again I had feelings of super excitement, but also the “What the heck did I get myself into?!” thoughts as well. I remember picking out some hills in my head that I thought would be good training spots for me to practice.
I ran my first hill on Christmas morning—and it was a killer. I remember gasping for breath and my legs feeling like jello by the time I got to the top. The words of “I can’t do this” kept bouncing around in my head, but then I would think about who I was doing it for and the immediate jello feeling in my legs disappeared and my motivation and energy suddenly powered back into my system. It was an incredible feeling.
Leading up to runner’s weekend, I remember going on Facebook and seeing all the “runfies” that my fellow teammates were taking on their training runs and I would just smile. I remember getting more and more excited with each inspiration email that came from Hank. I remember going through all the emotions possible every time I read each heart-felt story.
On January 12, 2015, I received word that a very good friend of mine who I had done shows with at a local theatre had lost her battle with cancer. Her name was Wendy and she always was full of life and always had a smile on her face no matter how crappy she felt. It was my first day at a new job and I remember not being able to cry because I didn’t want to be perceived as a wimp who couldn’t handle the job. And as soon as I clocked out and got in the car, I cried. In fact, I bawled. I got home and walked into my roommate and hugged her for 5 minutes without moving or speaking and just cried. I went to my room and cried for the next hour and a half. I was so mad. I was mad at cancer. I was mad at life being unfair. I was mad that God couldn’t have done something to me. I struggled a lot the next few days and found it very hard to not cry uncontrollably at any given moment. The death of Wendy helped me realize and get even more motivation for doing The Hope Express. It helped me put a lot into perspective about my life and what I take for granted and realize that cancer doesn’t discriminate and that it doesn’t care about who it attacks.
Runner’s Weekend was an awesome experience and I loved every second of getting to know the teammates that I would be sharing this incredible journey with and hearing about their stories. The next four weeks leading up to the actual run were filled with many emotional runs full of tears and anger. There were mornings where I didn’t want to get out of bed because it was so cold, but in the back of my head I kept remembering why I was doing it. And I kept seeing Wendy’ face.
The week of the run, I remember becoming incredibly nervous and getting butterflies in my stomach. But the minute I would remember about who I was doing this run for, the butterflies would go away—I even made a special collage of people that I decided to honor during my run—Lexi, Ellen, Carlene, Sally, Kristin, and Wendy. I can’t tell you how many people asked me the week of the run about how they expected us to run in the weather because they were expecting extremely cold temperatures—historic numbers in fact. And I remember telling every single person that the pain and cold we would experience would be nothing compared to what these kids and families go through with this disease.
The day of the run, I couldn’t wait to see everyone again and I remember jumping around in my seat as I drove to the Angus home. Being reunited with my Team Hope was incredible and the absolute best thing. I couldn’t wait to spend 24 hours with these people. My first leg (which occurred around 12:40am) was brutally cold—the wind chill was around -25 degrees and the snow drifts on the country road I was running were intense, but I crushed it. The constant thought of these kids and the collage of my personal friends and family I was running for kept me going. I remember at one point during the run seeing lights up ahead and thinking “Yes! It’s the RV! I’m almost done!” However, it was a horse trailer parked in a lot, so a false alarm and I remember my heart sank because it felt like three miles had already passed by.
But I kept running…faster and harder. My second leg wasn’t as cold, but still bitter. It was during sunrise and the scenery around me was gorgeous and I remember taking in everything around me and being in awe about what all of us were doing. The passion and commitment we all shared in common was just overwhelming. I remember taking a nap during my second leg because my third leg was the mountain leg (known as Tussey)—the one that Hank kept telling me throughout the training period that I had no idea what I was getting into.
While I was still in the trailing car waiting for Meghan to get the handoff from Ami, I remember Wendy giving me a hug and telling me, “Crush that mountain!” Those words stuck with me in my head until the end. I remember arriving at the Whipple Dam Store where I was to receive the handoff and seeing my parents there—and it was pure joy. I ran out to them and gave them a huge hug! It was the perfect motivation for me before beginning my toughest trek yet. I remember getting the handoff from Meghan Duffy and hugging her three times—she was crying because she was just so emotional that she had completed her last leg.
I started down the mountain with the backpack of letters on me and my photo collage around my neck. It seemed normal. And then I began to hurt. And the pain set in. And the wind was blowing. And it was cold. And I began to feel weak. And I began to cry. And I began to start walking. I remember Ryan and Lynn who were in the trailing car behind me shouting out motivating comments to keep me going, but it was so hard. I would begin running again for a few seconds and then I would walk again. I asked for some water and remember taking sips here and there. I continued on and remember walking and then hearing those shouts of “Keep going, one foot in front of the other!” Cars were coming down on the other side of the road and complete strangers were honking in admiration and encouragement. Moralers were passing by and shouting out the window.
Halfway up the mountain, I saw my parents on the side of the road cheering me on and I began to cry again. It was all becoming real to me. I pushed on. And I remember mumbling “F*** you cancer” under my breath in my ninja mask and began saying the names of the people on my photo collage—Lexi, Sally, Carlene, Wendy, Kristin, and Ellen. It was so painful. I felt like I just needed to give up and let cancer win, but I didn’t. I wasn’t about to let cancer win and take over the HOPE that all of us were trying to spread. I remember seeing Stephanie at the handoff and greeting her with the biggest hug ever and crying. I hugged my mom and dad and cried. And Ryan from the trailing car came out and hugged me. It was all so surreal. The emotions were raw.
To say that the whole experience was the greatest thing that I’ve ever participated in would be an understatement. The Hope Express was the hardest and most rewarding experience of my life. The friendships I’ve made with the people who share such passion and drive for this cause are priceless. The people behind the scenes who make this come together every year are invaluable. I’m proud to say that HOPE lives on in each and every one of us and we will continue to fight until HOPE lives on in every single person of the world.