Hope Express Runners Making 135-Mile Trek for THON
Mail call is an event incorporated into the 46-hour dance marathon, or THON, and provides letters, photos and inspirational sayings to more than 700 students chosen as dancers for THON weekend.
Mail comes from those close to the dancers, but sometimes from the patients and their families who benefit from THON and the Found Diamonds Fund. Each year, the Hope Express runners carry 20 to 30 letters written by pediatric cancer patients and their parents for the dancers at THON, said Hank Angus, cofounder of the Hope Express.
To raise awareness for and support THON and the Four Diamonds Fund, Angus along with his wife Connie created the Hope Express in 2007, a 135-mile run to the Bryce Jordan Center in the 24 hours before the start of THON weekend.
“You get so much help in a lot of different ways,” Angus said of the Four Diamonds Fund. He also said it really means a lot to the families, like his, that receive aid from the Four Diamonds Fund, especially since the families do not usually have the resources to give anything back.
Angus, who said he’s always been an avid runner, turned to the sport to ease the pressure he felt from his son’s treatment. Running, he said, eventually became an essential part of the foundation for Hope Express.
“People do different things,” he said. “That’s what I’ve always done.”
Angus said the process, however, was not easy to get going.
Originally, Angus and his wife wanted to structure the run around the Olympic torch carry, but realized there was no practical way runners could carry a 15 pound object for three mile stretches.
“Connie came up with the letters idea,” Angus said. “It is heartfelt appreciation for what the dancers do.”
After working out initial kinks and making sure there were no legal issues, Angus was ready to map a route. Having been told the run couldn’t interfere with any major interstate highway, he mapped the 135-mile route, which takes runners over three mountains. He said it took him about three months to plan this.
Next, Angus said, he needed to find runners. This ended up being the hardest part of organizing Hope Express, he said. For the first year, he said, he barely scraped a team together.
After initially contacting the Dance Marathon Alumni Interest Group at Penn State in search of RV’s for the run, Angus realized this is where he could find runners. This is where he’s found most of his runners in the years since beginning the Hope Express, he said.
Even a blizzard, Angus said, proved unable to halt Hope Express in its first year.
“It’s a miracle we even ran,” he said.
But every runner who signed up, he said, promised they were absolutely going to participate, even though it was only six degrees.
The threat of inclement weather comes with this time of year in Pennsylvania, but runners Amanda Kohler and Alex Toner said it’s all about preparation.
“It is really important to be prepared for any kind of weather conditions,” Kohler said. “So if it is snowing, sleeting or just really cold, I make sure I run outside instead of trying to stay in.”
Further preparation, Kohler said, comes from predicting obstacles.
“The route is extremely hilly, and includes several very difficult mountains,” she said, “so I am always looking for hilly, steep routes to help train my muscles for those potential difficulties.”
Both runners said each participant is expected to be in half-marathon shape, running about 20 miles each week. The route includes three mountains, they said, which can be difficult for beginning runners.
Toner said Hank provided each runner with a tentative training schedule that they can vary based on their personal skill levels.
“(Training is) a challenge, but you don’t need any certain skill level,” Toner said.
Not everyone who runs in the Hope Express, however, is a runner when they begin training. Jenn Schweighauser, marketing captain for the Hope Express in Centre, Huntingdon and Mifflin/Juanita counties, said you couldn’t have paid her to run a mile before she applied to run for the Hope Express in 2012.
The Angus’ were Schweighauser’s THON family while she was involved with the organization at Penn State. Last year Schweighauser said wanted to do something for Gale, who celebrated five years of remission in November, so she learned how to run.
After participating in the run, Schweighauser wanted to continue to stay involved in the Hope Express.
“I figured I could do some marketing on my end,” she said.
Now, the Hope Express’s publicity is increasing, which means their fundraising is going up too.
“Last year we raised $72,000 and this year we’re aiming for $100,000,” she said.
Schweighauser also said she would love to see people welcoming runners as they make their way to the Bryce Jordan Center Friday evening.
The runners, she said, will be arriving at the Bryce Jordan Center around 5:30 p.m. on Friday.
Like Schweighauser, Kohler and Toner were both involved with THON during their time at Penn State, a requirement to be able to participate in the Hope Express.
“I attended THON 2006 due to pure curiosity and fell in love with it,” she said.
Kohler, who said she was involved with THON from 2005 to 2009, learned about Hope Express through Schweighauser.
“Once I read more about what the Hope Express does and what its mission is, I was hooked and I needed to get involved,” she said. “I couldn't think of a more amazing opportunity to get directly involved with THON and Four Diamonds again as an alumni.”
Toner said he heard about Hope Express while participating in canning weekends, but got involved through Penn State’s Red Cross club, which he was a part of as a sophomore and junior.
Now in its seventh year, Hope Express is gaining more support and nation-wide recognition.
“The amazing thing about Hope Express is how it connects the students at THON with the children and families at Hershey Medical Center,” Kohler said, “and that it gives THON alumni and Four Diamonds families a chance to make a difference.”
Toner said this experience has been “a really fun, great way to get back into THON and a unique way to make friends.”
Both runners also said this experience is a medium to raise not only awareness about THON and the Four Diamonds fund, but also capital for the two organizations.
“The money that Hope Express raises goes to the Four Diamonds Fund, the same fund that THON raises money for,” Kohler said, “so it is a cooperating partnership instead of a separate charity or event.”
According to Kohler, the event grows more each year.
“(The Hope Express) gets a little bigger each year. It is an exciting way to raise funds and awareness,” he said.
Toner also said the organization shows “heart, determination and passion” for what THON does each year.
The Hope Express runners will set off for the Bryce Jordan Center Thursday from the Hershey Medical Center and arrive in State College Friday afternoon. Follow the runners on Twitter as they make their 135 mile journey @HopeExpress.