It’s not every day that your teenager texts you uplifting messages like, “I’m extremely proud of you,” and “You’re a hell of a human,” and “Love you, Dad.”
There was also, “Thanks for letting me use the Jeep—I put $30 [of gas] in it.”
Those texts “were like fuel,” said Mike McCauley, which inspired his run throughout the first weekend of November. And it was the run of a lifetime by the 55-year-old Mechanicsburg dad, a run dedicated to his 17-year-old son Lachlan.
Retraced the Path
“As I evolve in my running, I want my miles to have purpose,” said McCauley, a real estate appraiser and lifelong runner who grew up in Harrisburg. “And I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be cool to raise awareness, to run through my son’s cancer journey, his full circle of treatment?’”
So, this past fall, McCauley plotted a 210-mile circular course—from the Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center to Philadelphia’s Wills Eye Institute, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) and then back to Hershey.
The plan was a carefully guarded secret until he began running on Oct. 31. Then it went viral in the Facebook group “Endure 4 a Cure,” which tracked McCauley’s progress and grew to nearly 2,500 members. And that’s how he wanted to reach people—personally, one-on-one.
“I wanted to make a big statement, to have this grow organically on social media because raising awareness is about developing compassionate hearts and minds,” he said.
The awareness is the “war” against pediatric cancer, including his family’s personal battle, which started in the fall of 2006. At the dinner table, then 4-year-old Lachlan’s eye looked glassy.
McCauley then recalled the ensuing “slow motion” series of events. A local eye exam led to an MRI in Hershey, appointments and surgery at world-renowned Wills Eye, then treatment at CHOP. The diagnosis? Rhabdomyosarcoma, an aggressive and rare cancer, which caused a tumor in the orbit of Lachlan’s eye.
Thirteen years later, McCauley’s footsteps retraced the same path on the diagnosis dates. Many of his fellow ultra-runners took turns running by his side for the four-day weekend. One of them was Leo Lutz, 49, of Harrisburg. He left work on Friday, hopped on an Amtrak train and headed to Philadelphia to join McCauley for 40 to 50 miles.
“This idea—all of it made complete sense” Lutz said. “You have to understand something about ultra-runners—you don’t say no to challenges.”
Like A Manhunt
Running into Philadelphia on Kelly Drive, Lutz recalls a “crazy, magical” moment that buoyed their spirits.
A running group passed them, going the opposite way. All of a sudden, one of the runners spotted McCauley and called out, “Hey, you’re that guy from Hershey.”
That’s when McCauley knew that his social media was working. Pacers and crewmembers posted, monitored and read, encouraging Facebook messages to McCauley along the way or in between meals and naps in the RV.
Kelly Spreha, Harrisburg Area Road Runners’ vice president, was a critical crewmember—she drove the RV that was never more than 10 miles away from McCauley. It was a tall task since the running route followed busy roadways, plus off-road paths such as the Schuylkill River Trail. Oh, and it was only the second time in her life that she’d driven an RV.
Many “serendipity stars aligned” along the route, said Spreha. For example, when they needed to plug the RV in overnight, they luckily found a restaurant where the manager—also a runner—obliged.
“Trying to navigate through the narrow streets of Conshohocken was the biggest challenge,” she said. “Outside of navigation, the biggest challenge was dropping pins for the pacers to find us—it was like a manhunt.”
Spreha stocked the RV with nutritional supplements—meals such as quesadillas, plenty of coffee and even pickle juice, which relieves muscle cramps.
How did McCauley feel physically?
“You can’t print what I would tell you,” McCauley said. “I’d never had pain that basically permeated through my bones.”
But he knew that Lachlan was awaiting his return to Hershey.
“He hugged me tight,” he said. “He was beside himself. And he said, ‘I knew you were going to do it.’”
Today, Lachlan is a 17-year-old senior at Cedar Cliff High School who plays rugby and has perfect vision. McCauley calls him a “gentle giant.” He worries about his son’s future—which might include secondary cancers—and he’s frustrated by the slow pace of cancer research.
“A softer approach isn’t who I am,” McCauley said. “We need to do more cause kids are dying, and I know that’s harsh, but pediatric cancer is the number-one killer of kids under 16. The families are frustrated by the federal government giving less than 4 percent of [NIH] funding to pediatric cancer research.”
McCauley encouraged Endure 4 a Cure fans to support two organizations—Four Diamonds and the Emily Whitehead Foundation—and they responded with nearly $8,000.
“The five-year survival rate for children with cancer has increased to more than 80 percent, but many of those children may have long-term side effects from the toxic effects of what we call three pillars of traditional treatment—surgery, chemotherapy and radiation,” said Autumn Ghigiarelli, executive director of the Emily Whitehead Foundation.
The Philipsburg foundation may hold the key to the future of pediatric cancer treatment. It’s named for a Pennsylvania girl who was the first child in the world to receive innovative CAR T-cell therapy, which activated her immune system to attack and destroy cancer cells. Her leukemia has been in remission since her 2012 treatment at CHOP.
“There’s a saying that, if you want to go fast, go alone, and if you want to go far, go together,” Ghigiarelli said. “Not only does that directly apply to Mike, how far he went, and the people who supported him, but it’s also true for pediatric cancer treatment. If we all work together, we can get there.”
For more information, see fourdiamonds.org and emilywhiteheadfoundation.org. You can find the Endure 4 a Cure Facebook group at facebook.com/groups/endure4acure. Mike McCauley’s next adventures include several upcoming ultra-marathons and the April 20 Boston Marathon.