THON Express 2008

It was 24 hours until the start of THON 2008 and 16 runners and six drivers were 135 miles away from the floor of the Bryce Jordan Center. Yet, even with the separation, both in time and distance, the THON spirit could not have be more alive. It was precisely because of this detachment that these Four Diamonds Families and Penn State/THON alums stood there, joined together at the source of inspiration, the entrance to the Hershey Medical Center. The group was set to embark on the second annual THON Express to bridge the gap between the kids and families at Hershey who were unable to make it to State College for THON Weekend.

Molded from the vision of Hank and Connie Angus, a Four Diamonds Family, THON Express runners carry a pack of letters and messages speaking encouragement and thanks from the families at Hershey to the dancers at THON. That pack, a seemingly simple item, is the symbol of THON Express. The anticipation for what remained ahead climaxed as Carrie Steele-King, helped by her husband Fritz, strapped on the pack for the first leg of the 135-mile trek. Just like the Angus’, they also are a Four Diamonds Family, but for all the times that Carrie went in and out of the Medical Center she was about to leave in a way she never had before – on foot. The rest of the runners, drivers and other supporters formed a human tunnel and sang Penn State fight songs, as Fritz clipped the final buckle. Without hesitation, Carrie took the first step in a journey that would transform these near strangers into a family, a journey that was entrenched in the ideals of courage, strength, honesty and wisdom.

Over the course of the next 20 plus hours that pack held the attention of everyone involved. The runners, who each logged three, three-mile legs, carried those letters over mountains, through the night and through the cold and wind. They handed it off, one runner to the next, with a sense of purpose and pride.

From the early stages it was evident that the event grew mightily from its inaugural run. At the first exchange point local TV cameras captured the embrace between Carrie and Fritz before he took off on his first stretch. The group split up for a bit as some of the veterans headed to Lemoyne Middle School where the kids held a benefit for the Express, while the rest of the group went to the Cornerstone Coffeehouse in Camp Hill to join in the festivities there.

Close to a hundred people cheered outside Cornerstone as Connie and her friend Vicki made their way up Market Street. The look exchanged between Connie and Hank before they transferred the pack encapsulated what THON Express is truly about. It was a look of hope and joy, worth even more since those very things had been challenged each day since their son was diagnosed with cancer. Hank, and close friend Val Rodgers, took the handoff and the Express was now in its full stride.

The weather always remained the big unknown; after all it was a mid-February night in Central PA. The inaugural THON Express battled bitter cold temperatures, and while the 2008 version was warmer, Mother Nature would still have her say. A few hours earlier than expected, the snow started to fall but there would be no stopping, or even slowing this group down. One-by-one runners left footprints and tread their own paths over snow-covered roads.

Around 2:00AM, another obstacle stood in the way – the mountains. Runners Wes Cronkite, Megan Furniss and Andrew Simonelli embodied what it truly means to put one foot in front of another, as they scaled mountains, and left the feeling that someday cancer too would be conquered. Then, as the saying goes, what goes up must come down, and Sara Ridge and Katie Robbin enjoyed the freedom of just letting their legs float over the pavement as they made their way down the backside of the mountains.

Mile-by-mile the night slowly turned into day and runner Amanda Goble watched the sun rise over the course of her second three-mile stint. With the light came a rejuvenation of the group and a realization of what they had accomplished over those 12 hours since they’d departed Hershey Med. Mountains were left behind, strangers became a family and they knew Happy Valley was nearly within their grasp.

As the first few Expressers completed their third legs the weather had yet another surprise in store – a sleet storm. Even with poor footing below, Erin Franc never lost her long stride. The six incredible RV and hummer drivers made sure a vehicle always trailed close behind to ensure the safety of each runner. It was an ultimate team effort as the others shouted encouragement and provided high-fives along the route. While each individual had their own personal achievements along the way, it was the legs completed by Katee Brown that were most impressive. She fought through a knee injury that would have made most people quit, but she displayed the THON Express virtues and never once contemplated stepping aside.

The signs for State College started to become more apparent as Celeste Brown weaved her way through the countryside, but there was still one big mountain in the group’s way. Even for Pat Taggart, the group’s strongest runner, this task proved to be a difficult one. Aided the whole way by shouts of inspiration from Carrie Steele-King and the other runners and drivers, Pat climbed the three-mile mountain in just over 21 minutes. THON Express was now in the home stretch.

Jeff Krisciunas crested Pine Grove Mountain and through the haze the group could see the white roof of their final destination – the Bryce Jordan Center. After nearly 130 miles of running on roads with which they were unfamiliar, the Expressers now had a sense of being home. Becky McClintic had the honor of passing off the pack one last time to Hank Angus who ran that final three miles knowing his biggest motivation, his son Gabe, would be awaiting his arrival at the Nittany Lion Inn. As Hank made the final turn onto Park Avenue the Expressers erupted in cheers and a modified version of “She’ll Be Coming Around The Mountain.” They had done it. The goal was to complete135 miles in 24 hours and they finished in fewer than 21.

Everyone involved with THON Express gathered together one last time to share their favorite moments, but that pack, with those very important letters, still had one more mile to go. Katee Brown carried the pack while others clutched Four Diamonds and THON Express flags as the group made their way through campus towards THON 2008. They were greeted at the BJC by the Penn State Field Hockey team who created a tunnel of spirit and applause. And then finally, after 135 miles of snow, sleet, cold, dark and mountains their mission was complete. With their presence also came the connection to Hershey and all the kids and families who so longed to be in that arena.

Only two years in and THON Express has left behind much more than just footprints in the snow. The event raised over $13,000 and provided Penn State alums and Four Diamonds Families another way to continue to give back to the kids and a cause that means so much to each of them. THON Express 2008 was a huge success, but just like THON itself, there is always the hope that next year will be the best one ever. Until then, the running won’t stop and every step will always and forever be FOR THE KIDS!!!

Four Diamonds – For the Kids – For a Cure – For Cancer
THON Express