Helping Children Mile by Mile

For 40 years, the St. Jude Runs have been saving lives and inspiring supporters.

by Mollie Shepherdson, ALSAC/St. Jude Children's Research Hospital
Mike McCoy and Gene Pratt brainstormed the idea for the St. Jude  Memphis to Peoria Run in 1982.
Mike McCoy and Gene Pratt brainstormed the idea for the St. Jude Memphis to Peoria Run in 1982.

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital’s vision of eradicating childhood cancer is thoroughly embedded in the Peoria area. One key reason for that is due to the St. Jude Runs and its leader, Michael D. McCoy. McCoy has served the people of this community for over 50 years, primarily in law enforcement and other community roles. While a variety of words can be used to describe him, a close friend within the St. Jude Runs community thought of these: “fearless, loyal, leader.”

The Idea Comes to Life

McCoy started raising awareness for St. Jude in the mid-1950s, after meeting founder Danny Thomas at a fundraiser. As his passion for the mission grew, he continued working on the hospital’s behalf, serving as a board member and leading the charge for Peoria to become home to St. Jude’s first affiliate clinic in 1972. Ten years later, he and Gene Pratt brainstormed an idea for a fundraiser—running from St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, all the way back to Peoria.

The idea was unique, to be sure, and no one knew if it would work. But, of course, it did—and McCoy led the way as part of the initial group of 21 runners.

That first run wasn’t easy, however. The group’s motorhome caught fire shortly after leaving Peoria, and they quickly realized there was precious little time for sleep. And yet, despite being tired, sore and irritable, those 21 runners made it back to Peoria, presenting a check for $22,000 to St. Jude upon their arrival. The following year, the number of participants doubled, and that growth has continued year after year.

Auxiliary runs were born in 1984, allowing those who couldn’t commit to the five-day Memphis trip to be part of the event. There are now 35 auxiliary runs in addition to the flagship Memphis to Peoria Run. To date, the Peoria runs have raised more than $66 million for the children of St. Jude, with more than 2,000 runners and volunteers participating each year. The St. Jude Runs raised $4.6 million in 2020—when the event had to go 100% virtual—the first time in history that event plans had to be altered.

Mike McCoy, Tom Kahn, former Rep. Ray LaHood
Mike McCoy, Tom Kahn, former Rep. Ray LaHood

A Fundraising Mission

But it’s never been about running. “We talk to people from Day 1,” McCoy explains. “It’s not a running event; it’s a fundraising event. We’re raising money for St. Jude to help the kids, and that’s it.”

Like McCoy and co-founder Gene Pratt, many longtime runners did not know when they signed up that they were making a decades-long commitment. Now in their 50s, 60s and 70s, they may have slowed down, but they haven’t stopped. "It’s not easy,” says McCoy, long-time sheriff of Peoria County and now police chief in nearby Washington, Illinois. “I think that’s part of the mystique of it that people like.”

Runners must raise at least $3,000 to participate in the Memphis Run (and $1,000 for satellite events), mostly from pledges. Then they’ll spend the better part of a week running and living on the road, in fairly close quarters. Don’t even think about a full night’s sleep! Better to be, like co-founder McCoy, a master of the 45-minute nap.

2021 is the 40th anniversary of the St. Jude Runs, and a variety of celebrations are planned to mark the occasion. While there is a lot to celebrate, this year has not been an easy one. “We thought going into a pandemic was hard,” McCoy says. “Coming out is even tougher.” Still, there are 2,000 participants registered for this month’s event.

Much has changed in those 40 years. But there is one thing that will never change—why the runners do this.  “We run to give every child a chance to grow up,” McCoy declares, “and remember those who didn’t.” PM

ALSAC is the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. For more information, visit stjuderuns.org.

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