April 22, 2019 | 52° F

Rutgers students run coast to coast for cancer


Before officially finishing the race, the entire team follows a ritual in which they dip their heals in Baltimore's inner harbor.

Most college students conquer their fitness goals by running an extra mile on the treadmill or pushing through another lap on the track. This past summer, one Rutgers student went beyond a typical workout routine when she made the decision to run across the country.

Christine Pyo, a School of Arts and Sciences senior, participated in “The Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults’ 4K for Cancer,” a 42-day 4,000-mile run from San Francisco to Baltimore. Before embarking on her journey, Pyo raised $4,500, which was donated to the cause.

“The money goes to direct patient support for young adults with cancer,” Pyo said. “I really like the fact that this puts it straight back into the community.”

Her main inspiration to participate in the 4K was her uncle who had passed away from cancer, as well as her best friend’s dad.

She was unsure how her family would react to her running such a great distance, but surprisingly, they responded in a way that was extremely calm and supportive.

Pyo was an all-around athlete for most of her life, but once she entered her first year of college, she used running as her main form of exercise. To prepare for the 4K, she ran in the “Unite Half Marathon” at Rutgers and continued to keep up with her workout regimen afterwards.

The sendoff took place in San Francisco. All 26 college students followed the ritual of dipping their heels in the San Francisco Bay before beginning their trek through the states. The team’s itinerary consisted of running in three-mile increments and having a drop off-pick up van follow them to each checkpoint.

Since the team was made up of strictly runners and no staff members, Pyo took on the role as one of the leg leaders. Her responsibilities included mapping out running routes, compiling a list of overnight hosts, gathering food donations and arranging mail drops.

When finding host families, she was taken aback by the outpour of generosity from strangers. The team simply needed a roof over their heads and a floor to sleep on, but found that people would open up their homes offering beds and home-cooked meals instead.

“We had a bunch of dietary restrictions [for people that were] vegetarians, gluten free, [and] lactose intolerant, and you see people accommodating for all of those. It’s so much work,” she said. “It’s pretty incredible — the support and love these strangers will show you.”

Although the run started out on a positive note, Pyo sprained her ankle while running down a mountain, forcing her to wear a boot only five days into the tour. Still wanting to contribute and support her team, she and another injured member decided to do “Push-ups Across America” instead.

Every time the van stopped, she would do push-ups, she said.

One time she did 350 push-ups and 300 dips because she found not being able to run really frustrating when she was dedicating her day to someone.

In terms of hazardous weather conditions, the only challenge the team faced was having to run through the Mojave Desert during a heat wave, but they all made sure to be smart about staying hydrated. Pyo was glad they did not receive any rain, since it would impair runners’ visibility and force them to drive instead.

She said the most memorable part of the run for her was visiting cancer centers and hospitals on rest days and giving out chemotherapy care packages — as well as scholarships — to cancer survivors.

Whenever Pyo found herself struggling to get through her miles for the day, she would keep in mind those who were affected by cancer.

On one particular day, she dedicated her run to Jamie, a young girl who passed away after being hit by a car in the “4K for Cancer” bike ride.

“My partner I was running with was just like, ‘Do it for Jamie.” That hit me so hard, and I got through it,” Pyo said.

Pyo and the rest of the team managed to become close over a short span of time by doing team-building exercises such as expressing the highs and lows of their day as well as having “the hot seat,” where they would ask one person various questions to get to know them better.

She said she doesn’t open up to people very often, so opening up to her team was a “freeing” experience.

The runners finished in Baltimore, where they dipped their toes in the inner harbor and reunited with proud family and friends waiting for them on top of Federal Hill. Even though some team members were still injured, Pyo said they all made sure to cross the finish line together.

Pyo plans to participate in the “4K for Cancer” again next summer, which will be from San Francisco to New York. The only advice she can give to those planning to experience such a life-changing event is to prepare for anything.

“There’s nothing you can expect on this trip,” Pyo said. “[But] you shouldn’t worry because everything is going to go wrong, and you’re still going to make it.”

Brenda Stolyar

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