Do anything interesting this past weekend? Maybe fix things around the house, watch a football game, or perhaps go apple and pumpkin picking with the kids?
Wiltonian Jeff Snyder has you beat—he just ran a marathon. Across the Grand Canyon. Seriously.
And he did it in order to raise money for pediatric cancer research.
It's a cause close to his heart—Jeff's 12-year-old daughter Kennedy has a rare form of spinal cord cancer, and she's been valiantly fighting it since being diagnosed at age two. Jeff and his family formed a foundation that awards grants to scientists working in this particular area of cancer research.
But Jeff's Grand Canyon run was part of a selfless endeavor to benefit a separate cancer organization, Alex's Lemonade Stand Foundation (ALSF). The extreme, super-human effort over last Friday by Jeff and four other friends raised more than $74,000 for the organization.
One of the five guys who teamed with Jeff on the run was Jay Scott, executive director of Alex's Lemonade, and father of Alexandra—the 8 year old girl who created Alex's Lemonade with her original fundraising stand, before succumbing to cancer in 2004. When she died, she had already inspired more than $1 million in donations, and her parents created the foundation to continue that work.
“I just love this foundation. You just look at the whole story, what Alex wanted to do, and then after her passing that her parents still keep that flame alive," Jeff said.
A Bond of Fathers
Jeff and Jay had been introduced to each other a little more than four years ago by a mutual friend, and they immediately formed a bond, understanding the similar everyday life moments as well as the deeper emotional struggles and feelings they shared.
"With dads who have gone through similar experiences, having to deal with a child with cancer, there's connection, right away. We could immediately drill down, no nonsense—ask hard questions, talk about doctors, hospitals and treatment protocols, and how you cope with challenges you face. There are nights, I just lie in bed, thinking 'What if?' and 'How will I handle this?' When you have a guy like Jay Scott who's really able to rise above and do what he's done, it's incredibly motivating," Jeff described.
Both Jay and Jeff are runners. ALSF runs a regular program called 'Team Lemon,' which raises money for the foundation through marathons. So when Jay proposed this Grand Canyon marathon run a couple years ago, it was destined to come together.
"I might have said, 'What do you think about doing this?' thinking that no one would agree, not realizing how crazy Jeff was. Once I got Jeff on board, I went after our mutual friend to get him on board—I didn't think there was any chance he would…and he agreed to it. Then we got two other friends," Jay recalled.
For Jeff, there was never any doubt he'd participate once Jay had suggested the run. "I was all over it. But that's just me, I really am about life-lived experiences, and it blew my mind with how big of an idea it was."
The planning started last spring, training happened over the summer, and the guys flew to Arizona last Wednesday. [Note: they were sadly missing one of their team, who had to stay back for a separate family matter.]
A Grueling, Physical Odyssey
They needed a couple days to acclimate to the altitude and get set to start the run, scheduled for Friday. This was no official, planned marathon, with many people competing; it was just them, four guys together taking on a very physical feat.
While the canyon itself is 10 miles wide (as the crow flies), the path to traverse it by foot is quite a bit longer. They'd planned a 26-mile course from the north rim of the canyon along the Kaibab Trail—down about 5,000 ft. to the bottom where they had to cross the Colorado River, and then head back up again, this time approximately 4,000 ft to the top of the south rim.
“The first three miles were ridiculous. First of all, the terrain change is amazing. The top of the north rim looks like a Canadian forest—very, very tall pine trees, very wooded and dark green. We started off, it was 38 degrees. As you start making the descent, you start going through the different rock formations, it starts opening up to the magnitude of the Grand Canyon. We were like, 'Oh my God. Oh my God! It's so amazing!' We kept stopping and taking photos, we were having a blast," Jeff recalled.
Stopping occasionally to take water and snack stops to refuel, the first 15 miles were uneventful, with the four men running at an easy pace to enjoy everything around them. But by the time they hit the bottom of the canyon for lunch, it definitely grew more challenging.
“The bottom was 100 degrees, it was just an incredible temperature swing. The bright sunshine and dry heat—you wouldn't even feel yourself sweating because it would evaporate so fast. The whole day I must have drank 300 ounces of liquid—and was still dehydrated and cramping."
The punishing conditions took a serious toll on one member of the team—Jay succumbed to altitude sickness and dehydration around mile 17. He credited Jeff with getting him through.
“I started throwing up. And Jeff carried my [20-pound] pack for a couple miles. That's the kind of guy he is, to try to give me relief. This was on the uphill. They made me take a sip of water every couple hundred yards. Basically, they got me going again," Jay said.
For Jeff, though it wasn't even a question about helping Jay, who had been so motivating at the start of their run that morning. “When we got to the rim, we all put our hands in and Jay said, 'We're going to do this as a team. Imagine what kids like Kennedy have to go through. What kids with cancer have to go through on a daily basis. We're doing it for them!' So it was really emotional for me to start. We got really fired up.'
Jeff definitely needed that inspiration to get him to the end. As he told it, the climb out rises over approximately 9.5 miles that doesn't go over a straight path; instead they had to repeatedly traverse up and down, often doubling back to cover the rugged, punishing terrain.
“The last four miles is just a super, super, super steep incline. We had muscle cramping, exhaustion. There was one point it took us 35-40 minutes just to go a mile, it was that steep and that intense. Reaching the top, I wish I could say that it was such a feeling of joy and accomplishment. I've had that euphoria of finishing a marathon before—but this one was heavier than that, with why we were doing it—to support Alex's Lemonade. That kept me going along the way, but at the end, I was so exhausted. We all were. Our legs burning, our thighs and calves cramping. I actually went back Sunday morning to take in the Grand Canyon's beauty again, to get re-energized about the accomplishment of what we had done Friday. It was just such a grueling experience. It will take some time to process.
Facing the Challenge
Knowing Jeff, it's not surprising that this is the kind of challenge he would take on. The size and scope of the Grand Canyon itself is symbolic of all that Jeff faces, that Kennedy faces, that all families in their situation face. His selfless choice to cross that chasm in the earth in such a taxing way in order to raise much needed funding is a testament to his spirit—as wide and as deep as the canyon itself.
Completing their run was a huge achievement, one few people take on and complete. The spirit and enthusiasm with which Jeff, Jay and their friends took on the challenge reflects the spirit of their mission—in Alex's name and memory, and in the fight Kennedy and other children wage each day. It reflects the way Jeff lives every day of his life with his family and friends.
If only funds and cancer cures came from spirit alone. If that were true, Jeff would have accomplished raising more than enough money and finding the cure long ago.
Families like the Scotts and the Snyders, they stand on the precipice every day emotionally…and here Jeff found himself standing on the real precipice of the Grand Canyon looking down. And he conquered it, just as he aims to conquer what life has thrown him and Kennedy, in whatever way he can.
“That's exactly what I felt all day Friday. You're in some incredibly serene, peaceful, just magnificent landscape, and you really have time to reflect, think about why you're here, think about why you're doing this, and even as you get to some of the different pain points, where you feel like throwing in the towel, and you feel like you're pushing your body to the limits of physical exhaustion, I think of Kennedy. I think of what she has to go through, as she has gone in for different surgeries. I remember back when she was so young, going through different chemo protocols, every day she would pick herself up with a smile on her face and having that as a guide through this weekend carries you through."
In some way, Jeff and Jay and the two other friends, and anyone working to help find treatments and the cure for pediatric cancers—are natural wonders themselves. Jeff spent this weekend pushing himself to the limit, having an extraordinary, tough, spiritual, extreme day. He did it, so that lots of other people will someday be able to have many more of those simple, mundane days—just working around the house, or watching a football game, or picking apples and pumpkins with their families.