LOUDONVILLE, Ohio (WJLA) - A Springfield, Va. man, who insists he is not a runner, just completed what many thought would be impossible. Tom Mitchell ran a 100-mile race for 100 very important reasons.
He dedicated each mile to a child who is fighting cancer, has beaten cancer or has died from cancer. Many of the children he ran for are from the Washington, D.C. region, including Gabriella Miller, Alexis Agin and Gavin Rupp.
This poignant story explores in stark and powerful detail Mitchell’s remarkable journey as he pushes through physical and emotional pain to finish the Mohican Trail 100 in Loudonville, Ohio. His daughter, Shayla, died of cancer five years ago, which led to him forming the Stillbrave Childhood Cancer Foundation, an organization that helps families that are struggling financially while their children are fighting cancer.
Fifteen thousand years ago, glacial melt created a gorge that cuts through Mohican State Park in Ohio, an eerily prehistoric place that showers the senses. It would be the perfect backdrop for a timeless and thought-provoking story of struggle.
“The 100 miler is one of those things that is a check in the box,” said runner Rey Febo.
Of the nearly 200 runners about to step into the madness of the Mohican 100-mile trail race, only first-timer Tom Mitchell of Springfield, Va. brings with him 100 stories of sacrifice and sorrow.
"A little bit nervous, little bit excited. Adam and I are running this race, and we are carrying 100 kids with us, man,” Mitchell said.
"There are so many interesting stories,” said Race Director Ryan O’Dell. “Why people are out here, what people are doing, and all of that will come out during the race.”
This ultra-marathon is a two-day test of physical endurance and mental might in the starkest of environments. Athletes have 32 hours to complete four 25-mile loops. Aid stations every several miles offer a brief respite for nourishment needs, encouragement and assessment.
"I'm good, Jay. I'm good. We got 4 miles down, we got 96 to go,” said Mitchell.
Mitchell, known as “Tattoo Tom” for his myriad of skin markings, is racing with training partner Adam Katkhouda.
"I feel great. I'm happy to be here. I feel lucky. This is honestly just an awesome experience,” Katkhouda said.
It is common for runners—critical in Mitchell’s case, as you will later find out—to race with a friend. They lean on each other for tactical and moral support. To make a difficult challenge even more daunting, these inexperienced athletes are covering the equivalent of four off-road marathons back to back to back to back.
For several miles during the first loop, ABC 7 News’ Jay Korff caught up with Mitchell and Katkhouda. Their pace was steady and their spirits strong. But it’s perfectly reasonable to ask yourself why a novice would attempt such an outlandish athletic feat at 46 years of age.
"Jay, this is a tattoo of my daughter, Shayla, when she was 3 years old,” said Mitchell.
This father’s drive stems from a heartache that will never heal.
"With my daughter, I haven't gotten over it,” Mitchell said. “I haven't pushed past it. I haven't worked through it. It definitely hasn't gotten any better. It's just gotten different.”
Five years ago, Mitchell’s first-born child, Shayla, contracted Hodgkin’s disease. She fought bravely for two years, but cancer consumed her body and took her life at 18. Before she died, Shayla insisted her father remain brave for other families facing the crushing physical, emotional and financial burdens that come with cancer.
"So, when she died, I coined the phrase Stillbrave,” Mitchell said. “ And that's what I am. I'm Stillbrave for her.”
Mitchell turned his pain into a battle cry and then a foundation. The foundation helps families of children fighting cancer, like the Noakes of Northern Virginia, pay for critical, non-medical needs like gas cards, car repairs and rent.
Young Lilly Noakes has a rare and typically fatal form of brain cancer.
"We lost our house. We had to file for bankruptcy,” said Lilly’s mother, Melanie Noakes. "They gave us five years when she was diagnosed, and that was as of May 1 this year, so it's kinda like we're on borrowed time right now.”
To raise money for Stillbrave families, Mitchell made a bold challenge to inspire donations: race a century over stream beds and limestone on a demanding course that includes nearly 13,000 feet of elevation gain.
"I want to replicate the struggle that children with cancer face every single day,” said Mitchell.
"I think this is a way for him to quantify how he feels about the battle against childhood cancer and just to put it all on the line,” said crew member Rich Platt.
"We feel good, but we know we have a long way ahead of us. So, we are being smart and slow. We are pacing ourselves. We are trying to run a smart race,” Mitchell said. But I think we feel pretty good at this point, Jay. The kids are pushing us. It's not make-believe. They are pushing us.”
Mitchell and Katkhouda finish lap one determined and inspired by Alexis Agin and Gavin Rupp, local children Mitchell knew well and watched die of cancer.
"We are honoring those children at every mile, and I want to be crystal clear about that,” Mitchell said. If your children are one of the 100, we are honoring them at every mile. Thank you for allowing me to run with your children.”
Each mile is dedicated to a child who is fighting cancer or has died of this wretched disease. Laminated pictures of each child are stowed in Mitchell’s pack. In the last several weeks, some of his Stillbrave kids have passed away. In case you were wondering, Lilly Noakes is mile 89. Tom’s daughter, Shayla, is mile 100.
"Those kids are going to be carrying them. You can't run, you crawl. He'll get it done,” said crew captain Mark Whipple.
The terrain is so challenging that only about half of the runners who started will finish. Understandably, they begin to show signs of strain at the 50-mile mark.
"As it starts to get bad, we just keep telling ourselves we're touching lives. We're not just running 100 miles, we're touching a minimum of 100 lives. How many people get to do that?” Mitchell said. “I'm honored. It's not about me, it's not about 100 miles, it's not even about 100 kids. It's about all the kids that are suffering with childhood cancer. It hurts right now to run like this, but these kids go through worse every day.”
These aren’t nameless faces. Mitchell personally knows, visits and loves many of these children. Gabriella Miller, the Loudoun County, Va. 10-year-old, who made national headlines by raising money and awareness for pediatric disease research, is mile 99.
"And I went to visit her for the last time and I sat down and held her hand and whispered in her ear, I said 'I promise you I'm going to run this race for you,’” said Mitchell.
A picture of Mitchell caressing Gabriella’s hand was taken only hours before she passed away last fall. To give back to a man who gave them so much of his heart, Ellyn and Mark Miller, Gabriella’s parents, are among those crewing for Stillbrave, making sure Mitchell and Katkhouda’s need are taken care of.
"Today's been an emotional up-and-down swing,” said Ellyn Miller. “What Tom is doing is unbelievable and amazing, but he's doing it because our daughter is dead.”
Mitchell would need all the help he could muster on lap three, his breaking point. A lack of light while navigating over rocky terrain, plus the pounding of 70 miles, would prove to be the first major crack in Tattoo Tom’s inked armor.
"It's all the pressure that's on me, all the families that are depending on me, and does this even matter?" Mitchell said. “I'm not a ****** hero. I'm not. I'm not. It's a tough, tough label they put on me, man. Maybe I did it myself. I don't know.”
"Go get 'em, guys. We'll see you soon,” said Mark Miller.
But the next stop, mile 77, would be Katkhouda’s last.
"We got about 4 miles past the aid station. Adam said he can't go on; his kidneys are hurting. He couldn't ****** go on anymore,” Mitchell said. “I didn't know what to do. He said, ‘go.’ So, I'm gonna go.”
Katkhouda’s body was shutting down. His race was over. Mitchell feared without his partner; how could he make it another full lap?
"I don't know Jay if I can ******* make it. I don't know. I know I'm cussing a lot. I am hurting so bad, I don't know if I can make it. I just don't know," Mitchell said.
Mitchell’s crew captain then urged him on and that’s when it happened.
"How many 100-mile races have you run?” screamed Mitchell.
"I haven't run any,” said Whipple.
"Please stop saying you know I got. You don't know I ******* got it. Please stop saying that,” screamed Mitchell.
When profound fatigue sets in, your inner demons surface. This is not unusual in ultras, especially your first, when you’re facing pressure, doubts and a body breaking down.
"Maybe I don't got it. Ever think of that?" said Mitchell.
"You know, I gave it what I had. I showed up,” Katkhouda said. “Right now, I'm just hoping I don't compromise the rest of Tom's run.”
But Mitchell wouldn’t be alone, as we would soon find out. At mile 81, an appropriate song played at an aid station where Mark Miller, fearing Mitchell would drop out, took a calculated risk to lift Tom’s spirits. He pulled up a favorite picture of Mitchell and his daughter, Gabriella, who relied on Mitchell for emotional support during her fight with cancer.
"You were always there when they needed you. And we are here for what we can do for you. I don't know how you made them happy,” said a tearful Miller.
Through his tears, Miller reminded Mitchell that he has been there for all those children. It was time for Mitchell to let those children be brave for him. And somehow, he kept moving forward.
"I just don't want to quit. I don't want to lose. I don't want to lose again,” said Mitchell.
But his immediate problem was time. On the last lap, there are aid station cut-off times. Come late, and your race is over. But then, a volunteer pacer, someone to guide weary runners near the end of the race, was available. Brad Bloomfield, an experienced ultra-marathoner coming off an injury, would guide Mitchell in.
"I didn't think I was going to finish this race, and now I think I believe I'm going to finish it,” said Mitchell.
"It got a little dark and a little lonely when Adam dropped out. So, I was reaching out,” Mitchell said. “I was calling out to all the kids that I knew or know and stuff started happening.”
At the final aid station, Mitchell read his final few names.
"That's Connor White. He passed away. That's Gabriella Miller and Shayla Mitchell. Miles 99 and 100,” said a tearful Mitchell.
And with that, Mitchell walked painfully in pursuit of the finish line.
“Is Tom the last one on the course?” Korff asked.
“114, he’s the last one,” a race official confirmed.
The aid stations are now officially closed. Mitchell is the only racer left on the course. A brisk hiking pace and he’ll make it. If he falters or stops, he won’t beat the 32-hour cut-off.
We then waited for what seemed like an eternity for Mitchell and his pacer to emerge from the forest at mile 99—and that’s where Gabriella Miller greeted him. And in the last mile, his daughter, Shayla. Tattoo Tom Mitchell, with his daughter’s picture clutched in his hand, crossed the finish line with only 30 minutes to spare.
"I love you," said Ellyn Miller as she hugged Mitchell.
“We did it, brother,” said Mitchell, as he hugged Katkhouda.
"As I was running after Adam dropped, I got really scared. And I got really lonely,” Mitchell said. “I said, ‘Gabriella, Shayla, I don't know how this being dead stuff works. But I need your help, because I can't finish this race by myself. I know I can't finish it by myself.’ And all of a sudden, people started crossing my path and they got me across the finish line.”
Mitchell believes his daughter gave him a gift when she died: the strength to help other children, like Gabriella Miller, who one day face the awful reality that sometimes life doesn’t last as long as it should.
If you would like more information on the foundations involved in this project, go to stillbrave.org and smashingwalnuts.org. The Mohican Trail 100 raised $86,000 for these foundations, surpassing the original goal of $50,000.