Exclusive documentary: Man runs 200 miles for 200 kids with cancer in "Endure"
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. (ABC7) —
Last year we brought you the remarkable story of Tom Mitchell running a 100 mile race for 100 children with cancer.
Well, in September, this Northern Virginia resident embarked on what many considered an insane test of endurance to raise money and awareness for childhood cancer.
He tried to finish a 200 mile race in only 100 hours in the mountains of California for 200 children with cancer.
Our Jay Korff went along to see if "Tattoo Tom", as he is affectionately called, could pull it off.
The stunning vistas of North America's largest alpine lake proved a punishing backdrop for runners competing in the Tahoe 200: one of the toughest off-road, ultra-marathon races in the world.
"Yeah this is 200 very difficult miles. It's almost entirely on trail," says Tahoe 200 race director Candice Burt.
But one competitor, Tom Mitchell of Virginia, came to these rugged mountains to make a painful point that has nothing to do with running.
"I want to prove to them that we can do impossible things, " says Mitchell.
Mitchell heads up the Stillbrave Childhood Cancer Foundation. The non-profit provides non-medical needs to families whose children are fighting cancer. Back in the summer, we went along with Mitchell as he visited one of his Stillbrave families, the Rahmans of Arlington. Their 5-year-old Sammi is now on hospice after a long, hard fight with cancer. The treatment meant to cure him ravaged his heart.
Mitchell says, "We've offered a lot of assistance to this family. They are really struggling. You never know what tomorrow is going to bring I guess. We don't know. Sammi doesn't know. His mom doesn't know. So we keep moving. We keep breathing. That's it."
When Mitchell isn't visiting children he's pushing policy makers to invest more money in more humane childhood cancer treatments.
"It's not cute, smiling bald kids with balloons at Disney World getting better. It's kids suffering and in many cases dying," Mitchell says. "And those lucky enough to survive are plagued the rest of their lives with chronic pain, with secondary cancers, with disabilities beyond imagination."
But this activist with an edge nearly dropped out only 30 miles into the race. The first section of this mountainous race is through some of the most rugged terrain in the lower 48 states.
Mitchell says, "I'm not a runner like this Jay. I want to quit. I've got sores on my mouth. I got big blisters on my feet. I sucked in so much dust on the Rubicon Jeep Trail that I'm having trouble breathing. This is what it's like for kids with cancer. They just want to be playing with their friends. They want to have their hair. They don't want to have cancer. They don't want to not be able to breathe. But they can't quit because if they quit they'll die."
Mitchell dedicated each of his 200 miles to a different child with cancer. During the race he carried their pictures in his pack.
"And I look at those pictures and I don't want to quit on any of those kids," says Mitchell.
By mile 63 on day 2, Tom's ailing feet needed medical treatment. While getting that treatment he spoke candidly.
Mitchell says, "I think it is torture. But I guess they are getting my feet ready so I can go out and run more."
A balm for Mitchell's ailing emotions came in the form of Stella Woelfel, a 5-year-old cancer survivor from the Tahoe area who stopped by with her family. Stella and her older brother cheered on Tom as he pushed on to the next aid station.
Stella's mother Jessica Woelfel says, "He's running for all these children and he has their cards and he has such a great connection with children, so we brought out Stella and my other children to cheer him on and give him another reminder of what he's doing and why."
At this point in the race runners can begin working with a pacer. His pacer was Rebecca Byerly, an experienced ultra-marathoner. It's her job to make sure Tom eats, drinks and doesn't get lost.
"And it's really just being there to be positive and provide that moral support because there are going to be some seriously low moments out here, " says Byerly.
Mitchell also had a several member crew of dedicated volunteers who helped him at aid stations. One crew member, who flew in from Missouri, knows the struggle of childhood cancer all too well. Laura Owens son Cole died several weeks before the race. Cole knew and respected Tom. Cole is mile 22.
"I came in hopes of seeing him here. I hoped that he would help Tom get through this. I know that now he is free of all of his medical problems he is probably running all 200 miles with Tom. That's the kind of kid he was. I really hoped I could feel him here and make him proud of me and do something brave," says Cole's mother Laura Owens.
Tom Mitchell is also trying to be brave for his daughter Shayla who died of cancer in 2009 at age 18.
"Right before my daughter died she sat up in the bed and said no dad. And then she laid down and died. She didn't want to die. She wasn't ready to die. She wanted to keep living. She wanted to keep fighting. She didn't sprout angle wings and fly off to heaven. She died, " says Mitchell.
By day 3 Mitchell's torment would be time. Racers have 100 hours to finish and Mitchell was dangerously close to missing aid station cut off times.
The other demon chasing Mitchell: sleep deprivation. By mile 140, with only about an hour a day of shut eye, he was hallucinating.
In the middle of the night we were there as Mitchell stumbled into an aid station convinced that he had seen pictures in the woods.
Mitchell mumbles, "Like picture trees and picture bushes. Like a lot of bushes and trees and they have family portraits, pictures of kids and he saw a boat. I got to go to bed."
With 65 miles to go Mitchell faced one last daunting hurdle: himself.
His frustration boiled over at times. He had to manage exhaustion while coping with the searing pain of blister treatments. He clashed with his pacer and yelled at me, fed up with my questions.
"This is a lot of pressure. How do you think I'm feeling? We're going to go out and do our best so please get the (expletive) camera out of my face!"
Crew member Laura Owens said late in the race, "We don't know who is in charge. No one is really listening to each other. The team mentality is breaking down. And I guess that's what happens at the end of these races but it's really frustrating because we've had a really great team up until this point because if the team breaks down the race breaks down and we might as well all go home."
Mitchell countered by saying, "The problem is I'm working against the clock. There's time and I can try to manage it but I'm been up for 4 days, barely slept for 4 days and during the day climbing mountains so I'm spent, physically, emotionally spent."
A bold plan was hatched at the final aid station with time running out.
"Tom and I have to get out of here immediately if we have any possibility to get in under 100 hours," says pacer Rebecca Byerly.
Tom and Rebecca rushed in and out of the last aid station and ran through the night in hopes of finishing the last grueling 15 miles in under 7 hours.
Only a few hours later, atop a windswept mountainside overlooking Lake Tahoe, a man exhausted beyond measure emerged out of the shadows and into the light.
Tom Mitchell ended up running the 16th fastest final leg of the Tahoe 200 finishing with two hours to spare. He credits his crew, his pacer and a lot of children for helping get him across the line.
But Mitchell will be the first to tell you, despite his finish line elation, the sobering truth that during his race more than 200 children were diagnosed with cancer.
Mitchell says, "This 200 mile race...does it really matter? You know, really? I'm going to make some money. We've raised a lot of money so we're going to touch lives but does it really matter? I don't know. But I'm gonna try."
Tom Mitchell never thought his could meet his fundraising goal of $200,000. He ended up raising $236,000 for his foundation, money that will go a long way to helping families whose children have cancer.