Kelcey Harrison's Great Lung Run: 3,500 Miles in Memory of Friend Jill Costello

Ash MarshallSenior Analyst IJuly 30, 2012

Kelcey Harrison training in New York. (Photo: Kelcey Harrison)
Kelcey Harrison training in New York. (Photo: Kelcey Harrison)

What can you do with your lungs? Kelcey Harrison will use hers to run across the width of America for a charity close to her heart.

On July 29, Kelcey set off from Times Square in New York City on a 3,500-mile trip to San Francisco. She will be running on average 30 miles a day in memory of her close childhood friend Jill Costello, who lost her battle with lung cancer almost two years ago.

Jill—a 21-year-old student-athlete and non-smoker—was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer in June 2009. Despite the cancer and the months of treatment that followed, Jill graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, and she led the Golden Bears' women’s varsity rowing team to gold at the PAC-10 championships and silver at the NCAA championships.

Jill lost her battle with lung cancer one month later, but her fight—and legacy—has not been forgotten.

Her story was chronicled in the Nov. 29, 2010, issue of Sports Illustrated in an article titled "The Courage of Jill Costello," and it was reproduced in the 2011 edition of Glenn Stout’s annual The Best American Sports Writing book.

Now San Francisco native and current New Yorker Kelcey, who knew Jill from the age of five when they were in kindergarten together, hopes to build on this legacy.

"She was always one of my closest friends. She was a great person, she was happy and bubbly and fun," said 24-year-old Kelcey, the youngest of four children of Michael and Gretchen Harrison who grew up on 9th Ave. and Pacheco Street, a mile south of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco.

"She was a really determined person and really dedicated to whatever she was doing. She was dedicated to school—she was very smart—dedicated to sports and she was really loyal as a friend. She knew when it time to be serious and work and she knew when it was time to have time. She was one of those friends that you had known for so long that you always expected to be around.  That’s what made her passing all that much harder to grasp."

Kelcey is hoping to raise $250,000 for Jill's Legacy, an advisory board to the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation—a San Francisco-based non-profit which has a goal to beat lung cancer through research, early detection, education, prevention and treatment.

Jill’s Legacy, of which Kelcey is a member, was established in late 2010 and is made up of young professionals who have each been personally touched by lung cancer.

Kelcey, who spent two years as a paralegal and program coordinator at the Manhattan District Attorney's Office, has already raised $104,000, more than 40 percent of her total goal. She hopes more sponsors will support the cause as word of her run spreads across the nation.

Starting in New York, Kelcey will pass quickly through New Jersey before a two-week run across Pennsylvania. She'll then cut through Ohio, Indianapolis and Kentucky before crossing into Missouri in early September. From here it’s on to Kansas and Colorado—roughly the mid-point of the trip—followed by New Mexico and Arizona. Day 100 of the trip will likely be spent in Nevada, while the final 200 miles will see her cutting across Yosemite National Park, through Sacramento and into San Francisco.

Kelcey, who graduated from Harvard University in 2010 with a degree in psychology and a minor in government, will run through 13 states in total.

Among the scenic journey, Kelcey will pass through the Roaring Run Natural, part of the Forbes State Forest, in southwest Pennsylvania, the Hoosier National Forest some 20 miles east of downtown Louisville, KY., the Shawnee National Forest on the Kentucky-Missouri border, Pecos National Park in central New Mexico and Petrified Forest National Park in eastern Arizona.

The run is calculated at 3,555 miles and expected to take a little over four months. To put it into perspective, that’s the equivalent of 136 marathons in around 123 days. Or, for those who listen to music on their iPods, she could listen to more than 17,000 songs without hearing the same thing twice.

Kelcey assured me her playlist was deep.

“I think that there will be long stretches where I’ll be lonely and there’s a good chance I’ll get bored at times with my own thoughts and nothing else,” she said. “But I know those things are going to happen and I’ll just have to get through those days and onto the next one. Jill would laugh at me and say that I am so crazy. But she’d totally be on board, and she’d be supporting me and find a way to get on the road and join me."

According to the Jill’s Legacy website, lung cancer is the "biggest cancer killer but still the least funded." The site reports for every $9 spent on breast cancer research, $1 is spent on lung cancer in the U.S., and that "80 percent of newly diagnosed lung cancer patients either never smoked or quit smoking decades ago."

"We really wanted to focus on the mobilization of youth to raise awareness for lung cancer," Kelcey explained. "We learned a lot of things about lung cancer that we didn’t know before, that you can get it even though you have never smoked, or that you can be really healthy and still get it. It’s not just a smoker’s disease or an old person’s disease    

"The idea to run across the country occurred to me and I started working with our foundation and figuring out the best way to raise awareness for lung cancer. We wanted to make it a big deal that people would be interested in and be curious about and that would help them learn more about lung cancer. We thought this [run] would have a little bit of a shock factor and get people’s attention."

The "What can your lungs do?" initiative has already received national support.

Former NFL players Hank Baskett and Chris Draft, the band Radical Something, U.S. Ski Team member K.C. Oakley, Chicago Cubs prospect Brett Jackson and ballet dancer Jennifer Stahl have shown their support for the cause.

Rivalus has also offered their support by providing athlete supplements, and California-based company Rise Bar will be donating organic energy bars along the way.

"The goals for our foundation are to get more people talking about lung cancer first of all and to get people to realize that there is this unfair stigma around it," said Kelcey. "When people hear someone has lung cancer, the first question is ‘well, did you smoke?’ or ‘how much did you smoke?’ As we all learned, you do not need to have smoked to get lung cancer. We need to get that message out there. Once we break that stigma then the money will pour in and the research will improve drastically.

"A huge sticking point for us is that survival rate for lung cancer hasn’t changed in 40 years. Consider the technology we have these days. It’s just because there’s no money going into it because people have this fear that if you have lung cancer you’ve probably brought it on yourself."

The survival rate for lung cancer patients is just 15.5 percent. By comparison, 94 percent of breast cancer patients survive. For prostate cancer, the survival rate is now up to 99 percent.

Kelcey hopes she can help raise awareness of lung cancer to shatter this myth.

A San Francisco Giants fan, Kelcey has been active her entire life, much as Jill was before her diagnosis.

She’s completed the Boston and San Francisco marathons—she took up long-distance running in her senior year at Harvard—and she has run in a number of half marathons across the country. She also played on her college varsity soccer team and enjoys yoga.

"Jill was definitely inspiring. People that were friends with her, people that knew her, were certainly inspired," she said. "She really got out there and wanted to be an advocate for it. She had a huge impact on energizing this cause and putting a new face on lung cancer.

"I can still see her little smile … and hear her giggle, and that’s the first image that pops into my head when I think or her. It always makes me a laugh. She was such a happy person, she was always easy to be around. She was incredibly strong.”

• You can also visit Kelcey’s website and blog here and find out more about Jill’s Legacy here. You can also donate to the The Bonnie J. Addario Foundation here.

• Follow Kelcey on Twitter through her entire run at @GreatLungRun.

Ash Marshall is a contributor to Bleacher Report. All quotes, unless otherwise noted, were obtained in person.