Texas Rep. Pat Fallon, a self-described novice marathon runner, shocked both himself and his peers when he announced that he would be one of 15 participants in the World Marathon.
During the last week of January, Fallon completed the challenge by running one marathon each day for seven days on all seven continents.
Fallon said he did it all for an 8-year-old boy, Jonny Wade, who was diagnosed with cancer in December 2014. Fallon first heard about Jonny from his neighbor and friend, Jill McMillan, who’s friends with Jonny’s mother Kimberly.
Fallon initially avoided reading McMillan’s Facebook posts because it was such a sad topic. Having two young boys himself, Fallon said, the posts hit too close to home.
But after watching a short piece on ESPN about Ted Jackson, a World Marathon Challenge runner last year, Fallon became interested.
“I said to my buddy as we were watching, ‘Man, I’d love to do that,’” Fallon said. “But, much like when I see something on Mount Everest, I’m not really going to do it.”
Fallon said it went on like that for months until one night something changed. He was lying in his bed letting his mind wander when he decided to revisit the World Marathon Challenge Facebook page.
He refreshed his newsfeed and there it was: another post about Jonny.
He read the post through and through, not able to explain why his decision to avoid the subject had changed. Tears came over his eyes as he read the story. Jonny was truly fighting for his life, and the cancer was getting worse.
“And then this thought pops into my head,” Fallon said. “What if I did do the World Marathon Challenge? It’s weird, it’s odd, its eye-catching, and it grabs attention. I’ll pay for it myself with no reimbursements so all of it’s going to research for pediatric cancer.”
And so the preparation began.
Fallon trained each day in hopes he would be able to measure up in the diverse climate conditions across each continent. What was particularly difficult, he said, was that he only had three months to train instead of the typical 15 months.
He would be running with professionals who had competed in 100K races and had been running all their lives. Fallon had participated in only a handful of 5K races.
He wanted this to serve as a distraction for Jonny, Fallon said. And for a while, it did.
“Even though he’s sick, he’s a little boy,” Fallon said. “And they like adventures and globes and things like that.”
Things took a turn for the worse, however, when Jonny died Christmas Eve.
“Jonny’s last wish was very selfless,” Fallon said. “He said, ‘I don’t want any other kid to ever get cancer.’ And to have an 8-year-old think with that much wisdom and that much selflessness is just remarkable.”
After Jonny’s death, Fallon said the distraction pivoted to Jonny’s twin brother, Jacky.
“We got a globe and put stars where the seven [marathon] locations were and gave him a big packet of all the people who had ever done it before.”
The training period quickly came to an end, Fallon said, and before he knew it, he was on a flight to Union Glacier, Antarctica for the first marathon.
Antarctica is the coldest, windiest, driest and highest continent in the world, Fallon said, which clearly translated to a difficult running experience. Challenges included balancing his body temperature to avoid sweating (which would freeze) and getting hypothermia, running on mile-thick ice and keeping his polarized goggles ice-free.
If he did not have polarized protective eyewear, he said, he would have gone blind within an hour due to the continent’s closeness to the sun’s ultraviolet rays.
The sky was gray, the terrain was tough and he was beginning to doubt his running abilities. It was at the moment of despair that he said the sky opened up to show a sliver of sunshine.
“I know it could all be coincidence,” Fallon said. “But I just opened up my palms, and I smiled, and I tilted my head back and I just prayed for the first time all race. I knew right at that moment … that I’m finishing now.”
Fallon finished the Antarctica marathon in 11th place out of 15 with a time of 5 hours and 47 minutes.
In Punta Arenas, Chile, Fallon was determined to break the 5-hour time for Jonny. He ended up shaving over an hour off his first time, coming in at 4 hours and 52 minutes.
With only just enough time to fit a quick shower in, he was on a flight to the next destination: Miami. Fallon said he had been awake 36 hours with no break to sleep. Although irritable and tired, Fallon said the Miami stretch of the challenge was special because the Wade family met him there and Jacky ran with Fallon for a short period of the race.
It was emotional to meet the Wades, Fallon said, but it reminded him why he was doing the challenge in the first place.
“My Fitbit read over 96,000 steps in one day because of the time zone changes,” Fallon said, with a laugh.
After Madrid, Fallon said exhaustion really started to set in. Runners who had participated in previous World Marathon Challenges warned Fallon and the other participants that the Morocco marathon would be the toughest because it is so close in time to the previous race.
Their warning proved true, Fallon said, because everything about the Morocco stretch of the challenge was rough. The trail was comprised of uneven cement and there was a “huge police presence” at the race, according to Fallon.
He and fellow participant Stefan Aumann teamed up for the first time to help each other finish the race, pushing through with identical times of 5 hours and 50 minutes.
On the luxurious flight to Dubai, the runners got to lie down in private beds and relax before the next run.
Whatever Morocco was, Fallon said Dubai was the opposite. While admiring the sights, Fallon said he received word that Jonny’s mom Kimberly was having a horrible day. After seeing everyone in Miami, he said Kimberly was feeling down and missing her son.
Fallon said he knew he could not do anything except run as hard as he could for Jonny. He ran faster than he ever had at that point, he said, and ended up coming in fifth place at 4 hours and 19 minutes.
“Everyone said I was going to hit that wall,” Fallon said. “So I said to myself that I was going to keep going until the wall comes, but it never came.”
With the last marathon to go and a positive attitude, Fallon said he set a goal to break 4 hours in Australia. The hot, humid and windy climate was good to run with his back to, but Fallon said he was worried about running against it.
“Here’s the most mystical thing – just as I got to the turn, the wind changed. And the wind stayed at my back,” he said. “I was a little concerned about the heat … lap three, the humidity lifts.”
For the rest of the way, Fallon said he ran with a friend, told the story of Jonny and received running advice, as well.
Finally, the last lap came. He tore out, grabbed the U.S. and Texas flags and crossed the finish line at last. Fallon’s time was 3 hours and 53 minutes. He came in third place.
Fallon received a Sportsmanship Award for $4,000 and countless donations from followers to be donated to the Pediatric Cancer Foundation in Tampa.
“This was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Fallon said. “I had so much support from everyone – you really can’t do this on your own. I am so proud and happy.”
Fallon returned to a warm welcome from his neighbors. Balloons, signs and other decorations adorned the exterior of his Frisco home.
The monetary goal is $77,777.77, which fits with the “Triple 7” nickname of the challenge. Coincidentally, Fallon said he was dubbed No. 7 out of the 15 participants and Jonny was 7 when he was diagnosed with cancer.
Fallon said every donation goes toward finding a cure for pediatric cancer and honoring Jonny’s wish for no other child to get cancer.
Donate online at fastercure.org, where you click on the “Faster Cure Challenge” link.
“This race is not over. It didn’t end in Sydney with 3:53; it began in Sydney,” Fallon said. “We’re focused on hitting that goal. It’s going to happen – it’s just a question of how quickly.”