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Article updated: 2/19/2013 10:34 AM

St. Charles man to run across America to give Kenyans water

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When Steve Spear runs, he spends a fair amount of time thinking about how much he hates it.

His level of disdain is probably about a 6 or 7 on a 10-point scale. To block it out, he tries to let his mind fade to a state of nothingness where his body simply takes over in a machine-like state of efficiency.


In November 2010 something invaded that state of nothingness.

"I was on an innocent 15-mile run in the hills of the Ohio Valley," the St. Charles man said. "I'm on like mile five. As I'm running, this notion drops into my head: 'You are to run across America for the good of others.' That freaked me out. I thought, 'What the heck was that?' I just took that thought and left it there on the pavement."

The thought didn't stay there. It lingered with Spear. It felt like a task placed upon him, something that would eat at him forever if he didn't do it.

In April, Spear will begin his trek across the continent. The "good of others" segment of his task is a plan to raise $1.5 million that will bring clean water to a community in Kenya. That's the driving force.

But the mission is not one he cherishes. Unlike Forrest Gump, Spear never just feels like running. He ran his first 10K nearly 30 years ago at the invitation of some friends.

"I hated it," Spear said. "I hated the training. I hated every part of it."

Spear continued with his life never intending to enter another distance race. In 1996, he became the pastor of a regional congregation of Willow Creek Community Church in Barrington. It was through that line of work he first became connected to World Vision, a Christian nonprofit that focuses on global poverty, when another friend lured him into running once again in 2007.

World Vision fields one of the largest running teams in every Chicago Marathon. The team runs to raise money and bring awareness to the desperate need for clean water in Africa.

"My friend said, 'You've got to run this thing,'" Spear said. "And I was like, 'No, I don't. I hate running. I have no desire to run.'"

But Spear spent a lot of time as a pastor encouraging people to try new things. And the run would benefit a good cause. He was soon sucked in again.

"I just told myself I needed to surrender to the inconveniences I was associating with running a marathon," Spear said.

He had no dreams of glory. His first goal wasn't even to finish the race.

"I just wanted to hate running less each time I ran," Spear said.

He also wanted to remain dedicated to his training to the point he felt he could both stand at the starting line and cross the finish line before organizers closed the course. He also wanted to help World Vision with its fundraising goals.

On race day, Spear reached all his goals, including raising $1,000 for clean water. It costs only $50 to bring clean water to one person in Africa for his or her entire life. Spear's $1,000 would go a long way. It was a satisfying accomplishment.

But when the marathon rolled around again in 2008, Spear wasn't only running in it -- he'd recruited 50 other people into joining him. That was even more satisfying.

Spear's effort drew the attention of the higher-ups in World Vision. They invited him to go to South Africa to associate some faces with the cause. But it wouldn't be a leisurely journey. Again, Spear was called to run. This time it was the 2009 Comrades 56-mile Ultra Marathon.

With no hesitation, Spear rejected the invitation.

"I don't like running 26 miles," he said. "I certainly didn't want to do 56 miles. Why would anyone run 56 miles?"

Then came two questions that changed not his hatred for running but his outlook on the task. The first was obvious: "Why wouldn't you run 56 miles?"

"Fear," Spear said. "Fear of the training. Fear of the run. Fear of the fundraising. Fear of how it's going to disrupt my life."

Then came the hook. "Other than fear, what's holding you back?" asked the Team World Vision leaders.

"It shook me," Spear said. "Fear has to be respected. But fear should never be something that holds any of us back. I was in."

One plane trip and 56 miles later, Spear had raised more than $100,000 for clean water, enough to give 2,000 people clean water for the rest of their lives. It was a year later that the thought of running across America crept into his thoughts on that Ohio Valley run. He was so afraid of the notion he didn't even tell his wife, Frances, for two months.

When Spear finally told her and they researched the idea, they both freaked out. It's only been accomplished 262 times since 1909. In comparison, more than 5,000 people have reached the summit of Mount Everest.

But the idea wouldn't die. Whenever it crept into Spear's mind, thoughts of the time away from work, his wife and the rest of life followed. Again, there was fear.

In April 2012, everything began to align. His wife supported it. World Vision got behind the idea. A few local sponsors got on board.

"Eventually, I couldn't push it down any further," Spear said. "Once I sort of opened the door to this and stepped out of the fear and into belief, then it became a 'when' question, not an 'if.' "

In about six weeks, Steve Spear will leave the comfort of his St. Charles home and head to the Santa Monica pier in California. From there, he'll begin a 3,243-mile run to where the Atlantic Ocean meets New York.

He'll have two RVs and a car that will follow him, assuming he can get a sponsor to donate the RVs. He'll live in one with his wife. The other RV will be for his road crew (medical, communications, etc.).

The plan is to step out of the RV each morning and run 35 miles a day, five days a week. He'll consume about 6,100 calories a day while doing it. By the time he reaches New York, he'll have completed more than 120 marathons.

Spear hopes to collect donations and sponsorships along the way to raise the $1.5 million for water.

The first stretch will take him along Route 66 from California to Chicago. It's not the shortest route to New York, but Spear said he wants to run along Route 47 and Route 64 through St. Charles, the city he loves. He hopes to hit that stretch of the run by the second or third week of July.

The plan is to complete the run by the end of August, just before his dad's 90th birthday.

The pitfalls of injury, general fatigue and road mishaps await him, as does his hatred for running. That's when Spear will remember a recent visit to Kenya.

There he met a young girl named Winnie. She and her mother take two three-mile trips every day to fill old fuel cans with brown water from the nearest river. When full, the fuel cans weigh about 50 pounds.

Winnie uses a harness secured by a rope that goes around the top of her head to hoist the can. Because she spends so much time getting water for her family, she can't attend school.

When Spear thinks of that, making it to the next light post on his run doesn't seem so hard. Neither does making it to the next light post after that, and so on.

"I don't even have to walk a yard to get clean water," Spear said. "Water is the basis of hope. We take it for granted. But when clean water can be provided to a community, then young women can start thinking about schools. Everything gets better from that first building block of clean water."

If Spear is successful, the $1.5 million he'll have raised will build a clean water system for Winnie and her community. That means helping 30,000 people have clean water for life and the opportunity to improve their futures as well.

"I know there will be dozens of moments on my run where I start off thinking, 'This is going to suck,'" Spear said.

"In those moments, I'll run for water."

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