It was only mid-June, just a couple months into his journey, and Steve Spear had hit the wall while standing on the biggest stage of his life.
"I just kept thinking that what I was doing was just the nuttiest thing," Spear said. "The days had piled up, and there seemed to be endless road. It seemed purely ridiculous. I literally felt like crawling up in a fetal position and just calling an end to it."
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But then he thought about what would happen if any of the little girls in Kenya he was trying to help did the same thing. What if, while making one of the daily treks of more than 3 miles with a 50-pound can of water, a girl just quit? There would be nothing to quench her or her family's thirst that day. No way to cook. No way to get clean. Even in the depth of his worst fatigue, all Spear had to do for water was reach for the nearest bottle.
And that thought is what has carried Spear two-thirds of the way across the country. He began running at Santa Monica Pier in California in April. He will finish, 3,243 miles later, where the Atlantic Ocean meets New York in late August. The mission: Run across the country to bring attention to the lack of clean water sources in Africa, and raise $1.5 million to do something about it.
If he is successful, the money total will be enough to provide a clean water system to 30,000 people in Kenya.
His task, his calling, involves running an average of a marathon a day, every day, for five months. But this week, Spear is coming home.
On Friday morning, he began running north up Route 47 in Lisbon, Ill., to where it meets Interstate 88. Saturday, his path takes him through downtown St. Charles, his hometown, for a dose of rejuvenation before starting the final 840 miles of his run. He's scheduled to be at a rally at 11 a.m. at Dick Pond Athletics, 303 N. 2nd St.
Along the way, Spear has fought a bout of the flu. He's endured sweltering heat and oppressive humidity. But he's also seen several moments of heartwarming care for others.
The first came in Gallup, N.M., when a man ran up to him as Spear jogged through downtown. Having already learned about Spear's mission, he invited Spear to run straight into a chapel service at a local Christian school to share his message. Sweaty and panting, Spear ran into the building, right up onstage and spoke for 10 minutes. Afterward, a student suggested they all pitch in and donate.
"Gallup is located in the third-poorest county in the United States," Spear said. "Those kids gave us $345. It was the coolest thing ever."
Donations like that have become the hallmark of Spear's journey. One blue-collar couple contacted him to donate their entire $5,000 tax refund to the cause.
"They were not hand-to-mouth, but these were not people of great means," Spear said. "Those are truly the kinds of moments that inspire you."
Another time, as he hit the 21-mile mark while running along a rural strip of Oklahoma road, a truck pulled up when the driver saw Spear huffing and puffing with his hands on his knees while taking a breather in the shade. The man asked if Spear needed help. Spear responded that he was running across the country to raise money for clean water.
"How long will you be here?" Spear recalls the man asking.
"About 5 more minutes," Spear replied.
"My combine is just down the road," the man said. "I'll be right back."
He returned with a check for $1,000.
Despite all that goodwill, Spear is still far short of his fundraising goal. He's collected about $130,000 to date. He's hoping the homecoming will be a catalyst to the donations in his final leg of the journey. It's one thing to donate to a guy trying to run across the country; it's another to be able to say you actually made it coast to coast when trying to collect funds, Spear said.
Spear will collect donations Saturday as he runs up through Elburn to St. Charles, and then later in the day and on Sunday when he speaks at Willow Creek Community Church in South Barrington. While there, he'll be surrounded by people who understand exactly why Spear feels called to do this run.
Spear was Susan DeLay's pastor at the West Chicago branch of Willow Creek before he quit to do the run.
"Most of us think he is a little crazy, but we are also deeply respectful of his willingness to listen to God and do this," DeLay said. "To undertake something like this, it had to come with a lot of fear. He had to say, 'OK, God. I give up. I surrender.' And that's a good message for everybody."
Paul Jansen Van Rensburg worked with Spear and counts him as one of his best friends. He even feels responsible for getting Spear into his first marathon and, perhaps, infecting him with the idea of how much of a difference clean water can make in Kenya. Van Rensburg grew up in South Africa.
"People over there have to walk at least a 5-kilometer a day just to drink," Van Rensburg said. "That's not so easily understood in our First World culture. Water changes the entire game. If you have water, you can eat. If you don't have to walk all day for water, you can go to school. Here, water is not even a consideration in our minds."
So when Spear told Van Rensburg he was thinking about running across the United States for clean water, Van Rensburg was one of the only people who took the idea seriously right away.
"It was just a total no-brainer to go, 'Steve, I think you need to do this. Yes, it's crazy, and it's the very thing you need to do.' Fear will always be part of the picture. But I've seen hope and life, and that will always outlast fear. Steve is providing that hope."
People interested in joining Spear for a 15-mile, 7-mile or 3-mile segment of his run, or donating to his clean water cause, can get more information at: https://www.facebook.com/events/206446549505350/.
Passing: Runner to be in downtown St. Charles this morning