By Chris Holt
For Sam Fox, hiking the Grand Canyon was just a warm-up. Likewise, his runs around Muir Woods, the Greater Tahoe Rim and the Berkeley hills were just training sessions. In three days, the 24-year-old Berkeley resident sets out for the real event - a hike from the beginning to end of the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail. Fox's goal: to raise $250,000 for the Michael J. Fox (no relation) Foundation for Parkinson's Research. His inspiration: His 60-year-old mother, Lucy Fox, who was diagnosed with the disease seven years ago.
Beginning in North Cascades National Park in Washington, at the Canadian border, and ending in Campo (San Diego County) at the Mexican border, he will attempt to make the journey in 60 days to break the current world record of 65 days. To that end, he must average 44.1 miles per day along terrain that ranges from rainy woodlands to steep mountains (see map).
"Only 40 percent of people who attempt to hike the entire trail are successful," Fox says, and most do it with companions. Aside from a support team and a documentary film crew who will meet him at 70-mile intervals where the trail crosses the highway, Fox will be on his own.
The timetable is daunting, with weather, fatigue and wildlife all concerns. He's hiking with minimal gear to keep the load light - layers for rain and warmth, water and food, two headlamps, a knife, satellite communication gear, long-range walkie-talkies, a camera and cell phone. Instead of a sleeping bag, he'll carry a waterproof sheet to take naps on. It will offer little protection, however, against the elements he might encounter in the mountainous areas. Last year the first snowstorm hit the Sierra on Oct. 15.
"If I'm not out of the Sierras by Oct. 8, I'm screwed," he says with a laugh. In the course of training, he's encountered bears, so he says he's not that worried about wildlife. His bigger concerns are fatigue and injury.
Fox will have an opportunity to shower, eat fresh food and tend to injuries when he meets the RV carrying his two-person documentary crew at the prescribed rest stops. He'll update his website and check in with his mom. But there are long stretches along the trail, especially near Yosemite, where he'll have no stops for replenishing. "There's 195 miles where I won't see anybody," he says. That four-plus day period will necessitate carrying a real sleeping bag, more provisions and emergency supplies.
In January, Fox started a nonprofit, Run While You Can, to fund his efforts. The stated purpose of Run is to "challenge the notion that a healthy tomorrow is promised to anyone, by creating awareness and financial support for events that emphasize the urgency of living fully today." He says his current project is only the beginning. He hopes to direct future efforts toward cancer patients, veterans' groups and paraplegics.
While many individual members of the Michael J. Fox Foundation's "Team Fox" grassroots fundraising organizations have ambitious goals - it's considered a great accomplishment to raise $3,000 in a year - Sam Fox has raised the bar. Four days after his donation page (runwhileyoucan.org) went live, he had raised over $5,000. The trailer for his documentary, which shows the 6-foot-3, 160-pound athlete with flowing blond hair in training, has had more than 100,000 hits. (A grant from New York's Boisi Family Foundation will cover the cost of making the documentary.)
'Dedication and focus'
"We've been in awe of Sam's dedication and focus," says Michael J. Fox Foundation co-founder and executive vice chairwoman Deborah Brooks. "It's so symbolic of how hard it is to live with this disease."
A high jumper at Yale University, Fox feels confident his lungs will hold up. He's less confident about his feet, knees and joints. Like many long-distance athletes, he sports scars on his back from training with a pack constantly rubbing against his skin. His mother says that despite his many months of conditioning and an upbringing filled with outdoor excursions, camping and sports, she knows his task "may be impossible." She tries to make light of her very real worries about bears, mountain lions and his health, and has been fully supportive of his project, granting interviews and working with the Fox Foundation personnel.
"Initially I was doing this for Mom," Fox jokes. "But lately I feel like I've been doing it to her."
Fox grew up in Rhode Island. His father is in the seafood business; his mom, an avid skier until her diagnosis, stayed home to raise the kids. She still gardens and manages a family farm in Connecticut. When Fox was a junior in high school, he and his older brother Martin took over their grandfather's business, American Bird Products, a company specializing in bird callers. After graduating from Yale in 2009, Fox worked full time at the business until 2010 when he sold his half of the company and moved to Berkeley on the recommendation of a college roommate. Since then he's worked on launching his website and preparing for the challenge of the trail.
At midnight Thursday, Fox will cross the Canadian border into northern Washington and start walking. His family and friends will be focused on the target date approximately two months from now when he hopes to take his final step on the Pacific Crest Trail. It's then they'll know that when man took on nature, man won - and in the process raised thousands of dollars to help find a cure for the disease that set him on the journey.