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The Hope Express: The Run Of A Lifetime

This evening, just as 708 dancers will take to their feet and kick off THON weekend, a dedicated and exhausted group of runners will be finishing the glacial trek from the Penn State Hershey Medical Center to the Bryce Jordan Center.

The Hope Express is a recent and unique addition to the magic and passion that surrounds THON. It is a marathon of sorts, spanning the 135-mile separation of the Hershey Medical Center and the BJC, and the run kicks off exactly 24 hours before the start of THON weekend. This morning, the runners are a little over halfway through their journey, winding across Pennsylvania and battling the brutal temperatures.

Amid the incredible enthusiasm of its participants, there is one thing that truly sets the Hope Express apart: Its runners consist of Four Diamonds families and THON alumni.

Hank and Connie Angus, Four Diamonds parents of Gabriel, thought of the idea in 2006. Prior to attending their very first THON that year, Hank told his wife that he wanted to run to THON. According to the Hope Express’s website, Hank was in the midst of his marathon training and discovered that running was helpful in clearing his mind of the anxiety surrounding their son, Gabe, and his battle with leukemia.

While Hank may not have run to THON that year, the Angus’ were so inspired and impressed by THON that they dedicated themselves to making it happen the next year.

Searching for a purpose, the Angus family originally wanted the Hope Express to resemble the torch-lighting of the Olympics. The torch would be lit by one of the Four Diamonds children receiving treatment on the seventh floor of the Medical Center, and its journey to the BJC would symbolize the start of THON weekend. However, after this idea could not logistically be performed, they continued to seek for a renewed purpose. They found it in a THON version of the Pony Express.

As many Four Diamonds families remain in Hershey during THON in order to receive necessary treatment, the Hope Express serves as a communication tool for the families and children to relay letters and notes of thanks and inspiration to the students at Penn State. In a way, the Hope Express is its own extraordinary Mail Call — from over a hundred miles away.

Stacy Bingler, the Overall Chair of THON in 1995, a three-time runner in the Hope Express, and a three-time dancer in THON, fondly remembers its beginnings.

“When I was vice president of the DMAIG [Dance Marathon Alumni Interest Group], we got an email from a Four Diamonds father, Hank Angus, asking if we could help him with this run he was trying to organize,” Bingler said. DMAIG assisted greatly in the organization and publicizing of the Hope Express, and because THON alumni are a great portion of the runners each year, the two organizations remain closely intertwined.

Although Bingler was unable to be involved in its earlier years, she would eventually run three times in the Hope Express — and in consecutive years, from 2010 through 2012.

hope expressStacy, left, and other runners start their long journey from the Hershey Medical Center (Photo: Stacy Bingler)

As the Overall Chair of THON in 1995, Bingler has danced twice as an alumna, but still holds the Hope Express as one of her favorite THON-related memories. “I have been able to spend some quiet time running on a dark road in the middle of the night with some Four Diamonds dads right alongside me,” she reminisced. “I will never forget those moments.”

Working in relay teams, runners take turns transporting the letters to one another, until they finally arrive in unison to finish the final mile to the BJC. Kicking off Thursday evening and arriving 24 hours later, the runners must endure harsh weather, strenuous mountains, and the same lack of sleep felt by those throughout THON weekend.

“It is the closest thing to experienced THON magic all over again that an alum can do,” Bingler said. “A sacrifice that you make on behalf of others. The fundraising, the physical exertion, the lack of sleep, the cold weather and snow — and of course, running over those mountains.”

Although the runners reaching the BJC may signify the start of THON weekend, they will be finishing quite the hurdle. As THON alumni and Four Diamonds families, they are not new to the concept of emotional exhaustion and a physical toll — yet the Hope Express provides a new, rewarding challenge for those looking to stay involved.

“The Angus family and many of the Four Diamonds families I have met through the Hope Express are nothing short of remarkable,” Bingler reflected, “as are the other runners I have met along the way.”

Best of luck to all the runners of the Hope Express this year, who are currently closing in on Happy Valley. Every step you take helps to bridge the gap between the Four Diamonds children at the Hershey Medical Center, and those dancing #FTK in State College.

If you are interested in becoming involved with the Hope Express, either as a runner, moraler, volunteer, or sponsor, you can find more information on its website.

Photo: Stacy Bingler

About the Author

Jessica Myers

Jess graduated in May 2015, with a Bachelor of Arts with honors in English, and with two minors in Latin and Art History. When she says she's "shippin' up to Boston," she's not just singing the song -- she's actually attending Northeastern University this fall to pursue her master's degree. You can follow her shenanigans at her site, http://www.jessicarmyers.com.

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