De Lap Runs for Lilly

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Russ De Lap and Lilly Johnson pose with members of the cross country team on Nov. 5.
Russ De Lap and Lilly Johnson pose with members of the cross country team on Nov. 5.

Russ De Lap is no stranger to long-distance runs.

The Concordia University Wisconsin cross country and track and field coach has competed in numerous 5Ks, 10Ks, marathons and ultramarathons, including the Vermont 100 Endurance Race (twice), the Bryce Canyon 100, the Tahoe Rim Trail 100, and the Kettle Moraine 100.

Five different times, De Lap had completed 100 miles in the span of approximately a day, so when he set out to “run, walk or crawl” 24 hours straight in support of one of his CUW student-athletes, Lilly Johnson, who is battling cancer, he knew the physical and psychological toll he was in for.

“I’ve run that far,” De Lap, 59, said. “I kind of know the risks and the pain and the other things that come along with it. I don’t know if it’s a sickness or something, but there’s a curiosity of what can I really do?”

This time, however, it was more than just curiosity driving him.

Lilly Johnson walks in the annual President’s Run on Nov. 5.
Lilly Johnson walks in the annual President’s Run on Nov. 5.

Johnson, 20, was diagnosed with 2B Hodgkins Lymphoma in May 2016. The Menominee, Michigan, native was on track to graduate in 2019 with a degree in Occupational Therapy. Her family is still optimistic she’ll be able to return to complete that degree.

De Lap, whose mother and sister passed away from cancer, decided he needed to do something to support the family.

“It’s just somebody you know that’s suffering,” he said. “She can relate to me as a runner and I can relate to her as a runner. Not necessarily coach to runner, but runner to runner and person to person.”

And so, on Nov. 5-6 – even though at midnight he was already saying he was ready to stop and at 50 miles his gut was aching with pain – De Lap completed 101 miles in just under 24 hours for Lilly, raising thousands of dollars in pledges.

“It’s really an amazing feeling to have a coach that cares so much about me that he would go through all of that,” Lilly said. “I’ve been blessed to have so much love and support from everyone – my family, friends, community and people at CUW. It has made this journey much easier to handle.”

His route was repeated laps on the road that circles the campus. One lap is just shy of a mile.

There was seldom a time that he wasn’t joined by someone: members of his cross country team signed up for shifts throughout the night so that their coach wouldn’t have to go it alone; President Patrick T. Ferry joined him for a while; friends of De Lap and alumni who once ran for him fell into stride; and even one man, who had little connection to Concordia but heard about De Lap’s endeavor, felt moved to join him for the first ultramarathon of his own – 31 miles.

Many of Lilly’s family members came out for the day. Lilly, who had undergone a round of chemotherapy a week and a half before, was even able to walk for a bit in the annual President’s Run, a 5K fundraiser that was held earlier that day.

The proceeds of that race were also donated to Lilly and her family. In total, De Lap says the efforts of the weekend will bring in over $15,000 for the Lilly Fund.

“I really have no words for what I witnessed that day,” said Lilly’s mother, Liz Johnson. “It’s emotionally overwhelming to see that many people support our daughter and our family. We are so grateful for all of the support. It’s a journey that one would never think you’re going to have to take with your child, but when you have this many people holding your hand, it does make it easier.”

Before his 24-hour run, De Lap said it had been a long time since he felt “this passionate about something.”

“It just came along,” De Lap said. “Nobody asked me. It was just one of those things I thought of doing and then it grew. Like Lilly and her journey with cancer, I couldn’t have done it alone.”