FAIRBANKS — A big part of Kevin Kline’s job revolves around meeting strangers and hearing their stories. As a morning radio host in Houston, Kline is used to encountering people from all walks of life.
His perspective on life changed Dec. 15, 2005, when he visited the Texas Children’s Cancer Center in Houston for a morning broadcast.
A few children who were battling cancer were playing together in the corner when Kline spotted a teenager with straight, long brown hair that went down to the middle of her back.
The teenager wasn’t like the other children, who were bald, so Kline figured she must’ve been a staff member or volunteer. He soon learned that the girl, named Chelsey Campbell, was one of the sicker patients at the center.
“She had undifferentiated sarcoma, which is tumors in the soft tissues of her body,” Kline said during a recent interview in the La Quinta Inn and Suites lobby. “Doctors gave Chelsey a 10 percent chance to live another 6 months and see her 16th birthday. She was diagnosed in October 2005, and they didn’t think she’d make it to June 2006.”
Campbell beat the odds and celebrated her 16th birthday, though her fight with cancer ended when she passed away Dec. 9, 2006.
“On the 364th day that we would’ve been friends, I buried her as a pallbearer at her funeral,” Kline said.
Kline is still sharing Campbell’s story as an ultra-runner. He was in Alaska this past week preparing for his biggest challenge yet: a 300-mile run on the Dalton Highway, starting at the Arctic Circle sign and finishing at the Deadhorse post office.
The journey, which he is calling the Delivering Hope Run, will begin in November 2019 and last nine days. Kline said he hopes to raise more than $200,000 for childhood cancer research while sharing the stories of the hundreds of children he’s met who have either beaten cancer, are currently fighting cancer or have passed away from the disease.
“We hope to defy the odds that very few — if any — people have accomplished before,” Kline said. “We’ve been told that nobody has even tried it before and that it’s virtually impossible to do. We want to deliver the hope that as we finish something, so too, can children defy the odds and beat cancer.”
His first run
Kline didn’t grow up as a runner. He was a catcher on the baseball diamond and a goalkeeper on the soccer pitch — two positions that really didn’t require much movement.
The idea to begin running came in February 2006, when Campbell underwent a 27-hour surgery that required four shift changes of nurses, four anesthesiologists, one assistant surgeon and one primary surgeon.
“They called it a marathon surgery,” Kline said.
He visited Campbell in the ICU and witnessed the pain she endured as she battled cancer.
“For three days, she had to lay flat in her hospital bed and take her thumb and press a button to raise her torso 45 degrees,” Kline said. “She couldn’t do it for three straight days. Now that’s pain.”
Although he wasn’t an experienced runner, the idea of a “marathon surgery” inspired Kline to take part in a marathon of his own. He told Campbell that he intended to run his first marathon to honor her strength and the surgery.
Her response wasn’t much different from what anybody would ask a runner preparing for their first 26.2-mile trek.
“She asked, ‘Do you think you can finish?’” Kline recalled, “I said, ‘For you, I’ll finish anything.’”
Kline ran the Chevron Houston Marathon on June 14, 2007. He finished in 3 hours, 44 minutes and 49 seconds, despite the fact that he ran with fractured shins.
Kline and his wife Trish started the Snowdrop Foundation in June 2006 to raise money for research that would help children like Campbell.
During his first marathon run, he wore a T-shirt that stated “Snowdrop Foundation” with the message “I’m running for Chelsey” printed underneath.
As he ran through the streets of Houston, Kline was met with signs of support from strangers in the crowd. Some shouted “Chelsey’s proud!” as he ran by, while others encouraged him to “Do it for Chelsey!”
After finishing the race, Kline told Trish about the phenomenon that occurred.
“I told my wife, ‘You know, 32 different people said Chelsey’s name today. I think that’s how we’re going to keep her alive — running and wearing a shirt with Chelsey’s name and keep sharing her message to people,’” he said.
Kline was the only runner wearing a Snowdrop Foundation shirt during that first marathon. Now, more than a decade later, more than 1,000 people are wearing Snowdrop shirts as they complete races around the world.
One of the foundation’s supporters started the Snowdrop Honor Team, which pairs a runner with a pediatric cancer patient, survivor or a family who lost a child to pediatric cancer. The runners essentially “adopt” their patients and represent that child or their family during each race they run.
Kline still keeps in touch with the Campbells. In fact, he and the Snowdrop Foundation recently presented the Houston-based cancer center with a check for $230,000 earlier this month.
Campbell’s mother was there, and she and Kline embraced after the presentation.
“I said, ‘Look at what your daughter is doing,’” Kline said of the interaction. “And she said, ‘I’m hugging my daughter right now.’”
A dream run
Kline has finished more than 161 races that were marathon distance or longer. He doesn’t count 5K, 10K and half marathons in his tally.
“Those are just training runs,” he said.
Still, even after running thousands of miles all over the world, Kline has always wanted to run the Dalton Highway, which is widely regarded as North America’s most dangerous road.
“It’s always been my dream run,” he said. “Whenever I do a solo run like this, it has to have some difficulty that mirrors what pediatric cancer patients go through, whether it’s symbolic or real.”
The Texan sees multiple similarities between running the Dalton and the challenge children face while fighting cancer.
One thing the Dalton presents is extreme isolation, which Kline said children battling cancer can relate to.
“When a child gets diagnosed with cancer, their chemotherapy depletes their immune system,” he said. “They’re either isolated at home away from their friends or they’re in the hospital.”
Don’t forget about the hostile environment of the Dalton — the highway’s freezing ice and terrain.
“Chemotherapy is a hostile environment,” Kline explains. “It kills everything inside of the body, so there’s the hostility being mirrored.”
How about the colorless existence of the Dalton? As Kline and his friend and supporter, Brian Anderson, discovered this past week, “It’s either nighttime or it’s white time out there.”
The abundance of snow and lack of colors is another tangible correlation.
“The hospital room is a pretty bare wall that the kids are looking at,” Kline said.
Kline then shared the story of two young girls he’s met over the years.
“One of my heroes is a 13-year-old girl and when she was 12, they cut off her leg to save her life because of cancer,” he said. “I know another girl who lost an eye when she was 2. Their bodies are compromised, and I know that if I get frostbite, I could lose a finger, toe or hand.”
And, the darkest similarity of them all, is the grave possibility that something fatal could happen to Kline during his run.
“I buried Chelsey,” he said. “There is a potential for death with cancer, and with the most dangerous highway in the country, there’s the potential of death on the highway.”
While completing the run will mirror the hardships cancer patients experience, finishing it will replicate a feeling they’ll always cherish.
“The reason why it’s always been my dream run is because we’re going to start at the Arctic Circle, Mile 15 of the Dalton, and we’re not going to stop until we get to Deadhorse, which is almost right at the Arctic Sea,” Kline said. “The entire run will take place at the top of the world, and that’s the way these kids feel when they beat their cancer. They feel like they’re on top of the world.
“I’m going to run with a backpack full of kids’ names that have fought pediatric cancer, and I’m going to take them to the top of the world."
You don’t just show up, tie your shoelaces tightly and then start running the Dalton Highway. Kline has been thinking about this project for years.
One hurdle he had to clear while preparing was how to duplicate the sub-zero temperatures he may face in November during his run. Houston obviously doesn’t pack the same chill as the Arctic Circle.
A friend in Houston set up an 8-by-8 walk-in freezer in Kline’s garage. Inside the freezer, which was lent to Kline free of charge so he can train for 18 months, is a treadmill.
“I bought a brand new treadmill,” Kline said. “I didn’t want to ruin my good one, so I bought a lower-tier one and it’s been working great.”
The freezer drops down to 20 below Fahrenheit, and it has allowed Kline to get comfortable running in the cold. But what about running on the icy highway in frozen conditions?
“One of the big reasons we came up here was to feel the traction on the Dalton,” Kline said of this past week’s trip, which will be his only test run in Alaska before next year.
“I’m wearing ice spikes that are basically screws that go into my shoes. No problems on the ice or the snow. No problems whatsoever.”
Kline said he’s realized that he’ll need to get stronger in the months leading up to the run.
“The only problem the terrain conditions are posing for me is it takes a lot more muscle strength to push off on ice and snow than it would be on dry pavement,” he said. “I have a year to get my legs stronger, but after running 12 miles the other day, I was starting to feel it in my hamstrings.”
He started at the Arctic Circle sign and ran 13 miles this week, accompanied by Robert Weeden from the Northern Alaska Tour Company, who Kline and Anderson said has been a tremendous help preparing for next year.
Kline will run between two cars, the front of which will carry an avid hunter with lots of outdoors experience and a nurse for the United States Army.
Anderson, who is a NASA engineer, will follow Kline in another car. The cause hits home for Anderson, a former college track athlete who has a nephew that was born with cancer.
The idea of preparing for such a grand project also is right in the engineer’s wheelhouse.
“I like my excel spreadsheets and I like to plan,” Anderson said. “The logistics of planning something like this is really satisfying for me. I take pride in figuring out how we can pull this off and keep everybody safe.”
Anderson also said he’ll know whether the conditions are proving too much for Kline.
“I’ve watched him run for years. I’ll know if he’s in distress,” he said. “Before he’s even admitting it, I’ll know if something is wrong by just watching his cadence and stride.”
The duo said Kline is capable of running 50-80 miles per day, multiple days in a row.
Although the 300 miles breaks down to about an average of 37 miles per day over the course of eight days, Kline intends to run between 40-50 miles the first three days.
“That way we can get to the bottom of Atigun Pass and start the 9-mile climb on Day 4,” he said.
Kline said he is prepared to expect the unexpected, knowing full well that Mother Nature can spin a filthy curveball at a moment’s notice.
However, he wants to finish the run at exactly 5:05 a.m. AKST on Nov. 24, 2019. That will be his 50th birthday — down to the exact minute, as he was born at 8:05 a.m. CST.
When he does reach the post office in Deadhorse, he’ll be able to deliver hope to thousands around the world.
“We’ve been told that nobody has ever done this before,” Kline said again. “The whole purpose isn’t to be the first person to do something, it’s to be the last. The last kid to ever face cancer, that’s our goal for this. We want to find a cure. That’s why we’re here.”
Visit deliveringhoperun.org and the Delivering Hope Run Facebook page for more information or to donate.
Contact News-Miner sports writer Brad Joyal at 459-7530. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMSportsGuy.