This article is part of our 2013 Men of the Moment campaign celebrating the year’s great men, presented by Jeep Cherokee.
You may have some preconceived notions about a guy who prefers to go by the last name “Danger” — and you can throw most of them out of the window when it comes to Tommy Danger (nee Locklin). Tommy isn’t an Evel Knievel wannabe or a show-off. He’s a bit of a thrillseeker, but mostly he’s a guy with the drive to make a difference.
“I’ve always been that guy who wants to jump out of airplanes and jump off cliffs and push everything to the very edge,” Tommy says. Naturally, after he finished biking from Southern California to Boston in 2007, he turned his to something “a little more extreme.” And when his childhood friend Laura Clem gave birth to a child with Cystic Fibrosis, he saw an opportunity to help.
Laura explained to Tommy that Cystic Fibrosis was a chronic disease that affects the lungs. CF patients possess a defective gene that can cause them to produce thick mucus that clog the lungs and can cause serious infections. Today about 70,000 children and adults worldwide suffer from it, according to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.
“If I didn’t know about Cystic Fibrosis, I wondered, how many other people didn’t know about it either?” Tommy says. “So I asked her if I could run across the country for Ethan.”
“I thought Tommy was crazy,” Laura says. “But I knew the awareness he would bring would be phenomenal. Tommy’s the kind of guy who can talk to anybody.” For proof of Tommy’s magnetism, you don’t have to look further than the more than 7,000 Facebook fans he’s gained for his More Than Just Me foundation, but can also ask Timothy Ettridge, Tommy’s driver on the run.
“I was a stranger and within three minutes of talking to him I was asking how I could get involved with his run,” Timothy says. The two kept in touch, and when Tommy’s original driver canceled, Timothy eagerly volunteered. “I’m 58, and what I’ve learned in life—slowly—is desire has far more to do with success than talent ever will. So when I see somebody who has desire, I’m drawn to them,” Timothy says.
Tommy started his run in Seattle on September 22, 2012. On his first day he logged less than 11 miles. “Every muscle in my lower half was cramping—my calves, my hamstrings, my quads. My goal was to run 15 miles a day. I wondered how I was going to do it,” Tommy remembers. “You can’t train for a cross-country run. I know it sounds cheesy, but the biggest thing I tell people is to run with your heart and not with your legs,” he says. On his second day, he ran 16 miles. Soon he was averaging 18 to 20 miles a day.
Tommy and Timothy rose at dawn each day, and typically spent their mornings seeking out coffee (for Timothy) and Wi-Fi (for Tommy). Because most of his run took place during cooler months, Tommy wouldn’t begin jogging until the afternoon when the temperature was warmer. Around noon or 2 P.M. they’d drive back to where Tommy had left off the previous day. “I’d start about 10 feet behind where we stopped so I knew I was covering the whole country,” Tommy explained. Meanwhile, Timothy would drive five miles and wait for Tommy. Once Tommy reached him, he’d drive five more miles, and so on, until they’d covered 15 miles. Then Timothy parked every three miles. At the end of the day the pair would find or make dinner, pull off the road in a parking lot or field, and crash for the night.
Throughout, Tommy made a point to keep Cystic Fibrosis awareness at the heart of his expedition. “There were people who wanted to write about the run, but I told them I wouldn’t do the interview unless the story was about cystic fibrosis,” he says. In fact, he named his mission “More than Just the Miles” to reflect the fact that his run went beyond the distance he covered. Along the way restaurants and hotels would donate their services after hearing his story, but for the most part, he made do with what he had (which meant sleeping head-to-toe in a minivan). Tommy wanted every penny donated to go to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, so he told his followers not to donate hotel rooms. “There was one point where I went 11 days running 20 miles a day without a shower,” Tommy says. “I can’t imagine what that van smelled like.”
In Louisiana, Tommy ran a marathon every single day for a week. To push past the physical demands, he called upon the experience of CF patients.
Aside from the smell, Tommy encountered a few trials that he literally took in stride. In New Mexico he planned on running on a 100-mile dirt straightaway about 3 miles from the highway, but was nearly thwarted when snow pummeled the region. “We were in a car that wasn’t made for snow, and we were on a road we didn’t really know with nobody coming through, but Tommy wanted to run it,” Timothy says.
When they hit Louisiana, Tommy decided he wanted to run a marathon every single day for a week. “The fifth day was the most difficult. I wondered what the hell I was thinking,” Tommy says. To push past the physical demands of his run, Tommy called upon the experience of Cystic Fibrosis patients. “I thought about the kids who wake up every single day and have to do two breathing treatments where they are hooked to a vest that shakes for thirty minutes,” he says. “After this I didn’t have to run anymore if I didn’t want to, but they still had to do the treatments, and take handful of pills, and go to the hospital. That was my motivation.”
After a day of running 100 miles straight, Tommy wrapped up his 3,200-mile trip in Daytona on April 13, which happened to be Ethan’s fourth birthday. His parents, Laura, and Ethan greeted him, along with more than 100 other people from 13 different states who had been keeping tabs on his voyage via social media. “I was a huge emotional wreck,” he says. One woman approached Tommy at the end to tell him that her husband, a Cystic Fibrosis patient, had almost given up on life until he read about Tommy’s run. “She said he had dropped a ton of weight, but because of me he wanted to become healthy. He packed on 15 pounds and left the hospital. That right there was worth the 3,200 miles I ran,” Tommy says.
Ethan’s family, of course, also appreciates Tommy’s efforts. “Ethan is only 4, but he kind of knew [the run] started with him. Ethan always says ‘Tommy’s running a long way because he loves me,’” Laura says. “When Ethan was diagnosed we talked to our pastor. He told us Ethan was going to change lives. Now 6,700-plus people know who Ethan is. We’re changing lives thanks to Tommy.”
In addition to spreading the word about CF with his run, but Tommy also managed to raise about $20,000 for the Cystic Fibrosis foundation. “That’s good, but for our next campaign our goal is to raise a million dollars,” he says.
So how does one up the ante after pounding the pavement for 3,200 miles? Over the next four years Tommy plans to scale the Seven Summits—the highest peak on each continent, starting with Kilimanjaro in November. “To go to every continent and be on the highest peak—and to be on Everest, the world’s roof—has been a dream of mine,” he says. “I love that I can take my dreams and goals and adventurous side and turn it into something that brings money, awareness, and hope to others.”