Cross-country run stops in Summit County to raise suicide awareness
Phil King eats two breakfasts a day: The first while he packs up his RV, and the second after he’s driven it down the road two dozen miles and found a decent place to camp. Then he laces up his shoes, chugs a pre-workout supplement and runs a marathon.
He’s been inching his way across the country like this since March 28, starting on the shores of the Atlantic in Delaware. His goal: to get to San Francisco by running as many days as it takes, all in the name of raising awareness for suicide prevention. So far, he’s got well over 100 marathons and ten pairs of shoes under his belt.
In central Iowa, where King lost his driver, the trek took on a Sisyphean character: Instead of running 26 or so miles and getting picked up, he now had to run 13, then double back to retrieve his RV and drive it as far as he had ran, cutting his pace in half.
It was slow and lonely going through the endless cornfields on either side of Route 6, but King, stubborn to the last, finally emerged from the plains and into the High Rockies. Social media heralded his arrival, and he has since found new drivers and a fresh outpouring of support.
It’s been a welcome change.
“I never want to see a stalk of corn again,” he said, sipping a raspberry iced tea at the Butterhorn Bakery in Frisco. “Coming here is every runner’s dream. I think I was above 10,000 feet for my entire run yesterday, and the views were amazing. No one else on foot, just me and the mountain bikers who looked at me like I was crazy.”
If there’s anything King has learned so far, it’s to roll with the punches — that much is clear when he casually recounts his perilous run along Kenosha Pass the day before.
“I had been warned about 285, about the pass. It was the first time so far I legitimately feared for my life,” he said, before coolly describing his half-run, half-walk along uneven terrain off the side of the road, gripping a guardrail with one hand and trying not to look down at the precipitous drop just one careless step away — or at the cars barreling toward him at 60 miles an hour.
Earlier in Iowa, he was forced to run on I-80 for six miles or so, which is as dangerous as it is illegal. An incredulous police officer stopped him, saying he had gotten dozens of calls about some loony running along the interstate.
“He thought I was the dumbest person alive until I told him what I was doing,” said King.
He refused to get a ride from the officer, insisting that he had to run every mile, coast-to-coast. If that meant getting arrested, so be it. After a brief standoff, the officer drove slowly alongside King as he ran, lights flashing as he escorted him to the next exit.
The aches, pains and hours upon hours of solitude — not to mention brushes with a jail cell or an early grave — all raise the question: Why would any sane person do this?
Simple: For his mother. For his best friend. For everyone who has ever felt the pain — or might one day feel that pain — of having a loved one fall victim to suicide.
A legacy of loss
King is from Crystal Lakes, Illinois, a small city on the northwest apron of Chicago’s suburban sprawl. The towns and cities on this periphery form a loose agglomeration of development where everything seems to melt together — the oozing expansion of the Windy City’s pulsing core.
It was here, in January 2014, that King’s mother, Lisa, took her own life. It was like a gut punch to his system, and something he still struggles to talk about openly.
“I’d say 60 to 70 percent of the time it helps to talk about it,” he said, hands clasped neatly between his legs. “Sometimes,it just makes it worse. I know for a lot of people it really helps, but, for me, it feels like I’m taking a risk.”
Six months later, just as a mere semblance of normalcy was returning to his life, King’s best friend, Derek, took his own life, as well. Growing up, King had seen a lot of kids struggle with depression and substance abuse — opioids, booze or whatever cheap palliatives trickled onto the wide, leafy streets of Clear Lake. Derek, a heavy drinker who struggled with depression, had gotten into an argument with his girlfriend that ended badly. So badly, in fact, it was enough to push him over the edge of a precipice from which he could never return.
King had always entertained the idle fantasy of a cross-country run. It was something he had hoped to do with his late best friend. After that double shock to his system, though, he entertained the idea with renewed purpose: in every city, town and don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it dot on the map he passed, his monumental run, he thought, might inspire people to action.
During a run shortly after Derek passed, King came to a spot on a favorite trail where he and his late friend used to take breaks and talk. In that moment, he knew what he had to do.
He started training soon after, putting in hundred-mile weeks for over a year. On March 28, 2016, he dipped his feet in the Atlantic Ocean on the coast of Delaware and said a few words. Then he started running west and hasn’t stopped since.
Life and death in the “Suicide Belt”
The national suicide rate has climbed by 24 percent between 1999 and 2014, according to the CDC. After plateauing somewhat in the early 2000s, the rate started climbing faster around 2006. It now stands at 13 per 100,000 deaths.
In Summit County, the picture is less clear: A very small number of deaths provide a tiny sample size and thus a more erratic rate. While suicide has been on the rise, so have deaths overall, from 46 in 2003 to 87 last year, according to the county coroner. After hovering between 8 and 10 percent of deaths since 2004, suicides spiked in 2014, coming in at 16.67 percent of deaths. This year, Summit County is on pace for 14.5 percent of its deaths to come in the form of suicides.
But statistics do little to capture the human suffering wrought by suicide — both the private anguish that leads up to the tragic event and the grief it leaves in its wake.
In January, Breckenridge business owner and philanthropist Patti Casey took her own life. Her passing rocked the Summit County community and prompted more public discussion on abnormally-high suicide rates in resort areas as well as Summit County’s unfortunate position in the “suicide belt,” a swath of the country where people are more likely to take their own lives.
The Casey family set up a memorial fund honoring Patti, and in partnership with The Summit Foundation, they have been working to identify areas of need in Summit County’s mental health infrastructure.
“I asked myself, ‘How do I sublimate my grief in a positive way?’” said Patti’s daughter Betsy, who has helped spearhead these efforts. “By doing everything I possibly can to decrease the chances that this will happen to someone else.”
On Monday, King and Betsy Casey spoke on the phone for more than hour.
“I felt like I was talking to an old friend,” Casey said. “I had yet to connect with someone who had experienced the same loss that I had, and to talk with him was really affirming. We both got a little teary.”
Both shared their admiration for the other’s work and resolved to collaborate on suicide prevention in the future.
But right now, King is running. Through swollen joints, sore muscles and punishing days on the road, he is inching his way across the country. His daily grind is the physical manifestation of the efforts of so many across the country, like Betsy Casey, who works to chip away at the myriad challenges to mental health care and suicide prevention. A single day’s work doesn’t bring sweeping change, just as an entire marathon puts King barely any closer to the waters of San Francisco Bay. But look back upon so many incremental efforts, linked together by dogged persistence, and they trace an arc of extraordinary, almost unfathomable progress.
We can only hope that one day, long after King has dipped his feet in the Pacific Ocean, we will look back and see an even more striking legacy of accomplishment in mental health care.
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