By Kim Constantinesco
Exploration magnifies the human experience. There’s no doubt about it.
What Sam Fox, 27, is about to embark on, however, may put NASA-like rockets not only on his human experience, but on the experience of those living with Parkinson’s disease.
Starting on June 2, Fox will be cycling the lower 48 states, and climbing the highest peak in each state to raise money for Parkinson’s research. That will equate to traveling about 6,000-8,000 miles on the bike and roughly 10 sky-touching technical climbs.
There’s more. During his three-month journey, dubbed “Tour de Fox”, he will embark on “extreme” feats, including running across the Grand Canyon in the middle of August, where temperatures will soar to triple digits. Then just a couple of days later, he will ride his bike across Death Valley, where average temperatures can reach over 130 degrees.
“I’ll have to use my brain rather than my body there, and make sure that I’m not putting myself in real danger,” Fox admitted.
This isn’t just some wild stunt charged by his love for adventure. It’s an all-out effort fueled by the love for his mom.
Parkinson’s and it’s effects
Parkinson’s affects more than 5 million people worldwide. After Alzheimer’s, it’s the second most common brain disease. Symptoms range from the well-known tremors and mobility problems to the lesser known symptoms such as depression, cognitive impairment, unexplained pain, and digestive issues. Everyone that has Parkinson’s gets their own version of the disease.
Sam’s mother, Lucy, was diagnosed in 2000 when Sam was just 11 years old.
At the time, the reality of the incurable disease didn’t strike the youngest of three.
“I was consumed trying to make the town travel basketball team, and deciding whether to play soccer or football, and what kind of polo shirt I was allowed to wear to school,” Fox said. “I was truly wrapped up in all that stuff. I knew it was a serious change for my mom. I saw my mom and dad cry when they told me about the diagnosis, but the next day and really the next couple years, there wasn’t a big change in the way we lived our lives as a family.”
Lucy’s symptoms were masked in the beginning, but they surfaced as the disease progressed.
“My mom has some of the recognizable symptoms — lack of mobility, some tremors,” Fox said. “I think for her, it’s a general baseline of health that’s so diminished that it can affect every single thing that you do from thinking to tying your shoes to going out and doing the things you actually love.”
The first Grand run
Fox was an extremely active child, but never set out to be an ultra endurance athlete. He ran high school cross country in his home state of Rhode Island, and then ran track at Yale, where he was an all-Ivy League high-jumper.
After Fox graduated from Yale with a degree in history, he moved to California, where he was able to explore the west and its mountains — something he fell in love with as a child.
At the same time, Lucy’s symptoms were worsening.
On a trip to Arizona, Fox decided to go for a “short” jog around the south rim of the Grand Canyon. He got to the South Kaibab trailhead, which is the famous trail that goes from one side of the canyon to the other.
“I started running down the trail,” Fox said. “I was feeling very good so I kept on going. I finally made it back to my car about 25 miles later. I hadn’t had a sip of water, hadn’t stretched, hadn’t really prepared for anything like that, and felt really good. I had seen miles and miles of the Grand Canyon, and I felt like I had accomplished a lot. It sort of clicked for me then that this might be something that I might be able to do on a larger scale. When I think about giving back to the world and my family, I always link it back to being able to walk and run far.”
Fox’s decision to go on an impromptu extended run led to the discovery that he could not only help his mom, but help the Parkinson’s community as well.
Miles and miles for research
Fox decided to run from Canada to Mexico on the Pacific Crest Trail — a 2,680-mile expedition. He wanted to set a record, covering the distance in 65 days. He did it in 61 days, but his run didn’t technically qualify as record-breaking because he had to skip out on about 300 miles due to deep late season snow. Still, he raised over $300,000 for The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.
“I have good personal reasons for why I’m doing these things, and they seem to carry me through,” Fox said.
Four years ago, shortly after the PCT run, Sam was hired on by the Michael J. Fox Foundation (no relation to Michael) as a community and engagement officer.
Fox’s second major endurance challenge came in the form of running from Times Square to the tip of Long Island — a 28-hour, 100-mile run in 97-degree temperatures. Fox lost 15-20 pounds during the fundraiser, where it was still 94 degrees at midnight. He helped rake in over $100,000 for MJFF.
“I didn’t sit down and say ‘What can I physically do to empathize with Parkinson’s disease?’ I just happened to be pretty good at endurance sports, and I’ve been able to use that as a vehicle to call attention to this cause,” Fox said. “Parkinson’s is a physical affliction. When I’m struggling to get through a 50-mile run or day 40 of a 60-day run, it’s certainly not exactly the same physical problems that people with Parkinson’s develop, but it’s in the same realm. The major difference is the mental side of it, where I can always find relief. I can take a week off, I can take a bath, I can get a massage, and the darkness is sort of gone. There’s light at the end of my pain tunnel when I’m doing these challenges. For those that I’m doing them for, they don’t really have that luxury.”
An event for all
The Tour de Fox isn’t a solo challenge. Fox is inviting everyone to take part, whether they want to climb a peak with him, join him for a bike ride, contribute money, or honor those with the disease at one of many celebration events along the way.
Although the goal is to raise $1 million, Fox is also hoping to meet up with thousands of people from the Parkinson’s community along the way.
A crew of three, with two support vehicles, will assist in making this a reality.
“I describe this trip as something that I would go and do if I had a three month vacation,” Fox said. “I like road trips and climbing new mountains. I very much enjoy introducing people to physically challenging themselves. I think everybody has a different level of what is challenging, but I think it’s important to test ourselves on a fairly regular basis. At least for the time being, it’s my goal to impress upon people that they benefit from testing themselves and they may just be able to help other people while they do it.”
Fox knows his mom will worry about him and all of the potential “hazards,” but he also knows that she’s proud of him.
“It’s a little bit of an odd situation,” Fox said. “She’s sort of the figurehead of my professional life. It shines the spotlight on the fact that she’s sick. I tend to forget that because to me, she’s not just sick; she’s my mom.”
That’s enough motivation right there to give Fox an extra reason to push.
The country and its peaks lie ahead.