Biking, hiking, climbing the lower 48 for mom and others

Courtesy Sam Fox

Lucy Fox remembers her youngest child, Sam, as fearless and energetic.

As a baby, he'd crawl off to explore where he shouldn't. When he was a bit older, he'd follow his brother and sister wherever they went, even up tall ladders. Sam had so much energy that his parents often would send him out to run around the house to work it off.

"He definitely was a physical kid and a motivated kid," she says.

As an adult, Sam Fox is no different. His runs are just a lot farther.

Motivated by the love and concern he has for his mother -- who was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease 15 years ago -- Fox has become an endurance adventurer. He's run from Canada to Mexico on the Pacific Crest Trail and run 100 miles from New York City to Southampton, New York, in 28 hours, both to raise funds and awareness to fight the disease.

Each effort tested his physical and mental limits. There were times early on his 2,500-mile-plus PCT run in 2011 that he didn't think he'd be able to finish. And he says in some ways the 100-miler in 2012 was harder.

But his mother is his inspiration.

"I would think about my mom when I was out there (on the PCT) because we were doing this in honor of her," says Fox, 27. "And it sounded cliché, and it still does, but it's actually the truth. I've dealt with a lot of physical difficulty on these endurance challenges and it always forces me to remember that she deals with similar stuff on a daily basis, just during her average day, just getting up, walking around, doing the dishes.

"She may feel the same stuff, the same ankle pain, the same dizziness, so in all honesty it brought me closer to her. That kind of defined my experience on the PCT."

Now Sam, a former college high jumper and high school distance runner, is training for his next quest: an odd, cross-country duathlon he's calling the Tour de Fox.

He will cycle through the 48 contiguous United States, and get off his bike in each to climb (or hike) the highest peak in that state. He expects to do more than 5,000 miles on his bike, do 10 technical climbs and -- for some added spice -- do some special things along the way, such as run rim-to-rim through the Grand Canyon and do a 140-mile ride from Death Valley to the base of Mt. Whitney, both in summer heat.

The three-month trek, which begins June 2, will be grueling. Yet when Fox talks about it, his excitement is obvious. This is, after all, a man who went to mountaineering school, has climbed in the Cascades, Rockies and Alps, does long runs for fun and spent his youth backpacking and hiking with his family. Lucy Fox says Sam is "called by the mountains" and has an adventurous spirit.

Says Sam, laughing: "What this really is, is exactly what I would do if you gave me a three-month vacation."

Accidental ultrarunner

Sam Fox never had any intention of devoting his life to fighting Parkinson's or doing crazy-sounding endurance adventures. Both happened by accident.

He was about 13 when his mother first was diagnosed, and says he was "the worst" at that time in his life. Even in high school, he admits being far more concerned with sports, girls and getting his driver's license than his mom's condition.

He was a multi-sport athlete in high school in Rhode Island, then went to Yale, where he was an all-Ivy League high jumper good enough to qualify for the NCAA East Regional Track and Field Championships in 2009. During the summer of 2007, he went to the National Outdoor Leadership School and learned glacial mountaineering.

After college he moved to California. It was then that his mother's symptoms worsened and he became more concerned for her. It was also a time when he was exploring the outdoors, seeing as much as he could.

He clearly recalls a day at the Grand Canyon when he set out to run along the rim. He then decided on a whim to run down into the canyon. He got 10 miles down a trail when he finally turned back, remembering he had "another 20 or so miles to get back to where my car was."

It was after that day that his mind linked endurance challenges with his concern for his mother.

"I was starting to think about what I wanted to do long term, and that was really the first time I put any kind of real thought to it," he says. "One of the things I kept coming back to was doing something for my mom, and I couldn't figure out what to do because I can't cure this disease. I'm not in med school. I'm not a billionaire. I didn't really have anything that was just an easy fix for her.

"So after that trip I kind of put two and two together that maybe there was a chance people would care that I could run really far. The PCT trip grew out of that."

"Hallucinatory haze"

Fox set out to break the speed record for completing the Pacific Crest Trail, while also forming a non-profit called Run While You Can to raise money for Parkinson's research. He hoped to draw more attention to his cause if he set a record, which was then 65 days.

He completed his run in 61 days, but it didn't qualify. Because of deep, late-season snow in the Sierra, Fox had to take a 300-mile detour before rejoining the PCT.

Still, he accomplished his mission. He raised more than $150,000 for the Michael J. Fox Foundation, which was matched dollar for dollar by donors conducting a special challenge for new donations.

Fox also learned what he could endure. He had early ankle trouble he had to work through. Later, his lower legs and feet became numb. He suffered from dehydration and learned the hard way about planning and pace. He also quickly realized that as much as he had trained for it, it was hard to comprehend the grind and lack of rest.

"Every single step -- and I took more than 6 million, between 6 and 7 million steps -- and every single one of them has to keep you on pace to break a record that at the early stages is 50-plus days away," he says. "So it's just sort of a compiling of stress -- mental, emotional, physical -- every single second. ...

"If I did 50 miles, that's great, but the next day you've got to do another 50 or else you're off pace. So I just became a machine whose only purpose was to eat the necessary calories, drink the necessary amount of water and cover the miles. Injuries, other thoughts, anything that wasn't helping me do that just kind of faded away."

He loved the scenery, but didn't have time to savor it. Much of the trip seems a blur. He calls it a "hallucinatory haze of exhaustion."

"There are some places I would really like to go back to because I know in the back of my dark memories that they were beautiful," he says, laughing.

He was met several times by friends and family, including at the end of the trail, by his mother and the rest of his family. By that point, he had gotten so much into the rhythm of the run that he believed he could do another two months.

"I felt like I had finally built myself into the machine that I had hoped I would turn into," he says.

The Tour de Fox

A few months after doing the PCT, Fox went to work for the Michael J. Fox Foundation (they're not related) in New York City as community and engagement officer, and did another endurance fund-raiser, the 100-mile run. It brought in about $100,000.

He jokes now that he's become the foundation's designated endurance athlete. But, it's a role he's enjoying, and it's connected with people.

John Ryan of Randolph, New Jersey, was diagnosed with Parkinson's in 2010 and began running in 2011 after reading that strenuous exercise may help ease symptoms. It also helped that he read about Sam Fox's PCT run.

"He had a slogan, 'Run While You Can,' which truly inspired me, because with a disease like this you've got to run while you can," says Ryan, 46. "It was part of the inspiration for getting me off my butt and get me running."

In 2012 he met Fox, who ran alongside him during the New York City Half Marathon. Ryan then ran a section of the 100-miler with Fox.

When the kickoff for the Tour de Fox is held in New York City on June 2, Ryan plans to be there. He also intends to meet Fox for the hike to High Point in New Jersey on June 13, the 1,803-foot rise that is the state's highest.

That, in fact, will be one of the key elements to Fox's 48-state tour: People will be able to sign up to take part in rides, hikes and meet-ups along the way.

Only skilled climbers will be allowed to join him on ascents of 10 peaks (such as Mt. Rainier, Mt. Hood and Mt. Whitney), but there will be plenty of room for other hikes. His trek will kick off on June 4 in Maine with a hike up 5,269-foot Mt. Katahdin. Not all will be strenuous. One "peak," Hawkeye Point in Iowa (1,670 feet) is just a mound and point of interest alongside State Route 60.

This adventure was born out of a crowdsourcing invitation by the foundation. People made suggestions about what Sam Fox should next do.

Fox says he's not an experienced cyclist, so that will be one challenge. Another has been the terrible winter in the East that delayed his ability to get out on the roads.

In preparation, he's been building cardiovascular endurance by swimming and riding a stationary bike, while also working on weights, both to gain the bulk he expects to lose on the trip and to strengthen muscles around the joints that will be most taxed. And with the weather easing as June approaches, he'll be getting in the road miles he needs on his bike.

Lucy Fox, of course, will worry about her son, just as she did when he embarked his other events. When she first learned he was going to run the PCT, she "thought he was nuts."

"I have the worry gene in the family," she says. "So if there's something to worry about, it's usually my responsibility."

But, she's getting used to his adventures and admires his cause.

"You never know which dollar is going to push the amount over the top and find the cure," she says. "You just don't know. If you really care about something, you should act on it. I think Sam is acting on it."