The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

April 1, 2013

Reluctant runner: Clean-water charity pushes man to run across the U.S.

By Rich Brown
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — Steve Spear graduated from Ozark Christian College in 1986; the same year Winston Groom released his novel, "Forrest Gump." Based on that book, an Academy Award-winning film by the same name was released eight years later.

Little did Spear know that he would re-create a scene from the movie, but for a far different reason.

The memorable scene in the film is when Gump, out of pure love of running, decides to run across the country. That is what Spear will do next month, but not because he loves to run.

Spear will depart from Santa Monica, Calif., on April 8 on a five-month run to Brooklyn, N.Y. It's not because he wants to be the 263rd runner to run across the country since 1909, but because he is raising money and awareness for clean water in Africa. His halfway point in early June will be Joplin, where he hopes to pay a visit to friends at OCC.

Spear's introduction to long-distance running came in 1982 just before he started classes at OCC when some friends coaxed him into running a 10K race. That race brought him to conclude that running was not for him.

"I hated every minute of that 10K experience and didn't lace up a pair of running shoes for another 25 years," he said in a recent telephone interview from his home in St. Charles, Ill.

Then, in 2007, a friend told Spear about World Vision, a nonprofit Christian humanitarian organization dedicated to working with children, families and their communities worldwide to reach their full potential by tackling the causes of poverty and injustice.

As pastor of the remote campus at Willow Creek Community Church -- a mega-church near Chicago -- Spear found himself content in doing God's will, with no intention ever of entering another race.

However, a friend lured him into running the Chicago Marathon as part of the World Vision team to raise money for clean water in Africa.

As a result, Spear raised $1,000 for clean water -- a significant amount considering it only costs $50 to bring clean water to one person in Africa.

What was even more satisfying was when the marathon rolled around again the next year and Spear recruited 50 others to join him.

That's when World Vision organizers began to take notice and invited him to join them on a trip to South Africa to see first-hand the people he was helping.

The trip not only allowed him to see the water dilemma taking place in Africa, but also presented him with the biggest long-distance running challenge of his life. He was called on to run in the 2009 Comrades 56-mile Ultra Marathon.

His first reaction came without hesitation: No. Spear says he didn't like running 26 miles, so he couldn't imagine running 56 miles. But his desire to make a difference in the lives of so many impoverished people won out.

It was through that run that Spear raised more than $150,000 -- enough to give 2,000 people in Africa clean water for the rest of their lives.

Then, in November 2010, while on a 15-mile run, Spear said a whisper caught his ear and said, "You are to run across America for others."

As Spear puts it, the thought "freaked him out." He decided to keep it to himself for several months. Finally, he told his wife, Frances, and a few others as the call to help others through his running began intensifying in 2011 and 2012.

Following months of prayer, discussions and research, the 49-year-old Spear made the decision to train and run across America to raise $1.5 million to bring clean water to 30,000 people in a Kenyan community. In addition to sponsors, his fundraising efforts will come from donations he derives from speaking at churches, community organizations or, as he says, anywhere somebody will give him an audience.

He has been running from 80 to 130 miles a week near his Illinois home in preparation for the 3,243-mile run -- equal to more than 120 marathons. He has been coached by Ryan Bolt, who has a camp in New Mexico where he trains elite runners, and Josh Cox, who is the American 50K record holder.

Two recreational vehicles have been donated for the trip, with Spear and his wife behind the wheel in one and his road crew in the other.

Spear plans to run 35 miles a day, five days a week. His first stretch takes him along Route 66 to Chicago. His plan is to complete the run by the end of August, just before his father's 90th birthday in September.

Want to donate?

Arrangements for donations may be made by visiting the website, texting the word "water" to 30644 (an opportunity to donate will pop up) or sending an email to