Jonathan Wilson, executive director of the Maryland chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, stands on the treadmill in the basement of his home in Columbia. Wilson will attempt the run for 24 hours on a treadmill at Charm City Run in Timonium to raise money and awareness for the treatment and prevention of blood cancers.
Jonathan Wilson, executive director of the Maryland chapter of the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, stands on the treadmill in the basement of his home in Columbia. Wilson will attempt the run for 24 hours on a treadmill at Charm City Run in Timonium to raise money and awareness for the treatment and prevention of blood cancers. (C.J. Doon / Baltimore Sun)

Jonathan Wilson, who later this month will attempt to run on a treadmill for 24 hours at Charm City Run in Timonium to raise money and awareness to support Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, got involved with LLS for admittedly selfish reasons.

After graduating from Florida Tech in his hometown of Melbourne and spending six years in the military, he was surprisingly out of shape. He grew up a runner, competing on the cross country teams in high school and college, but he had since neglected his commitment to fitness. At 28, he decided to do something about it. He set out to complete the biggest race in his home state: the Disney Marathon, held each January at the Walt Disney Resort in Orlando.

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But when he went to sign up, every individual slot was filled. The only way to compete was to run as part of a group called Team in Training, a fundraising organization for LLS.

"I always wanted to run a marathon just like my dad," Wilson, 40, said. "I went out there and did it, and all of a sudden it kind of changed my life."

After spending time with Team in Training, Wilson was inspired by the cause. He would participate in an event each of the next three years and eventually became an assistant coach, training survivors and family members who lost loved ones to blood cancers. He started getting more involved with LLS support groups and helping survivors get back into shape. He saw firsthand how rough the effects of chemotherapy and radiation were on mind and body. He wanted to do more.

"When you really look at all the different things we've accomplished in cancer treatments, the cure is out there, and taking people's pain away is out there," Wilson said. "But there's so many things that get in the way. And money is one of them."

Wilson, now executive director of the LLS Maryland chapter, is using his passion for running to try to overcome that hurdle. From 8 a.m. on May 31 to 8 a.m. on June 1, National Running Day, Wilson will attempt his 24-hour feat.

Three teams — representing LLS, Charm City Run, and Baltimore investment firm Brown Advisory — will run alongside Wilson with the challenge of raising the most money and completing the most miles. Wilson's goal is to break $100,000 and reach 100 miles with 10-20 minute breaks every other hour to eat, use the restroom and change clothes or into one of his four pairs of shoes.

"You're insane, you're crazy, and we'd love to help you do it," Charm City Run co-founder and president Josh Levinson said to Wilson when he told him about the idea to hold a 24-hour treadmill challenge in his store. With the help of commercial treadmills donated by manufacturer Life Fitness, Levinson was able to help turn Wilson's idea into a reality.

"It's evidence of his passion for LLS and what he's doing," said Levinson, 44, of Baltimore who will begin the challenge alongside Wilson on May 31 as one of the 21 runners competing for Team Charm City Run. "How can I not run for one hour if this guy is running for 24 hours?"

For Wilson, the challenge is a culmination of a life's worth of training. He's a veteran of 28 marathons. He's completed the JFK 50 Mile in Washington County, and once ran four marathons in one month — Pikes Peak in Manitou Springs, Colo., Baltimore, Steamtown in Scranton, Pa., and Marine Corps in Arlington, Va. — which included two (Baltimore and Steamtown) in the same weekend. He says the baffled reactions from friends, family and co-workers got him thinking about attempting endurance challenges for charity.

"I said, 'You know, there's something to this,'" Wilson recalled. "People are paying attention. This is exciting."

For six days a week over the past three months, Wilson has run 2 to 3 miles each morning around his neighborhood and 2 to 3 hours each night on the treadmill in the basement of his Columbia home. He said he's completed a four-hour session and a 20-mile session, and he ran a total of 70 miles in the first week of the month. He's logged so many hours on his treadmill that he needed to wedge a piece of paper into the plastic rear cap to keep the belt from slipping.

"You don't know how far your body can be pushed until you do it. And it's the same thing going through treatment," said Lara Hjortsberg, who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma at age 33 in 2004, right after the birth of her second daughter, and has since recovered. "Sometimes your body can take more than you think it can."

Hjortsberg, a Rodgers Forge resident who grew up in Cecil County and attended law school at Maryland before becoming an assistant attorney general, will run alongside Wilson for Team LLS for two hours starting at 3 a.m. because she's "a glutton for punishment," but mostly because "he's going to be pretty miserable at that point." Hjortsberg herself is no stranger to endurance challenges, having completed the Sea Gull Century 100-mile bike ride held annually at Salisbury and a metric century, approximately 62 miles, on inline skates at the same event a year before.

"There are people that don't survive and there are people that have treatment that's so harsh that I figure, I can [run], so I should," she said.

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Wilson's run will be streamed live through the event's website (events.lls.org/pages/md/24hourtreadmill), and he's encouraging people to share their stories and words of encouragement with him through social media.

"If I can create that splash or create that awareness by using my feet and being crazy, that keeps me going," Wilson said. "If I get the right people to see what I'm doing, and get excited about it, and go 'What the heck?' and donate to that, that's where we want to be."

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