When students, faculty, and staff at Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania gathered last week for an on-campus rally to protest proposed budget cuts that would slash state funds for public higher education by more than 50 percent, it wasn't long before chants of "March to Harrisburg!" rose from the crowd.
That's when Nick Hilton, a three-sport varsity athlete, turned to his cross-country coach, Aaron Russell, with a question that rang like a challenge.
"Why march when you can run?" he asked.
Five days later, after a flurry of organizing, he and his teammates did just that: On Sunday, Mr. Hilton and three dozen runners, mostly cross-country and track athletes at the university, stepped off around 9 p.m. to cover the 100 miles from Lock Haven to the capital, Harrisburg, on foot. They ran on back roads through the hills of central Pennsylvania, and arrived in time for a late-morning rally at the State Capitol. For the final stretch, they linked up with runners from Millersville University of Pennsylvania, who approached the capital from the opposite direction after a 40-mile jaunt from Lancaster.
And so it went, first with a spirited send-off on the campus, then quietly, under the stars of a clear but cold night, with temperatures in the low 20s. For hours there were few cars to share the road, just the pounding of feet as the students, bundled in reflective clothing, ran legs of five to 11 miles each while flanked for safety by university vans.
Mr. Hilton ran his first leg, a five-miler, around 10:20 p.m. After a couple hours' rest—nobody slept; too much excitement—he laced up again and ran 11 miles at 3 in the morning.
By 9:35 a.m. Monday, the runners had arrived at their rendezvous point on City Island, in the middle of the Susquehanna River, within sight of the Capitol. They were an hour early. (Even with a break along the way, the Lock Haven runners averaged splits of about 7 minutes 30 seconds per mile.)
After a quick bite and a breather, the runners from Lock Haven and Millersville took off on the home stretch, crossing the pedestrian bridge from the island, racing along Front Street, by the river, then onto State Street. From there, it was a straight shot up to the Capitol, with cheering crowds lining the road, offering high-fives and handshakes. Bounding up the Capitol steps, the theme song from Rocky blaring, the runners, their race over, fanned out in a crescent onstage behind the speakers.
It was, said Lindsey Lambert, a junior on the cross-country and track teams, akin to her most cherished athletic moments. "It's like the best race of your life," she said in a breathless phone interview shortly afterward, as thunderous cheers from the rally rose in the background. "I can't believe we left at 9 o'clock, and we got here, and we're here now."
More Than a Run
Mr. Hilton, who addressed the crowd at the rally on Monday morning, said he was at home in Reading, Pa., on his spring break earlier this month when he first heard about the proposed cuts.
"I opened up the paper, and first thing I saw was Governor Corbett proposing to cut higher education at 54 percent. At that point, I just flipped out and started yelling," Mr. Hilton said in an interview from the rally. "It wakes everybody up, including the athletes. The consequences of this are so wide-reaching, not just for athletics."
"We all know we need to fight for this," he added. "It's our future."
If the proposed budget passes in its current form, public universities like Lock Haven could be forced to make up for the cuts in various ways, including tuition increases. For Ms. Lambert, an out-of-state student from New Jersey, higher tuition would create a serious financial strain.
"I came to Pennsylvania because in New Jersey the education is so expensive," said Ms. Lambert, who pointed out that Monday's rally was her first foray into political protest. "If [tuition] goes up, it's becoming less and less affordable for all of us."
After the rally, the runners said they planned to squeeze into the gallery of the state's House of Representatives to listen to debate on the proposed cuts. After that, they'd head home, this time riding the whole way inside the vans.
Mr. Russell, the coach, who ran one five-mile leg during the overnight journey, said the experience was shaping up to be more memorable than the several regional and conference championships his program has won over the years. After all, it's not often that athletics and politics mix in such an adrenaline-fueled way.
"To me," he said, as the speakers boomed and waves of applause nearly drowned out his voice, "this is more gratifying."