Knowlton hits the road to raise awareness

Published 11:00 pm Friday, October 29, 2010

Steve Knowlton lay on the floor, writhing in pain that consumed his whole body.

“It’s hard to describe the pain,” he said. “It was worse than torture. I didn’t know if I would make it to the other side.”

That night, Knowlton sat thinking, “This could be my last night.”

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That was a sobering thought for an 18-year-old whose athletic body seemed to be wasting away.

“I had lost so much weight that, lying there in the hospital bed, I would puff up the sheets so nobody could tell how terribly thin I was,” Knowlton said. “But I had read some Christian books and had found some level of comfort even knowing that I might die during surgery. I knew that God was with me, but it was my parents that I was so worried about.”

Knowlton had never heard of Crohn’s disease, so when he was told that he had the disease, he could only say, “What?”

He was a high school senior in Prior Lake, Minn., when the disease brought him to the deepest place he has ever experienced.

He had been losing weight and unable to eat, but no diagnosis had been made. And, when he was told, the doctor said in one breath that he had good news and bad news.

“He asked me which I wanted first and I said to give me the bad news,” Knowlton said. “He said I had Crohn’s disease and there was no cure for it. The good news was that I probably wouldn’t die from it. But, right then, my life changed forever.”

Knowlton went on to play college basketball for Golden Valley Lutheran College in Golden Valley, Minn. He put all of the strength he could muster into staying in the game but all the while, he was getting worse.

“In December of my freshman year of college, I had surgery to remove the ulcers and the surgeon removed eight feet of my colon,” he said.

The successful surgery coupled with Knowlton’s strict adherence to the medical treatment prescribed for him helped him overcome numerous bouts with the disease and prevented further surgery. “I have tried to live my life like I don’t have Crohn’s disease,” he said.

And, Knowlton has done that rather well. He has run 43 marathons and two ultra marathons of more than 50 miles.

“I found my running inspiration when my dad ran the City of Lakes marathon when I was 12 years old,” Knowlton said. “I thought I should be able to do that, so I ran Grandma’s Marathon in 1979 when I was 13 years old and was the youngest one to finish that year. I credit my father for getting me into long distance running.”

But running marathons didn’t bring Knowlton the feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment that he desired.

“In college, I was ashamed of having Crohn’s because people considered it gross,” he said. “It’s a disease that is aggravated by stress and worry but it gives you reason to worry. I wanted to removed the stigma associated with Crohn’s and to make people more aware of the disease and how it affects its victims and changes their lives forever.”

Knowlton decided the best way for him to bring greater awareness to Crohn’s disease was to take it to the people in a unique and visual way. He decided if he connected daily “marathons” together and strung them from Seattle, Wash., to Key Largo, Fla., that somewhere along the way, somebody might take notice.

Knowlton is a self-employed carpenter so he closed the doors to his business and, on July 30, he took the first step on the longest run of his life, 4,000 miles. On Tuesday, Day 82 of Knowlton’s Run Across America, he was on busy Highway 231 from Troy to Ozark, which he found a little unnerving. Only three states allow runners to use the Interstates so, Knowlton usually travels the blue highways. But Highway 231 is not the road less traveled. “I try to average about 40 miles a day but I don’t always make it,” he said.

Originally, Knowlton had hoped to raise a ton of money for the Crohn’s & Colitis Foundation but he won’t know how effective his run has been as a fundraiser until he takes the last step in Kay Largo on Nov. 6. “People in the South have been much more interested in what I’m doing,” he said. “But everywhere, people have been supportive. The Run Across America is not just about raising money, it’s more about raising awareness.”