Guest Blogger Charlie Johnston

In December 2010, I decided I was tired of cutting my hair. In April 2011, about the time I was running my third Boston Marathon, I decided that when I finally cut my ever-lengthening hair, it would be for something meaningful. And on April 7, I will be saddling up on a barber’s chair to donate my hair to make wigs for cancer patients through Pantene’s Beautiful Lengths program.

Ok, perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself, so let’s back up a little. When I was 10 years old, my mom was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer. It was bad. Her doctor suggested that she get her affairs in order. I don’t remember much from this dark chapter in my family’s past, but I do remember going to see her at the hospital one spring afternoon during her treatment—she was admitted the day after Mother’s Day and spent the remainder of the month there. I thought I was going to get to hug my mom, to have her hold me and tell me everything was going to be all right. That didn’t happen. Instead, I talked to her on a phone through a plexiglass partition like the ones you see in jails on television crime dramas. Recalling the memory today still makes me cry. I resolved then and there that I didn’t want another child to ever have such a memory.

Fast forward to January 2010, four months before my second trip to run in the Boston Marathon, when I stumbled onto a website about an American Cancer Society program called DetermiNation. Basically, I would be asked to raise donations (and by default, awareness) for the ACS in exchange for some cool swag, a breakfast brunch and inspirational talks the Sunday before the race, and a ride to the start in Hopkinton on Marathon Monday. I signed up immediately. On my donations page I gave my reason for running on behalf of the ACS and DetermiNation: “I’ve always run for myself… it’s time to run for someone else.”

The experience was life changing. The strength that running for a cause gave me was unparalleled and I cherish the lifelong friends I have met through the program. More than anything, I cannot get enough of the look my mom gets whenever we talk about it and whenever she sees my talents as a runner making a difference. By the way, as of today Mom has been cancer free for more than 19 years and counting. She has also been at nearly every race I’ve ever run.

Just a few days ago, my sister Lily, who has been one of my biggest supporters and one of my best friends for as long as I can remember, told me that she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. With tears running down her face, she told me that because of her treatment, she would not be able to come to Boston to see me run this year. It will be the first marathon of mine she’s missed in three years. I futilely struggled to hold back my own tears as I told her she would be with me every step of the race.

Which brings us back to the hair and what running with it for the last year and a half has meant; and especially, what it means at this very moment. I rarely tie it back for a race—it just doesn’t feel right—and cannot count how many times someone has commented on it. They frequently liken it to a lion’s mane. My favorite remarks came during the final miles of The 2011 San Francisco Marathon, when a woman shouted “Awesome hair!” and her friend next to her immediately shouted “Awesome hair? Awesome everything!” The cheers from spectators and questions from fellow runners about how much drag it produces and minutes it might add to my marathon time have become fuel to run harder because they remind me that I am running for something so much bigger than a finish line.

As my hair reached my shoulders in the fall of 2011, I relished the opportunity to throw on a brightly colored shirt—pink, fuschia, anything traditionally considered feminine—and get mistaken for a woman in dimly lit restaurants by waiters who invariably broke into a flood of apologies. What can I say? I have a strange sense of humor. But seriously, such mishaps provided more chances to share my story and explain why my hair was long enough to be mistaken for a woman.

It’s safe to say that I’m going to miss this hair when it is cut off in a little more than a week, and I feel really good about that. It has been a source of strength and a symbol of my commitment to something bigger than myself, and I am proud to be able to give that to someone else. I invite anyone reading this to make a donation to my efforts, or contact me on Facebook or email me at [email protected] if you would like to come to Reno, Nevada and watch my hair make a difference on Saturday, April 7. Maybe we’ll even go for a run in the morning to let the “lion’s mane” flow one last time.