When Hamilton resident John Rossi runs down Boylston Street on April 15, he will be thinking about everything and everyone that helped bring him to the final stretch of the country’s most iconic marathon.
“There’s a lot that you think about in that last .2 miles,” the Hamilton resident said. “The work you put in to get there, the charity you’re running for, the people who supported you—whether it be financially or emotionally—some personal pride.”
Rossi is running the Boston Marathon this year as part of the Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge. He teamed up with 500 other runners who committed to raising a total of $6 million for the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. Rossi individually pledged $10,000 to the cause.
The money raised by the Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge will benefit adult and pediatric cancer treatment and research. More than 1.6 million cancer cases were reported in 2015, according to the CDC, and Rossi wants the money he raises to treat as many different types of cancer as possible.
“I don’t think you can walk around this world and not know somebody who knows somebody who has been affected by cancer,” Rossi said. “My sister-in-law got breast cancer, my friend died of cancer. It’s hard to deal with.”
One of the ways Rossi deals with life’s adversity is to run for charity. The 55-year-old has an extensive running resume—completing five marathons, seven half marathons, three IronMans, over 50 5Ks, and countless other races—but his fundraising may be even more impressive. Rossi has raised more than $20,000 for the Organization for Autism Research through running.
“I believe chasing a personal goal while helping others with your talent is a gift and a great way to make money,” he said. “It amplifies the experience, but it doesn’t make it about yourself.”
Rossi holds many charities close to his heart. He runs for the Organization for Autism Research for his autistic nephew, Nico, who is one of his heroes. He is on the board of Ryan’s Quest, a Hamilton-based charity to fight Duchenne muscular dystrophy. He also started a charity memorial foundation—Nicholas James Leona Memorial Fund—on behalf of his 20-year-old godson who died from an accidental overdose.
“He doesn’t do anything halfway,” Helene Leona said. “He is generous with his time, with his life. When he loves you, he loves you 150 percent—the good, the bad, the ugly, the happy, the sad.”
Leona and her husband, Jim, have known Rossi for more than 30 years, and will be traveling to Boston to see him cross the finish line. They know firsthand that when Rossi runs in Boston, he won’t just be running for himself, but he’ll be running for all that he loves. They chose Rossi to be the godfather to their son Nicholas, who died the day before Rossi competed in the IronMan triathlon for the first time. Rossi wanted to come home to be with the family, but Leona encouraged him to stay and finish the race.
“He said he was not going to run the IronMan, and I said ‘No. You are going to run this IronMan not just for yourself but for Nicholas because Nicholas can no longer fight and run,’” Leona said. “So I just said to him in the time that you need strength, just ask him. Just talk to him. He’ll give it to you.”
Just as Rossi was beginning to lose steam during the race, he felt a nudge on his shoulder. He knew it was his godson.
“When you do an IronMan, you usually get a tattoo on your calf, but I got mine on my shoulder because he’s always on my shoulder. I feel him. When I ride my bike up a hill of Mile 100 of an IronMan, I feel him on my shoulder. Same in the swim, same in the run, no matter what I do, I feel it.”
Neither Leona or her husband were surprised to learn that Rossi was accepted into the Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge.
“In the past 30 years, he has never backed away from a challenge,” Leona said. “He doesn’t have a negative mind, so when he sets his mind to something it’s full steam ahead.”
The Boston Marathon is one of the country’s most famed and prestigious races, and it can be difficult to gain entry. Runners can qualify for the race by completing another marathon under a predetermined time—3 hours and 35 minutes for Rossi’s age group. Many runners opt to gain entry through fundraising, which Rossi learned is just as competitive as the time qualification.
There is a multi-step application process to run with the Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge team. Runners must submit running resumes, fundraising strategies, and letters explaining why they want to run the race. This is Rossi’s third year applying to join the team, and he become overwhelmed with emotion when he learned he was accepted.
“I’m very emotional, and it brought tears to my eyes because I thought of all the great things and hard work that you put in going through the process.”
Rossi has a few more 18-mile runs to finish before the big day. After training through the harsh winter conditions, he’s thankful the freezing temperatures are behind him. Most of all, however, he’s thankful for the support he’s received from family, friends and members of the community.
“I never thought I’d raise the numbers I raised; I never thought it was possible,” he said. “Every dollars counts, and some of the donations blew me away.”
As of March 19, Rossi has raised $6,330 for the Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge—more than halfway to his $10,000 goal. He is confident he can meet his goal, and he’s even more confident he will get across that finish line.
“I’m going to cross the finish line of the Boston Marathon, which will happen even if my leg falls off,” he said.
To donate to Rossi’s fundraiser, visit danafarber.jimmyfund.org/goto/johnnyrunsbeantown2019.