When Chris Praetzel’s feet hit the Atlantic Ocean Monday morning, Sept. 24, it capped a four-month run across the country in which Praetzel dodged forest fires, had to navigate a herd of Buffalo and recover from being bitten by a dog.
Not one time since he began his trek on May 23 in Santa Monica, California, did Praetzel regret his decision to embark on what turned out to be a 3,000 mile-plus run. He was doing it for his younger brother.
Brian Praetzel was born with hypoplastic kidneys, and needed a transplant when he was just three years old. Chris Praetzel’s trip was done to bring attention to the need for organ donations.
“I did it for the love of my brother,” said Chris Praetzel, who dubbed his cross-country run the Brotherly Love Run. “I had the idea in my head. I wanted to do something for my brother, and I wanted to do a cross-country run. I ran across the country and spread the message for my brother.”
“It’s incredible that he did this. It’s surreal,” said Brian Praetzel, who met his brother on the Atlantic City Boardwalk Monday morning and finished the run with him. “When he first said it, I thought he was joking. The time went by faster than I thought it would. I don’t know what to say. He’s my brother and he’s my best friend.”
Chris Praetzel, a Mullica Hill native, was a sprinter and a cross country runner at Clearview Regional High School, but he attended Arcadia University in Glenside, Pennsylvania, a college that has no track or cross country program.
He continue to run on his own, participating in three marathons and one ultra marathon. The ultra marathon in which he competed was 56 miles.
The most Chris Praetzel ran in a single day during his Brotherly Love Run was 57 miles. The least he ran in one day was six miles, when he came across a forest fire in Utah.
“I didn’t even know if I was going to be able to get to the next town,” Chris Praetzel said. “Smoke enveloped everything, and it seemed dangerous. I stopped and waited it out.”
Praetzel ended up taking a detour.
“I just had to keep pushing and I had to adjust,” Praetzel said. “I got bit by a dog on the street in California, and I came across a herd of Buffalo in Utah. There was a line of cars that was stopped. I was able to clear them out of the way just enough to be able to get by. The thing I remember about that was their sheer size. Even the size of their eyes, they were just huge.
“I never regretted any of it. When I was 20 miles away from anything, I would ask myself why I was out there, but it all came back to my brother.”
Chris Praetzel graduated from Arcadia in May with a Bachelor’s Degree in Sports Psychology. He bought a one-way ticket to California, and budgeted enough money to make it across the country. His family sold tee shirts, and contributed the money from those sales into his account.
Along the way, an unexpected thing happened: strangers sympathetic to his cause began to make donations.
“Halfway through my trip, I had as much money as I did when I started out,” Chris Praetzel said. “I was shocked.”
During his trip, Praetzel met people across the country. He explained his brother’s story and told them why he was running. He said complete strangers invited him to stay in their homes. They donated shoes and paid for him to stay in hotel rooms.
“I can’t say enough about the kindness of strangers,” he said. “It humbled me.”
He calculated the cost of all donations he received, and put the money toward Gift of Life Donors Program. He also took whatever money was left over from his budget and donated that to Gift of Life.
Following the conclusion of his run, he donated a $625 check to the program.
Gift of Life was established in 1974 “to coordinate life-saving and life-enhancing transplants for those waiting, while supporting the generous donors and their families who have chosen to give others a second chance through organ donation” according to their website, donors1.org.
AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center is affiliated with Gift of Life. According to representatives, the center saw 441 organ donors last year and 1,185 transplants, in addition to 2,800 tissue donors. Representatives said one donor can help up to 50 people.
Praetzel ran mostly during the day, but in some hotter environments out west, he ran at night, when temperatures were cooler. He didn’t run every day, and estimated he took about two weeks off total during his journey.
He stayed in touch with his parents, brother and sister Julie along the way.
“For the first couple of months, he called every day,” Brian Praetzel said. “Then there were some days he didn’t, when he didn’t have service or access to a computer. We were worried on those days, but it all worked out.”
Chris Praetzel set up a Facebook Page and a Twitter account to keep those he couldn’t communicate with updated along the way, and when he didn’t have phone service, he made sure to email his family whenever possible.
He made his way into Philadelphia Friday night, and rested there over the weekend. He completed his journey Monday morning, beginning in Egg Harbor Township. He finished his run through Egg Harbor Township and Pleasantville, and met up with his brother on the Boardwalk, on Albany Avenue.
“It’s hard to put into words what I was thinking (when I saw (my family),” Chris Praetzel said. “It was surreal. I always envisioned and thought about what it would be like, but now I was actually there. I was overcome with joy.”
The two finished the run together. Four months after Chris Praetzel stepped into the Pacific Ocean, the Praetzel brothers jumped into the Atlantic Ocean to signify the end of his epic voyage.
“I thought about it in the last couple of days,” Brian Praetzel said. “I wanted us to finish as brothers. I could pay him back, sort of.”
Now, it’s back to normal life for Chris Praetzel. The 22-year-old lined up a job before he left and plans to attend graduate school.
Brian Praetzel, 19, attends Neumann University, where he majors in communications. Someday, he wants to go into the entertainment industry.
They will both continue to work to spread awareness.
“It doesn’t end here,” Chris Praetzel said. “I’m going to help the story spread and make people aware.”
“I was three years old when I got my transplant, so I didn’t understand a lot of what was going on,” Brian Praetzel said. “I am so incredibly fortunate. We’re going to do more, we’re going to volunteer at the Family House. We’re going to do anything we can do to spread awareness.”