Expanding Passions: The Man Who Won’t Stop


For some, running is just a pastime, but for J. Matthew Billings, a graduate student studying civil engineering, it is much more than that.

An avid runner and strong supporter of cancer research, Billings is no stranger to long distance races. During his undergraduate years at Christian Brothers University, Billings ran cross country and also participated in the St. Jude Memphis Marathon about seven-to-eight times.

While marathons can vary in length, they are no small feat and require months of preparation. However, no marathon mileage compares to the over 4,000 miles Billings and 20 other runners ran this past summer to raise money and awareness for cancer research.

Through the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults, 21 college-aged runners, including Billings, participated in a 49-day run which began in mid June in San Francisco, Calif. and ended in New York City, N.Y. in early August. Together, these 21 strangers embarked on a journey across the country and experienced some highs and lows, met some inspiring people, visited a number of cities and towns, and lived humbly through the generosity of others.

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Billings (far right) and 3 of his teammates in one of the infamous vans that traveled with them across the country. COURTESY / J.MATTHEW BILLINGS

Each morning, all the runners would wake up at 4:30 a.m. and begin the day. Billings explained that all the runners were split between two vans each day. “The first van [had runners] that would wake up and immediately start running and then the second van would drive to the halfway point [and those runners would run] from the halfway point to wherever we slept for the evening,” said Billings. The group of runners who began at 4:30 a.m. would typically finish around 2:00 p.m. and the second set of runners who started at the halfway point would typically finish around 3:00 p.m. or 4:00 p.m.

Although these hours were long, the runs were completed in relay style, allowing Billings and each of his teammates a short period of time to rest. Billings explained, “If it was me and you in the same van I would get out, and let’s say I had five miles for this stretch of leg, I would run five miles and the van would drive up five miles and meet me and then you would hop out and run five miles and then I would hop in the van and we’d drive up. So it was like playing leapfrog with the van.”

Billings and his teammates could each run anywhere between 10 to 30 miles per day, even when the weather was not in their favor. On hot and humid days, they would typically take water breaks every mile in order to prevent dehydration. Billings also mentioned that they would place wet towels near the air conditioning in the van and use those to keep cool in the 90-degree weather. However, weather was not the only thing these runners endured.

Emily Guth, a senior exercise science major studying at Brooklyn College was one of the other 20 runners who journeyed across the country this past summer. For her one of the difficulties she faced was being away from home.

“Forty-nine days is a long time to be away and constantly changing location,” said Guth.

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Billings (right of sign) and several of his teammates at the top of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. J. MATTHEW BILLINGS / COURTESY

Billings also faced several challenges himself including running into barbed wire and receiving 22 stitches in each thigh. Despite this, Billings continued to run less than 12 hours later and made it to the top of the Rocky Mountains the next day.

“Matt is a risk-taker, but in the best way possible,” said Guth. “Meaning, he gives 110% of himself to every situation he is in, whether 110% is the right amount to give or not. He doesn’t back down from a challenge and he finishes everything he starts. He cares about the well-being of his teammates and uses his whole heart to support them.”

Leon Wu, a junior computer science major at MC who met Billings in the library one night and offered him cold pizza in exchange for some tutoring in one of his courses, also expressed similar sentiments about Billings.

“Although he got injured … he still persevered, and that speaks volumes on his character,” said Wu.

As these 21 runners made their way across the country, they also dedicated some of their time to visiting cancer centers and cancer research hospitals. One story that struck Billings in particular during one of his visits was about a 17-year-old girl fighting cancer in Utah.

The girl, who was about to graduate high school and had received a $3,000 scholarship from the Ulman Cancer Fund, was engaged to another patient going through the same battle.

“[The girl and her significant other] didn’t know if they were going to have any other time or opportunity to express their love for each other unless they got married,” said Billings.

With this, the runners were able to hear some unique stories from those they were supporting.

Seeing the patients fight through their battles also gave Billings and his teammates hope. While there, the patients expressed that what Billings and his teammates were doing was the hard part, and that they, as in the patients, had it easy. Billings emphasized how this was one of the things that stuck with him the most from the visit.

Yet cancer patients were not the only people these runners met along the way. Often times they would meet people who would ask them what they were doing and why they were doing it. Their answers shocked and amazed people. So much so that Billings and his teammates were able to raise about $5,000 from road donations alone. This goes to show that the kindness of strangers can go a long way.

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Billings (top of sign) and some of the 2018 NY Team at Lassen National Forest in California. COURTESY / J.MATTHEW BILLINGS

Aside from visiting cancer centers and running, these group of teammates also spent time walking through cities and towns when the day was over. Sometimes they would even find a creek or a river and sit in it to enjoy the feeling of the water around them.

Throughout their 49-day excursion, Billings and his teammates also frequented locations that sold an iconic summer treat.

“We all had a goal of eating ice cream in every major city we went to, and it wouldn’t be like ‘Let’s go to the Dairy Cream,’ [it would be more like] let’s go to the local ice cream store.”

For Billings, some of the best homemade ice cream came from Ann Arbor, Mich.

In the end, the 21 runners ended up raising over $900,000, and making some great friends along the way.

“It was interesting, because here we are, a group of strangers, now basically living in a van together 24/7. We all had a pretty instant connection though, bonded by a common goal, and by the end it was like we had known each other for years, not just seven weeks,” said Guth.

Yet Billings’ journey did not stop there. Since then, he has also been involved in several other runs and marathons such as the New Jersey Marathon, where he ran a 2:43 and the TCS New York City Marathon where he ran a 2:58, finishing in the top 2% of runners.

In April, Billings plans to run in the Boston Marathon for the first time. He is currently running about 20 miles a day in preparation for this event. Billings also has goals of competing in the Beaverhead 100K, a 62-mile mountain race that happens in rugged and varied terrain of Idaho and Montana.

“[Matt] is very hard on himself when it comes to competing, which is a necessary trait in order for athletes to surpass their mind restrictions and discovering that no human is limited,” says Wu.

Billings hopes to use the Beaverhead 100K to qualify for Western States, a 100-mile endurance run. For an understanding of how long each of these races may take, Billings believes he can complete the Beaverhead 100K in about 9 to 11 hours and the Western States in about 18 hours.

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Billings someday hopes to run in the Berlin Marathon in Germany. J. MATTHEW BILLINGS / COURTESY

Additionally, Billings would some day like to run in the Berlin Marathon, which he calls the fastest race in the world, because it is mostly downhill. Billings looks forward to a race like this because the weather is usually just right.

However, for Billings the most surprising thing he noticed this past summer, is what he calls, the resilience of the human spirit.

“Seeing the resilience of all my teammates kind of helped me continue that trip even after I got my stitches and when I got a concussion,” said Billings. “I wanted to give up but watching my teammates go out there every single day is what kept me out there as well.”

Over the past six years Billings has raised over $1,000,000 alone for cancer research by applying his passion for running and translating it into something good for the community. He encourages others to seek out their passions and incorporate them in a way that makes them excited to give back as well.

Caroline Shea, a junior political science major, has come to know Billings through working with him in the Residence Life Office and only had good things to say about him.

“…Running is more than just exercise for him,” said Shea. “It is truly awe-inspiring to hear him speak with such love and passion and how he has taken his passion for running and used it to give back to people.”

Billings will graduate in May with a master’s degree in civil engineering. From there he then hopes to go on to work in his field, while continuing to run until he one day retires and uses his experience to teach in the classroom.