‘He’s a fighter’: Friends take on racing challenges together

Jeff Coll can’t run on his own, but he hopes to one day cross the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

Coll has been partially paralyzed since 1996, when a sudden brain aneurysm caused hemorrhaging and part of his brain had to be removed. He now needs a wheelchair to get around, but with help from his friend Josh Cone, he can participate in races.

The duo crossed the finish line in the cold and snow Sunday during a fundraising race for Coll held near Westside Stadium Bar and Grill on West College Avenue.

Cone is an avid runner who has participated in races including triathlons and marathons, and he is able to push Coll’s wheelchair during runs. He is constantly amazed by how hard Coll works.

The two met in the State College YMCA, where Cone works and Coll likes to work out. After watching Coll get pushed through a race, Cone asked him if he wanted to go for a run sometime.

“Jeff is Jeff,” he said. “He’s a fighter, and I love watching him come to the gym.”

Cone and Coll now make the run a weekly tradition near Coll’s home in the Stormstown area, and they have participated in several local races.

But when Coll’s regular wheelchair was struggling to take the pounding of the runs, they knew they needed to get a racing chair. That’s when members of the local running community stepped up.

Mike Martin, a field sales representative for Sazerac, saw the pounding that Coll’s wheelchair was taking at a Bellefonte race this fall and decided something needed to be done.

He organized a 5K race to raise money for the chair, with any additional profits benefiting Coaches vs. Cancer. It was sponsored by Fireball Whiskey, which Sazerac owns. With 80 people registered at $20 per person, they were able to raise about $1,600.

They got enough registration money to give Coll the chair on Christmas Day, to break it in before the race Sunday. Coll said the new chair is much more comfortable and doesn’t shake when they run.

Cone said they were very appreciative of all the support from the community, but that it was something he knew would happen.

“It’s State College,” he said. “It’s what State College is all about — the community banding together to be with each other.”

Now Coll wants to set his sights on bigger pursuits.

When he, Cone and his mother, Leah, were kicking around ideas for what races they might try to run, Coll came right out and said, “Why not the Boston Marathon?”

They were both surprised for a second, but when they realized he was serious, it became a possibility.

Cone told him that to do that, he would need to get in better shape. Coll has since lost 30 pounds. When he goes to the gym, he likes to swim, work on the stationary bike, use the leg and chest presses, and lift free weights.

He has always liked to be as active as possible, but he said Cone pushing him got him more serious about it.

And they’re now taking it one step at a time to get ready.

They are planning to run a half marathon in Columbus, Ohio, near Coll’s hometown. It will be a chance to see some family and old friends, and get a taste of longer races.

That he can’t physically run doesn’t take away from Coll’s desire to do well.

In fall 2012, during Coll and Cone’s first race together, Coll’s wheelchair hit a bump and he went flying out. Cone feverishly apologized as they tried to get him back in the chair, but Coll wasn’t concerned.

“Let’s get going,” he told Cone. He didn’t have a scratch on him.

The new chair will make the weekly runs more exciting, and provide more stability during races. They will now be able to explore more trails more easily, and maybe even scale Mount Nittany.

Leah Coll said they view the climb of Mount Nittany as a rite of passage for State College residents, but they never had a way for Jeff to do it. He once even suggested that he would crawl up the mountain if he had to.

But with the new chair, it might become a possibility.

“I’m just thrilled,” she said. “He has so much opportunity here.”

And Cone will get more of a chance to show him some of the beauty of the area.

He plans to take Coll through the trails in Rothrock State Forest when the weather warms up and branch out from there.

“I just want to run with him where we run,” Cone said.

“I really want to show Jeff the places that I love.”