Editor’s note: This story discusses death by suicide.
If things had gone according to plan the first, second, or even third time, Cain Leathers wouldn’t have run 361 miles across the state of Pennsylvania in the name of LGBTQ+ youth last month.
Leathers, 27, tried to take his own life three times since he was 17 years old, having grown up in a small Ohio town with a family that made its feelings toward the LGBTQ+ community loud and clear.
More From Runner's World
“One of my siblings told me to take my own life in high school,” Leathers told Runner’s World. “They were there to witness one of the attempts.”
But running saved Leathers, he said, and in order to show other youth that they, too, belong and have a voice, he laced up just outside Pittsburgh on the West Virginia border on May 15 and spent 10 days on the road, raising more than $6,000 for The Trevor Project, a national suicide hotline for LGBTQ+ youth.
“I chose May for this effort because it’s Mental Health Awareness Month and June is Pride Month. It was the perfect time,” Leathers said. And why Pennsylvania? Not only is it home for Leathers, but the notorious swing state is also known for its political divide.
“I ran through so many small towns and saw that division,” Leathers said, noting there were times he was the target of verbal harassment by locals. It was the hatred he heard, not the miles in the heat or the tough terrain, that weighed on Leathers throughout his journey. But the hatred is also why he embarked on this run.
To finish the run, Leathers crossed the Ben Franklin Bridge in Philadelphia, his adopted hometown, on May 25 at 8:15 a.m., with his boyfriend and his boyfriend’s family waiting for him.
Over the course of the 10 days, Leathers—who had a support crew van that included his boyfriend, his boyfriend’s mom, a photographer, and a logistics and nutrition lead—had to battle severe heat, thunderstorms, and tornado warnings, which affected his daily mileage goal of 40 to 59 miles. In some cases he was able to log just 16 miles, in others he clocked more than 50.
How He Found Running and How It Helped His Recovery
Leathers started running when he was 11 years old as an escape after his parents divorced and he and his family moved around. He would tie a pedometer to his shoelaces and head out.
“Running helped me get away from the everyday troubles of my life, even at a young age,” he said. “Running was my best friend that always listened to anything I’d have to say.”
In high school, a friend convinced Leathers to join the cross-country team, something he’d been reluctant to do for fear of teammates finding out he was gay. But his experience on the team gave him the confidence to run farther and more frequently. At 17, Leathers ran his first marathon in 3:36:55, weeks after being released from the hospital after his first suicide attempt.
“When I was running as a child, no one was around me, and I felt so free. Free to love myself, free to love life,” he said. “Without running I would not be alive today. After that race, whenever I was feeling sad or depressed I would go for a run and instantly feel better.”
When Leathers left Ohio, he trained in North Carolina before going abroad to Sweden to run and visit friends, having cut ties with his family at 17 years old. Leathers spent a few months in Europe and then landed in Philadelphia with minimal belongings and no real plan for his future.
“I ended up staying in Philly,” he said. “I found an apartment the day I landed. Philadelphia is definitely a place where I found an accepting community, and I hadn't experienced that before.”
Leathers immersed himself in the local running community and found work in a run specialty store. But even at the store, customers would refuse to work with him once they saw his painted fingernails. He left two months ago and started Queer Run, an inclusive training group that comprises 40 percent allies and 60 percent people in the LGBTQ+ community.
“We’re bridging the gap between these two groups—straight and non-straight runners, having conversations, painting their nails,” he said.
The Goal of His 361-Mile Pursuit
Leathers wants his trans-Pennsylvania run to let other LGBTQ+ youth know there are resources out there to support them, like The Trevor Project. “If I’d known about this organization my recovery might have been easier and I wouldn’t have had a second or third [suicide] attempt,” he said.
Throughout his run across the state, Leathers’ encounters with local communities weren’t all scary or negative. He was able to share information about The Trevor Project with drivers who rode alongside him, offering words of encouragement. And at the hotels, which were gifted by a generous donor, Leathers spoke with guests, including family members of suicide survivors. “They were very grateful to me for what I was doing,” he said.
Leathers emphasizes the message that LGBTQ+ youth have a voice, and if they have something to say they should say it. “I believe I’m still here for a reason,” he said. “I shed so many tears on the run. I’m happy to still be alive and feeling so alive.”
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.
Connect with The Trevor Project via phone, online chat, or text.
Heather is the former food and nutrition editor for Runner’s World, the author of The Runner’s World Vegetarian Cookbook, and a seven-time marathoner with a best of 3:31—but she is most proud of her 19:44 5K and 5:33 mile. Her work has been published in Health.com, Bicycling, Cooking Light, Popular Mechanics, The Boston Globe, CNN, Glamour, and The Associated Press.