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story.lead_photo.caption NWA Democrat-Gazette/DAVID GOTTSCHALK Kallup McCoy is running from Cherokee, N.C., to Tahlequah, Okla., to raise awareness about the opioid epidemic in the United States. McCoy is a member of the eastern band of the Cherokee tribe and is running a section of the Trail of Tears known as the Benge Route.

FAYETTEVILLE -- Kallup McCoy runs with a purpose. He wants to spread a message of hope and raise awareness of the country's opioid epidemic, specifically among Cherokee.

"I was addicted for about 14 years and experienced six overdoses," said McCoy, a member of the eastern band of the Cherokee. "I died three times and had to be brought back. I burned so many bridges during that time, stole from anybody who ever cared about me. I had no morals, no direction whatsoever. If I did stand for anything, it was for the wrong thing.

"I realized I was blessed to be here, after the things I had put myself through. I wanted to be that light for people who are still suffering."

The 31-year-old from Cherokee, N.C. made a scheduled rest stop Monday in Fayetteville, nearing the end of his 40-day journey retracing the steps of his ancestors on the Trail of Tears.

He's covered most of the distance on foot.

McCoy's body aches at times, but he's upright and ready to make his scheduled finish in Tahlequah, Okla., on Thursday. The trip's had challenges with lots of rain the first couple of weeks followed by intense heat.

"We went into Tennessee, and the road turned into a two-lane road that turned into a dirt road that turned back into the interstate," McCoy said. "I got lost and almost got snake-bit."

He's been joined on the trip by his girlfriend Katelynn Ledford, his mother, Ruth, and cousin, Linda. Ledford ran with him at times, while the others have followed in a pickup. He plans to finish his journey on his 32nd birthday.

McCoy said his life changed in April 2017 when he crossed paths with a pastor while an inmate in the Swain County Jail in Bryson City, N.C.

"I was writing a letter, and I was crying out to God that day," McCoy said. "I said 'If you're real, show me something, show me my dad's still with me.'"

The pastor showed up minutes later wearing clothing that reminded him of his father, who died of cancer in 2014.

"He put his left hand over my hand, winked at me and said 'I love you, son,'" McCoy said. "Nobody else besides my dad shook my hand that way."

He considered applying for the Remember the Removal ride, a bike ride started by the Cherokee Nation to follow the Trail of Tears. Riders are specifically selected for the event, but a felony conviction removed McCoy from consideration. That's when he got the idea to run the route.

"I was trying to get them to change the language for the ride, and they were giving me this laundry list of reasons why they couldn't. I said 'Well, I'll just run it.' They looked at me like I'd lost my mind."

He's covered more than 700 miles on foot, including a one-day high of 53. McCoy's inspired many along the way, including Ledford. She ran her first mile in January and has covered more than 300 miles over the past month.

"I don't know that I'd be doing any of this on my own," she said. "For me, it's been about not letting things of your past hold you back. I know between the two of us, our past hasn't been great. We are our worst enemies placing limitations on ourselves."

McCoy's message rang true with Fayetteville wrestling coach Nika West, a Cherokee who also grew up in Cherokee, N.C. He knew McCoy's mother and has followed his journey.

"I never ventured down that road," West said of drugs. "But if it wasn't for my wrestling coach, I could very well have. He was a very positive influence in my life. A lot of kids growing up sometime don't have that positive influence in their lives.

"Following Kallup's story, I was very intrigued by it. He's doing something good for the people and great for himself."

McCoy said the journey has put him more in touch with his heritage.

"It's helped me understand what it means to be Cherokee first and foremost," he said. "I think we owe it to our ancestors to lead our people in a new direction, and I want to make an impact on our kids especially. They fought so hard on this trail to stay alive. The tenacity and resiliency we have as a people made a big impact on me."

Sports on 06/26/2018

Print Headline: Cherokee runs for his heritage

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