February 04, 1985 12:00 PM

Up ahead the flat New Mexico road stretches to the horizon, as far as the eye can see. Jeff Keith is running, as he’s been doing on the hillier roads of 14 states for 240 days. Behind him in a cream-color motor home, his crew of five, including brother David, is ready with dry clothes (he changes twice a day), gallons of purified water, Epsom salts (he soaks 20 minutes daily in a portable tub) and boundless moral support. Keith has been running like this, seven hours a day, since June 4, when he left Boston, joined for the first mile by his friend, young Teddy Kennedy. On Feb. 18, if all goes according to plan, he will hit Los Angeles—a unique coast-to-coast odyssey. In 1974, when he was 12 years old, bone cancer was found in Keith’s right leg, and that Christmas Eve, it was amputated above the knee. “I told myself I wasn’t going to sit in a wheelchair the rest of my life,” he says. “The doctors told me I couldn’t run or play contact sports, but I decided to prove them wrong. I also decided I would be a role model for other kids. I think I’ve reached that stage right now.”

Indeed he has. Raised in affluent Fairfield, Conn., Jeff, whose parents sell real estate, was an outstanding athlete in most of his sports before the amputation. “It was a big shock to my system,” he says. “I kept thinking how abnormal I was.” His competitiveness saved him. Six weeks later he was skiing. In 1980 he co-captained his high school ski team and finished 14th out of 165 skiers in the prep school division of a Connecticut state championship. Two years ago he competed in two triathlons, finishing well up in the pack. Last year, as a senior at Boston College, he was goalie on the varsity lacrosse team.

Jeff was inspired by the late Terry Fox, an amputee who ran two-thirds of the way across Canada before collapsing and dying of cancer in Thunder Bay, Ontario in 1981. “I read about Terry in PEOPLE [Oct. 13, 1980],” he says. “At the time I wanted to run, but I just couldn’t. There was great pain wearing the leg just one day. But when I heard about this kid—boom! I got so psyched up, I started running myself.” Jeff’s trip, which will benefit the American Cancer Society, will cost an estimated $50,000, but he hopes to bring in more than $1 million in donations. In Rhode Island, a man dropped a weighted $5 bill from an overpass as Jeff ran by. In Pennsylvania, a man drove up, blurted out, “My marriage is on the rocks, my business is going under, but I just wanted to make a contribution to your running crusade,” then gave Jeff a small donation.

Each dawn Jeff and the crew drive out to wherever he left off the day before. He runs eight miles in the morning, rests either at a local motel or in the motor home, then runs eight more miles in the afternoon. En route, he has taken occasional days off to deal with painful blisters, and he also stops to talk to schools and civic groups about his marathon. ” ‘Handicapped’ is the wrong word,” he tells them. “It should be ‘physically challenged.’ ”

When he gets to Los Angeles, where he’ll be joined for the last mile by young Kennedy, who also lost a leg to cancer, he and the crew plan to celebrate by diving into the Pacific, then cracking open a case of champagne. “For some amputees it’s a challenge to walk one block,” Jeff Keith says. “My message is that if I can run across America on one leg, then anything can be accomplished.”

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