Manna and Corban Potter

Running With It

Kinesiology student Manna Potter uses her love of running to raise funds for charity.
By: Marissa Carney

“I ran my first race when I was about 8, and afterward, I said, ‘I ran two races today—my first and my last.’ But we see how that ended up.”

Manna Potter laughs as she recounts that story. Because all these years later, she’s still running and she’s still racing.

Now as a first-year student at Penn State Altoona studying kinesiology, she’s completed dozens of 5Ks, several relays, and seven half-marathons.

Manna’s mother, Jodie, is the OG runner of the family. She’s literally been pounding the pavement for years and years, both before and after having children, enjoying running on her own and participating in races.

One of her most memorable was the 2011 Nittany Half Marathon. She finished with a time of 2:30:12 that morning. That afternoon, she found out her toddler son had cancer.

Manna was about 5, and her younger brother Corban was about 2 when he was diagnosed with neuroblastoma.

The family of a little girl also battling cancer, who happened to be in Manna’s grade, recommended that the Potters take Corban to Hershey Medical Center for treatment. Corban and Emily were on the same floor of the hospital for care, and the two families grew close, helping one another through the tough times.

We’ll return to this connection a bit later.

The Potters, residents of Phillipsburg, Pennsylvania, became a Penn State Four Diamonds Family represented first by University Park’s Student Nutrition Organization, then, fittingly, by the Penn State Club Cross County. Manna remembers attending THON for several years, having a blast on the dance floor, and feeling welcomed and loved.

Siblings Manna, Corban (center), and Jay at THON 2015

Siblings Manna, Corban (center), and Jay Potter at THON 2015

Credit: Provided - Manna Potter

Throughout Corban’s illness, his mom continued to run, and like many little girls who wanted to be just like their moms, Manna decided to give it a try. Which led to that infamous “first and last” race. Yet afterward, she continued to lace up her sneakers, apparently bitten by the running bug. She would go out with her mom on the weekends, often running upward of 5K in length, the equivalent of about 3.1 miles. “I started getting pretty good at it, and I started really enjoying it, so I just kept going with it.”

Manna joined the track and cross-country teams in seventh grade. But after a while, she noticed that running for a team wasn’t the same. “I felt like I had this pressure on me to perform well. I just dreaded not meeting expectations, so I started to not like it as much.”

Manna Potter and her mother, Jodie, at the 2023 Pittsburgh Half Marathon in front of the Emily Whitehead Foundation information booth

Manna Potter and her mother, Jodie, at the 2023 Pittsburgh Half Marathon in front of the Emily Whitehead Foundation information booth

Credit: Provided - Manna Potter

Luckily, she discovered an aspect that refreshed the sport for her—charity runs. As the name suggests, these are events designed with the purpose of raising money for a cause. There are some rules, but basically, participants collect money through entry fees, donations, and pledges, then turn the total sum over to their chosen charity.

The length of a charity run can be just a little guy, like a mile or a 5K, all the way up to an ultramarathon.

Manna took the idea of fundraising and literally ran with it.

She tested out the waters by organizing a team comprised of her school running mates for the Pittsburgh Marathon Relay. Members split the traditional marathon distance of 26.2 miles into five segments of different lengths, allowing each team member to contribute their strengths to the collective effort. Manna chose the Emily Whitehead Foundation (EWF) as the beneficiary.

Remember Emily, the little girl in Manna’s grade who was battling cancer at the same time as Corban? Yep, that’s Emily Whitehead. By this time, her parents had established EWF to help fund innovative childhood cancer treatments that are more targeted and less toxic, such as the CAR T-cell therapy that saved Emily’s life.

Manna Potter with her hardware at the 2023 Philadelphia Half Marathon

Manna Potter with her hardware at the 2023 Philadelphia Half Marathon

Credit: Provided - Manna Potter

In ninth grade, Manna felt ready to tackle her first half marathon. She chose the Philadelphia Half and, again, EWF as the charity.

“It was so much fun because of the energy all around. There were so many other runners and people cheering along the course. It didn’t feel like a competition, it was just me running 13.1 miles.”

Both experiences helped rejuvenate Manna’s love for the sport. She continued to run for her high school teams but feels it was after graduation that she really came into herself as a runner. “When I didn't have that pressure on me anymore, I started to enjoy it more and my times kept improving.”

Now a first-year student at Penn State Altoona studying kinesiology, Manna has run seven half-marathons, including the Pittsburgh Half once and the Philly Half three times. “I love the movie Rocky, and it takes place in Philadelphia, so I feel like I'm like him running through the city.” She adds her appreciation that the course isn’t as hilly as the one in Pittsburgh.

Nearly every race Manna has participated in has been a charity run, so far raising around $3,500 for EWF. “I choose to fundraise. Running helps me, so if I can help someone else by doing something I love to do, it’s perfect.”

Manna and her mother still often train together as well as run many of the same races. While they usually start together, they don’t always finish together.

Manna uses her mother, who, at 47, has completed 40 half marathons, as inspiration to keep running and setting goals for herself. Right now, she’s attempting to run a half marathon each month of this year. There’s a half marathon in Arches National Park she’d like to do at some point, and she’s eyeing up the New York City marathon in November as her first full marathon.

She’d also like to become a pacer someday, which often takes its own separate training to achieve. A pacer is an experienced runner who runs a race at a set speed for a certain projected finish time. Official pacers, volunteers appointed by race organizers, are typically assigned to a target finish time that’s well within their means or slower than their personal best. This means that the pacer can maintain the assigned pace with extra energy to encourage runners in his or her pace group.

Maintaining an even pace and running under control can be difficult throughout a long race. Perhaps it’s these challenges that draw Manna to the role.

Manna’s mother works full-time for the EWF and remains very close to the Whitehead family. She also does charity runs for the foundation. Corban, now cancer-free, is in eighth grade with very little interest in running.

Manna and Corban Potter

Manna and Corban Potter

Credit: Provided - Manna Potter

And as Manna works through the kinesiology program, she’s thinking about a career in athletic training or possibly opening her own gym.

No matter what she ends up doing, she clearly has no plans to stop running. How far she goes depends on her determination and endurance. Based on her record so far, Manna’s got hundreds, even thousands, of miles left in her.