Taking up a cross-country cause

Apr. 23, 2014 @ 09:43 PM

There’s running cross country, and then there’s literally running across the country.

In just over a year, a group of 10 runners will make their way through Sanford as they do the latter on a Forrest Gump-like trek from coast to coast. But unlike the fictional Gump, who undertook his long jaunt for no particular reason, the intrepid folks in Race Across USA — who will be running the equivalent of 115 marathons in 140 days — have a very specific goal in mind.

It’s all about getting children to run more, said Darren Van Soye, who along with his wife, Sandy Van Soye, is directing Race Across USA. Nearly one in five American children ages 6-19 is obese; “Not overweight,” Darren Van Soye said, “obese” — and the childhood obesity rate has skyrocketed in recent years.

So to get kids thinking about running as something other than punishment, they decided to undertake the massive task of running a marathon every day, day after day for months, with rest days thrown in sporadically.

Along the way, they’re planning to stop at schools on the route, running by during recess and stopping for high-fives and water bottles, or coming in after school for talks.

Johnnye Waller, the director of student resources for Lee County Schools, said she andother school officials are interested in doing something with the runners. Childhood obesity is a major problem, she said — and although both the schools and the Lee County Health Department try to tackle that problem, she said, kids could get a lot of inspiration from these runners.

“When I was a principal in Duplin County, we’d do things where we’d ‘walk’ the [length of the] state on the track, and at the end of the year, it was interesting to see which school went the farthest,” Waller said. “It got very competitive.”

For those who want to run the state for real, the Van Soyes also are organizing a Race Across North Carolina open to interested runners.

Starting May 12, 2015, when the national group reaches North Carolina, they’re inviting local ultra-runners to join them for a 13-day journey over 249 miles, including nine or 10 days spent running. They plan to be in Carthage on May 18, Sanford on May 19 and to the Virginia border by May 23. To sign up, go to raceacrossusa.org/listing/race-across-north-carolina.

The core group of 10 California-to-Maryland runners includes Sanford Herald columnist Chris “The Goat” Knodel — an endurance runner and coach who now calls San Antonio home while continuing to write for his former local paper — as well as a female Air Force pilot who recently ran the equivalent of a marathon in Afghanistan to stay in shape, a man who used to weigh 400 pounds before he started running and Darren Van Soye.

“When I ran my first marathon, it completely changed my life,” Van Soye said. “... The confidence it gave me was so amazing, and it led me to ask how much I could push myself.”

He and his wife said they hope they can give children the same kind of confidence through running, through both this cross-country venture and a nonprofit venture that encourages children to run 100 miles a year — just more than half a mile for every day they’re in school.

“We get the kids out there with the ultra-runners, and they love it,” Sandy Van Soye said. “We do this one thing where we see how far people can run around a track in 24 hours. We’ve had kids come run and walk with them, and some have done 20 or 30 miles.”

She added that through their charity, which often operates in schools at a cost of $10 per child, they give out certificates, shirts and other prizes. The shirts have boxes to check for 25, 50, 75 and 100 miles, and she said some children add on new boxes when they reach 200, 300 or more. One 11-year-old logged 1,000 miles last year.

And when they’ve gone back to visit the schools using their program?

“The kids are all looking pretty slender,” Darren Van Soye said.