Never let elite runners plan your birthday party. The creativity of folks who challenge the limits of their endurance every day can be unmatched, and you might find yourself pulled into something so daunting that somebody is bound to ask, “And you thought this was a good idea, why?”
Luke Watson, the Stillwater product who ran collegiately at Notre Dame, contemplated that question himself after persuading nine of his running buddies to join him on a wild fundraising jaunt for a Pennsylvania foundation — a 1,000-mile relay run from Dinkytown to State College, Pa., that begins Monday.
If all goes well, they will reach Nittany Lion Track on the Penn State campus in the late afternoon on next Friday.
Most of those involved are former Penn State track lettermen with a solemn connection to the University of Minnesota.
Ten years ago last February, 19-year-old Penn State pole vaulter Kevin Dare suffered a fatal head injury at the Big Ten indoor championships at the U of M Field House. Dare failed to clear 15 feet 7 inches, a height almost a foot below his personal best, and plunged head-first into the steel plant box in front of the landing pit. He died at Hennepin County Medical Center.
In 2004, Dare’s family created the Kevin Dare Foundation, dedicated to improving pole vault safety. The foundation successfully pushed for specially designed helmets for young vaulters and a softer plant box. Penn State track and field athletes have been involved with the Foundation since its inception, often volunteering for fundraising events like its annual high school invitational meet.
After years of fruitful work, the foundation changed its focus from Dare’s death to his legacy, providing scholarships to high school athletes who suffer debilitating illnesses or injuries. It recently awarded its first “Life … Back on Track” scholarship to Lynnette Henshaw, a jumper/hurdler and honor student from New Jersey with a treatable form of lymphoma who plans to study pharmacy at the University of the Sciences in Philadelphia.
Getting the word out about the scholarship program proved challenging to foundation officials until Watson, a Penn State doctoral candidate in economics, and Ryan Foster, a Foundation intern and a volunteer assistant track coach for the Nittany Lions (he’s a 2011 grad), crafted the relay idea. Their goal: Raising $20,000 for the Foundation scholarship fund.
Brainstorming with Foster and others on a training run last winter, Watson recalled that the one time he drove from Stillwater to State College, it was almost exactly 1,000 miles door to door.
“I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be symbolic to make the drive and bring Kevin home, so to speak?’ ” Watson said in a telephone interview from Washington, D.C., where he was attending a conference. The group kicked it around, and by the end of the run Foster, an adventurous type from the Australian island state of Tasmania, said, “Let’s do it.”
This shouldn’t surprise anyone in the Guinness era, but Foster later discovered that a world record existed for a 1,000-mile relay: 99 hours, 3 minutes and 27 seconds, by a team of South Africans. That’s all he, Watson and the rest of the gang needed to know.
“Even when I threw it out there, I thought it was ridiculous to try and run it,” Watson said. “It’s a long drive. To run it, that’s plain crazy. But we’re distance runners, and we do crazy things every day. We’re a group of guys that when something is presented to us as impossible, we’re not going to back down.”
The fallout from the Penn State football scandal, Foster said, hurt initial fundraising. The foundation has no connected to The Second Mile, Jerry Sandusky’s foundation, but Foster decided not to push a Nittany Lions pride angle with alums. It also took longer than expected to secure permission to finish on campus.
Foster lined up sponsors to provide shoes, clothes, sunglasses, two vans and two chase cars. Police in towns along the way have been alerted. Three-man groups will switch out every 30 miles. Foster said the first group, accompanied by some Minnesota runners, will start at the U Field House and proceed to Prescott, Wis., where the 1,000-mile count officially begins.
To break the record, Foster said, the runners must hit a 5:50 to 5:53 pace per mile.
“We’re confident, but not too confident,” said Foster in a telephone interview from State College. “With 1,000 miles, you never really know.”
Now, neither Foster nor Watson knew Kevin Dare. Foster was 13, living half a world away, when Dare vaulted for Penn State. Watson remembers running at the Big East Championships the day Dare died, but his younger brother Jake — also a track and cross country standout at Stillwater High — happened to be in the stands at the Field House that day. The memory still resonates.
Watson endured his own chilling loss in November 2007, when Ryan Shay, his buddy and former Notre Dame teammate, collapsed and died of a heart attack while running the Olympic Marathon Trials in New York City. Shay’s death moved Watson to try marathons himself; he debuted at the 2009 Twin Cities Marathon (finishing seventh in 2:15.29) and qualified for this year’s Olympic Trials. Watson’s empathy for promising athletes who lose their ability to compete attracted him to the Foundation.
“I’d say it’s all tied together,” Watson said. “[Shay] was a big influence on me.”
None of the 10 runners has attempted anything like this. It will really be a test for middle-distance specialist Foster, a four-time Big Ten champion at 800 meters and the first Tasmanian to run a sub-four-minute mile.
“The training for this has been done for the past 10 years,” Foster said. “The ability to go out and run day after day at a high level, that’s what all of us have been doing for the past decade.
“It’s going to be a really interesting experience. And it’s going to be very mentally hard.”
For the latest details on the relay or to donate to the scholarship fund, click here.