When Alex Ramsey and Patrick Sweeney cross the finish line of the New York Marathon, it will not merely mark the end of a 26.2-mile run.
It will have been a 900-mile journey.
Ramsey, 30, and Sweeney, 36, started running at the Chicago Marathon on October 11, and they haven't really stopped since. The two men, both experienced ultramarathoners, are plotting a course through the Midwest to reach the New York starting line on Staten Island by November 1, one daily 50-mile run at a time.
The two are making the trek to raise awareness and money as part of the Champions Walk for Peace, a nonprofit that constructs schools in Kenya, a country that is at the heart of ultramarathon culture and tradition. Their goal is to raise $250,000 for a school to be built in Northern Kenya, with the cooperation of the Aegis Trust. (They've already raised more than $90,000.)
This past July, top Kenyan athletes—including Olympic gold medalist Ezekiel Kemboi, and former world marathon record holders Wilson Kipsang and Tegla Loroupe—did a 522-mile torch relay in their home country for Champions. When a friend with Race Across the USA, a group of athletes who do back-to-back marathons, suggested Ramsey do a similar trek stateside with Sweeney, running marathon to marathon, he said "absolutely." Part of the appeal, he said, would be running through his native Ohio: "It was easy to say yes."
A stipend from Aegis Trust covers modest accommodations and food along the way. Sweeney, who hails from Manhattan Beach, California, has the added challenge of maintaining a vegan diet while on the road. For much of the trek, which is more bedecked by McDonald's french fries than farm-to-table fare, he has to improvise.
"I eat a lot of bread out here, and potato chips, which I know isn't good," Sweeney said.
"I eat avocados and drink beer. When you exercise 10 to 12 hours a day, your stomach is a furnace and your body finds the resources it needs."
They're accompanied by a friend who coordinates logistics like lodging and handles any safety concerns like dehydration, unsafe terrain or extreme weather conditions. The three meet up at checkpoints daily. When Ramsey and Sweeney are on the road by themselves, both run with cell phones, water, and running goos for fuel. "We're Amazing Race-ing it," Ramsey said, making a nod to the popular television show in which contestants traverse the globe by unorthodox means.
Ramsey and Sweeney are also proponents of the popular, and polarizing, footwear-less school of barefoot running, in which runners run without the aid of shoes or socks, or in minimalist sandals, a far contrast a generation of runners bred on soled running shoes. Thus far, they said they've successfully steered clear of broken glass and other debris. The two claim that in spite of the immense amounts of time spent in each other's company, that they still get along and are enjoying their adventure.
"In terms of our lifestyle, we're kindred spirits," Ramsey said. "We don't have teched-out gear. We're more laid back. Back to the basics."
From the Chicago Marathon finish line at Grant Park, Ramsey and Sweeney wound their way up Lake Shore Drive and into Indiana. They plan to continue down through northern Ohio, then into Pittsburgh, eventually leading into Princeton, New Jersey, with the aim of trotting into New York City by October 30. Typically, they start running around 7 am and run for 12 hours until darkness falls.
"We're just outside of Gary, Indiana," Ramsey said on a recent phone call. "We're choosing to be positive."
"We're not out here to talk about our mileage or stats or anything like that," he continued. "We want the opportunity to talk with people and get the conversation going and raise money for an awesome school."
That's great. But does it ever get boring?
"I really like the time to travel inward and experience the landscape," Ramsey said. "It does a lot to quiet my mind. When I have a quiet mind, my vision becomes crisper and it seems like I'm more connected. I know, it's a bit esoteric. But it's given me an appreciation for my natural surroundings."
For Ramsey, the finish in New York could have added emotional intensity. He's trying to meet up with his father, who lives in Rhode Island, and whom he hasn't seen in 25 years.
"If it happens, it would be heart wrenching for both of us," Ramsey said. "I've had a lot of time running across the country to work through the emotions. Those things come up. Now it seems as if the universe is pulling us together."
For Sweeney, the finish line in New York, while a triumphant end to a long journey, carries a little less weight.
"I'm not a goal-oriented person," he said. "What I enjoy is the process of doing things. There will be some satisfaction, some hugs, but it's good to think about what's next."