With a smile as wide as a car grill, Jeff Venable jogs down Frisco’s Main Street.
A cape patterned with American flags billows behind him like a small parachute. Embroidered into the cape are the words “9/11 or Bust!” He might not technically be a superhero, but the cape and his cause place him pretty close to that category.
Venable is in the middle of a coast-to-coast run. His trip began May 31 on the Oregon coast.
“And it’s my goal to make it to New York City by the time of the 9/11 ceremonies,” he said as he was taking a short break Thursday morning in Summit County.
In less than four months of solid running he’ll cover about 3,600 miles, tracing his way from the peaceful Pacific, over the rugged Rockies, through the heat and dust of the Corn Belt, across the rolling green mountains of the Appalachians and finally into the urban heart of the Northeast.
The purpose of his grueling task is to raise funds for the families of fallen firefighters, equipment for volunteer firefighters and research for burn victims. His wife, Linda, was a longtime member of the Dallas Fire Department in Texas. After she retired last year, she wanted to find a way to give back to firefighters and their families, especially in the wake of several firefighter deaths, including those at a fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas, and the death of 14 hotshots fighting wildfires in the Arizona wilderness.
“In my 33 years in the fire department there were more deaths of firefighters across the country than I ever remembered happening before,” Linda Venable said. “I really wanted to do something.”
Because of those tragedies she wanted to raise money for the survivors through the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. She also wanted to raise money to help purchase equipment for volunteer firefighters through National Firefighters Endowment, also called The Thin Red Line.
“Seventy-five percent of all firefighters are volunteer,” she said. “At small volunteer fire departments they have a serious dilemma getting the equipment they need.”
The third group they are raising money for is Sons of the Flag, a nonprofit dedicated to helping burn victims.
She recruited her husband, Jeff, who happens to compete in ultramarathons, to take his long-distance running ability to a new realm, racing across the nation to bring attention to their cause. So far he’s averaging about 35 miles per day.
They’ve been touched by the positive response they’ve received.
“Every day we run into another stranger who helps us in some way,” Linda said.
Jeff also has encountered the harsh realities of running in the wide-open, sprawling American landscape. From getting attacked by a dog while running near Pocatello, Idaho, to getting pierced by swarms of mosquitoes in Wyoming to getting pelted by hail and startled by streaks of lightning in the High Rockies, he knows it’s only going to get tougher.
“I’m going to be running through flat fields where you can’t see anything but corn stalks for hundreds of miles at a time,” Jeff said. “That monotony is going to make the challenge more mental than physical.”
But as he’s battered by the elements during the day, he gets to rest at night in an RV. Linda drives the vehicle, along with their three pet greyhounds, helping rehydrate and refuel Jeff as he trudges along less-traveled routes, avoiding freeways and interstates. She’ll park a few miles ahead of him at time and wait. At night they camp in big-box store parking lots.
“Last night we camped in the Walmart parking lot and grilled out halibut,” Jeff said. “We’re funding the trip all ourselves so 100 percent of all the funds we collect go directly to firefighters and their survivors. We can’t afford to stay in RV parks.”
And while the trials and tribulations of such a long, brutal run, seems so daunting, to Jeff it’s nothing compared to what firefighters he’s running for endure.
“Firefighters are willing to risk their lives to save someone they don’t even know,” he said. “What they are willing to do makes such a huge difference in this world.”