VERMONT — A group of seven runners ran the length of Vermont, raising more than $38,000 for the Vermont Foodbank along the way.

The runners, all from Essex, completed their Miles for Meals Challenge Aug. 14-15 in an impressive amount of time.

What was even more impressive, however, is how much money they ended up collecting for the Vermont Foodbank. When the crowdsourcing page was set up in early July, the goal was to raise $5,000. By the time they took off from the Massachusetts border in Pownal, just after 7:30 p.m. on a Friday night, the total was up over $31,000.

In the hours that followed, the seven men took turns trekking their way through the night and early-morning fog while working their way up the state. As the sun rose, so did the funding total. By the time the sun had set and they reached their destination, they had nearly reached $35,000. As of press time, it was a staggering $38,784.

That makes Miles for Meals the highest-raising team effort listed on the foodbank’s donation site with five of its members being in the top-10 individual efforts, including the top spot.

“We’re blown away,” said Vermont Foodbank Director of Communications and Public Affairs Nicole Whalen of the group’s success. “When I first heard about it, it sounded like such an exciting, really neat challenge. It’s really staggering to see the community support that they were able to leverage and the people who they were able to inspire with that whole project.

“I think it really is such a beautiful example of the way that our community is coming together right now during this crisis,” Whalen continued. “In the work that we’re doing at the foodbank, we see everyday how hard this has been for a lot of members of our community, and we’re also seeing everyday how much people really see this as something that we are all in together. The timing could not be more critical for this. We’re just so grateful.”

Whalen said estimates point to Vermont seeing a 46 percent increase in food insecurity during the pandemic. She added that the foodbank usually distributes about 11-12 million pounds of food in a year; between March and the end of July of 2020, it distributed 10 million pounds. Whalen said the Miles for Meals fundraising will be able to provide over 64,000 meals for Vermonters.

Seth Jensen, Dan Davis, Eric Langevin, Jeff Weston, Dylan McNamara, Brendan Kinney, and Derek Martisus explained to the Messenger in a mid-July interview that they decided to take on the Miles for Meals Challenge after the 100 on 100 Relay, a 100-mile competition on VT Route 100 held each summer, joined the long list of events being cancelled this year.

The self-made challenge wasn’t just an opportunity to help out fellow Vermonters during a time when there are so many unknowns, including where a family’s next meal might come from. It was also a chance to explore the Green Mountain State together, doing what they love.

While running through towns that some of them had never been to before, they circled the Bennington Battle Monument and cooled off in the waters of Lake Dunmore in Addison County.

“One of the things I really looked forward to was seeing Vermont on foot,” said McNamara. “I have these visual highlights that will forever be in my mind, and I don’t think I could have imagined them being like they are. I grew up in Vermont, I was born in Vermont, and I had never seen the Bennington Monument. So to be able to, at night, run around that, it’s an indelible memory now that I think I’ll cherish.”

Miles for Meals

The Miles for Meals team surrounds Sue Kessler during a meet-up in Vergennes.

Along the way, they were met by familiar faces and strangers who wanted to thank and congratulate them. Among those was well-known runner and fund raiser Sue Kessler who made her way across the state from White River Junction to meet and greet the group in Vergennes.

Just under 20 hours after they had set out, the Essex Police Department provided an escort to Weston, and his brother who joined him for a bit, as they made their way through a Five Corners intersection that was lined with family and friends cheering them on.

“Coming into Essex, there was definitely an adrenaline rush,” said Weston who made his way up Pearl Street at a pretty good pace before his sibling tagged along. He noted that the runners had mostly been carrying on around mid-6:00 miles, but he picked it up a bit near downtown. “Having my brother there, and a police officer, and friends, and family the whole way from South Summit [Street] to the high school, it was such an adrenaline boost.

Miles for Meals

Jeff Weston heads up Pearl Street in Essex, nearing the Five Corners checkpoint of the journey.

“Not many people give me much acknowledgement for running in my family,” he added, “and it’s the first time I feel like I had tons of people that know me come out and support me; I’ve never seen family come out like that for any type of running events, even when I qualified for [the] Boston [Marathon]. But they were like, ‘Wow, Jeff. Oh my God, you helped raise this much money to help the state.’ It was really awesome to have family actually acknowledge something that involves running for once.”

Following a stop at Essex High to see even more of their supporters, the seven bright-orange shirts continued north towards Canada. Shortly before 10 p.m., Martisus received an escort of his own, but one from the federal level as the U.S. Customs & Border Protection (USCBP) lit the way to the finish line.

“I came around the final corner, the [leading USCBP] vehicle peeled off, and these guys were there waiting,” said Martisus who ran the last of the 204.5 miles. “The biggest surprise of the entire event for me was that I got rather emotional at the end and had to actually compose myself. I had no idea that was coming. There were not only these six guys waiting but a half dozen to a dozen border patrol officers, all waiting for us with sirens and lights. It was sort of the culmination of the entire event which none of us could have expected a month or two ago — all in that one moment. It was extremely powerful.”

The runners didn’t head home right away but instead capped the experience by spending the night at Campbell’s Bay Campground in Swanton, the site being one of many generous donations made to the group. They popped some champagne to celebrate the endeavor, but the sleeping bags were more desirable than the bubbly as the runners succumbed to exhaustion, knowing there will be plenty of time in the future to relive the journey with one another.

A few days later when talking with the Reporter, “tired” was the word being thrown around a lot with the group still coming down from the mental and emotional adrenaline rush of completing such a tough, unique challenge that had been so successful. The bodies felt much better, however, as the group said it had been right back to running shortly after getting back to Essex.

Along with the many thanks the runners gave to those who contributed monetarily, they also expressed a great deal of gratitude to Don Weston Excavating, Fit2Excel, Darn Tough Socks, Fleet Feet, Melissa Brott Photography, Vermont Adventure Vans, and Kennedy Excavation for providing additional goods and services that helped along the way.

There was another group of donors that the group found interesting and was pleasantly surprised to get so much support from: out-of-staters.

“It floored me,” said Davis. “The day before we ran, I got an email from a coworker in Boston. For all I know, he’s never stepped foot in Vermont, and he issued a check for something like $500. And that’s just one example. My cousin in Florida, and my brother in Ohio — I kept putting this stuff on Facebook expecting people locally to care about the Vermont Foodbank, and getting responses from people well outside our borders was really impressive to me.”

As for the future of Miles for Meals, it’s uncertain, and only time will tell, whether something similar is organized by the guys again. But there was a sense that the group from Essex will want to at least try and raise money for charity through running.

“We talked a little bit about it the night after we finished, when we were a bit delirious,” said McNamara. “We haven’t had a chance as a group to collectively make a commitment, but I think I can speak generally that there’s certainly a desire to continue running, and there’s certainly a desire to continue to support the Vermont Foodbank. Speaking for myself, I’m certainly open to looking at ways to do something next year, and I think that the rest of us are probably open to thinking about it.”

“We run together almost every week,” added Kinney, “and I think we’ll have a lot of time to discuss the possibilities over the next few months.”

“This was such a positive experience that it would be hard to meet those expectations again,” said Jensen, “but I go into things thinking that the expectations are just different. Maybe it’ll be a different challenge, maybe it’ll be for a different cause. I’m really excited and super positive about doing something else in the future, because history shows that we did it. So why can’t we do something just as positive, or more positive, next year?”

Final Thoughts

Jeff Weston: “I think it blew away all my expectations, from how many people came out to see us to how much money we raised and how much I enjoyed the race. It was a really awesome experience; I definitely think it’s one of the top running experiences I’ve ever had.”

Brendan Kinney: “I think for me, physically, it was much more demanding than I expected. It was really hard because I think that the biggest challenge, for me, was: you had to run your next leg within probably two hours, two and a half hours. And so there was never really fully time to eat something substantial and digest it. There was not time to really take a solid nap. And so mentally and physically, it was just hard to make all that balance and work out. It was pretty challenging.”

Derek Martisus: “I had some concepts that it would play out sort of the way it did, but it didn’t make it any easier. The sleep deprivation was extremely difficult. At different points during the event, each one of us got a little cranky. Physically, it was difficult, but emotionally, the lack of sleep and the lack of solid food was very difficult. But I would concur with what Jeff said: this was not just one of the best running experiences I’ve had, but overall, all aspects of it, it became one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had in my life. I had no idea that that would be the case just a few short months ago. Everything from the generosity of the community, to the experience that we all had, the physical challenges, everything put together, was just an absolutely amazing experience.”

Eric Langevin: “When I started this, I thought, ‘Yeah, it’ll be tough, but I can get through it and it’ll be a fun time with the guys.’ I never thought I’d get so into it. I kept telling myself, ‘I’m just going to go out and run leisurely,’ and it just wasn’t the case. Every time I got out there, I pushed myself. And just the fun I had and the memories that were made and imprinted on my mind are going to last a long time.”

Seth Jensen: “There were so many little, great anecdotes on the road when we were actually running, where people would come out to the end of their driveways, or at the end of the road, to a camping site in Swanton, and they’re cheering you on at nine o’clock at night — and you have no idea who these people are. But what I’m so blown out of the water by is the generosity of people; how much money we raised is amazing. We never thought we’d get anywhere near that, and that feels really good. But I think it’s definitely something that gets me excited about doing more of these things. As Derek said, this is not just a great running experience; this is just a great experience in life that I don’t think I’ll ever forget for all of those reasons: for being with these guys, for feeling supported by the community, by the teammates, by our families. And then all the money that we raised — that was the real goal: to put a lot of food on people’s tables. It was just incredible all the way around.”

Dylan McNamara: “I have another memory of running at night and turning the headlight lamp off and just seeing all the stars, and you can see the outlines of the mountains as well. Those are things you can’t appreciate unless you’re there, but also those will just stay with you forever. I thought this would be a cool challenge; I didn’t think it would be the lifetime memory like it’s going to be. We were joking that someday we’ll be in a retirement home telling the nurse about this, and they’ll be rolling their eyes thinking we’re just telling them some far-fetched tale. So it’s cool that it happened in actual reality.”

Dan Davis: “The thing that really stood out to me and I came to realize was so special about this whole thing was that: at first, it felt like it was an event to justify us going out for like some kind of competitive run-like thing, and I didn’t feel like raising money was the primary goal. But by the time we were running, we were obsessed with the money total and raising the money more than we were obsessed with our run or the time. I feel like the whole thing flipped, which is really cool.”

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