As a spectator at the first Family Advocate Network System race in 1989, Harvey Sweetland Lewis III looked on with disbelief as runners circled Lake Harriet from dawn to dusk and then dawn again.
“I couldn’t imagine running for 24 hours,” he said. But three years ago, Lewis gave it a go and finished with 81 miles. Last year, he racked up 92 miles.
This weekend, Lewis, a 1998 University graduate with a degree in political science, ran the race for his third time.
Flanking the athletic trail that necklaces Lake Nokomis, where the race was held this year, participants and organizers were hardly dismayed by the fallen trees and heavy debris from the previous night’s storm. The day-long race started at 8:02 a.m., only two minutes behind schedule.
One of the weekend’s younger participants at 22, Lewis completed just under 100 miles. A self-proclaimed tenderfoot, he said maintaining strength and thinking during running are two of the hardest parts about the race.
“The more experienced runners have the upper hand on me because they’re more used to adjusting to the environment,” Lewis said. “It’s hard to think and strategize when you’re running 50 miles or more. You have to think about getting sunburned, feeding yourself and pacing yourself.”
But Lewis and other runners said running hazards take a backseat once a runner gets out there and thinks about the purpose of the event.
The annual Family Advocate Network System race is a fund-raiser that works through the West Bank’s Brian Coyle Community Center. Since the event’s inception, high-endurance runners have raised more than $250,000 by collecting pledges for either their participation or for each mile they run.
The money goes to children living in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood in the form of $5,000 college scholarships. Program directors base scholarship eligibility on academic performance and a child’s participation in a community program designed to help disadvantaged kids get a chance at a secondary education.
Last year, racers added $50,000 to the scholarship fund. The yearly average is $25,000 to $30,000. Results from Saturday’s race won’t be in for another week.
More than 100 participants with an average age of 43 ran this weekend. The eldest runner, 72, is old enough to be the grandfather of the youngest runner, Josie Rea, 19, a University junior and St. Paul native.
The race counts as Rea’s first 24-hour race, but she’s no stranger to jogging distances most people would think twice about covering in their cars.
“Realistically, my goal is 75 (miles), but I wouldn’t mind running 100,” she said before the race. She finished the race with 106 miles and took second place among women.
Jogging 50 to 60 miles per week was her preparation for the Family Advocacy run, but Rea makes it clear she doesn’t train to break any records.
“I’m not that into competition,” she said. “It’s more just the fun of it.” Fun might best be defined by the tales of urban folklore she told about the past runners.
“These people have the craziest stories,” Rea said. “One of these guys does a 48-hour race in France where they run around a 300-meter track. It was about 90 degrees, too. The winning woman had ice packs tied on either side of her head.”
Another favorite story is about last year’s winner, Susan Olsen, who creamed the competition by chalking up 122 miles. This year’s winner, Jeff Hagen, ran 124 miles. At the 1995 race, Olsen, then 38, ran while she was 9 months pregnant. She completed 66 miles in 24 hours and gave birth the following day.
This weekend, though, joggers weren’t telling many stories; heaving one leg in front of the other was enough to keep them occupied.
“You have to prepare for the pain,” Lewis said. “It’s more of a mental challenge than a physical one. If you’re trying to climb a mountain and you think you can’t do it, you never will.”
More than 200 volunteers working six-hour shifts help to tabulate lap counts and keep fresh food on hand. “It’s a very grass-roots effort,” said race organizer Bob Frawley. Also the director of the Brian Coyle center, Frawley organized the first Family Advocacy race.
Though he no longer runs the race, he said the feeling isn’t something soon forgotten. About 25 runners hit the 100-mile mark. “For those that haven’t done it before,” he said, “it turns out to be a religious experience.”