When he began planning a cross country trek last year to raise money in support of cancer patients, Ethan Bennett knew it wouldn't be an easy task. But the daily grind is wearing on the Woodbridge native as he nears the end of the road.
"Every step pretty much hurts, but you kind of get used to it. You expect it," said Bennett, 23, in a phone interview.
Bennett was inspired by his mother Susan Bennett, who passed away from colon cancer in 2006. Running was his solace while dealing with the stress of his mother's illness. After she passed away, he felt a deep need to do something bigger.
Bennett and his girlfriend, Whitney Henderson, set off in an RV from New York City on April 21. Hendersen is a perfect sidekick for the adventure. She completed her own coast-to-coast run in 2011 to raise money for Charity: Water and Soles4Souls, and is now supporting Bennett along the way.
They sleep each night in the RV parked in a parking lot or on the side of the road. Sometimes a campground will sponsor their stay for a night.
Since April, Bennett has taken only two days off from running about 30 miles each day.
In that time, he's been chased by dogs, lost his own husky dog Luna at a pit stop, stopped by two hospitals for Achilles tendinitis and dealt with a range of unpleasant injuries. But he hasn't stopped yet. He's tanned, thin and determined, even when doctors said he had to stop a week into the run or he would snap a tendon.
"I've had some pretty bad shin splints, some foot pain, and I'm missing toenails. Aches and pains. You just kind of get used to it, mentally block it out and try to live with the damage," he said.
One ongoing task is simply consuming enough calories to keep going. Bennett munches on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches — and anything else within reach — when hunger hits.
The day is usually broken up into two runs, one in the morning and one in the evening.
Every couple of days, cars slow down on the road to ask Bennett what he's doing.
"I tell them I'm running across the country, and they look at me funny, and tell me to have a good day," he said.
Bennett sometimes puts in extra miles at night armed with a headlamp and reflectors when his brain won't let his body sleep. Another advantage is the cooler temperature and fewer cars on the road.
The best day so far?
On June 13, Bennett ran about 6 miles with Marshall Ulrich, an endurance runner who ran across America at 57 years old in 52 days and later authored "Running on Empty," a book about his journey. The pair connected through Facebook, and Ulrich joined the Run To Fight for a morning.
"It was great. He's totally laid back; a really nice guy," said Bennett.
About 400 people follow Bennett's journey on Run To Fight's Facebook page. People he met once on the road leave messages and stories of their own cancer battles on the page.
"It's awesome. Keeps me motivated," he said. Another motivation? Well-wishers post names on the Facebook page so Bennett can run the day's miles in honor of a loved one who has fought cancer, whether he knows them personally or not.
But his low fundraising total is discouraging, he said. Bennett originally planned to raise $500,000. So far, the total is only $1,700.
"It's frustrating to see all the people who like and comment without donating anything. It feels they see it as entertainment rather than what I'm doing it for," he said.
But the journey isn't over yet. Each day is its own task. If Bennett thinks about the miles left to go, his feet feel heavy and the challenge seems insurmountable. Instead he takes it mile by mile and day by day.
"Sometimes I look at the map and say, 'Whoa, I'm here.' It's fun to look back and see how far I've come. It makes all the pain worth it," he said.
Contact reporter Sara Jane Pohlman at email@example.com.