San Diego to New York on the Shoe Leather Express
By IRA BERKOW
Stu Mittleman, with his son, Beau, left, and his daughter,
- Mackenzie, in Central Park Monday after
- finishing a 3,200-mile run across America.
- Librado Romero/ The New York Times
- Due soon in Central Park near Tavern on the Green, three days ahead of schedule, was Stu Mittleman, a 49-year-old father of two. A few score of people — friends, family members, the conventionally curious, the paramedics parked in a Lenox Hill Hospital ambulance — were waiting to greet him yesterday, or at least to stare at him, on an already sultry midmorning.
An arch composed of red, white and blue balloons was strung over the roadway. This was, after all, a special occasion. Mittleman was coming to New York City all the way from San Diego. On foot. Thirty-two hundred miles. Fifty-seven days. Some 14 pairs of running shoes later.
- Mittleman, deeply tanned, ran and walked an average of 52 miles a day. That is two marathons every day, an average of 16 to 18 hours of running a day. For about the last three weeks he only slept about two hours a day. “He was running on adrenaline,” one friend said. Some had been in touch with him by cell phone throughout the trip.
Mittleman is one of the world’s premier ultramarathon runners. He holds the American record for running 100 miles (14 hours), and he also holds the six-day record of 573 miles. And he was no slouch in the 1,000-mile run, either, having been the former world record-holder in the event, traversing the distance in 10 days 11 hours.
It was now about 10 a.m. Mittleman was scheduled to cross the finish line in 15 minutes. Some in the crowd had been in touch with him during Mittleman’s “Journey Across America.” It was no exaggeration: 11 states, starting from California on May 1, through Arizona, the Rockies, the Midwest, Appalachia, the East Coast, Manhattan isle. Over rivers and across mountains and along highways and cracked roads, morning, noon, night.
His purpose, he said, was to call attention to the growing sedentary lives of American children. “Clearly,” he said, “we need to be doing more to help kids understand the importance of healthy daily activity.” This run, he imagined, would be an impetus. One concern, surely, was that as soon as a youngster, or anyone, heard about running 3,200 miles, the first thing he or she would want to do is lie down on a couch.
“He called me from somewhere in the desert and said it was 106 degrees,” said Irv Gikofsky, the television meteorologist Mr. G., who is Mittleman’s friend and fellow marathon runner. “Then he called me from somewhere in Oklahoma and said there was a thunderstorm. I want to make him an honorary weatherman for Channel 11 News.”
Another friend and long-distance runner, Brian Flanagan, said Mittleman told him by phone from somewhere in Indiana — or was it Arkansas? — that he was having muscle spasms in his leg, and that his back ached and a chiropractor was helping him.
“You hate to see your child hurting,” Mittleman’s mother, Selma, said. She and her husband, Irving, from Dumont, N.J., were waiting for him in Central Park. “But I know he’ll come out of it. Whatever he sets his mind to, he succeeds at.
“Friends of mine have said, ‘What’s he got to run like this for?’ Like he’s nuts, and I’m nuts. But I have no choice. He’s my boy. So you may as well support him.”
When not on the hoof, Mittleman, who has two master’s degrees (one in movement, one in social science), runs the World Ultrafit Center in La Jolla, Calif.
“He’s lost about 20 pounds,” said Katherine Callen, who with Mittleman wrote the recently published book, “Slow Burn: Slow Down, Burn Fat and Unlock the Energy Within.” “He weighed 155 pounds when he started, and he’s about 135 now. But it won’t be long before he gets it back.”
Just then, a pair of motorcycle police officers, lights flashing, came over the hill from Central Park South. Right behind them was Mittleman, blue cap, T-shirt, blue shorts. One imagined him staggering across the finish line, gasping for air like a trout just hauled onto a boat. Not Mittleman. His smile was wide, his eyes were bright, his stride was good. A guy running for a bus on Third Avenue looks more exhausted.
In fact, he was ahead of schedule yesterday and actually slowed down, resting more than usual last night at a hotel in Fort Lee, N.J., because his park permit did not begin until 10:15 a.m.
Cheers erupted as he approached the finish line with his two children — son Beau, 10, and daughter Mackenzie, 7 — at his side. They looked fresh, too. But their excuse was that they had flown in from California to join him. After he finished, he called his wife, Mary Beth, at their home in Solana Vista, Calif., where she is expecting their third child. She congratulated him. “I wish I’d been there to care for your bunions,” she said.
“I got lots of e-mails and faxes from people who were aware of what I was doing and thought, ‘Maybe I’ll get out of my chair and get on a bike,’ ” said Mittleman, who traveled with a support group of four or five people and a van “If nothing else, maybe I can demonstrate to my own kids that you can accomplish things if you really want to, and work hard toward them.”
He said he had consumed mostly grain products and water during his odd transcontinental tour. And now? “A beer and a steak,” he said. “And I probably won’t run again until, oh, maybe tomorrow.”
Nearby, Mittleman’s sister, Jan Shulman, a graphic artist, said her longest run was twice around the Central Park reservoir, about three miles. “But I just did it once,” she said. She generally stuck to once around. What did she think of her brother’s 3,200-mile jaunt?
“Don’t ask,” she said.