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Tuesday, 10 August 2010 19:57

Barefoot runner on crusade for kids

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When Boone resident Matt Jenkins began his 760-mile barefoot run across North Carolina, he didn’t figure it would end with a snake bite.

Just before 11 p.m. last Wednesday (Aug. 4), as Jenkins crossed from Jackson into Macon County, a copperhead struck him on the foot and halted his progress in the 672nd mile of his journey.

Six days later, Jenkins resumed his run.

“The point of the run is that we can’t be defeated. It’s a symbol of our struggle, and I have to finish,” Jenkins said, lying with his foot elevated in Ellijay last week.

Jenkins is running to raise awareness and money for a youth program in Boone that helps kids stay away from drugs and succeed in school. The program, where Jenkins works as a counselor, lost its state grant funding this year.

Jenkins was already exhausted, having traveled close to 30 miles in sweltering heat over roadways that wound up, over and through the Balsam and Cowee mountain chains when the snake bit him. He felt a sting akin to a yellow jacket and then saw a snake slither onto the dark road behind him. Adrenaline and fear coursing through his veins, he looked for someone who could help.

Ellijay resident Will Staples was in his house getting ready to turn in for the night.

“I saw a light coming through the side yard and I couldn’t figure out what it was,” Staples said. “But it was Matt with bare feet.”

Staples said he didn’t know what to make of the sun-baked traveler and his breathy tale of adventure.

“I just said ‘I’m doing a barefoot charity run across the state, and I just got bit by a snake,’” Jenkins said.

Since the story was too strange to be fiction, Staples helped Jenkins off of his feet and called 911. In a matter of minutes, members of the Cullasaja Gorge Fire and Rescue team were on hand. Jenkins was taken by ambulance to Angel Medical Center, treated and released. Staples and his wife took Jenkins in for the night.

For Jenkins, the kindness of strangers has been a hallmark of his trip.

“It’s opened my eyes. I expected some kindness, but North Carolina is just a great state. Great people live here,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins said he’s been given free groceries, drinks and places to stay by well-wishers. But the kindness of the Staples, who took him into their home as he recuperated, has been a highlight of the trip.

As an after school teacher and coach for the Western Youth Network, a nonprofit in Wautauga County, Jenkins’ work is his motivation.

Western Youth Network relies on grant funding for its $155,000 operating budget. But this year it lost three of the state grants that are its lifeblood.

“Everybody was like, ‘What are we going to do?’” Jenkins said.

So far, national media outlets like CNN and the Huffington Post have picked up on the adventure and all the attention has raised the stakes of the game.

“If I fail, I don’t just let myself down, I let everyone has supported me in this down, and I let the kids down,” Jenkins said.

The run itself has been a trial by fire. Jenkins is carrying his own supplies in a modified baby stroller. He left Manteo July 15, and he’s covered nearly 30 miles a day in the summer heat over roads.

“I can’t say I’ve found a rhythm yet. There’s been a breaking point every day. Everyday I doubt myself,” Jenkins said. “I’m not an elite athlete. I’m a back of the pack marathon runner.”

The snake bite forced Jenkins to return home to Boone to recuperate, but he vowed to resume the journey as soon as he could.

“The day I can walk a mile is the day I’ll come back and finish,” Jenkins said at the time. “If it was just the pain, I’d walk through it, but I don’t want the venom to move up my leg.”

But it turned out the waiting was worse than the pain, which has receded considerably. After trying out a four-mile test run, Jenkins decided to pick up where he left off — right outside the Staples’ house, a scant distance from where the copperhead got him.

“I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be,” Jenkins said. “I kind of feel like I belong out there, and I’m excited to get back on the road and see how many miles I can do.”

Jenkins doesn’t see the snake bite as a cosmic curse on his trip, but rather as a chance to prove that nothing can stop him. He’s planning to finish this Friday, the 13th.

To learn more about Matt Jenkins’ journey visit http://ncrun.blogspot.com.

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