Two cross-country journeys, two epic missions

One man’s goal is to run more than 20 miles every day for 1,172 days straight. For the other, 13,000 miles is the target, walking the country’s four corners — from Florida to San Diego to Seattle to Maine and then Florida again.

After crossing paths twice in Texas, Jim Plunkett-Cole and Eli Smith barely missed each other last week in Del Mar, only one day and a few miles apart on their far-flung odysseys across the country. But while their paths and paces will diverge even more in the three years they both still face ahead, neither seem likely to waver in the devotion they bring to their causes — the first to beat back childhood obesity, the second to raise awareness for the struggle faced by veterans with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

Plunkett-Cole is spreading a gospel of nature-loving fitness as he runs from school to school across America, channeling Forrest Gump’s iconic run in order to get kids active and outside. Since embarking from Mobile, Ala. in October, he has zigzagged across the country to inspire and enable elementary students. His stop on May 11 at Carthay Center Elementary School in Los Angeles will be his 30th school in the U.S.

That’s 6,000 students, not counting the 5,000 he talked to at 20 schools in England.

He enthralls them with tales of the wild pigs that chased him across the Louisiana outback, and the pair of otters he spotted playing in a storm drain in Galveston, and the bobcat he met face-to-face at the Garden of the Gods in Colorado.

“I explain to the children that the more you get outdoors, the greater the chances are that you’ll see cool things and experience things that are far cooler than anything you will ever see in a cartoon, or in a film, or on a screen, or in a computer game,” he said.

One of the schools he visited in Texas was so smitten that they flew him to their sister schools in Boston, New York, Chicago, Washington, D.C., Charlotte, Orlando and back to Houston. From Texas he ran to Colorado, where he was taken in by several schools in and around Denver, running a 1,200-mile circuit there and getting his visa extended, he said, thanks to Sen. Michael Bennet.

While his course has varied from its cinematic inspiration, his mandate of daily mileage has not: nearly a marathon every single day. For three years straight, nary an inkling of a day off.

“No no no no no, I’m not allowed to,” he said during a brief pit stop in Encinitas last week. “My rules are that I’m not allowed to miss a single day for 1,172 days.”

Eli Smith is taking a decidedly slower pace as he traverses 13,000 miles along the country’s periphery — to his knowledge, a feat that has never before been accomplished.

A former tank gunner stationed in South Korea, he grows terse on what’s driving him in his epic endeavor, saying only that he “lost a few friends” to suicide and PTSD. So the 37-year-old from Columbus, Ohio sold everything he had last year and packed up the barest of essentials — a tent, a sleeping bag, a portable stove, a few tools — and stuffed it all into a small cart.

He departed from Pensacola, Fla. on Nov. 22, bee-lining his way west until he meet the Pacific Ocean last week at the U.S.-Mexico border before turning north for Seattle. Once there, he’ll trudge east across the Great White North until he reaches the coast of Maine, then will turn south to Key West, Fla. and finish back in Pensacola.

“I wanted to do something about it that no one’s ever done before,” he explained last week as he enjoyed a rare hotel room reprieve in San Clemente.

The nonprofit he created, 4 Corners Charities, has built up with help from people he’s met along the way; Gold Star moms and fellow veterans and everyday Americans inspired by his journey. He is asking people to donate $22, echoing the statistic that 22 veterans kill themselves every year.

Eight months in, he’s raised around $6,000, has worn through four pairs of shoes and has shed some 50 pounds.

“I think I’m slowly gaining it back,” he joked. “People have been feeding me very well.”

Sometimes he sleeps on the ground, or in the bushes. Sometimes in his tent. Sometimes, he finds shelter thanks to a military family he encounters along the way. In Encinitas, he was put up in a lavish vacation home after the homeowner learned about his saga on Facebook.

“One of the things I’m trying to convey is everyone is good. I’m living proof, I’m walking across the country, meeting strangers, staying in their homes,” he said. “It’s all different backgrounds. This is not political. It’s been phenomenal just to see Americans come together. People do want to help.”

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