PROVIDENCE — Vermont’s Long Trail isn’t some bucolic path of soft pine needles where a trail runner can glide for mile after mile. It is a 273-mile grind of ankle-twisting rocks and roots, mud and mountain.
“It’s a gnarly, gnarly course,” Rhode Island’s Jeremy Howard said. “It’s considered somewhere between 20 to 30 percent ‘runnable.’ And it’s up and down. It never levels out.”
But Howard isn’t simply setting out to complete the route. He’s aiming to finish the Long Trail with a fastest known time of just under six days, beginning on Sunday.
To meet that goal, he will sleep no more than four hours per day. And he’s targeting the record in the “unsupported” category, meaning he’ll have no crew providing him with food and water, no other souls around to lift his spirits when he swears he can’t go on.
Howard, 49, of Little Compton, said he’s undertaking this daunting task as part of an attempt to raise money and awareness for The Play Brigade, a Boston-based nonprofit dedicated to creating inclusive opportunities in play, recreation, and sports.
“Completing my journey will be much more satisfying knowing I’ve done it while supporting The Play Brigade’s mission to help empower, influence, and inspire people with disabilities,” he said. “I have a brother with Down syndrome and a family friend with a limb difference. I understand how important it is for them, and countless others, to feel a part of their community.”
During the trek, Howard will be wearing a hat signed by Harper Oates, the daughter of The Play Brigade’s founder and president, Dawn Oates, of Brookline, Mass. Now 9 years old, Harper suffered a spinal cord injury at birth that left her paralyzed.
In 2018, Oates took her daughter to New York City to see the “Fearless Girl” statue, which then stood opposite Wall Street’s famous “Charging Bull” statue. She hoped to take a photo of her daughter next to the “Fearless Girl,” which has become a symbol of empowerment for women.
But she couldn’t lift her daughter’s 400-pound power wheelchair onto the brick platform that then held both “Fearless Girl” and “Charging Bull.” So she took a picture of her daughter sitting behind the statue.
Through The Play Brigade, Oates then organized Fearless Girl Marathon Relay, helping to persuade State Street Global Advisors to move the statue to a more accessible site. Howard volunteered to run the anchor leg of the December 2018 relay, in which 36 runners covered segments between Boston Common and the “Fearless Girl” statue, which had by then been moved outside the New York Stock Exchange.
Afterward, Howard asked if he could get his hat signed by Harper so that he could see her name while running. “Her fingers don’t work,” Oates explained. “We had to strap a marker onto her hand so she could move her arm and sign.”
“It’s my lucky hat,” Howard said. He said he knows that running 273 miles without support will be a mental challenge, with extreme highs and extreme lows. But when he’s feeling down, he plans to take off his hat and look at Harper’s name on the brim.
Oates said that in watching her daughter grow and play, she realized that the main barrier that people with disabilities face is not the disability itself, but the design of their communities.
The money raised during Howard’s Long Trail run will fund efforts to increase access to the outdoors for families, such as carousels, beach wheelchairs, plus continued advocacy for accessible programs and spaces.
Oates also called for more inclusive races, allowing wheelchairs and strollers, such as The Play Brigade 5K held on Boston Common.
“A lot of race organizers hide behind liability,” she said. “I challenge everyone creating a road race to think about creating the opportunities, with waivers or whatever you need, because you would be surprised how many people would show up. You would create a community race that actually reflects the community.”
Howard, who cofounded Velotec Sports, an international contract manufacturer and vendor, started running in 2013 to combat the unhealthy effects of traveling a lot for work.
“I have a habit of overdoing things a little,” he said. So before long, he had gone from “couch to marathon,” and soon he began entering 100-mile and 200-mile ultra-marathons.
On the Long Trail, Howard will be trying to beat the unsupported fastest known time — 5 days, 23 hours, 48 minutes — set by Jeff Garmire in July 2019.
In pursuing that goal, Howard is planning to run and hike 18 hours per day, taking a pair of two-hour naps each day. He said one of his greatest fears is that he won’t wake up when his alarm goes off. He doesn’t expect to sleep at all the last two days.
Howard will be running short of both sleep and calories. He expects to burn about 10,000 calories per day, but he’ll be lucky to consume 5,000 to 6,000 calories per day.
And he will be filtering water along the way. One of his main concerns is the fickle New England weather. “It was literally snowing on Memorial Day on Stratton Mountain (in Vermont),” he said, “and then it went close to 95 degrees two or three days later.”
Howard and The Play Brigade are seeking “Trail Ambassadors” to help boost awareness about what individuals and their families go through to gain accessibility to things that many able-bodied people take for granted. If you know of someone who can speak to the importance of access, you can nominate them here.
And the group is asking supporters to donate $10, $1, or even 10 cents per mile for each of the 273 miles Howard runs. Also, people are invited to complete a virtual race of any distance to show their support of Howard. Learn more here.
Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @FitzProv.