WEB-EXCLUSIVE: Local runners hit the California coast in the name of challenged athletes.
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Orange County local Natalie Gattrell gets her runner's high from more than endorphins. She gets it from helping others.
“It’s about doing something bigger than yourself,” says Gattrell. “And this is definitely a big thing.”
A world recorded-breaking thing.
Gattrell, along with fellow OC runners Mia Leitman and Debra Hayburn, is a part of two eight-person teams in the California Coastal Relay Run put on by the Challenged Athletes Foundation, which raises funds for sports expenses, prosthetics and equipment for challenged athletes. The 660-mile inaugural run, believed to be the longest attempted continuous relay run in North America, departed from San Francisco on October 15 to end in San Diego on the 20th. The group passed through Orange County’s coast on October 19.
“It’s just a great way to raise money and awareness and let people know about CAF,” says Gattrell.
CAF frequently makes it possible for challenged athletes to receive special prosthetic limbs often not covered by insurance that are made of carbon fiber and allow for more physical activity.
“There are so many people out there who want to get back in the game and just don’t have the funds to purchase these legs,” says Amy Dodson, one of two challenged athletes on the team; the other being Geoff Turner, an above-the-knee amputee. Dodson lost her leg to cancer at age 19 and later a lung. “And it’s so much more than running down the road. It builds people back up. It puts them back into normalcy. You can do what everybody else can do and you don’t feel disabled anymore.”
“[Amy] is an amazing woman, ” says Leitman, who is Dodson's running partner on this relay and a cancer survivor herself. “This woman is just tireless, she just goes. I love running with her.”
“What is really cool is Amy and Mia will be running along and people will say, ‘Hey what are you doing?’ and they say, ‘We’re running from San Francisco to San Diego for charity’ and they start a conversation and next thing you know it’s kind of like Forrest Gump, you’ve got people following you,” says Gattrell.
The relay, lead by CAF founder and President Jeffrey Essakow is similar to the Dodge Million Dollar Challenge, a seven-day bike relay that travels a similar course along California’s coast.
“Many participants in the California Coastal Relay Run are veterans of the Dodge Million Dollar Challenge,” Essakow says. “This year, we decided to kick it up a notch and travel a similar route on foot.”
Each member of the team raised $5,000 for the cause and the road riders, who cycle alongside the race, collectively raised a million.
“The physical aspect is definitely stressful," Gattrell admits.
And these women aren’t just physically up to the challenge but mentally prepared as well. The group received coaching prior to the event from Dr. Richard Levak, who has worked on television shows "Survivor" and "The Amazing Race."
“He told us that when he first did 'Survivor,' he interviewed everyone to make sure they were mentally qualified to do the event,” Hayburn recalls. “He asked them a couple weeks after their experience what their life was like and they said their sense of life had been heightened. Because they had gone through such extremes.” (Hayburn jokes shortly after the end of the fourth leg of the race: “I’m still waiting for that!”)
The race may be long and hard, but the runners are happy to help.
“You’ll look at this huge hill and be like, ‘Oh my gosh this is so hard,’” Leitman says, “but then you look at the end result, you look at the finish line. You’re making a difference in somebody's life. [CAF] is such a wonderful organization and what they do is so meaningful and that’s the finish line.“