Real-life Superhero

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“Where are you?”

“I don’t actually know.”

That’s how my first conversation with Jamie McDonald, who has been called Adventureman, a superhero and a normal bloke from Gloucester, went last week. McDonald was running along some road, near some town on some marathon on his Super U.S. Solo Run that started in Washington (the state) and will eventually finish in Gloucester, Massachusetts, in about a month’s time.

“I’m trying to get to Bowling Green,” McDonald said.

Like each time I’ve thought about Adventureman over the past year, I had to check a map. Ah, right, Bowling Green, below Fredericksburg. Trying to calculate when the 32-year-old British adventurer/author/motivational speaker would be near Middleburg, I did some rough math multiplying by 26 and losing count quickly.

“When do you think you’ll be near us?”

“I don’t actually know.”

Notice the trend.

This is what happens when a man is running solo across the country, a jogging stroller called Caesar and about 60 pounds of gear (tent, bag full of running shoes, souvenir hats, laptop, British flag, etc.) as his only companion, raising money as his only goal and a year-long visa as his only boss.

Adventureman started his journey, well, this leg of his journey (he’s run across Canada, biked from Thailand to England, set a world record on a stationary bike) in April, debarking from Cape Alava, Washington, the westernmost point of mainland U.S. and has traversed south through Oregon, California, east across Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida and north through Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia. He’s dodged rattlesnakes, nearly been arrested for squatting and counted on the kindness of strangers through a step-by-step journey across America.

I’ve been following Adventureman for years, ever since he began to take on challenges – adventures – to raise money for children’s hospitals around the world. All of us have wanted to be adventurous, all of us have wanted to drop everything and go, right? I traveled in the passenger seat next to Steinbeck and Charley, crashed through the icebergs on Endurance and have drawn my finger across the jagged line from Springer Mountain to Mount Katahdin. But that’s about as far as it goes, just wistful moments of escape, too many adult compromises to actually do it. As for McDonald, well, he’s doing it.

From Gloucester, Great Britain (10.8 miles from Cheltenham Racecourse), McDonald was born with syringomyelia, a rare disorder in which fluid builds up in your spinal cord. In and out of hospitals throughout his childhood, McDonald was told he would spend the rest of his life in a wheelchair. Well, syringomyelia had never met Adventureman. By 9, the symptoms eased and McDonald began to move, began to run, began to play tennis, began his journey that would eventually take him over the Rockies on foot in the dead of winter, through war-torn countries on a bicycle, around 5,000 miles of America and to our doorstep in Middleburg.

I picked up McDonald at Inova Hospital in Falls Church Thursday, we were old friends in a matter of minutes as we made the hour drive to Middleburg. Stopping at the Upper Crust Bakery to pick up cookies for that night’s party, I asked the dumbest question I’ve ever asked (and that’s a long list).

“Are you hungry?” I asked a man who is running across America.

“I could eat,” McDonald said.

A couple of sandwiches later, he was satisfied, at least for a bit. Two hours later, I picked up my 10-year-old son Miles from school. “I can’t wait to meet this guy,” Miles said, as we headed home. “You’ll love him, Miles. You’ll love him.” Jamie made fast friends with Miles and my wife, Annie, like a brother who came home for Christmas, his stories flowing, our imaginations running wild.

Thursday night, Jamie entertained and inspired a room full of adults at our house and Friday morning, he entertained and inspired a room full of kids at Hill School. A man in a red cape doing the impossible, eliciting cackles of glee and heads full of dreams. He was quickly everybody’s brother who had come home for Christmas. Jamie spoke about discovering the superhero in each of us, he asked us about the superheroes in our lives, he asked us to whom we were superheroes, he talked about what “more to life” meant to us. He asked us for silence to think about each. Like any good superhero, he made us think, made us dream, made us want to scale buildings in a single bound.

By the end of the party Thursday night, we had an entourage, an arsenal of runners to join Jamie on his run Saturday. We would need three, four, five cars, hell, maybe a bus. We would run in shifts, in waves, in teams of bivouac, we would take turns pushing Caesar, we would wave flags, banners, the roar of the crowds lining the roads would carry us to our destination. Rocky meets Rudy.

Big hat, no cattle.

By Saturday morning, it was three of us – Adventureman, Emily Hannum and I wedging Caesar (so four of us) into Hannum’s Jeep and setting off for Old Colchester Road near the Occoquan River, about 20 miles south of Washington, D.C. In the rain. In the cold rain. I left my phone in the car, purposefully, slid on an Aqueduct knit hat and wedged a bag of supplies onto Caesar. Jamie and Emily quickly deemed me the Weakest Link (the truth actually doesn’t hurt when it comes to running) as we set off for destination unknown.

Pounding up a long winding road without a hard shoulder, then down the same twisty road, over a creek, and up again, Caesar slowing Adventureman up the hills (thank God) and forcing him into a defensive stance, knees out, toes slapping, down the hills, we fell into a natural rhythm, three runners, three friends.

We moseyed past signs, gates and walls with military names, past incessant litter you might not have noticed except you have a guest with you, over a bridge, an otter (could have been a beaver) rolling on his back and diving into a mud-colored creek. We chatted about opioid addiction, about circumcision, about why we run, about why we don’t run. We ran into civilization, well, sprawl, past a Taco Bell, a Pizza Hut, a 7-Eleven and past another Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and 7-Eleven.

We made a right into a neighborhood, found a dirt path through a schoolyard and meandered our way to Mount Vernon. Jamie suggested we stop for a beer at the Mount Vernon Inn. Never one to pass up a beer, I passed up a beer. Emily shot me a thankful grin, Jamie a confused shake of the head. Emily forged ahead in a high lope, occasionally she looked back, occasionally she turned back.

We ran, we simply ran.

We ran so far and so long, the cold rain became a constant, a forgotten presence in our running void. Conversation waned like it does on long runs, the rhythm of our feet, the heaving of our lungs, the slow passage of time becoming the conversation. I hadn’t run this far in a decade, well, 11 years to be exact when I ran the Austin Marathon. It had been too long, old friend. Without a watch or a phone and without a goal or desire, the miles ticked past.

Joyous had long since turned to tortuous when Adventureman spotted the glowing lights of Firehook Bakery, a coffee shop on South Washington Street in Alexandria. “Let’s stop in there for something warm to drink.” We didn’t hesitate, drifting to a stop outside the door, Caesar the only one still willing to go. “That’s 20 plus,” Jamie said. Emily looked at me and offered the first syllables of an exit strategy, almost apologetically, “I’m OK if…” I said, “Me too, me too, that’s fine, that’s good, that’s good for me…” With Jamie destined to get to Arlington National Cemetery (to complete another marathon) eight miles away, we needed more than an exit strategy, we needed an exit. For a moment, there was a tinge of remorse, but mostly satisfaction, knowing it was over. In seconds, the cold descended and parked, like a wet blanket thrown from a rooftop. Our fingers, white and nearly translucent, trembled. Our shoulders shivered as we ordered three hot coffees and food – quiche for Emily, hot ham and cheese for Jamie and avocado toast for me.

We lowered gingerly (the Weakest Link the most gingerly), around a small round table. A man reading The Washington Post stared for a moment, then looked down, perplexed but disinterested. We ate, mostly in silence, welcoming the warmth and the sustenance. When we looked up, we smiled, smirked, a shared moment of ecstasy and anguish.

Coffee slugged, food gobbled, Emily called an Uber and Jamie repacked his backpack. Our miles over, Jamie’s still ahead, nobody wanted to leave. We hugged – long, slow, wet hugs in the middle of an Alexandria coffee shop. And, that fast, it was over. We waved and walked out.

“I’m a little sad…” Emily said.

“Me too,” I said. “It’s hard to believe we just met him Thursday, it’s like we’re saying goodbye to an old friend.”

And in a way, we were. An old friend. A real-life superhero.


Learn more about Adventureman (and donate to the cause)