By AMERICAN HEART ASSOCIATION NEWS

runners

It was a Christmas party brainstorm that set a more-than-seven-year course for Dennis Lee and Daren Schumaker, who are finishing up marathon-length runs across all 99 counties in Iowa.

The pair has run 2,734 miles across the state and on April 15 will complete their ambitious, often grueling, effort with a 26.35 mile run across Delaware County — the last and final county.

Saturday’s route begins in Masonville and will end in Dyersville, home of the baseball field created for the iconic film “Field of Dreams.”

“It’s really started to sink in over the last few counties,” Schumaker said. “There’s a lot of emotion, but the main goal was to show people that if we’re crazy enough to do something like this, maybe they could take 30 minutes a few times a week and get a few more hours or years on their life.”

That first run in 2009, a 27-mile route spanning Benton County from its western to eastern border near Lee’s home in Walford, Iowa, did not go smoothly. It was snowing heavily and the pair inadvertently found themselves in the line of fire of local pheasant hunters. Despite the peril, they made a plan to cross nearby Linn County two months later.

“It was a sheer sense of adventure,” said Schumaker, 36, who works as a probation officer in Cedar Rapids.

After completing the first two counties, the pair decided to give their runs added purpose and quickly settled on the American Heart Association. Schumaker lost three grandparents to heart disease; Lee’s father died of a heart attack, his mother died from a stroke and he lost a brother to complications due to arrhythmia and excess weight.

“All of it could have been prevented through diet and exercise,” said Lee, 51, who controls his diet to keep high cholesterol in check.

Schumaker says his family history means “heart disease is something I’ll be running from my entire life.”

As Team 99 Counties, Lee and Schumaker have privately raised more than $10,000 toward a goal of $25,000, and recently created a Heart Walk page for the remainder.

Lee and Schumaker met through a running club in 2007, shortly after Schumaker moved to Cedar Rapids. Soon, the two trained for a marathon in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

Looking back, Schumaker says they didn’t really think about how difficult the logistics would be for the Team 99 Counties project. For nearby counties, the pair each drove a car and shuttled themselves. But Cedar Rapids is near Iowa’s eastern border, making treks to counties on the opposite side of the state a more than 4-hour drive, a grueling day considering there was at least a 4-hour run in the middle of it.

Most of Iowa’s counties span about 25 miles across, although Lee created routes of at least 26.2 miles to reach marathon length. Some of the state’s larger counties spanned more than 40 miles. The longest run they undertook was 45 miles in Monona County, located between Sioux City and Omaha, Nebraska, thanks to a wrong turn that added an extra 8 miles to the route.

As the counties drew them farther from Cedar Rapids, Lee’s wife Kristin stepped in to be shuttle and support staff.

Mostly Lee and Schumaker ran alone, but occasionally a few members of their running club joined. A few times, they scheduled their routes to participate in local running events, including a half marathon in the middle of a run through Humboldt County.

“We won both our age groups at a 5K in Mitchell County, and that was after we’d already run a half marathon,” Lee said.

Injury – a bad case of plantar fasciitis for Lee – sidelined the project for nearly a year at the end of 2012. Lee is currently recovering from a torn calf muscle and is girding himself for what will be a tough final run across Delaware County.

Weather also played a role over the years, including a memorable run through Taylor County during a cold, bitter rainstorm that caused Schumaker to lose his running pants.

“My hands were so numb, I couldn’t tie my drawstring,” he recalled.

Team 99 Counties has given the two Iowa natives a better appreciation for the Hawkeye State’s varied landscapes.

“Everyone thinks about Iowa as flat, but the southern tier is really quite hilly,” Schumaker said.

“There are so many beautiful things in Iowa, from the hills in the south, the plains in the north central region and almost cliffs and mountains in the east,” Lee said.

With a mission to inspire others to get active, Lee and Schumaker say they’ve heard from friends, family and strangers who have been inspired to start running or shared their heart health story.

Lee’s sister Diana Haldin, for example, was inspired to start running and is now the president of the local running club in Sioux City. His wife also took up running and — despite bad knees — has completed two marathons and more than two dozen half-marathons.

While Lee and Schumaker have a passion for running, they are quick to point out that being active in any way is the goal.

“It could be anything that isn’t sitting on the couch,” Schumaker said.

“The main reason we’re doing this is to inspire other people to get out and be active so they can get more quality time in their life and be healthier,” Lee said. “If we can just get one person to get up and change their habits to be more active and healthy, we’re happy.”