On an early December morning in 2008, the sidewalks come to life as the small stores in Shepherdstown, West Virginia open up for the day. Some town folks stroll to the bakery, and Shepherd University students rush to classes, their minds focused on midterms, seemingly oblivious to all else about town. Here on the south bank of the Potomac River, 72 miles upstream from the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, Mark Cucuzzella, MD and Lois Turco, cultural activist, begin a neighborly conversation about health and heritage, two passions they share. It is just before Christmas, and there is a festive mood in the air, but activity is light for such an inviting and historic place. Cars crawl by, watching carefully for pedestrians, who have the right of way. Unique colorful gifts and restaurant menus adorn expansive windows, drawing one’s attention into buildings dating back to the 1800’s.
Cucuzzella and Turco wonder why such an appealing place is often so quiet. They’ve both lived in larger US cities and abroad, yet they find an appeal in Shepherdstown unmatched elsewhere. Cucuzzella remarks that no one was around a couple weeks earlier when he passed by on his latest ultramarathon run, the JFK 50 Mile Race. Turco inquires further and is immediately intrigued by the historic nature of the event, which was one of numerous such 50 mile events held around the country in 1963 as part of President John F. Kennedy’s push to bring the country back to physical fitness. While Cucuzzella also appreciated that history, he is attracted to the physical fitness aspect of the event. Activity as part of a daily routine is the sort of health care Cucuzzella, a family physician, has always promoted. He exercises on a daily basis and encourages other people to do the same as part of his effort to slow the rising rate of obesity.
Cucuzzella and Turco are an unlikely pair, separated in age by over 20 years with Cucuzzella at the heart of his career and Turco retired from hers. They came to know one another while working together on a neighborhood trail and a community health project. At that time, in 2008, they were in the process of obtaining a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a private foundation dedicated to improving health and healthcare for Americans. The grant provided matching funds for building trails and gardens at area schools.
Turco at that time was also working on two projects that combined tourism with the region’s history: establishing the Washington National Heritage Area, which she hoped would heighten awareness of George Washington’s vision for the nation’s westward expansion, and the Two Rivers Heritage Partnership, which would promote sustainable tourism and development, with conservation of the region’s heritage as the key to its marketability. She was surprised to hear about this local historic endurance run that had just occurred–and shocked by Cucuzzella’s report that no one from Shepherdstown was out cheering the runners on.
“They ran right by here and I didn’t even know about it,” Turco recalls. “No one knew about it. There was no mention of it in the paper or anything.” They both were disheartened by the fact that an area so rich in culture and opportunity for outdoor activity was so nearly devoid of people engaging in either. Then, as the street activity around them subsided, it occurred to Cucuzzella and Turco that they ought to organize a marathon themselves.
Having run in many of them himself, Cucuzzella knew marathon events were a boon to local economies. Participants bring an influx of money from registration fees and generate dollars for charitable organizations through sponsorships. Turco on the other hand, had never run a marathon, nor did she know much about them, but she was very familiar with the miles and miles of trails and paths in the area, thanks to her research on the Washington family footprint. “The trails connect,” says Turco, “which further connects the story of how we became a nation.”
Though they parted ways that day with no real purpose, the question of a marathon stuck with Cucuzzella and Turco as they went about their separate lives. Within 24 hours, unbeknownst to one another, they each wrote a proposal based on their individual gut feelings. Their papers were sketchy of course, but they were also surprisingly similar. The idea for an active, participatory history lesson took root and grew. It included opportunities for everyone from the seasoned long distance runner to the one mile walker and potential runner. Furthermore, it incorporated the Civil War heritage, especially noting that 2009 marked the 150th anniversary of John Brown’s raid at Harpers Ferry, an act which some believe sparked the Emancipation Proclamation. “We wanted to honor that history,” Cucuzzella says. “ Hence the name, Freedom’s Run.”
Turco says, “Call it fate. Call it whatever. Sometimes you just know – this is going to be BIG.” And big it is. In 2010, Freedom’s Run was just shy of its maximum 3000 participants, not including the 1-mile-fun-run runners, and now, in only its third year, the event has been named the 2011 Road Runners Club of America (RRCA) East Coast Regional Championship Race. According to its website, the goal of the RRCA Championship Event Series is to shine a spotlight on well-run events. Such prestigious distinction so early on in a marathon event’s life is rare.
What’s the draw? This one is different, says Cucuzzella. Small towns, historic paths, and an all volunteer staff are a few of the characteristics that make Freedom’s Run unlike its counterparts, such as the Marine Corps, Chicago, and Boston Marathons. On a national level, passionate marathoners are looking for something different. On a local level, many people are intimidated by the big cities with the big events. This event has something for everyone.
Cucuzzella calls Freedom’s Run “old school.” It is closer to a trail run and more organic than the larger street races. It is also put on by all volunteer staff; no one is paid for their work on Freedom’s Run. It is about showing up to run outdoors with and in support of others, who also appreciate this sort of pure connection to nature.
Both humble and unimposing, Cucuzzella and Turco are two individuals seeking to remind us of our connectivity in a way that goes against the grain of our current culture. It is unusual because “there’s no money in getting people to go take a walk in a public park.” Cucuzzella says.
It does take money to run such an event however. There are advertising costs, directional and informational signage, transportation for runners and volunteers along with support services such as water, renewable energy drinks and snacks, not to mention medical support services and supplies. Thus far, all these resources have come from the small town businesses and small town folks. Cucuzzella and Turco are grateful to have such strong community support, both financial and otherwise.
Today Turco returns the favor as an active steward of the local community, working on the Two Rivers Heritage Partnership, Canal Towns Partnership, and what she hopes will be The Washington National Heritage Area, bringing people and resources together to embrace and sustain that history. The focus is to create partnerships for sustainable development built on a foundation of civic involvement. She believes in a collaborative effort to promote local activities and preserve the story of our nation’s migration from the eastern colonial plantation to the western frontier – the story of George Washington’s family.
Cucuzzella is not only a physician but also a father, husband, associate professor at West Virginia School of Medicine, Lieutenant Colonel in the Air Force Reserves, and National Park Service volunteer. And if that’s not enough, he runs marathons at near Olympic pace, studies and teaches running techniques, and runs Two Rivers Treads – the World’s First Minimalist Running and Walking Store. There is a glint in his eyes when he speaks about his passion for getting people up and out on the trail. He says, “The best prescription I can give anyone is not for a pill, [but for] Nature Prescriptions,” a hiking guide intended to strengthen the connection between the healthcare system and public lands. “Our efforts need to be more focused on reducing the odds of disease rather than just treating it afterward,” Cucuzzella says. “It’s simple. Eat better and move.”
Cucuzzolla and Turco don’t just talk that talk, they walk the walk–or tread the trail!
On October 1st over 2700 runners and 400 volunteers will participate in “Freedom’s Run–An Event for Health and Heritage.” Marathoners will travel from Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia up the C&O Canal and Potomac Heritage Scenic Trail into Antietam National Battlefield through Sharpsburg, Maryland, ending in Shepherdstown. For more information, or to register, visit the Freedom’s Run website.
JFK 50 Mile http://ww.jfk50.org
Robert Wood Johnson Foundation http://www.rwjf.org/
Road Runners Club of America http://ww.rrca.org
Freedom’s Run, An Event for Health and Heritage http://www.freedomsrun.org/
Harper’s Ferry National Historical Park http://www.nps.gov/hafe/index.htm
Chesapeake &Ohio Canal National Historical Park http://www.nps.gov/choh/index.htm
Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail http://www.nps.gov/pohe/index.htm
Antietam National Battlefield http://www.nps.gov/ancm/index.htm
Two Rivers Heritage Partnership http://www.tworiversheritage.org/
Canal Towns Partnership http://www.canaltowns.org/
Two Rivers Treads http://www.trtreads.org/