American Culture

A mind-altering run to defeat Alzheimer's disease

by Chip Ainsworth

Shortly after finishing his three-month, 3,312-mile run from the coast of Oregon to the Rhode Island shore, Glenn Caffery visited his physician and complained that his feet were numb.

“What’d you expect?” the doctor replied.

Caffery, a 49-year-old data management teacher at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, lives in Leyden, a small town in the Connecticut River Valley that borders Vermont. His cross-country pilgrimage was to raise awareness about the Alzheimer’s disease that killed his father at age 68.

“He was diagnosed at 55,” said Caffery, “but it was symptomatic at least two years prior to that.”

On May 19, Caffery stuck his foot into the Pacific Ocean and began his long, arduous journey across Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, South Dakota, and Minnesota on toward the Northeast and into New England. On Aug. 17, surrounded by friends and family, he splashed into the Atlantic Ocean at Misquamicut Beach in Rhode Island.

Along the way he had jogged through towns named Mud Butte and Faith and avoided roads with rumble strips that rattled the three-wheeled stroller he kept packed with supplies and camping gear. “It was kind of comfortable to have it with me. I never gave it a name. I’m glad it never came to that.”

His wife, Colleen, shipped Asics DS running shoes and multivitamins to designated truck stops every 350 miles. Truckers learned of his cause and gave him leeway on the highway. Railroad engineers leaned on train whistles for encouragement.

South Dakota was the most grueling part of the journey, a daunting 560-mile trek in 100-degree weather through desolate territory where the state mammal is the coyote.

“It got discouraging,” said Caffery. “There was no shelter. There were no trees. I was by myself and totally dependent on the people around me.”

He was grateful for people like the owners of the Ace Motel in Belle Fourche, South Dakota, who gave him a roof over his head and a fresh bar of soap in the shower stall. “Ceramic tile, toilet, shower … Compared to sleeping on the side of the highway, it couldn’t have been better.”

A nasty case of shin splints set him back a week, but his arthritic hip never barked and he was able to average 50 miles a day while burning 600 calories an hour.

“I was amazed with my body’s ability to bounce back every morning,” he said. “My left hip was pain free and my right arm wasn’t sore from pushing the stroller, but my left shoulder bothered me. It did nothing, but a person’s body responds to work.”

Most weight-conscious people try to maintain a caloric intake under 2,000, but Caffery needed 7,000 calories day to keep up his energy level.

“Food was the single hardest part of the trip,” he said. “The problem was, I had no appetite and the stuff I ate was high calorie and not particularly healthy. Mostly I got sick of things. They had really gross ice cream (in South Dakota) called Blue Bunny, and another problem was I was a vegetarian in one thousand miles of beef country. But I did eat a lot of eggs and drink a lot of chocolate milk.”

Jogging on thoroughfares built for fast-moving vehicles provided a shocking, near slow-motion perspective of death on the highway.

“Dead things were horrible, so many dead things in the road,” he said. “The stench was a constant companion. Cars are so disruptive, and I saw so much killing…. Two Canada geese crossing the road with their offspring and I thought how beautiful, and a car went smashing through them, just a swirl of feathers. The car never slowed. That was hard.”

At night in the West, snakes came to bask on the warm roads.

“I had to be careful. The really big snakes were the bull snakes and they camouflaged well on the road,” said Caffery. “When I saw my first prairie rattler I knew I had to keep getting fresh batteries for my head lamp.”

In Ohio his father-in-law died. He rented a car and drove to the memorial service in Easton, Pa., then returned to where he’d left off.

“It made me wonder whether my run was truly separate from my life or really just the same,” he said. “I don’t think it was as separate as it seemed.”

The country’s diverse geography didn’t affect him so much as the people he met.

“They have forever changed me,” he said. “I feel really blessed they brought me into their world. I came to learn that the U.S. is a big community and I’d never thought of it that way. I was given two flags along the way. I’ve never had a flag in front of my house but I cherish these two flags.”

Life has returned to normal for Caffery. He’s back teaching at UMass and on Oct. 18 he spoke at an Alzheimer’s symposium in Boston. Although he’s raised $25,000, he said, “Alzheimer’s been a part of my life but I don’t consider myself an activist, surprising as that sounds.”

His feet still hurt and his weight is down and he’s quick to admit, “I’m in pretty bad shape right now.”

Yet he’ll recover physically and keep the memory.

“It was the classic step-a-time and big things happen,” he said. “It’s changed my attitude about life and adversity, and I’m a better person for having done this.”

Monies raised by Caffery’s effort go to the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund in Wellesley, Mass. “They’re a lean and mean operation and have the top Alzheimer’s scientists,” said Caffery. “Every dollar goes to research and it’s a very efficient operation with a very deliberate roadmap. They redirect every single dollar. If they donate $100,000 to a university researcher, they won’t allow the university to take any overhead.”

Contributors can donate by going to alzrun.org or curealz.org or by calling the Cure Alzheimer’s Fund at 781-237-3800.

Photos from Glenn Caffery’s website, http://alzrun.org/.

12 replies »

  1. A pair of shoes a week… If his endurance wasn’t scary good before the run, it sure as hell was by the end of it.

    I donated my old car to the Alzheimer’s Association years back because it took my grandfather.

  2. My hats off to Caffery…3,312 times!!! That is an amazing accomplishment and a very honorable tribute to his father. My mom is in late stage, and I have been running a marathon or two in the last couple years raising money for the cause, but Caffery’s effort is remarkable! Thank you…Mr. Caffery…

  3. Thank you Mr. Caffery. My husband has alzheimer – assuming late stage. I am losing the love of my life. Thank you for running for him.

  4. What an awesome tribute to your Dad, Mr. Caffery. Your Dad was so young. My Dad was diagnosed at 66 in 1996. He died in 2008 at 78…The longest, most painful 12 years of my life. I wish we could make Alzheimer’s into the new Susan G. Komen for the cure…We need that kind of exposure in order to make a dent in the billions we need for research. In the long run, Alzheimer’s will impact far more people than breast cancer.

  5. I agree with Michelle Wright, Mr. Caffery…what a great way to honor your Dad. My Daddy too passed from Alzheimer’s at age 79. In fact 11/11/11 will be the 11th anniversary of his passing. In 2003 a small group of us who live in the Camas-Washougal, WA area started a fundraising for Alzheimer’s team called The Harold W. Busch Walkers in honor and memory of my Daddy. We have 2 events a year, a dungeness crab feed and an auction. To date we’ve raised over $128,000. I concur with and have often had the same thought that Michelle Wright shared “I wish we could make Alzheimer’s into the new Susan G. Komen for the cure…We need that kind of exposure in order to make a dent in the billions we need for research. In the long run, Alzheimer’s will impact far more people than breast cancer.”
    Congratulations on your accomplishment Mr. Caffery…I’m sure that your Dad is very proud of you.

  6. Both of my grandmothers lost the battle to Alzheimer’s, and this past June 13,2011 my motherr passed at the age of 66, also from Alzheimer’s she was diagnosed at age 63. There is no way in hell that i am letting Alzheimer’s take anyone else from me or my family, NO MORE!

  7. I agree with getting the word out like the Susan G Komen Breast cancer awareness, (a wonderful cause in itself). I did a walk in Point Pleasant, NJ at the end of September to honor my Dad who died April 10, 2011 of this horrible disease. No comment was made in the newspaper the next day, but the following week after the breast cancer walk, the paper was filled with coverage