Endurance athlete’s inspiring journey returns to Tempe - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Voices

Endurance athlete’s inspiring journey returns to Tempe

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Mike Sakal’s column runs on Fridays. Contact him at (480) 898-6533 or msakal@evtrib.com, or write to Mike Sakal, East Valley Tribune, 1620 W. Fountainhead Pkwy., Suite 219, Tempe, AZ 85282

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Posted: Wednesday, May 16, 2012 1:19 pm | Updated: 1:30 pm, Wed May 16, 2012.

If you could run or bike across the United States would you want to try it?

For a 45-year-old guy who regularly works out in the gym — I’m proud to say I lost 40 pounds over the course of last year — I’d like to think I’m in pretty good shape. But since I’m really not much of a runner, and only a little bit of a biker, I think it would be somewhat of a daunting task to attempt.

And if I somehow were able to complete such a cross-country trip, I’m not sure how long it would take me. I really would want to keep my efforts on the down low, just in case I only made it a few miles down the road before hanging it up.

I’m more of the type of guy who would love to drive across the country — perhaps a poor man’s version of “On the Road With Charles Kuralt” — or at least travel historic Route 66 to visit the quirky roadside haunts. When it comes to my definition of “roughing it,” it’s waking up in a hotel room only to find that there’s no soap or towels.

That’s not the case with Valley native Jason Patrick Lester — a world-class ultra-endurance athlete who won ESPN’s 2009 ESPY award for “Best Male Athlete with a Disability.” Lester is on the downhill run of reaching his goal: making his way across the United States while running and bicycling.

It’s a 102-day, 4,800-mile jaunt as part of “Jason Lester’s Journey for a Better World.” His trip began in New York on March 19, and he is expected to end the journey in Eugene, Ore. after trekking through 16 states.

Adding more credibility to his trip, Lester is being sponsored by Nike as he is stopping in 39 cities along the way to share how sport rallies communities, raises confidence, inspires hope, promotes healthy living and instills discipline. Lester’s trip follows Nike’s philosophy of “A Better world starts with sports” as part of the company’s sustainability campaign.

Beginning at 3 p.m. on Sunday, May 20, at least 200 Valley residents are expected to meet and greet Lester as he’ll be in town for a homecoming of sorts.

After running from Grapevine, Tex. to Tempe, Lester will be at the Tempe Nike Factory Store near Entrance 2 at Arizona Mills Mall. When he is 1.8 miles away from the mall, he’ll be met by area runners who will help him complete the portion of his run to the store. There also will be members of Nike’s Elementary Schools Run Club, city wide run and cycling club, student organizations, area track teams and local Special Olympics athletes as well.

After his visit to Tempe, Lester will be running to Scottsdale on Monday and after that, he’ll head to California.

But the Tempe stop may have a deeper meaning than others on the tour; it’s in the town that provided a basis for Lester’s desire to go the extra mile, so to speak.

About 20 years ago, when Lester was 12 years old, he was the victim of a hit-and-run accident while riding his bicycle on Southern Avenue in Tempe. He suffered 21 broken bones in the incident, a collapsed lung and lost the use of his right arm. As Lester was slowly learning to adjust to his disability, his father and sole guardian died at age 39.

Challenges continue to stare Lester straight in the face, and yet he continues to run them right over.

Late last week, a plastic bag blew into Jason’s front wheel causing his bike to flat-out stop. This sent him over the handle bars and onto the pavement. The impact of the fall broke his collar bone. After stops at two hospitals within 48 hours, he is continuing on his way, according to his website, www.jasonplester.com. His journey is well chronicled on various social media sites as he has more than 8,500 followers on Twitter — many offering words of encouragement for the state-to-state journey.

Years ago, the turning point in Lester’s athletic career came from a visit to the Big Island of Hawaii, to watch the 2004 Hawaiian Ironman Championships in Kona. It was there that he was awed by the magnitude of the race. He felt re-energized and came to believe that this was his life’s calling. With a goal to race the Hawaii Ironman Championships himself, Lester began a rigorous training schedule on the island state, which he now calls home.

Lester achieved a personal and sports milestone by becoming the first physically challenged athlete ever to complete the Ultraman World Championships in Hawaii on Nov. 30, 2008, finishing the ultra-distance triathlon where he swam 6.2 miles, biked 261.4 miles and ran 52.4 miles to the finish line. In the year leading up to the 2009 Ultraman World Championships, Lester raced in the Ironman World Championships, represented the USA in the Triathlon World Championships in Germany, and completed Ultraman Canada.

Last year, Lester had helped to raise $1 million for clean water charities by running 306 miles from Las Vegas through Death Valley to Mount Whitney.

In 2007, Lester had founded The NEVER STOP Foundation, which is dedicated to using athletics as a tool to encourage all youth to have the chance to achieve their full potential. The goal is to help those in their formative years find their own true voice, help them build their confidence, improve their communication skills and learn the values of discipline, trust, compassion, and self-reliance.

Lester, who lives and trains in Hawaii, was on the road early this week and could not be contacted by the Tribune.

However, Nike hopes more people will come to Sunday’s event to meet Lester and listen to his message.

In a statement issued by the Nike Better World website, the company said of Lester’s forthcoming visit, “This event has rallied and brought together communities all over the East coast and the South. We know that it will continue as he travels through Tempe.”

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