GLOUCESTER – There are so many beginnings to this story, and a very long middle, but the concern for Jamie McDonald was that it might have a quiet ending.
“It felt like your birthday party where you’re really worried no one is going to show up,” McDonald said on Wednesday morning, as he awoke for the final day of his 5,500-mile run across the United States.
But around him, a last-minute grassroots effort was going on among the people of Gloucester and Cape Ann to assure that he would not finish his incredible journey alone.
Now back to the beginning.
McDonald was born 32 years ago in Gloucester. The one in England. The one from which its American counterpart takes its name.
His childhood was difficult, as he spent much of the first nine years in a children’s hospital with a rare spinal condition called syringomyelia. “Sometimes I couldn’t move my legs,” he said. He also had epilepsy and a weak immune system. His family worried he might lose his mobility altogether.
Then one day when he was nine his mother strung a string across the back garden so they could play tennis. “I got out there and started cracking the ball and I got this love of movement. I couldn’t stop moving. I was like a dog chasing a ball. And all my symptoms gradually disappeared.”
Then, seven years ago, and in his mid-20s, he thought he was ready to settle down and saved up enough money for a down payment on a house. “I went to put down the deposit, and I just got this gut feeling that something was wrong.”
He realized he was a man who had to keep moving, and after a visit to the hospital where he’d been treated as a child, he hatched a new plan: Instead of buying a house, he bought a used $100 bike and set off on a 14,000-mile round-the-world journey to raise money for the hospital. And he did so by beginning again with a new identity — Adventureman, complete with a superhero costume he wore on his journeys.
Adventureman did not stop when he’d circled the world. He co-founded the Superhero Foundation to raise money for children’s hospitals through his adventures. He set a world record for riding a stationary bike for 12 days nonstop. In 2013, he ran across Canada.
And then in April, he stuck his hand in the Pacific at Cape Alava in Washington, the westernmost point of the contiguous US. Then he turned east and began running, pushing a stroller filled with supplies, his goal the Atlantic Ocean.
It was a trying journey. Everything hurt. He spent three months running through the desert during the hottest part of the year, sleeping during the day and running at night. At one point, in the middle of nowhere, a driver stopped to inform him she’d seen a mountain lion just ahead. Then the car left. “If you’ve ever listened to the desert at night, every noise wants to kill you,” he said.
He ran through snow and mountains, floods and flies. Short days and long (his longest was 75 miles). But the thing that hit him hardest, emotionally, were the people who insisted on lending a hand.
“I’ve run for nearly a year, and I’ve hardly put out my tent,” he said. “The Americans were incredible. They took me into their homes, complete and utter strangers who would create networks up ahead to keep passing me on.”
His final destination was up in the air. But as he reached the East Coast and came up through Philadelphia and New York, he announced he had chosen his finish line. “I’m a proud Gloucester boy. So I decided to finish in Gloucester in the US.”
He had worried that no one would be there to witness the end of his long journey, but on Wednesday, about 15 runners met him at Sweeney Park in Manchester-by-the-Sea, where he finished mile 5,500 the previous night, the equivalent of 210 marathons. Many were dressed in superhero costumes, including a Canadian couple who had flown in. As they set out on the final six-mile leg of his journey, they surrounded McDonald, who was pushing his stroller, which weighs one and a half times what he does. He had named it Caesar.
When the group reached Hammond Castle in Gloucester, with just under two miles to go, the crowd of costumed runners swelled to 75, clogging the road like a scene out of Forrest Gump, all led by a police escort. “This is magical,” McDonald shouted from the throng.
When they arrived at Stage Fort Park, with less than a mile to go, hundreds of schoolchildren from all over Cape Ann were waiting at the top of the hill for the final leg.
“You ready to finish this off?” he asked the crowd, to huge shouts of applause. “OK, let’s do this.”
As they came down the hill onto the boulevard that runs along the ocean, hundreds more people were waiting. Speakers blared the music from “Rocky.” Locals waited at the famous Fisherman’s Memorial with a banner that welcomed him to Gloucester and came with a warning. “Careful the water is really, really cold.”
McDonald broke through the banner, then left his stroller and quickly sprinted a hundred yards to a small beach, with hundreds of children racing after him.
When he reached the shoreline, he turned to the crowd and shouted. “It’s gotta be done! It’s gotta be done!”
And with that, he ran into the icy Atlantic and plunged below the water.
“I just cannot believe it,” he said as he emerged from the water and greeted friends and family. “I just cannot believe it.”
When he warms up and heads back home, he’s planning to rest up for three weeks. Then he’s on to his next fund-raising adventure – he’ll attempt to break the world record for most miles run on a treadmill in seven days.
The current record is 520 miles. He’ll have to run almost three marathons a day to break it. He believes he can do it.Billy Baker can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker .