The thin man in the yellow cap huffs past visitors at Amicalola Falls State Park near Dawsonville.
One hundred and seventy-five steps. Six hundred and four steps. Then back to the bottom of the falls, one of the tallest in the Southeast, to do it again and again.
Jack Fussell Sr., 62, doesn’t mind the looks and questions from passers-by.
In 2001, the divorced grandfather of five was flat on his back in intensive care with a bleeding ulcer. He had lost so much blood that his organs started to shut down.
“The doctor told me that if I didn’t make a major change, I would have about a year to live,” said Fussell, who weighed nearly 270 pounds at the time. “Being in that room with all of those wires hooked up to me absolutely scared me to death. I never want to be in that little room again.”
Since then, Fussell has turned his quest for health into a mission. Next month, Fussell will pack supplies in his jogging stroller to jog and walk from Skidaway Island State Park near Savannah to Monterey, Calif., to raise money and awareness about Alzheimer’s disease.
Fussell, whose father, Leonard, died of the disease in June 2000, is chronicling his preparation for the journey on his website (www.acrosstheland2013.com) and a Facebook page.
“I believe in what he is doing,” said Marcia Bobo, a retired bank officer from Canton, whose late husband suffered from the disease and who heard about Fussell through Facebook. “Jack is asking nothing for himself. In the past I’ve given him money for his personal expenses, and I found out later that all of it went into the Alzheimer’s fund.”
He comes to the park when it’s hot or cold, light or dark, and will run or walk the stairs or trails for hours, exercising when others have long left.
The Running Man
“Who’s the nut on the stairs?”
If Lauretta Dean, an interpretive ranger at Amicalola Falls, had a dollar for every time someone asked that question, she’d be a rich woman.
When she met him, Fussell was a man with a big old beard and a big belly and terrified of dying. “He was absolutely scared,” Dean said. Then, every day like clockwork, he started showing up at the park.
Since he started exercising and eating healthier, Fussell has dropped 118 pounds. He said his faith has grown as his waist has shrunk. “My love for almost everyone is unconditional,” he said.
Sometimes he’ll pause long enough to share his story and his own struggles. Dean has heard stories of Fussell stopping to encourage someone struggling on the steps along the falls. Sometimes, people stop to encourage him. He has the battle scars from the times he’s lost his footing and fallen. He once had to bolt the other way when he came upon a bear and her cub.
Amy Stormant, his daughter, has noticed changes in her father.
“When he started doing the running, he seemed just to become happier. Even more jolly, so to speak,” she said. “He went from not being able to play with the kids because he would get tired to running around all day with them. He raised the bar for himself.”
One time Fussell set out to do 25 or 30 round trips on the steps and finished although he suffered a swollen Achilles tendon.
Another time he did 50 round trips. It took him 17 hours and 18 minutes.
“If anybody’s been to the park more than once, they know him,” Dean said. “He’s the man that runs the stairs.”
Good health to good cause
Once he accomplished 50 round trips, he found himself for the first time in years without something concrete to focus on.
One morning he hit upon the idea of jogging and walking across the country. He was frequently asked whether he was doing it for a cause. Fussell started thinking about his father, with whom he had a good relationship although the two didn’t see each other often.
Nationally, 5.4 million Americans may suffer from Alzheimer’s disease, according to the Alzheimer’s Association Georgia Chapter. Of those, 200,000 are Georgians. It’s estimated that every 68 seconds someone in the United States is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, a degenerative disease that attacks the brain’s nerve cells and can affect memory, cognitive skills and behavior.
Alzheimer’s chapters on his route have agreed to accept supplies mailed by supporters back in Georgia. Some people in other states who heard about his challenge have offered to let him stay overnight. Otherwise he’ll camp out or occasionally stay in a hotel where he can grab a hot shower.
“He’s just this incredible person,” said Andrea Mickelson, the metro Atlanta development manager for the Alzheimer’s Association Georgia Chapter. “We were just so humbled by his desire to want to do something like this. It’s just so big.”
To prepare financially for the trip, Fussell recently moved from the place he was renting in Talking Rock, Ga., to Canton to live with a friend. He’s also nearer his daughter, who is helping with planning. He doesn’t go to Amicalola Falls as much but manages to do some kind of exercise every day.
He hopes to raise $250,000. So far, he’s raised about $7,000.
So what happens when he completes his current goal? Perhaps he will start training for an ultramarathon.
Fussell isn’t sure, but there are plenty of things to reach for in the world.
“I’ll have to come up with something, though,” he said. “I’m having the best time of my life. I never knew how wonderful goals were until some of this happened.”
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