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Grandma's Marathon: Using GPS, Iowa man runs routes that often spell out names of ill youngsters

Photo courtesy of Rik Zortman One of Rik Zortman's running routes is spelled out by the word "inspiration." 1 / 2
Photo courtesy of Rik Zortman This screenshot shows one of Rik Zortman's running routes, which spells out the name of his late son, Armstrong, who died from brain cancer at age 3 in 2009.2 / 2

Reached Tuesday, Rik Zortman was wrapping up a 3.2-mile run.

Rik Zortman"I just got done with name No. 427," the 45-year-old from Avoca, Iowa, said.

The gist: Using his MapMyRun app's GPS, Zortman runs routes that spell out names, often those of youngsters fighting cancer.

He conceived of the idea last July. In September, Zortman ran 100 names for Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. Every name has a story, and every story has a sobering undertone. So it was that Zortman found himself especially overcome with emotion last Sept. 1 following an eight-mile run. He had spelled out "Armstrong" and "spirit" in remembrance of his son, who was diagnosed with brain cancer — Stage 4 glioblastoma — on Nov. 20, 2008, and died from the disease April 9, 2009.

Armstrong was 3. Running was one of his favorite activities.

Zortman didn't share his son's enthusiasm. He never had been a runner, "and I mean never, with an exclamation point."

But what a way to honor Armstrong.

"The reason why I run is because of him," said Zortman, who is entered in Saturday's Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon, which will mark his 25th half. "I wanted to do something for him."

Requests come through Facebook and, after Zortman has run the name, he posts a screenshot of his route, tagging the submitter.

While the impetus for this labor of love was childhood cancer, Zortman receives names for myriad reasons — significant others that have passed away, for example. And from across the globe, including New Zealand and Australia. Occasionally, he'll see a touching human-interest piece on ESPN and, without prompting, run the name of the story's subject, tagging them when he's done.

"I had one that finally saw the message five months after I sent it," Zortman recalled. "They said, 'I'm so sorry. I just saw this message. I can't believe you did this for my son.' "

Zortman is immersed in a challenge in which he's to total 2,018 miles by year's end. He surpassed 1,100 on Wednesday. But he has to hurry. In July, Zortman will be deployed with his Air National Guard unit to Southwest Asia for six months.

On Monday, he went out and ran every letter. They will serve as backup, so Zortman can continue to spell names if his running falters overseas.

Buoyed by Boston

Jackson LindquistWhen a spring snowstorm forced him to spend 34 hours at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport the weekend before April's Boston Marathon, Esko and Wisconsin-Superior graduate Jackson Lindquist figured luck wasn't on his side.

Doubly so when the weather system followed him east, turning the iconic race into a survival of sleet, snow and wind that gusted to 30 mph. Lindquist had hoped to break 2 hours and 30 minutes. But April 16 was not conducive to speed, so the 24-year-old audibled.

"I knew I'd be somewhere around the top 100 and I was like, 'Well, that's just going to be my new goal,' " said Lindquist, a third-grade teacher in Delano, Minn.

Lindquist did even better, finishing 77th, out of 30,000, in 2:36:42. He was the top Minnesotan.

Not too shabby for his second attempt at the distance. Lindquist was victorious at the 2017 Med City Marathon in Rochester, Minn., where his 2:34:25 easily qualified for Boston. Saturday, Lindquist will compete in his 13th consecutive Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon. He started the streak at age 11, producing a "1:41 something." This time around, he'd like to knock a couple minutes off his event PR of 1:11:52.

Regardless of the clock, you can bet Lindquist will be warmer than he was in Boston. He ran there with his older brother, Bryan (who did it in 2:50:49), and friends Adam (2:54:31) and Kate (3:53:40) Eskuri. Both his brother and Adam Eskuri suffered hypothermia. Lindquist is intrigued by 26.2 miles, especially after his Boston breakthrough. He noted the possibility of entering larger marathons like New York City and Chicago, though he expects to take it easy this summer and let his legs recover from a heavy workload.

Lucky No. 7

Becca PizziRebecca Pizzi of Belmont, Mass., never had ventured outside North America prior to 2016. Within a week, she had visited all seven continents.

That year, Pizzi ran seven marathons on seven continents in seven days. The World Marathon Challenge, they call it.

Not only did Pizzi become the first American woman to complete the event, but she did so in record cumulative time, 27:26:15. She was the top female in all seven marathons. The first took place on a glacier in Antarctica, where the temperature was minus-10 degrees. The next day, Pizzi and the 14 other participants were greeted by 90-degree temps in Punta Arenas, Chile. The remaining five marathons were in Miami; Madrid, Spain; Marrakesh, Morocco; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; and Sydney, Australia.

All told, they crossed 16 time zones. Pizzi spent the year leading up to the challenge logging 70-100 miles a week. She traveled to Montreal for cold-weather training. She bought a sauna.

And the 38-year-old had so much fun, she did it again this past winter.

"I love to run and I love to travel," said Pizzi, who also was the women's champ in 2018.

That statement is like Alexander Ovechkin saying he had a couple beers last week.

Before registering for 2016, her dad offered words of caution. He had no doubt his daughter could do it, but he reasoned that there were too many variables — weather or a flight delay — that could hijack the whole thing, which would have wasted Pizzi's intense training. Not to mention the $36,000 entry fee, though Pizzi's was mostly covered by sponsorships.

"How often do you get a chance to make history?" was her response. "I'm going for it."

As if running 26.2 miles a day for a week straight wasn't enough, Pizzi said the travel threw her body into shock. But, she said, it was beyond worth it.

She since has thrown out the first pitch at a Boston Red Sox game and entered the Guinness World Records. Pizzi says she's done with the World Marathon Challenge. She also said that in 2016.

"Every time I'm in Antarctica, I'm like, 'This is it — I'm never doing it again,' but then the race director changes the locations and I start thinking, 'Hey, I've never been there before,' " she said.

For someone who's run 14 marathons in 14 days alone, Pizzi's overall tally is understandably impressive. She'll knock out marathon No. 76, in state No. 34, along the North Shore on Saturday.

Running against the odds

Jennifer LucasGiven the way she came into this world, if there's one thing Jennifer Lucas shouldn't be able to do, it's run long distances.

The 25-year-old Lucas of Cottage Grove, Minn., was born weighing 1 pound, 13 ounces, and spent 73 days in the neonatal intensive care unit. When she finally went home three months later, Lucas was up to just more than 4 pounds.

Susan Lucas went into birth with her first child at 27 weeks.

"It was really touch and go for at least the first three weeks," mom said. "The whole situation was overwhelming because you don't know what's going to happen."

Among the complications from being born so early and relying heavily on respirators, Jennifer Lucas experienced a host of lung issues, though they have all but subsided. She ran both cross country and track and field at Park High School in Cottage Grove.

Lucas fell in love with the sport. It's something she does every day.

"It's a stress relief for me," she said.

Lucas is ready to try her hand at 26.2 miles, which will happen Saturday morning at Minnesota's oldest marathon.

Her pulmonologist, who she still sees regularly, is amazed at Lucas' running.

"He's one of her biggest cheerleaders because of what she's been able to overcome," Lucas' mother said.

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