John Waite is an adventurer, having done lots of long foot treks over the years.
But though he’s done many trips of more than 100 miles over several days, he is embarking on his longest foot trek ever — 544 miles — to benefit the fight against muscular dystrophy.
Waite, 42, who grew up in York County and lives in Newport News, is covering the entire Virginia portion of the Appalachian Trial over the next two weeks.
That’s an average of close to 40 miles a day.
“I’m very psyched up,” Waite said after recently training at the Noland Trail in Newport News. “Actually, this is something that I’ve been kind of dreaming about doing for years.”
He started out March 27 at the southern end of the state, at the Virginia and Tennessee border, south of Damascus. He will end up in two weeks at the state line with West Virginia, near Harper’s Ferry.
Waite was inspired to join the fight against muscular dystrophy by the plight of Cole Terrill, an 11-year-old boy from Smithfield with the disease. Waite, a nurse practitioner at Riverside Regional Medical Center, is a friend and former co-worker of Cole’s mother, Mandy Williams.
Williams, a former ICU nurse, and Waite kept in touch after Williams left Riverside, and Cole was diagnosed with Duchenne muscular dystrophy — a severe form of the disease — when he was 2 years old.
“Over the years, I’ve kind of watched him grow up on social media, trying to be as normal as he can, and going through clinical trials,” Waite said. (Cole is now undergoing a long-term clinical trial designed to slow the disease’s progression).
In 2017, Waite raised a couple thousand dollars for Cole on a much shorter trek, with the money going mostly to renovate the family’s home to accommodate Cole’s battery-powered wheelchair.
For this week’s event, Waite is hoping to raise $10,000 for Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy, an organization recommended by Cole’s mother that focuses on Duchenne and has a focus on research and helping families.
“It’s just been a passion of mine to go out and run, and I love to do it,” Waite said. “But number two, it’s to honor these kids who are fighting for their lives with muscular dystrophy — who have to get up every day and deal with their bodies and their muscles not cooperating.”
When things get tough on the trek, Waite said, “I will reflect on things like that, which will help keep me moving.”
He has so far raised more than $3,000 toward that goal, calling the trek “Race to End Duchenne,” with the hashtag “#CUREFORCOLE.”
“When he emailed me about this idea, I was overwhelmed and grateful,” Williams said. “It’s rare to have somebody that’s not personally affected by the disease to be so willing to raise awareness and raise funds.”
“You know, 550 miles — I mean, holy cow, this is incredible,” she said, choking up. “And the fact that he’s doing that to do good — to raise funds for kids that will never be able to do that — is just overwhelming … I’m just very appreciative that he’s willing to help in the fight.”
Waite said he tries to do a 100-mile “adventure” once a year. He did a 100-mile portion of the Appalachian Trial — including the Shenandoah National Park — over four days in 2017, which spurred the idea to do the whole state this year.
When COVID struck a year ago, Waite was working on the front lines at Riverside’s intensive care unit, he set a goal to actually do it.
“I couldn’t wrap my head around doing the entire Virginia section,” he said. “It was a great carrot in front of me, just to keep me motivated through those tough times.”
Over the next two weeks, Waite plans to set out at sunrise each day, and go at least 12 hours. The Appalachian Trail ranges greatly in difficulty — from very steep rocky climbs in Southwest Virginia to some flatter terrain at the Shenandoah National Park, to lots of variety in other spots.
“I’m probably mostly going to be averaging like three miles an hour, when you’re considering climbing mountains, running some flat parts, running some downhill, and then hiking a lot,” he said.
The Appalachian Trail’s total “elevation gain” in Virginia is 147,546 feet — five times the height of Mount Everest.
Waite has meticulously planned out where he will stop each day, and where his “crew” will meet him for rest and replenishment. But he says he needs to remain flexible.
“I could get a lot of rain, or I could get snow or ice … where it’s higher elevation,” he said. “Virginia is a wild card for weather this time of year.”
Several months ago, Waite hired Joe “Stringbean” McConaughy, who holds speed records on the trail, as a coach. He structured training for Waite, “and mentally helped me work through a lot of logistical things for the trip.”
For the first week, Nathan Hackett, a friend of Waite’s who grew up with him in Tabb, and Hackett’s kids will be meeting Waite at certain pre-determined spots.
Hackett, a contractor who now lives in Loudoun County, and Waite got closer a few years ago when Waite raised money on behalf of Hackett’s niece, who had died after being sick for several months.
“We developed this friendship,” Waite said of Hackett. “He started coming to all these races, and he knows exactly what I need.”
That includes not only health and gear needs, he said, but moral support — such as the inspirational quotes from Mickey, the fictional character and trainer in the Rocky movies.
Waite’s neighbor, local contractor Tony Bellecci, will help out for the second week.
“He has this really cool truck that he’s rigged out, this Overlander,” Waite said of Bellecci. “It’s got a tent that pops up, and he’ll sleep up there and then there’s a sleeping quarters inside with a camper top, and I’ll sleep in there.”
Waite’s wife, Ashley, will send out social media posts — with pictures and a link to the GPS tracker — so that others can track his progress.
Waite will be carrying a satellite-based GPS tracker that will allow his people “to see where I am at all times.” It even has an SOS button, he said, “if I need some serious help.” He will also carry a portable water filter that can make water from lakes and streams drinkable.
Waite plans to consume more than 9,000 calories a day, and needs to constantly eat. That will include trail mix, granola bars, Snickers bars, Cliff Bars, and peanut butter pretzels, and a treat, Mexican Coke.
His crew, he said, will also be making “real food,” such as burritos and burgers, on the daily and sometimes multi-daily stops.
“You got to stay on top of it,” Waite said. “Your brain gets tired, so your support people need to remind you to eat and drink … We kind of joke around that these are eating events with some running involved.”
Waite also has to pay attention to blisters, to chafing, and getting enough sleep.
“I know that like I’m gonna be putting some serious stress on my connective tissue and my muscles,” Waite said. “There’s gonna be some pain and, and probably some suffering at times.”
So one of his crew’s responsibilities, he said, is to give him “pep talks” to keep his morale up as time goes by “Especially when you’re tired, like if you fall — which is going to happen — it can be demoralizing,” he said.
“I’ll just have to take a second, take a step back, maybe eat some food, and reflect on the day — that I get to be out here on this beautiful place, this thing that I love,” he said.
But the challenge will push him, too.
“This is uncharted territory, and that’s kind of one of the draws for me — that I’m not 100% certain that I can finish,” he said. “Things could go really wrong. I can fail. And that’s part of it, right?”
But that’s not part of his plan. Waite’s wife and children are planning to meet him near Harper’s Ferry in two weeks, with his parents also planning to come up from Florida for the occasion.