Robert Sweetgall's Unprecedented Feet Accompli (he Hopes): Around the Country in 280 Days

updated 06/06/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/06/1983 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The children at the Oaklea Middle School in Junction City, Oreg. were in a dither when Rob Sweetgall loped into the auditorium. Arriving 30 minutes before his scheduled talk, the emaciated 6'2" runner pulled 45 slides out of his waist pack and plunged into a speech about the importance of cardiovascular care. When all the kids' questions were answered, he sped on down the road.

And so it has gone almost every day since Oct. 9, when the 35-year-old former chemical engineer headed south from the White House to do what no one has ever done before—run the 10,500 miles around the entire perimeter of the United States. Thanksgiving was spent in Florida, Christmas in Texas and Easter in Montana. A support van followed him until March; since then he has kept all his supplies in a four-pound waist pack. In addition to traveler's checks, a toothbrush and foul-weather gear, it includes six pairs of socks, scissors, scalpel, powder and Band-Aids—"a mini hospital for the feet," in Sweetgall's words.

Averaging 39 miles a day, Sweetgall has punctuated his odyssey with cardiovascular pep talks in assorted public schools. He came by his message in 1979 through painful means. "My father died from a heart attack," he says, "and an aunt and uncle died from heart disease on consecutive Sundays." Abruptly awakened to his own sedentary life-style, Rob began running marathons; then he quit his job at the DuPont chemical company in Wilmington, Del. and started the Foundation for the Development of Cardiovascular Health. The desire to train full-time and the need to teach dovetailed in his current pilgrimage.

Last seen pounding the pavement in Erie, Pa., Sweetgall has just 1,700 miles to go before returning full circle to the White House, which he expects to do on July 15. Apart from being questioned by cops in Mesa, Ariz, (they thought he was the "jogging bandit" who'd just held up a local Dairy Freeze), Sweetgall's mega marathon has been remarkably trouble-free. Indeed, he is seven days ahead of schedule. The peripatetic Mr. S is taking advantage of this fact not by resting his weary feet but by entering a six-day, rack-up-as-much-mileage-as-you-can race in New Jersey. You might call it the runner's version of a busman's holiday.

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