An ultramarathon man


When Greg Armstrong didn’t make the freshman basketball team at Murfreesboro’s Riverdale High School 25 years ago, little could he fathom the path that he would follow.

When Greg Armstrong didnt make the freshman basketball team at Murfreesboros Riverdale High School 25 years ago, little could he fathom the path that he would follow.

Initially turning to cross country, he ran through green pastures and beside still waters, but two decades later, his long distance dreams carried him through deserts and up and down the Rocky Mountains, among other grueling locations.

These days the ultramarathon runner, who won a 314-mile race in July, dreams of making the U.S. National 24-Hour Running Team as it takes on the world next year in Italy.

Meanwhile, he knocks out from 100 to 200 miles a week while teaching, coaching and helping provide clean water for communities around the globe.

Running built my character at a very young age -- mentally, physically and spiritually. It provides a time for prayer and for applying disciplines to your spiritual life, said Armstrong, 40, who has taught for the past 10 years at Friendship Christian School in Lebanon.

On Saturday he will be one of a dozen or more runners who will see how many miles they can cover in 24 hours during the Run Around the World event at Winfree Bryant Middle School. The festival features eight events, beginning at 7 a.m., with the funnest likely to be the marathon in 26 days as hundreds of schoolchildren run a mile at 8 a.m.

The event is organized by Armstrong and other members of Run4Water, a non-profit whose goal is to serve and share Christ by raising awareness and providing solutions for the global water crisis. For more details, check the info box included with this story.

After Armstrong was cut from the freshman basketball squad, he turned his sights to the cross-country team.

I wanted to do something. Running was my fallback, I guess. It didnt take me long to fall in love with the individual disposition of running, said the Murfreesboro native, who earned a degree in wildlife biology at MTSU.

To me it became a very individual training and I set individual goals. Ive been running ever since, said Armstrong, who coaches the cross-country teams at FCS and teaches anatomy, physiology, botany, environmental science and Bible.

The sun-burnished Armstrong, who carries 160 pounds on his 5-foot-11-inch frame, runs a minimum of 100 miles a week and occasionally will tally 200 miles. About one morning a week he runs the 10 miles from his home, a farm on the Cumberland River, to school.

This morning I got up at three and got in 14 miles and then did some weight training. I will probably do eight to 10 miles with the cross-country team this afternoon, he said during an early September interview.

Armstrong has completed 14 races of 100 miles or longer. His best time for running 100 miles is 15 hours and 34 minutes. In the Badger 24-Hour Run in Wisconsin this summer, he covered 138.96 miles in 24 hours.

In July he captured first place in the Vol State 500-K (314 miles), an event that saw him run through five states as he completed the course in three days, 17 hours and 48 minutes.

I really fell in love with the multi-day run, he says. The 24-hour runs are tougher.

Astonishingly, he doesnt train or race in top of the line running shoes, but takes his strides in size-10 Teva sandals. I get a lot of funny looks, and multiple times I have been criticized for it but it works for me, he noted.

As for his diet, he says, I dont really carb load. I would for a marathon but ultras are much different. It is essential to take in a lot of calories during a 24-hour race so what I eat the night before is not as critical as it would be before a marathon. But whenever possible I eat Painturos Sunbelt Pizza before a race. Its a tradition.

As for why Armstrong puts himself through such feats of physical endurance, he says, To me it is much more of a mental challenge. There is a lot of self-doubt. Its just a mental discipline. All you have to do is quit. Then it stops. Its will power, pushing you to go on.

And its a spiritual moment for me. Throughout the 24-hour period, you dont feel strong. You feel weak physically and mental, and when you get worn down, you have doubts. I have a lot of time for prayer and recognize Gods strength even more in my life. Hopefully, its time I can grow as a person.

Armstrong and his wife Shelley, who met in the seventh grade at Central Middle School in Murfreesboro, have been married 18 years. She serves as a learning leader at Winfree Bryant Middle School.

Shes very supportive, the runner says of his mate. She goes to the 24-hour events and crews for me. Shes a marathon runner and on her birthday she ran her first ultra-marathon, 31 miles.

Shelley admits she raised her eyebrow four years ago when he told her about wanting to run 120 miles from Alabama to Kentucky.

My first thought was Im not sure if this is a good idea. There were some concerns about his body and putting himself through that physical activity, she said. Greg is like a free spirit, pretty unique in his ideals and determination. Ive kind of gotten accustomed to the extraordinary being the ordinary in his life.

He often tells me he wishes he had five more lifetimes to live because theres so much more he wants to get accomplished and not enough time to do it. He really is full of life. He uses every opportunity. He just has a passion for living life to its fullest and helping others sort of find out what their passions are and encouraging them to do the same.

What does she think drives her husband put his body through such grueling tests?

Part of it is the idea of what can you really accomplish when you put your mind to it. For as long as Ive known him hes had an uncanny drive to push himself to the limit to see what is possible. That creeps into every aspect of his life.

Another part of it is that its a good tool to use to inspire others and draw attention to raise awareness to the water crisis. Finally, and probably most important to him, its his spiritual journey that he really embarks on while logging those miles and a time of self-reflection on his life and what else he still might like to accomplish.

As for the rest of the family, Anna Kate, 13, enjoys serving on his crew during the long runs and also plays on the school volleyball team. Lily Grace, 11, sort of following in her fathers shoes, will run her final mile Saturday in the 26 miles in 26 days event.

I look at this as a kind of running festival for people to come out and run for a cause, run for water. Were trying to raise awareness for the water crisis in the world and trying to practice health and fitness with young people, he said of Run Around the World.

About 400 young runners from five schools (Winfree Bryant, Coles Ferry, Byars Dowdy, FCS and Hendersonville Lakeside) will come out and finish the mile. Last year we raised $5,000, but its not about the money. Its for the kids. Each one will get a medal and a T-shirt.

Armstrong started Run4Water, a non-profit, faith-based organization, in 2010.

I was thinking about how to combine the two passions in my life, running and the water crisis, to give God glory. To kick off at raising awareness, my goal was to run from Alabama to Kentucky through Tennessee, 120.5 miles straight up Highway 231. I made it in 23 hours and 11 minutes. Then I spent three days in the hospital. I made my goal but it was pretty challenging, he recalled.

He has gone with students to Honduras, Haiti and Nicaragua to serve communities where lack of clean water is a big problem. Among other things, they helped in drilling wells.

Its more of a holistic ministry. We try to meet physical and spiritual needs. Water is sort of the tip of the spear. Usually what draws us to an area is if there is a water crisis.

One weekend a month, Armstrong and high school students from Watertown, Lebanon, Wilson Central and FCS make the four-hour drive to Sneedville in East Tennessee to help residents there get clean water.

A man from here goes to do the drilling work. The students do physical labor. We test well water and work with the county health department, he said.

Returning to running, Armstrong says, My passion is to get young people involved. Ive got quite a few kids interested in running a marathon. I try to incorporate with my students that you can get fulfillment on your own with individual pursuits.

One of his protges, Rachel Heronimus, 17, who runs cross country, has set solo goals for her senior year at FCS. Two-and-a-half weeks ago, she completed her first half-iron man during the Riverbluff Triathlon, in Ashland City.

She recalled that, after swimming 1.2 miles, biking 56 miles and running 13.1 mile, I balled my eyes out while crossing the finish line. Not because it hurt, but it was real emotional. Working together for three months, leading up to that moment, that was my prize.

Rachel and her brother Caleb, 19, were part of the crew that attended to Armstrong during his 314-mile run this summer. What she noticed most, she said, was his attitude. All through the event he never once got upset with us and during the painful times, he still had a sweet, kind spirit.

Hes not only a good example through his running but through his love for others and the encouragement he gives to others. He has inspired me in more ways than just physical conditioning and self-discipline, said Heronimus, who plans to run a marathon in early 2015.

Being able to witness these young peoples growth in self-confidence and discipline, thats the most fulfillment I get from the sport, said Armstrong, who has two more running goals himself.

Id like to do the Badwater 135 [Ultramarathon]. They call it the toughest foot race in the world. You run through Death Valley.

He plans to tackle his next 24-hour run in Arizona in December as he attempts to qualify for the U.S. National 24-Hour Running Team, which will take its top six male and female runners to the 2015 IAU World 24 Hour Championships in Torino, Italy, April 11-12. Currently, Armstrong ranks fifth in the nation.

Thats what Im shooting for, but there are a lot of the better runners waiting to qualify at the Arizona event. I feel its a bit out of my range, but its OK if it is not Gods will, said the man who may just run from here to eternity.

© 2014 The Murfreesboro Post

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