Even amidst 20,000 runners at the 2016 Gate River Run, no one missed Carey Hepler. In the kaleidoscopic crowd clad in neon-hued shoes, butt-hugging compression shorts, Day-Glo KT Tape, and shirts with tongue-in-cheek quips like "If you're behind me, you didn't train either" (BTW, sick burn, strangers), Carey easily stood out, way out. You would, too, if you were wearing a giant replica of the Hart Bridge, known in River-Run-speak as the Green Monster.
Sure, there were others in costume - at the Gate RivEven amidst 20,000 runners at the 2016 Gate River Run, no one missed Carey Hepler.In the kaleidoscopic crowd clad in neon-hued shoes, butt-hugging compression shorts, Day-Glo KT Tape, and shirts with tongue-in-cheek quips like "If you're behind me, you didn't train either" (BTW, sick burn, strangers), Carey easily stood out, way out. You would, too, if you were wearing a giant replica of the Hart Bridge, known in River-Run-speak as the Green Monster.
Sure, there were others in costume - at the Gate River Run, tutus, tiaras and firefighters in full gear are far more common sights than you'd expect - but Carey's getup took the cake in both uniqueness and OMFG-ness; as in, OMFG, how heavy is that? (Surprising answer from his lips to these somewhat skeptical ears: Not very. "It's 8 feet long, so it's kind of unwieldy," he admitted, laughing.)
The other question that springs to mind is, OMFG, why?
The answer to that one will warm your heart. He does it for the homeless and for women trying to escape the sex trade. Yep, Carey Hepler runs 9.3 miles in an 8-foot-long contraption made of half-inch PVC pipes and zip-ties to draw attention to the annual shoe and T-shirt drive he and his brother have held at the Gate River Run every year since 2003. And you thought donating five bucks to March of Dimes at the grocery store was generous.
Chatting over the phone on Feb. 27, Carey explained that the whole thing started when an article in Runner's World opened his eyes to the huge need for shoes for the homeless. Inspired, he and his brother Brian collected a few hundred pairs at the River Run that first year.
Soliciting shoe donations from runners is actually genius. Most runners will go through two, maybe even three or more pairs each year. But a shoe that's no longer good enough to run in has a lot of life left for other purposes; over time, a runner can amass quite a collection of old shoes. (I currently have three pairs to give to the cause.)
That closet clutter can mean the world to a homeless person.
"I really found out when we went and dropped them off what a huge deal that was ... [the homeless] literally say shoes are like gold," Carey said.
Since 2003, the Hepler brothers have explored various creative ways to increase donations.
"I've been running in costume for years and trying to connect, draw attention to the shoe drive and it never really worked very well, until last year," Carey said.
From 2003-'11, he ran in a Hawaiian getup complete with grass skirt; in 2012, he carried a huge pole with signs for his wife's judicial campaign, which was so difficult to carry he said "it about killed" him; in 2013-'14, he was outfitted in a One Spark getup; in 2015, he and a friend ran in an enormous model of the USS Adams. Then last year, he got the idea to build a replica of the Green Monster.
It was a home run. As Carey wrote to me a few weeks ago, "People wanted to put on the bridge. People wanted me to put on the bridge. People wanted their kids to put on the bridge." And everybody wanted a picture - including yours truly, who happened to line up right behind Carey at the starting line last year.
Though the USS Adams was easily as elaborate, if not more, this costume captures fancy by capitalizing on Gate River Run lore. Known as the Hart Bridge 364 days of the year, on race day the Green Monster earns its nickname by felling newbies, streakers and lifelong athletes alike. On either side of that mighty ascent you will come across bloodied, sick, sweat-soaked, heat-exhausted runners, their crumpled bodies a cautionary tale for any who underestimate the Monster. Hence, I say ‘slaying the dragon' is a runner's badge of honor.
The Hepler brothers have a tent outside the expo at the Jacksonville Fairgrounds where runners pick up their race packets on Thursday and Friday before the race; throughout the run, they continue taking donations at the booth that race directors 1st Place Sports let them use at no cost every year. Brian isn't able to join the race, so he keeps the operation running smoothly while Carey uses sweat equity to draw attention to the cause.
They donate the shoes to St. Francis Soup Kitchen and Downtown Ecumenical Services Council, both of which serve the local homeless population; they donate the T-shirts to Rethreaded, a local nonprofit that helps women escape the sex trade.
Each year for the past five years, the Heplers have averaged donations of 800 to 1,000 pairs of running shoes and 2,000 to 2,300 T-shirts; they're hoping to shatter both records this year. That's why on Saturday, March 11, Carey will once again become the Green Monster and join thousands of hopeful dragon-slayers on the streets of Jacksonville.
T-shirt and shoe donations of all sizes and conditions are welcome. Learn more at Facebook.com/Shoes.and.TShirt.Donation.