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Marathoner's mission: Don't let homelessness, Huntington's win

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Dave Baker
Dave Baker takes a rest after an early morning run on Friday -- his last run before the Twin Cities Marathon.
Tracy Mumford | MPR News

Running a marathon is grueling: 26.2 miles of your feet pounding the street, sweat pouring down your face, lungs heaving for air.

You push your body to its limits, and when you're done, with a finisher's medal hanging around your neck, all you want to do is rest. You want to slip into your bed.

But Dave Baker doesn't have a bed of his own.  

After he crosses the finish line of the Twin Cities Marathon this Sunday, he will have to wait until the Higher Ground Shelter in Minneapolis opens for the evening. He'll store his shoes and his gear in a locker, and find a bunk on the second floor.

Baker, 48, has been staying at the shelter for a little over year and a half. A string of bad luck cost him his car, his job and the apartment he'd lived in for seven years. He never imagined he'd be homeless — he also never imagined he'd run a marathon.

Both are new realities for him.

In his first weeks at Higher Ground, Baker saw a poster tacked up for Mile in My Shoes, a nonprofit that provides shoes, gear, support and training for homeless runners. The group organizes two morning runs every week, during which volunteers run alongside participants from the shelter.

Mile in My Shoes was founded last year by Mishka Vertin and Mike Jurasits, who moved to Minneapolis from New York City. In New York, both had been involved with Back on My Feet, an organization that "promotes the self-sufficiency of homeless people by engaging them in running as a means to build confidence, strength and self-esteem."

When they discovered that the Twin Cities didn't have a similar resource, they decided to create their own.

"People think: They're in a shelter, why would they want to run?" Vertin said. "They want to run for the same reasons anyone wants to run. Most of us do it because it helps us be healthier and think clearer — all of those reasons apply to people living in shelters or transitional housing."

Baker was one of the first to join Mile in My Shoes, which worked exclusively with men staying at Higher Ground before forming a second team with Emmanuel Housing this spring.

He ran with the group all of last summer, and last fall he helped cheer on runners at Mile 23 of the marathon.

Watching them run past, he had two thoughts: "That looks really challenging," and "I want to do that."

Running together
Volunteers with Mile in My Shoes ran through downtown Minneapolis with homeless participants from the Higher Ground shelter last September.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

Running a marathon became his goal, and his life took on a rhythm: He ran with Mile in My Shoes every Tuesday and Thursday morning, even when temperatures dipped well below zero and his eyelashes froze to his face. He arrived at the shelter every evening and left every morning when it closed for the day. He spent the hours in between looking for work.

For a moment, he thought he'd found his next step: He applied to drive a bus, a well-paying job that would allow him to get out of the shelter. He filled out the forms and passed the necessary tests. But when it came to the physical, the doctor pulled him aside.

He had Huntington's, the doctor informed him, an inherited neurological disease that causes the progressive loss of brain and muscle function. The necessary medications would make him drowsy, and disqualify him from the job.

The diagnosis wasn't a surprise: his grandfather had it, two of his uncles had it, and his mother had it. What was a surprise was the timing — he hadn't expected to be diagnosed so soon.

"[My mother] lived about 20 years after her diagnosis. I'm hoping to get at least 20 to 25, if I stay healthy and keep running."

In the months since, Baker hasn't let it interfere with his training. If anything, it's doubled his determination. On Saturday, the day before the marathon, he will speak at a conference held by the Minnesota chapter of the Huntington's Disease Society of America.

"The theme of the conference is to get up and do something — participate in life," said organizer Jessica Marsolek. "Dave is the perfect example of it."

Come race day, Baker doesn't have too many worries. He's not even dreading the hills.

"There are some hills on Summit, but you're talking to someone who spent a year in Colombia as an exchange student. My definition of hills is different than other people's."

Two volunteers will run with him as pacers. And he won't be the only Miles in My Shoes racer on the course. Jeff Pert, who lives at Emmanuel Housing, will also be aiming for 26.2.

Pert, 59, lost the place he had called home for 10 years this past January. He spent the winter crashing on a friend's couch, and then at a shelter. Now, he has an apartment at Emmanuel, a sober, affordable housing complex.

When Mile in My Shoes started working with Emmanuel residents this spring, Pert immediately joined, even though he'd never been a runner.

"It's not fun in the beginning," Pert said. "The first mile off the couch is really brutal. After that it becomes fun; I actually enjoy being out there. I like the community of other runners, that's the most important thing."

Just a month into running, he stumbled across the book "Run Your First Marathon" at the public library. He took it as a sign.

Now, he's just two days away from the finish line.

"When I was homeless, when I was training, there's two big secrets whenever you're in any kind of adversity," Pert said. "Never feel sorry for yourself, and never give up."

Pre-run gathering
The Mile in My Shoes group huddled up before a run last September.
Jeffrey Thompson | MPR News

Both Baker and Pert have been outfitted with gear donated by athletic companies. Sales reps often give their last-season sample shoes to Miles in My Shoes. The nonprofit also has T-shirts for sale at Mill City Running in Minneapolis, where Vertin works. The proceeds go towards costs like race nutrition and entrance fees.

Taking care of those basic running supplies, Vertin said, makes all the difference. It removes the barrier to a healthier lifestyle. And it's not just the runners who benefit, it's the volunteers and everyone involved with the organization.

"We want to change people's perceptions of people who are experiencing homelessness," Vertin said. "When people meet Dave, they say 'Oh my gosh, I never would have known, that's not my idea of what a homeless person looks like.'"

Vertin will spend Saturday cheering on Mile in My Shoes runners in the 5k and 10k races. On Sunday, it will be time to watch Baker and Pert take on the marathon.

Pert is eager to finish — and confident. "There's two kinds of people in the world: People who quit and people who don't." Pert puts himself firmly in the second category. He isn't worried about his time.

Baker, however, will have his eye on the clock. He's already thinking of his next race: He wants to qualify for the Boston Marathon. To do that, he estimates, he'll need to run 8-minute miles for the whole of the race.

If he qualifies, he won't be eligible to run Boston until 2017. By then, he says, his whole life could be different — he could have his own place again.

With his diagnosis, he just wants to keep moving.

"I'm high-functioning now, but I know it's going to get worse, it's just a matter of when," Baker said. "If I have a chance to run Boston, I'll do it. Unless they cut my legs off, they're not going to stop me."