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Columbus native aims to cross all 50 states on foot, tells tales from trail

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As Brian Stark ran across the state of Iowa in 2003, he was asked by a lady if he was homeless.

“No.” Stark replied. “I like to run.”

The lady then told Stark he should make a sign that says “I’m OK,” and wear it around his neck.

The Columbus native, known as “The States Runner,” will tell plenty of stories such as those when he talks about his vast running adventures at 6:30 p.m. today at YES Cinema. The event is free and open to the public.

Stark, 42, who now lives in Tucson, Arizona, has ran across 31 states since beginning to hike the Appalachian Trail in 1995. He hopes to cross the other 19 by the time he’s 50.

“The first thing out of everyone’s mouth when they find out what I’m doing is, they always ask ‘Why?’” Stark said. “There’s no good answer. I think it’s like a lot of things in life. It starts as a smaller goal and ends up larger.”

By the time Stark ran the Appalachian Trail in 1995 and the coast-to-coast American Discovery Trail in 1998, he had ran through 24 states. Soon after, his wife, Lydia Breunig, told him he might as well try to cross the rest.

Since then, Stark has crossed Arizona in 2001, Iowa on in 2003, Nebraska in 2010, Nevada in 2011, Wyoming in 2012 and Wisconsin and Michigan last year. He plans to cross Oregon on Pacific Crest Trail in July and then will be shuttled to Idaho to run the Coeur d’Alene Trail.

“My first consideration is finding a scenic route,” Stark said. “I’ve kind of set up my own paramaters, which is not crossing a state by cutting a corner, and I try to not cross a state in the shortest possible way. That, and I try to find a trail.”

When Stark is crossing states, he typically runs about 35 miles a day at about a 10- to 12-minute pace, although he’s looking to do 40- to 42-mile days on his next venture. He usually starts by 6 a.m., breaks for lunch around noon and finishes by 3 or 4 p.m.

“It’s a mental game with yourself,” Stark said. “If I wake up and do 20 miles before 10 a.m., I know I only have to do 10 more before lunch and then 10 more after lunch. The idea is to be able to go all day, and then be able to get up the next day and run again.”

Stark usually runs without a support crew. He carries a kit that includes about 100 ounces of water, which lasts him about 20 miles before he needs to refill.

“When people see me on the side of the road, they usually ask me, ‘Did my car break down?’ and I’d tell them what I’m doing,” Stark said. “They would say, ‘Why would you do that?’ They would say ‘Where are you going tonight?’ I’d tell them, and they’d say ‘There’s nothing there.’ I’d say ‘There’s a Subway, and that’s a great source of food.’ I’ve eaten many dinners in gas stations and slept many nights in barns.”

For nights like those, he carries a sleeping bag.

“I’ve gotten pretty creative over the years and a little bit daring,” Stark said. “Things have gotten a little bit different since 9/11. My preference after running a marathon and a half is to have a bed and a shower. I’ve been invited to sleep in fire stations. I’ve also gotten permission to sleep in a barn hayloft. It doesn’t take long to go to sleep when you’ve run for 12 hours.”

Stark said he’ll probably use a support crew in Oregon since he will be running in some remote areas. He’s also looking to increase his mileage.

“I prefer to be up to 40 (miles a day), and I’m looking to push that even farther on this next trip,” Stark said. “I don’t want to get stagnant. I’m a family man, and there’s a delicate balance to be off from the family.”

A father of two kids ages 9 and 7, Stark has a job that allows him to make these long ventures in the summer. The former middle school teacher now goes to schools all over southern Arizona teaching kids about energy conservation for Tuscon Electric Power.

“Being a teacher, you have long school day hours,” Stark said. “I found a job where I don’t have the responsibility for grading. It’s a great job in terms of giving me hours for employment. I have this unique and odd trait where I’m pretty much not trained for the whole day and then get off the plane and start running 40 miles.”

Fortunately for Stark, he hasn’t been hit by any major injuries. The only issue he’s had came on the 1998 trek across America when he was crossing a remote section of Nevada.

Breunig, who was then his girlfriend, and Stark’s mom, Sherry, had each offered a week of support, but had to get back to their jobs after the week. That caused him to increase his daily mileage from 35 to 42 to try to finish Nevada by the time they left, and his tendons became inflamed.

“My whole body bounced back almost stronger than it was,” Stark said.

Stark got into running after going on trips to see his father, Jim, run in marathons.

“I started running at Northside Middle School and realized I could run far,” Brian Stark said. “I was racking up the miles all over the streets of Columbus and kept going from there.”

By the time he graduated from Columbus North in 1991, Brian Stark had ran more than 10,000 miles. He and Jim once ran across Florida during spring break.

“He came from an adventurous family,” said Rick Weinheimer, Brian’s cross-country coach at North. “Brian’s adventurous spirit comes from his dad. He’s probably one of the most spirited, energetic runners we’ve had in our program, and I’m never surprised with the things he likes to challenge himself with.”

Weinheimer said Brian Stark was always better at longer distances that what was contested in high school cross-country and track meets.

“He has the physical tools for this, but more than anything, he has the mental tools for these incredible challenges,” Weinheimer said. “He’s one of the most creative people that I’ve ever been around. Everybody likes him. He’s a genuine, funny, creative person and a very hard worker.”

Brian Stark ran four years of cross-country and track at Hanover and regularly went on 30-mile runs.

“He’s so full of surprises,” Sherry Stark said. “He decided to run coast-to-coast across the country and didn’t tell me about it until right before he did it. He has all of these adventures. Somehow, he survives it and comes out with wonderful stories and goes onto the next adventure.”

This weekend will be an eventual one for the Stark family. Brian plans to arrive in time to see his brother, Eric, who is director of choral activities at Butler University, conducting a concert Saturday in Carmel.

Since he was already planning to come to Indiana for that performance Brian asked his mom if she could arrange for him to give a presentation while he’s in the area. So tonight, he’ll talk about why people would want to do something like he’s done, share with people tips on how to keep themselves going and will show his new documentary about last year’s run across Wisconsin and Michigan.

“If nothing else, it will be a good time because I have a number of very unusual, funny stories,” Brian Stark said. “You could call it a lifetime of crazy.”

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