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A 'Stupid' Plan to Escape St. Louis 

Mark Fingerhut (left, with his cousin, Andy Mayer) persuaded twenty friends to take on a weekend adventure.

DOYLE MURPHY

Mark Fingerhut (left, with his cousin, Andy Mayer) persuaded twenty friends to take on a weekend adventure.

As adventures go, this one begins inconspicuously.

Most of the residents of a quiet street in Dogtown are tucked away in neatly kept bungalows, their cars parked in their driveways on what has become a pleasant Friday afternoon. The sidewalk is all but empty.

"This is stupid," Mark Fingerhut says.

A 40-year-old product manager for a software company, Fingerhut is dressed in a red St. Louis flag T-shirt, baseball cap, shorts and a pair of thick-soled Hoka running shoes. A half-filled backpack fastened over his shoulders and chest is the only sign this will be more than a jog around the neighborhood as he starts running up the hill from his house.

If all goes right — and he is not convinced it will — he will be gone all night and most of the next day. He will keep running or walking as St. Louis falls away behind him and the temperature drops from a sunny 51 degrees into moonlit 30s. The plan is to cross state lines and cut south through one county and then another, and then who knows? He has it mapped out in his head, but he has never done this before. Anything could happen.

The surprises are what he's after, and not just for himself. He has somehow persuaded twenty others to leave their perfectly good homes at some point during a three-and-a-half-day window and see how far they can go in any direction on their own two feet in 24 hours. A few will start the next day. Others are already out there, plodding along city sidewalks, rain-soaked trails and the shoulders of highways, going and going and going as GPS locators on their phones chart a starburst of pathways emanating from origins scattered across the metro and beyond.

As the architect of all this, Fingerhut has been planning and coordinating for a few weeks. But now his "stupid idea" is no longer a concept but thousands of literal steps to pound out in what amounts to a series of marathons — all for questionable reward. It begins, fittingly, with a steep uphill. Fingerhut chugs up the sidewalk, turns and jogs out of sight.

Mark Fingerhut runs out of Dogtown. - DOYLE MURPHY
  • DOYLE MURPHY
  • Mark Fingerhut runs out of Dogtown.

If necessity is the mother of invention, boredom is the reckless stepdad of adventure. And we have been plenty bored during the pandemic — not to mention stressed and anxious.

The sudden evaporation of diversions in March 2020 made it clear that few of us were prepared to be home so, so much. No movie theater escapes. No head-clearing trips to the grocery store. No daylong shifts at the office, and for too many of us, no more jobs at all.

At the exact moment when we could use even a temporary exit from the chaos invading our lives, nearly all of our usual off ramps were closed.

Fingerhut was maybe more restless than most. In the past, he has paddled the Missouri River from Montana to the Gateway Arch and competed in multiple long-distance kayak races across the state. He passed the early days of the pandemic on a mission to bike every road in Dogtown, a project that he says took him about 70 hours to complete and covered more than 40 miles.

As St. Louis headed into a second spring of COVID-19 restrictions, Fingerhut began dreaming up a new project. The 24 Hours from Home Challenge was designed to be part socially distant sufferfest and part strategic challenge, combined with elements of camaraderie and shittalking. He floated the idea to friends in the local chapter of the Hash House Harriers — an irreverent bunch whose initiates like to joke that they are a "drinking club with a running problem" — and was surprised to find it actually appealed to a number of the members.

"I just looked at it and thought this is another crazy idea," says Beth McEwen, Fingerhut's friend and fellow Hasher. "He's had a few."

But the more she thought about it, the more she was intrigued. McEwen is among tens of millions of Americans who lost their jobs during the pandemic, and she is among the millions more who started to rely on getting outside to relieve the stress of COVID-19 fallout. Her usual calendar of 5K and 10K races was canceled, so she began walking.

"Honestly, during COVID times, really the only thing that has helped me stay sane is that I started walking every day," McEwen, 42, says. And not just a lap or two around the neighborhood. She gives the example of walking from her home on the Hill to meet a friend in Soulard for lunch and, on a separate trip, circling the Anheuser-Busch brewery while wandering with her husband before returning home.

Among those who sign up for Fingerhut's challenge, McEwen's ambitions for the event are considered moderate. She decides that instead of going the full 24 hours, she will walk to a friend's house in Wildwood from the Hill, a one-way trip along Manchester of more than twenty miles.

Rosemary LaRocca has run multiple ultramarathons, including a hundred-miler, but the 24-hour challenge was unlike all the others. - DOYLE MURPHY
  • DOYLE MURPHY
  • Rosemary LaRocca has run multiple ultramarathons, including a hundred-miler, but the 24-hour challenge was unlike all the others.

At the other end of the spectrum is Rosemary LaRocca, a 40-year-old veteran of multiple ultramarathons, including the Mark Twain 100 Mile Endurance Run. On a Facebook page set up for the event, one Hasher jokes that LaRocca "might do 36 hours because she needs to finish listening to the Phish song that started at 23 ½ hours."

While McEwen goes west and Fingerhut goes south, LaRocca plans to run across the McKinley Bridge from her home in the Shaw neighborhood and cruise north through Alton, Illinois. It's not an exact route and she expects to improvise a bit as she goes.

In a typical ultramarathon — any race longer than 26.2 miles — she could expect to find aid stations every five or ten miles, but in this one, she will be running alone. Her partner Andy McDonald plans to track her through the night and carry supplies, but there is an element of the unknown. LaRocca says she plans to run with mace for the first time in her racing career and will take her normal safety precautions, such as running with only one earbud in so she can hear what's happening around her.

"As a woman, I think it's a different experience than it is for a man," she says.

Still, she is eager to see what she can do. She's never run so far on pavement, and the idea of picking her own start time and route is appealing, she says in a phone call the night before she sets out.

"I'm interested to see what kind of place my mind will be in by tomorrow night."

Rain on the opening day of the challenge soon led to flooding across the region. - DOYLE MURPHY
  • DOYLE MURPHY
  • Rain on the opening day of the challenge soon led to flooding across the region.

As luck would have it, the opening day of the challenge is miserable. A cold rain that started the night before blows through the day on winds of 17 miles per hour.

Luckily, the flexible format of the 24 Hours from Home Challenge means competitors can simply push off their start time. As long as they complete 24 continuous hours, they can begin anytime between noon on Thursday, March 18, and midnight on 11:59 p.m. on Sunday, March 21. Fingerhut decides to hold off until Friday when the storm is supposed to break, and that seems to be the consensus among the runners.

But then comes word that a lone runner has set out. With rain pouring down across Missouri, Aaron Duenke takes off from New Haven and heads for the Katy Trail.

"Here I go!" he posts on Facebook.

Unlike most of the runners, Duenke is not a Hasher, but a friend of Fingerhut's through kayaking, adding to the intrigue of a wildman who would race in this kind of weather. In the following hours, he pops up on the Facebook page with gnomic updates: a photo of flood waters next to a "69" mile marker at 1:05 p.m. Another pic four hours later of a shot of whiskey at a bar in Hermann.

"The Katy is soOo peaceful," he posts minutes before 11 p.m.

At 1:19 a.m., he writes: "The Missouri River is reclaiming this trail." And then: "If you could only see what I just went through."

Finally, after sixteen hours slogging through the rain, Duenke calls it quits: "I went down with the moon. 4:10 can't go any further."

It's a surprising start to the competition. Before sunrise on the first full day of the challenge, Duenke has set the bar at 35 miles.

"Ok Weekend Warriors," he writes. "I can't wait to see what you've got. This is the best that this little old hippie could do this time."

From Left: Angela O'Hanlon, Glenn Hooker, Beth McEwen and Don Hovey walk along Southwest Avenue. - DOYLE MURPHY
  • DOYLE MURPHY
  • From Left: Angela O'Hanlon, Glenn Hooker, Beth McEwen and Don Hovey walk along Southwest Avenue.

LaRocca and McEwen both start shortly after 9 a.m. on Friday, March 18, heading in opposite directions.

McEwen is joined by a friend from Kansas City, Don Hovey, and they soon meet up with husband-and-wife team Glenn Hooker and Angela O'Hanlon. Their trip is to be a leisurely stroll — if twenty-plus miles of walking on hard cement can be described as "leisurely." They catch Southwest Avenue leaving the Hill and follow it west into Maplewood. Soon, they're approaching Manchester Road.

"We're at the big turn!" McEwen jokes.

Unlike others' routes that twist and turn, the foursome has chosen a nearly straight shot west. And they have brought no gear; another benefit of choosing a commercial district for their journey is that they can grab a snack — or a beer — any time they wish.

LaRocca, on the other hand, gives off the vibe of a happy warrior as she exits her house. She takes a moment to queue up a Phish album before giving her partner a kiss and jogging east. In about an hour, she has passed the Arch. In less than two, she's at the McKinley Bridge, and she has crossed into Illinois before 11 a.m.

She turns onto state Route 3 and begins a relentless march north as tractor trailers grind past on their way to and from riverfront shipping terminals. The night before she had described all this as "Type 2 fun — it's fun later. It's not fun while you're doing it."

Rosemary LaRocca runs along Illinois Route 3 after crossing the McKinley Bridge. - DOYLE MURPHY
  • DOYLE MURPHY
  • Rosemary LaRocca runs along Illinois Route 3 after crossing the McKinley Bridge.

All Friday, runners start trekking across the St. Louis metro.

Fingerhut's wife, Sara, is acting as race coordinator, tracking the competitors on a centralized map and updating a Facebook event page. As the hours tick by, the cluster of points begins to separate into distinct strands heading out in all directions. Ultimately, their distances will be measured as the crow flies for purposes of the challenge. Choose an inefficient route and those miles deviating from a straight line are wasted.

After leaving Dogtown, Fingerhut runs south and makes a big left to cross the Mississippi River on the Jefferson Barracks Bridge. He'll have to eat some miles on the dogleg in the final tally, but the payoff lies just beyond the river's edge on the Illinois side: the levee. A single-lane road atop the flat top of the berm offers a virtually traffic-free, relatively straight shot south for as far as a human could ever wish to run in a day's time. As a bonus, it is by design resistant to the kind of flooding Duenke saw on the Katy Trail early that morning.

Fingerhut leaves the bridge-rattling tractor trailers behind, climbs through a wire fence and scrambles to the top of the levee. The river laps off to his right, and the rumble of the highway soon drifts away.

Sunset on the levee road in Illinois. - COURTESY MARK FINGERHUT
  • COURTESY MARK FINGERHUT
  • Sunset on the levee road in Illinois.

About 7 p.m., he records a video of himself walking along as the sun sets. The field of competitors swelled to ten during the day, but it quickly thins as evening comes. McEwen and her crew reach their Wildwood destination after about ten hours and end their adventure. Three more daytrippers are wrapped up by 8:30 p.m. By then, it's dark and cooling off fast. Only LaRocca, Fingerhut and another afternoon starter, a strong runner named Adam Arce, are left.

In his sunset video, Fingerhut had already pulled on a windbreaker.

"Feeling alright," he says. "Enjoying the sunset. Starting to get a little chilly and looking forward to a fun night."

Shortly after 9:30 p.m., there is a surprising development: LaRocca has dropped out.

In eleven and a half hours of running, she has covered a total of 50 miles, roughly 42 as the crow flies. But the shoulder of Illinois Route 267 in the dark is not the safest place to be, and it's time to move on to the second phase of Type 2 fun.

That leaves only Fingerhut on the levee and Arce on the Katy Trail to run through the night.

The temperature has dropped into the 30s, but Fingerhut seems to be in good spirits.

"As long as I'm not feeling injured, I'm going to keep going," he says.

His buddy Kelly tracks him down after 10 p.m. for a supply drop. The stars are out, and a crescent moon illuminates the gravel of the levee road with stunning clarity. To the left are low farm fields and the occasional house. To the right, high water pools midway up the trunks of trees like a swamp. There are more raccoons than cars out here at night.

Mark Fingerhut had the levee road to himself — and few animals. - DOYLE MURPHY
  • DOYLE MURPHY
  • Mark Fingerhut had the levee road to himself — and few animals.

Fingerhut has changed into long pants and has swapped his mesh-back baseball cap for a blue stocking cap. He wears an orange buff around his neck, black gloves and an electric headlamp. He has to pump his legs as he stands to keep the muscles from stiffening.

It's now as much of a mental challenge as a physical one.

"Some of the folks started early this morning, and when you're walking all day and then you have to face walking all night, I think that's really tough," he says.

He intentionally started in the afternoon so the night would come relatively early in his journey. It seems to have been a good strategy. Still, it's not going to be easy to continue on through the cold and dark. By the time Kelly departs shortly before 11 p.m., Fingerhut has been on the road for more than nine hours, meaning he's barely more than a third of the way through the 24-hour challenge. Sunrise is a long way away. If he runs into trouble, his plan is to call his wife and hunker down with a foil emergency blanket stashed in his backpack until help arrives.

Not that it is all grueling. Walking along under the stars, often without a house, much less a human, in sight is an experience of its own.

"It's very peaceful," Fingerhut says. "You don't get a chance to be out here like this, especially living in the city."

The glow of St. Louis is far behind him on the northern horizon. A cousin will meet him in the morning, and he hopes to end his adventure tomorrow afternoon with a beer at a riverfront brewery in Chester, Illinois, some 70-plus miles from where he started. But for now, he's taking it all in.

"I guess I would equate this to paddling on the big rivers, like you're on the Missouri River at night," Fingerhut says. "There's nothing like it, because there's no lights, no civilization, just you. The big race we always do is always during a full moon. So it's super bright and you're just out there in the middle of this massive river, and you can see so much just because of the moon. It's so peaceful you can hear everything."

Mark crosses 50 miles overnight in Illinois. - COURTESY MARK FINGERHUT
  • COURTESY MARK FINGERHUT
  • Mark crosses 50 miles overnight in Illinois.

Fingerhut makes it through the night but had thought of quitting.

He crossed 50 total miles shortly after 3 a.m. after tracking inland from the levee. He had planned a stop at Fort de Chartres near Prairie du Rocher, Illinois, as a landmark along his trip, and by the time he arrived at the 268-year-old former French military post, he was wearing down.

"There was actually an outhouse," he says. "And I went in there to use the bathroom, and it was really warm in there, but it smelled absolutely horrible."

Driven outside by the smell but still in need of a rest, he laid down on a picnic table, covered himself with his foil blanket and fell asleep. When he woke about 30 minutes later, he thought about calling it. He had been on the road for more than fourteen hours, and the back of his right knee was hurting. But he soon found himself back on the road. His cousin Andy Mayer met him at sunrise alongside a two-lane road in Randolph County, Illinois.

Mayer has brought Fingerhut a breakfast sandwich, and together they walk below the majestic bluffs that once sheltered nomadic hunting parties stalked the floodplain 9,000 years before them. Buoyed by the company and the rising sun, Fingerhut seems reinvigorated and says he is feeling better about his chances of making it all the way to 1:30 p.m. and a beer at St. Nicholas Brewing Company in Chester.

As they walk, he tells the story of his night. There were wildlife sightings, including a brief meeting with some sort of small beast he couldn't quite identify. And of course there was the misadventure of the Fort de Chartres crapper, but what stands out was a more celestial encounter.

"All of a sudden, it's like a street light went on above me," Fingerhut says. "I was like, 'What?' I looked up, and it was a massive meteor that just flashed super bright. In just like a second it was gone."

There is a British explorer named Alastair Humphreys, whom Fingerhut admires.

Humphreys spent four years cycling around the world, covering 46,000 miles and five continents. He has also rowed the Atlantic Ocean and has run six marathons in the Sahara. But Fingerhut was drawn in by Humphreys' concept of the microadventure.

The Brit took a year off his international quests and pioneered a series of small excursions that excitement-starved average Joes could accomplish in a weekend or even a night. He encouraged office workers to throw a sleeping bag on a hill, sleep under the stars and heat their morning coffee on a camp stove before hustling back to work. Humphreys recommends jumping in ponds and lakes, trekking circles around your home and marking blue moons on the calendar for nights outside.

The idea is that a little imagination is all it takes to have an adventure.

"The concept stuck with me," Fingerhut says. "It was like, 'Holy shit, that's brilliant.'"

Fingerhut made it to 1:30 p.m., but came up just a few miles short of Chester and the brewery. Sara Fingerhut picked him up, and drove the exhausted adventurer home to St. Louis. In total, he had traveled 74 miles, 54 as the crow flies.

The 24 Hours from Home competitors met at Tower Grove Park to swap stories after the event. - COURTESY MARK FINGERHUT
  • COURTESY MARK FINGERHUT
  • The 24 Hours from Home competitors met at Tower Grove Park to swap stories after the event.

On Sunday, he and the others met up at Tower Grove Park to swap war stories of their adventures. Arce, the other runner who stayed out all Friday night, had hustled all the way to Hermann (80-plus miles total, 64 as the crow files) just in time to catch the last Amtrak back home. Others reported harrowing encounters — a mountain lion, gun-wielding rednecks, speeding truckers — while on roads and flooded paths. For most, it was the longest distance they've ever traveled on foot and something they'll talk about for years.

"I think what I was thinking all along in planning this thing and inviting friends to do it ... what I was hoping for is there would be these kind of stories that actually ended up happening to people, like these crazy experiences that people had that they'd be sitting around and talking about and telling each other," Fingerhut says on the phone. "That's exactly what we did on Sunday. We gathered in the park, and it was just everyone talking about how they did, where they went, things they saw — just what they experienced. I just kind of sat and looked around. I was like, 'That's awesome. I had a part in that.'"

He's not sure if they'll do it again, or if it will be just one of those weird things that happened during the pandemic. He's open to another round, but he says he'll be the one back at the house tracking all those little points on the map as they forge out into the world.

We welcome tips and feedback. Email the author at doyle.murphy@riverfronttimes.com or follow on Twitter at @DoyleMurphy.
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