COLUMBIA — On Saturday afternoon, as the sun began to set, the strange silhouette of a man with an immense jogging stroller in front of him and a bright orange flag flying high above his head appeared against the evening sky.
Katzhiko Takashige was less than a mile from New Florence, and nearing the end of the day's 32.8 mile run. He had departed the outskirts of Columbia on foot early that morning, and by this late hour, his feet barely left the ground as he ran.
He wasn't slow or tired, but calculated, accustomed to measuring his strength in a way that allows him to run all day without exhausting himself. He knows he has to get up the next morning and start again. And the morning after that. And each morning, for the next few months, until he reaches New York City.
Takashige, 50, is running across the country for Peace Run, a nonprofit organization he created to raise money for various causes, especially world peace, through his running. The proceeds will go to the victims of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan seven months ago. He has sponsors in Japan who will donate 10 yen for every kilometer he runs — an equivalent of 12 cents per every 0.62 miles.
He left Long Beach, Calif., on May 25 and made it to Wichita, Kan., on the first leg of the trip, according to his blog. He flew back to Los Angeles in August and returned to Japan to rest for three weeks. He started the second leg of the trip from Wichita, Kan., on Sept. 19.
He said he hopes to arrive in New York City before Thanksgiving because, he said with a wistful look, he'd like to eat turkey.
Takashige has crossed the country before; he was last in Columbia 20 years ago for a bike trip across the U.S. He's also traversed Japan, Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the Arctic Circle by bicycle.
He began his running career 26 years ago with a full marathon — 26.2 miles. He then started training for a 300-mile ultramarathon, a feat he now talks about as if it were a walk around the block. To train for an ultramarathon, Takashige ran in the mountains in Japan, but he considers his first solo 300-mile run from Kyoto to Tokyo with only a backpack a turning point in his career as a runner.
"I love running and traveling," Takashige said, "and I thought about running and camping together. But it's hard to carry a lot of gear in a backpack, so I thought about pushing something or pulling something."
The result was a jogging stroller. His first stroller was meant for infants, but he piled in camping gear, food, water and first aid implements, and the stroller became his running buddy. Today, Takashige has a stroller designed for long distance runners.
His stroller is the size of a large wheelbarrow and bulging at the seams with everything Takashige owns in this country: clothing, a journal, a Bible and canned vegetables — his food of choice on long runs. He also carries an MP3 player, which holds classical music and jazz, along with rock artists from the '70s and '80s such as the Doobie Brothers, Queen and Eagles.
Takashige runs 4 or 5 mph because of his heavy luggage and the daily strain on his body, but he said his pace is a good speed at which to enjoy life. Because running is much slower than biking, Takashige has been able to appreciate the culture and scenery of the country much more during this trip.
"I like American culture, and people are very kind and friendly to me," Takashige said. "Sometimes some people give me money, food, water. And sometimes some people mistake me for a homeless person. That's a shame."
Not everyone he's encountered has been friendly though. Takashige remembers an incident in Kansas in which the driver of an 18-wheeler intentionally tried to run him off the road. He tries to avoid major highways while running, but they usually create a direct route to his next stop, and he relies on Google Maps for directions.
Takashige said he's seen some beautiful parts of the country. His favorite state to run through was Colorado, but he also felt very peaceful running and camping in the Mojave Desert in California, despite the heat.
Back in Japan, Takashige was a high school English teacher for nearly 25 years, but he recently quit his job to become a full-time "adventure runner."
In addition to running for world peace, he's encouraged his followers on Twitter to get sponsors or to donate their own money as part of a campaign he calls Run x 10, in which fellow runners have pledged to contribute 10 yen to tsunami relief for every kilometer they run as well. So far, he estimates, 12,000 runners have joined the Run x 10 campaign.
Social media have helped Takashige reach out to supporters and his family back in Japan better than when he first traversed the U.S. in 1991. He keeps a blog of his daily adventures and updates Twitter and Facebook several times a day. Fans can also follow the course of his run on the Peace Run website.
"While I am traveling, I want to meet as many people as possible," Takashige said, "and I like to share a moment of peace with the people I meet on my way."
As he rounded a corner and saw the Days Inn sign just off the highway in New Florence, Takashige said, "Today's goal is almost here." He'd spend the night there before heading out Sunday morning.
He wasn't sweating or panting, and as eager as he was to rest, he was just as eager to hit the road again the next day.
"It is my dream that someday, everyone can run together," Takashige said, smiling. "If the world is peaceful, you can run anywhere."