Heart of America marathoners all set for today’s race

Sunday, September 2, 2007 | 10:53 p.m. CDT; updated 12:42 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 19, 2008
Dick Hessler, right, gives pointers on running Monday’s race to Eric Bunch, at Stephens Lake Park on Sunday. The Heart of America Marathon is held in mid-Missouri every Labor Day.

Columbia — Eric Bunch is 25-year-old environmentalist who’s given up his car this month for a "low-car" diet challenge.

Chris Cook, a 36-year-old pastor at Parkade Baptist Church and longtime marathon runner, is no stranger to leaving his car behind.

Both Bunch and Cook have entered Monday’s Heart of America Marathon, which begins at 6 a.m. at Hearnes Center.

Cook, who won last year’s race, has run the marathon 10 times.

“Last year, I finally broke the three-hour barrier,” he said.

Bunch, on the other hand, is a Heart of America rookie.

“I decided to do this race three days ago,” he said.

Bunch began his running career in junior high. He admits he was terrible at it, but continued running through high school and college. and ran his first marathon as a senior at William Jewell College in Kansas City.

“That’s the only marathon I’ve finished so far,” he said, recalling a second attempt that ended after 11 miles.

The 26-mile Heart of America Marathon leads runners south to the Missouri River in Easley and then back north through Sapp and Rock Bridge Memorial State Park.

Bunch said he is participating because of the challenge the race poses.

“They say it’s one of the toughest courses in the country,” Bunch said. “Not only is it hilly, but it’s also on Labor Day, which is generally miserably hot.”

To train for the race, Cook alternates heavy and light workout days. He runs an average of 15 miles on heavy workout days and about eight miles on light workout days.

Part of his training is observing the full meaning of the Sabbath.

“When the Bible says take a Sabbath day, it says take a rest,” he said, which is something Cook started doing after he cracked his sacrum — a lower backbone — in 2005. Now Cook rests on Sundays.

“It kept me from overtraining and gave my body a break,” he said.

Bunch, who signed up last week for the marathon, ran an average of 40 miles a week this summer and won’t change his routine before the marathon.

“The last marathon I did I spent 18 weeks preparing,” said Bunch, who, other than his usual running, hasn’t specifically practiced for this race.

Bunch said he’s looking forward to the small-town atmosphere he feels Heart of America provides.

“I think there’s a general sense of camaraderie among the runners and the spectators,” Bunch said.

Bunch recalled a moment from last year’s race, which he saw as a volunteer, when two cyclists suddenly appeared alongside the runners and started handing them Twizzlers.

Cook recognized the sense of accomplishment many people seek in running marathons, but said he runs for different reasons.

“I run because of the health benefit and the other reason is for God’s glory,” Cook said.

He feels that people glorify God with what they do to their bodies, so keeping his body healthy is one way of glorification.

“It’s not a replacement of my prayer life; it’s an extension of my prayer time,” Cook said, explaining that he prepares his sermons during his runs.

To keep in shape, Cook has been on the South Beach Diet for three years. His one indulgence is chocolate.

“I eat chocolate every day,” he said.

Bunch, a vegetarian, joked that his diet consists of eating cheese pizza instead of pepperoni.

“I eat whatever I want,” Bunch said.

Bunch is more focused on the technical aspects of his most recent marathon.

“This time I’m just going to go out and try to have fun,” he said..

Cook said he’s not worried about how he’ll place in this year’s Heart of America Marathon, but he would like to break that three-hour time barrier again.

Cook’s wife will be there to pick up her husband at the finish line.

Bunch, who gave up his car for the month, will have to leave his bike at the starting line to ride home.

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