Photo courtesy of OpenDoors
Slow and controlled, the breath becomes rhythmic and steady as the terrain stretches on along past rushing streams and towering trees, complete with birdsongs and various flora and fauna as elevation ebbs and flows. It’s a run less about mile time and more about the strict endurance and human emotion behind its existence.
Connor Mailander, 17, is running 100 miles through the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina to raise $100,000 for OpenDoors. Mailander’s connection to the families and students of Asheville, N.C. runs deep, calling him to combine a passion for running with community outreach. An experienced athlete in both cross-country and track for his high school team, Mailander is taking it to the next level with his upcoming ultra distance run.
Started in 2010, OpenDoors blossomed as a non-profit organization and a flourishing relief effort. Gennifer Langdon Ramming, executive director and co-founder, noticed the need for specialized attention for students in the classroom while volunteering at Dickson Elementary. Now, OpenDoors is helping support Asheville’s low income families through emergency assistance, including gas and grocery cards, furniture and bedding, summer camps, and education via the “To and Through” program to foster success through high school and college.
OpenDoors hopes to use the money Mailander raises to provide aid for students in need of tutors and daily meals, while furthering the resources of the program. BRO caught up with the runner to talk about his upcoming run set to take place on June 19-20.
How did you become involved in OpenDoors?
There are some kids who are in OpenDoors who go to my school, even one of my brother’s best friends. My mom is pretty good friends with the executive director and so from those relationships, I’ve gotten to know a little bit more about OpenDoors, what they do, and what their purpose is. The more I learned about them, I realized that’s something I’m passionate about, which is, education.
I have lived in Asheville for almost nine years, and so I’ve been able to enjoy Asheville and all of its surroundings and opportunities. But a lot of these families aren’t because they don’t have the resources, and OpenDoors really provides them with those opportunities with focusing on school. They send kids to college, they help give them scholarships, they provide opportunities for families and for working parents. They make sure that families are taken care of and that they are able to have a life with a lot of resources, and a lot of help, and a lot of love.
Why did you decide to do an ultra run to raise money?
I had a friend last year who also ran 100 miles, and he raised money for a charity called Partners and Health. We run a lot together and we went to school together so he said, “Hey, you should run a hundred miles this year.” I came home and I told my parents. They loved the sound of it and so then everybody kind of just started helping me with it.
Why did you choose Mills River, Pisgah Forest, and part of the Mountains-to-Sea Trail for your run?
I run on [Mills River] every day, and it’s a great trail. A lot of people use it. So it’s a good trail to use and runs right next to the parkway. Pisgah Forest is a good trail, just because it has everything. Part of it also is just tacking on miles. It’s a lot of distance so you have a lot of different places to run. The Mountains to Sea trail will be the tough thing. All that is pretty tough terrain so that’ll be pretty challenging.
How are you training for the run?
Usually I’ll do six miles on a Tuesday, eight miles on a Wednesday, and six miles on a Thursday. If I’m feeling good on Friday, which I usually am, I will run about three miles on Friday. Then usually Saturday I have a long run which varies. I give myself Sunday to just really relax and it’s kind of nice. I have homework and stuff so I just give myself a break on Sunday, and then Monday, I will do like a light run or bike or just go for a walk. Nothing too intense. But I kind of give myself two days of rest, depending on how hard Saturday is.
My goal is to do under 40 hours, and a lot of it’s going to be on the Mountains-to-Sea Trail. It’s a pretty tough trail in some parts and not too bad in others. I think under 40 hours is going to be achievable. On the first day, my goal is probably about 60 miles and then the second day is finishing.
What is the greatest challenge you expect to face in your outdoor run?
I would say probably one of the greatest challenges of all is mental tiredness. My body is going to be in so much pain, but I would say it’s just about staying focused. After a while it’s pretty easy to just start thinking, “Oh, I want to go eat a hamburger” or something like that, and you don’t get that opportunity. You just have to keep on going through with one foot after another. I ran a 50 miler in December and I spent 12 hours on that run. I had to keep my mind engaged, “one step after another, right after this there is a flat section, then a downhill section, now let’s run just a few more yards than we could.” It’s not about going super fast, it’s just about staying engaged. If you stay engaged and you’re able to just keep moving, even though you’re in a lot of pain, even if you’re walking or crawling, you’re still moving forward and I think that’s the big, big thing, that you got to keep moving.
It is a challenging time to raise money just because people aren’t working. It’s hard to give money when you don’t have any to give. And so, hopefully at that point there’s a little bit more traction and people will want to donate. The response so far has been great and while I’m running, I hope that people come out and support and, of course, socially distance. It’s great when people are able to rally around something that’s a good cause.
How would you encourage others to use the outdoors as a catalyst to take action in their communities?
I think, especially in Western North Carolina, we have such easy access to nature. It’s just a fantastic resource to build community and to educate people. I know that when I was in elementary school, going out for hikes in the Arboretum, walking around, and being able to see all this biodiversity. And of course, at such a young age, you don’t really understand what you’re seeing but I think now as I get older and as I spend more and more time outside, I get to really see beauty. Last weekend when I went running, I was changing elevation quite a lot and you can just see how the plant types change around you the higher up or lower down you go. I think you can use that for education purposes. Asheville has so much biodiversity, you can teach so much about every single living organism here. But you can also use it to build community. I know that there are groups in Asheville that go for runs on weeknights and they just go run around the city or biking groups where you just go like bike down the trails because we have so many amazing trails here. I think being able to have such easy access to nature we are able to build stronger communities by getting outside and kind of dropping all the technology and dropping into what’s happening around us and just appreciate where we are and who we are with.
If you would like to donate to Connor’s run for OpenDoors, visit the link below: https://charity.gofundme.com/o/en/campaign/connors-100-miles