Fund run: Individual act turns into community event

It took a village to raise the funds.

Distance runner James Steller planned to circumnavigate Whidbey Island on foot over Labor Day weekend, a three-day, 160-mile trip, to raise money for the Community Foundation for Coupeville Public Schools.

When his body broke down Saturday night and he was unable to continue the endeavor, Steller’s friends and neighbors stepped in to complete the task.

Steller and his volunteer army raised $15,000 for the foundation, which supports Coupeville school children in need, teachers through grants that fund innovative and creative curriculum and senior scholarships.

The amount raised is “enough to fund our grant programs for teachers for an entire year, which is really a tremendous difference maker for our foundation and our schools,” Steller said.

Steller’s act turned into a Central Whidbey event.

“James started the race for the community, the community finished the race for James,” foundation board member Rick Widdison said.

Steller, a veteran of many long-distance events, ran the first two legs of the course, but the distance and heat took its toll and he was hospitalized with rhabdomylolsis, a condition in which damaged skeletal muscle breaks down rapidly and jeopardizes kidney function.

“I was on IV after IV for two days,” Steller said.

Steller was joined on his adventure by his best friend, Andy Wyman. The pair left Coupeville’s Mickey Clark Field at 7:30 a.m. Friday, cheered on by a crowd of well-wishers, and ran 53 miles to Langley in 10 hours, including covering the first marathon (26.2 miles) in a brisk four hours.

“By the end (Friday), my digestive system had been effectively shut down,” Steller said. He was unable to hold down any food or liquid.

Friend Ryan Kudlacek joined them for the 36-mile run back to Coupeville Saturday.

Steller said he was able to eat a light breakfast, but it came up during the run. For safety sake, they decided to “relay” from Greenbank and the trio leapfrogged the second half of the leg back to Coupeville.

At this point they received much-needed supplies from Christy Messner and Aimee Bishop, and Tina Smith ran with Steller to lend support.

A reception was held at Ciao, a Coupeville restaurant, Saturday evening, but Steller was unable to keep down the “celebratory pizza and drink.”

That prompted a trip to the hospital. He was hoping an IV would “kick start” his digestive system so he could run on Sunday. That quick trip to the hospital lasted two days.

“So here is the cool part — my closest friends and the community then stepped in to help,” Steller said. “My wife Holley and her best friend, Amber Wyman, quickly organized the following day’s 62 miles into a stage race split among a series of runners.”

As they called for volunteer runners, all accepted “without hesitation,” Steller said.

Grant Steller, James’ middle-school aged son, “got up on his last weekend of the summer,” James Steller said, and took over for his father and ran the first leg Sunday with Andy Wyman.

Messner, Bishop, Amber Wyman, Korianne Emerson, Kudlacek, Justin Munoz, Barbi Ford, Dan Peek, Erin Peek and Caleb Peek followed.

The team finished the loop around North Whidbey in 10 hours, 30 minutes, reaching the finish party at the Penn Cove Brewery at 5:45 p.m.

From a hospital bed, James Steller followed the race on his phone via Facebook.

“It was really emotional to see something that started out as such an individual journey turn out to be something so much more meaningful to our community,” he said.

Key support for the event came from Chic Merwine, Diane Eelkema, Nancy Bailey, Kathy Harada, Karen Koschak and Kris Barnes, he said.

He said he also wanted to thank all of his business sponsors.

“Mostly, I want to thank the teachers for making a difference in our children’s lives.”

Steller is expected to make a full recovery.

“Doc said I can ease back into running next week,” Steller said.

“I will probably take two.”

James Steller, left, and fellow runner Andy Wyman are joined by well-wishers Christy Messner, Aimee Bishop, Paul Messner, Barbi Ford and Marilyn Messner on the first day of the run. (Submitted photo)

James Steller, left, and fellow runner Andy Wyman are joined by well-wishers Christy Messner, Aimee Bishop, Paul Messner, Barbi Ford and Marilyn Messner on the first day of the run. (Submitted photo)