Well Being: Run, Nik, run (in Antarctica!)

Nik Toocheck of Chester County:"I hope I get to meet a penguin."
Nik Toocheck of Chester County:"I hope I get to meet a penguin."

Marathoner, 9, aims to do the 26.2 on every continent by age 12, and help others every mile.

Posted: February 26, 2013

When Tara Toocheck was pregnant with her son, Nik, she knew he would be active and energetic. Unlike his older sister, Thea, who was quiet and serene, Nik seemed to regard his mother's womb as a confining rumpus room.

Her expectations were correct. Nik, now 9, has proven to be the very definition of hyperkinetic. Full of boyish glee, he plays football, baseball, ice hockey, and squash. He has also become a prodigious runner.

In kindergarten, at age 6, he ran his first 5K. When his father, Dan, joined the Air Force Reserve and began training for the fitness test, Nik kept pace with him. In 2010, Nik ran the Downingtown Turkey Trot 5K. He finished fourth in his age category, just missing the chance to win a holiday pie. The following year, he finished first among runners under 12. His trophy: an apple pie.

In three years, Nik has participated in more than 100 races, ranging from a quarter mile to a marathon - he ran his first in November in Lewes, Del., covering the 26.2 miles in 5 hours, 56 minutes.

"I felt tired, but very happy," Nik says.

Monday, assuming all goes according to plan, Nik will run his second marathon - in Antarctica. It's called the White Continent Marathon, and Nik will be the youngest participant, and probably the youngest to attempt a marathon in Antarctica, ever. "I can't wait," he says. "I hope I get to meet a penguin."

The Antarctic marathon is actually part of a larger plan - to run a marathon on every continent, a feat he hopes to accomplish by age 12, which would again likely make him the youngest ever to notch such an achievement.

"He's fearless," says Tara. "He has no reservation about doing physical things."

In Antarctica, Nik will be accompanied by his father, 47, an eye doctor who has been running for two decades and has completed 11 marathons, including New York and Philadelphia.

Nik's running achievements, while impressive, are only part of the story, and in his eyes, the least important. The other day, when I spoke to him by the glowing fireplace in his home, a cozy 1860 farmhouse in Pocopson Township near Longwood Gardens, he was wearing a bright yellow T-shirt that proclaimed "Running the World for Children," a campaign he conceived.

By running a marathon on seven continents, Nik estimates he'll take a million steps, and his aim is to raise a dollar for each step, or $1 million. That money will go directly to a charity started by his grandfather, Dick Sanford, 69, a retired technology company executive, who launched Operation Warm in 1998.

Sanford began the charity after seeing children in Kennett Square, the sons and daughters of migrant workers, shivering in winter cold without sufficient clothing. He was appalled. He immediately went to a store in town and cleaned out their stock of winter coats, 58 in all, which were distributed by a local agency that helps Hispanics. Sanford got the Rotary Club involved, filed for nonprofit status, and applied his entrepreneurial zeal to making the movement grow. Operation Warm has spread to 37 states, Sanford says, and last March gave out its millionth coat.

Nik has been behind it all the way, donating money from his piggy bank and joyously handing out coats to needy children. Through his running, he has already raised about $3,000 for the charity.

"Operation Warm is great because every kid should be able to have their very own warm coat," Nik says. "I get to do something I love so much and help children in need at the same time. It's so awesome!"

His parents, obviously, are proud. "I'm in awe of his passion and dedication," Tara says, "to see a little person make a difference in other people's lives and the world."

That admiration is shared by his grandfather.

"While I'm happy that he's running marathons and winning races, the real story to me is: This is his idea; he totally understands what we're doing," Sanford says. "How many kids his age would even think about helping others? He's delivering that message to the kids around him and to humankind at large. That's what's so fabulous."

To Nik, both parts of his endeavor, the running and helping others, are "fun." That's his operative word. On training runs with his father in nearby Pocopson Park, he rarely runs in a straight line. He strays from the path, kicking rocks and grass, jumping in streams, climbing snow mounds in winter. He chases rabbits, tries to snare falling leaves and catch snowflakes on his tongue. (For the record, Nik also excels in the shot put, high jump, and triathlon, and last year won the national racewalking championship for 9- and 10-year-olds.)

Running long distances regularly at such a young age can sometimes be too physically stressful and cause orthopedic and developmental problems. Nik's parents did due diligence, having him checked out by a pediatric cardiologist and a sports medicine doctor. Both gave Nik the green light.

"He's having fun," Tara says. "When it's no longer fun, he won't do it anymore. There's no pressure from us."

When I asked Nik if he thought he had any special gift as a runner, he said: "I think it's because I'm really energetic, and it's so much fun."

For information or to make a donation to Operation Warm, visit www.nikrunstheworld.com.

"Well Being" appears every other week, alternating with Sandy Bauers' "GreenSpace" column. Contact Art Carey at art.carey@gmail.com. Read his recent columns at www.philly.com/wellbeing.

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