On Friday, as his colleagues get into their cars and trucks and SUVs to drive home, Coahulla Creek High School engineering and technology teacher Ben Williams laces up his running shoes. Then he runs the 22.84 miles to his home in Cleveland, Tenn.
“I’ll bike back on Saturdays and get my car,” he said.
Williams, who coaches the school’s cross country team, runs to train for ultramarathons, races greater than the standard marathon length of 26.219 miles.
“When you have two little girls and a full-time job, it’s hard to get in the miles. I have to get creative,” he said. “I’m not necessarily competitive. But I’m not really training to win. As a coach, I know I’m not putting in the miles to do that. I’m just training to survive the races.”
To survive and to raise money for Ronald McDonald House Charities, which provides places to stay for families whose children are hospitalized. According to its website (www.rmhc.com/), the charity operates more than 300 Ronald McDonald Houses across the world. Those houses provide families with private rooms, meals and playrooms for children at little or no cost.
Williams said he didn’t know that three years ago.
“I just knew that it was a coin dropbox outside the drive-through at McDonald’s,” he said.
But in 2010, Williams’ wife Cassie gave birth to their first daughter, Tessa.
“When she was first delivered, Tessa was blue and purple. It was clear she wasn’t getting enough oxygen. We were immediately rushed to SkyRidge (Medical Center) in Cleveland, where they put her on oxygen,” he said. “They did tests and found that she had Group B Strep. She had to be placed on a round of antibiotics that required her to be in intensive care for 10 days. She was sent to T.C. Thompson in Chattanooga for that. That’s where my wife and I first got acquainted with the Ronald McDonald House.”
He said a case a manager at the hospital put the couple in touch with the Ronald McDonald House.
“They sought us out. They knew that we were from out of town and that we had a girl in T.C. Thompson,” he said. “Our stay was incredible. The accommodations were great. It’s like a nice hotel room. The staff was great. There are volunteers there all the time. They always had food ready for us.”
Williams said the stay changed his life.
“You don’t know what that experience is like until you go through it. But after 10 days, we were able to go back to a normal life, or as normal as life can get when you have a newborn,” he said. “There are families that are there four months, five months.”
Williams said even before they left, he and his wife agreed they wanted to do something to pay back the Ronald McDonald House.
“With a newborn girl, and a second one that was on the way not too soon after, we didn’t have a surplus of money to give. We didn’t have a surplus of time,” he said. “But I started thinking about what I could give back. Running is a passion of mine, and I’ve been doing it for a while, though not quite at the distances I’m doing now.”
Indeed, he said he’d run only one 50-mile race before Tessa was born.
“I barely made it through and vowed I’d never do it again,” he said.
But the more he thought about it, the more he wanted to do it. He would run ultramarathons and ask people to “sponsor” him by contributing to the Ronald McDonald House Charities of Greater Chattanooga.
“I pay my own race fees. All the money goes to the Ronald McDonald House,” he said.
He ran his first ultramarathon in October 2010, just five months after Tessa was born, the Rock/Creek StumpJump 50K on Signal Mountain in Tennessee.
Since then, he has run two 50-mile races, two 60-mile races and a second 50K race.
“Before a race, I will go by the (Ronald McDonald) House with a bandana and get the families there to sign it. I still can’t go there without just losing it. It was such a tumultuous time in my life,” he said.
He said wearing the bandanas gives him strength during the races.
“Regardless of how many miles I run or how many hours I run, it’s not as hardcore as what those parents have to go through,” he said.
Williams said that when he started he set a goal of raising $1,400, enough to run one Ronald McDonald House for one day. He has raised $2,100 so far.
He said his wife brings Tessa and her younger sister Zoe to see him run, though they generally only watch the start of the race and come back for the finish.
His next race is set for June, the 24-hour Black Mountain Monster in North Carolina.
“It’s a 5K course in the mountains and you just run as far as you can in 24 hours,” he said.
He’s looking for another race to run this fall.
“The last race of my fundraising series will be the Rouge-Orleans, a race from Baton Rouge to New Orleans in February 2014. That’s 126 miles,” he said.