Feature article: Runner with a cause
On her way toward completion of a nine-month journey across the United States, Jasmine “Jazzy” Jordan inspires legions of drivers, raises money to benefit philanthropic medical organization devoted to the industry
In early March, 17-year-old Jasmine “Jazzy” Jordan had only just made Middle Tennessee. She needed to average 40 miles a day for the remainder of her run — on foot, mind you, no diesel here — from Los Angeles to get to New York City by the date she’d originally chosen to finish, April 17, the anniversary of the reason she happened to be at the Tanbark Campground in rural Dickson, Tenn., where I first met her. She was averaging 15 miles a day, she said. “I’ll keep my steady pace right now and slowly increase it, then the last three weeks will pick it up and really push myself a lot.”
By Sunday, March 28, she was in Nashville, Tenn., with the family of Sheila Grothe, who passed away on April 17, 2009, after a nearly two-year battle with cancer. Randy, Britney and Derrick Grothe ran with Jazzy for part of her 7.5 miles that day. Running with her for the entirety was 54-year-old Doug Jones, owner of Nashville’s Spec Records and coproducer of the Truckers Tracks series of CDs (see “Making Trucking Tracks,” p. 38). Jones, who is blind, and Jordan ran tethered to one another by no more than a shoestring.
It was a bright moment in Jordan’s journey to honor Grothe’s life and highlight the health-care and insurance needs of the nation’s truck drivers. Her beneficiary of choice is the St. Christopher Truckers Development and Relief Fund (truckersfund.com), a nonprofit launched in late 2007 to provide financial and other assistance to drivers without insurance and in need of medical help. Jordan’s father, Lee, says she identified the fund as beneficiary “almost immediately” upon deciding to embark on the journey: “Jazzy grew up in a trucking family and is aware of the lack of health insurance that goes along with the trucking business. St. Christopher does a lot of wonderful things with medical research and sleep apnea testing and more.” Having only one part-time employee, Lee says, “Ninety-five percent of the money that goes to the fund goes to helping drivers.
Since Jordan began her run Sept. 1, 2009, says St. Christopher executive director Donna Kennedy, “the number of applications that we’ve gotten for help has gone up dramatically.”
Fund donations, too, have most definitely been affected by Jordan’s effort, says Kennedy, though the cumulative numbers are “hard to quantify, as per her father’s request we’ve not added up what’s been donated on her behalf.” Promotions like the one Jordan posted on her Facebook fan page suggesting donations of $17 in honor of her 17th birthday, Dec. 17, have, most definitely, spurred Jordan’s followers on. “We got a lot of those,” Kennedy says.
But with the surge in applications for assistance combined with the down economy, which has limited charitable and philanthropic giving these past two years, Kennedy says, it’s been hard to keep up. “We try to help everyone,” she says. “With the turning economy, we really had a decrease in the donations coming in. We try to help everyone we can in a smaller way today. We struggle with it every week,” even with such a high-profile face out on the road for the cause.
By the time you read this, Jordan may well have become the youngest-ever woman to run across the United States, says Paul Staso, founder and president of the P.A.C.E. Fitness Foundation (www.pacetrek.com) and a cross-country runner himself. “By what I understand, Jazzy is the youngest female to ever attempt a run across America, and if she completes it she should become the youngest female to do so.”
Of the 229 people “throughout history that have run/walked across the United States,” Staso adds, “only 13” have been women. “Some have gone coast to coast. Some have gone from one major city to another major city, such as Los Angeles to New York.”
On her route from just east of Los Angeles (chosen due to 2009 wildfires that left L.A. proper in a cloud of smoke) to Times Square in New York City, Jordan has, increasingly, transformed towns she passes through, from Texarkana, Ark., to Memphis and Knoxville, Tenn., to veritable events. In West Memphis, Ark., Jordan says, she got “just one of the best welcomings I’ve had. There were two ladder trucks with the American flag hanging from them. There was a big line of kids, because the high school was right there where I passed. There were teachers who joined in to run with me, and students.” The mayor cancelled previously laid plans to be there, and when he saw that Jordan was walking with a slight limp because of ankle problems, he “called the president of the hospital, and the city of West Memphis took care of all the medical bills and everything,” says Lee Jordan.
Truckers like Fikes Truck Line-leased flatbedder Scott Grenerth, who rode his Schwinn bicycle with Jordan the day I ran with her through Donelson and Hermitage in Metro Nashville, have followed her story from the get-go. Her Facebook fan page, as of mid-April, boasted nearly 4,000 fans, many of them among the nation’s truck drivers and owner-operators. “The truckers have just been incredible — donating, buying t-shirts,” says Lee, who when runners haven’t been around to join Jazzy on her haul has at least been well-appreciated company in the pilot Ford F250 at her back. “Truckers have on many occasions randomly dropped by, meeting Jazzy and giving us supplies.”
The financial toll of Jordan’s run isn’t inconsiderable. Luckily, she drew sponsorships from footwear and apparel maker Saucony for her running shoes — “Jazzy’s rotating between the No. 9 and No. 10 pair of running shoes now,” her father said March 30 — and clothing and from trucking industry companies like Sta-Rat for about $300 a month in fuel, Cat Scales (with a cash donation) and the makers of the Turbo 3000D. Sleep Dog Mattresses donated the mattresses in the Aljo travel trailer in which Jordan and her father make base camps at RV parks and campgrounds in 50-mile increments up and down the route.
Lee and his wife, Paulette, own and partly operate a trucking and pilot car fleet, respectively, under the Jordan Enterprises moniker. “The pilot car company has been our biggest sponsorship, obviously with the vehicle, taking it out of the fleet and keeping it with Jazz the whole time. When we’ve run low on funds, the pilot cars have been able to step up.”
Paulette started the pilot car side of the business three years ago. “The pilot cars have been supporting Jazzy’s run, as well as supporting everything at home,” she says. Lee’s three-truck fleet was running oversize windmill-blade loads up until just beyond the beginning of the run, at which point Paulette says Lee “turned his trucks back in” as freight dried up and his absence left the trucking side of the business in an uncertain position. “When you’re not there to manage everything,” Lee says, “it’s hard to really rely on anybody.”
Sheila Grothe was a fellow driver in the pilot car business, which specializes in oversize loads. “Sheila and I were friends since grade school,” Paulette says. “We lost touch, but I met up with her again, and she saw I was driving pilot car.” The business was just Paulette for a time, she says, after which she “had to go up to two cars for a contract, then up to four.”
Grothe came to driving pilot car after a stint with UPS and subsequent co-ownership of a bar in Dalton, Minn., the town the Jordans call home. After her business partner “drove that business into the ground, in essence,” Paulette says, “Sheila came to drive pilot car for me.”
Their friendship was immediately rekindled. “Sheila was a very big-hearted woman,” Paulette says, “fun to be around. All the kids, if you were a good kid or a bad kid, you went to Sheila with your problems. People going down the bad path in life, Sheila would tell them, ‘You come to my house.’ It was funny, she and Jazzy would joke back and forth a lot, but she always knew Jazzy was an angel, and she told her that all the time.”
Sheila had a very bad cough, Paulette says. On certain overnight stays on pilot car runs the two women shared space in the travel trailer Lee and Jasmine Jordan are utilizing for the cross-country run today, stationed near the end of one leg. “And she snored,” Paulette says. “She could’ve snored a log cabin every night.” As it turns out, those may both have been symptoms of a bigger problem, a grapefruit-size tumor in one of her lungs, which by December 2008 had been discovered and had spread to her brain.
“I heard the news and I thought, ‘It’s going to be Christmas, and she’s going to be gone,’” Paulette says. But she hung on for another year, and her tumors were responding to radiation treatment. “Her primary cancer was diminishing, but they never radiated the cancer in her leg,” Paulette says, which despite growing evidence in the form of increasing discomfort — even to the point that the 38-year-old Sheila was using a walker to get around — doctors missed until it was far too late.
Two days before she died, says Jasmine, “I saw her … in the nursing home. Her whole family was there. It was so hard to see her like that — all they could do there was give her pain medication.”
Paulette had cautioned her daughter about visiting Grothe. “I said, ‘Jazzy, you probably don’t want to see Sheila.’ I said, ‘She does not look like Sheila.’ I sat to the left of Sheila’s bed there. She had gorgeous eyes. And she could hear you, because she responded with those beautiful eyes.
“I said, ‘It’s OK to tell Sheila how you feel.’”
Paulette says she had to “catch” Jasmine to keep her from collapsing in the parking lot after the experience.
The situation for the Grothe family was made worse by an omission of convenience that turned out to be a costly one. “[Sheila’s husband] Randy worked at an excavating company and gravel pit,” Paulette says. “His insurance, because he’d have included everybody in the family in the normal course of things, was more expensive to cover the whole family rather than just the kids. Sheila insisted he have it for him and the kids. She had insurance at UPS and lost that when she got hurt and before she came to drive with me. The American family tries to cut costs, and in the end it really sucks. Her having medical assistance through the state, you still don’t get the care that someone with Blue Cross does, because the hospital can’t charge what they want to the state.”
Two days after her visit to Sheila Grothe in the nursing home, Jasmine Jordan says, “I got the phone call … saying she had passed away.” Jordan was a solid “two hours away from the house at the time,” she says, “and I came home, and all I could do was cry. I couldn’t think. I went out to run, because that’s where I can let everything all out.” On that late-evening run, around midnight or one o’clock in the morning, “when I was out there,” she says, “I remembered something my dad once told me: ‘If you want to make a statement about something, just run across the country.’ And when I got back home, I brought it up.”
Says Lee, “I’ve always encouraged [Jazzy and her brothers, Chris, Rick and Levi] that if you’ve got a dream or goal you’ve gotta be the best that you can be with it. Nobody remembers second place. I’ve always been a pretty competitive person, too, but I’ve learned some valuable lessons about not making any wild suggestions, just keep your mouth shut in the future.”
Jokes aside, Lee recognized the value inherent in what his daughter was proposing. Jazzy had been training for the last several years in particular summer camps and off and on with an Olympic running coach with the goal of making the U.S. Olympic team as a distance runner. And that value didn’t have all to do with her ambition. “I’ve been with Jazzy every mile, every day we’ve been out here,” he says. “For a father to spend that kind of time with a 17-year-old daughter — who in most cases wants nothing less than to hang out with her dad — it’s time I couldn’t buy as a father. I just treasure every day.”
Taking the majority of a week off to visit the Mid-America Trucking Show in Louisville, north of father and daughter’s route through Nashville, where they’d set up base camp at the time, the young runner was treated “like a rock star,” says her father, by the long-haulers and others at the show.
“Virtually everybody who came to our booth was like, ‘Where’s Jazzy?’” says the St. Christopher fund’s Donna Kennedy.
Jazzy herself resumed her running a little under the weather the following Sunday, with Doug Jones and the Grothe family, and Monday, when she only ran a few miles. “There were a lot of really nice people,” she says, “a lot of hugs, a lot of kisses on the cheek — I think I got sick from that.”
Overall, it was a positive experience, further confirmation in her mind of the generous, hopeful nature of the nation’s truck drivers.
“The truck show was just crazy,” she says. “Every time I walked out of the camper people were there, or they were asking where I was. And it was fun. I got told a lot of stories.” One hauler wrote checks for $300 and $200, respectively, to go to the St. Christopher fund and to the Jordans to recoup fuel and other on-road expenses, straight from his own new-truck savings, she adds. “I met some people who were the first ones to be helped by the St. Christopher fund. I finally got to meet [fund cofounder] Dr. John McElligott. I was looking forward to that, because he’s helped me along the way with chiropractors and usually gets it donated to us. My back always goes out from the slant of the road, running. Sometimes it’s once a week, others it’s a month at a time.”
In the second month of her run, Jordan was sidelined for nearly a month by a stress fracture.
“Age and experience come into play in being able to log more miles daily on a journey run of this magnitude,” says Paul Staso of the risks inherent in someone as young as Jordan attempting it. “But even 24-year-old Elena Helmerick ran across America by averaging 28 miles per day, finishing in 113 days. Twenty-four-year-old Katie Visco (paveyourlane.com) ran across America last year, averaging only 11 miles per day, the journey requiring 275 days.”
Jordan, when I talked to Staso, was closing in on her scheduled finish date and still west of Knoxville, Tenn., home of the St. Christopher fund. It had been 225 days since she left Los Angeles. Her father, Lee, guessed they might make New York City by late May or early this month. He sounded as determined as his daughter. “She will make New York City,” he said. “There’s no two ways about it.”
More recently, Lee suggested June 15 for an arrival date in Times Square.
Staso underscores the potential repercussions for the young runner, which make her and her family’s sacrifices toward her accomplishment and for the benefit of the nation’s truck drivers all the more compelling. “Sometimes, when young people take on such huge undertakings as running across the United States,” Staso says, “there is a price to pay physically. Katie Visco … incurred an iliotibial band injury in her final weeks of that journey. She had to walk the final three weeks to the finish line at the ocean [in San Diego]. According to her blog, she still cannot run due to the pain of the iliotibial band injury — four months later!
“Hopefully it will not be an ongoing issue for her as she gets older.”
But Staso, joined by so many others, wishes Jazzy success in her journey.
On April 17, Jordan ran 21.3 miles east of Knoxville, Tenn. As she posted on her Facebook fan page, she “had a runner come out in the afternoon and about halfway through my run another car pulled over and a young man got out to run with me. Turns out they drove all the way from Chattanooga TN to meet me :)”
Run, Jazzy, run.
Team owner-operators debut song for Jazzy
In advance of the Mid-America Trucking Show this year, owner-operators James and Jan McCarter were asked by Lee Jordan to write a song for his daughter. McCarter and the Nashville Straight-Up Sound Studio crew, producers of the Truckers Tracks series of CDs, recorded and produced the song, “Thank You, Jazzy,” with a “We Are the World”-type choral treatment in just a few weeks’ time. It debuted live at the Mid-America Trucking Show at Rockwood Products’ booth. “[Jan] sang it live there and put me into tears both times,” Jasmine Jordan says.
You can download the tune, “Thank You, Jazzy,” via the McCarters’ website, www.thekeystruckers.com; at the Run With Jazzy site, www.runwithjazzy.com; or via iTunes. All proceeds go to benefit the St. Christopher Truckers Development and Relief Fund, as do $2 of every sale of both Jan McCarter’s disc and Truckers Tracks Vol. 3 (see p. 38 for more).