On Saturday, April 30, at 7 a.m. at the end of the Oceanside Pier in San Diego County, Robert “Bob” Eilek began the first step of a 3,000-mile journey that will fulfill an ambition to run coast-to-coast across the United States. Friends and family cheered and supporters shouted a countdown to the youthful septuagenarian as he started his four-and-a-half-month cross-country trek.
Long before Forest Gump would make his Academy Award-winning fictional crossings of America back in the ‘90s, Bob Eilek had a dream to run across the country to bring awareness to an issue dear to his heart: supporting Native American young people in the U.S.
Eilek, a Native American with Santee Sioux ancestry, taught middle school U.S. history for 40 years – in fact, his service as a teacher pre-dates both the district and the city where the school he retired from now stands (Temecula Valley Unified School District, founded along with the city of Temecula in 1989).
Now educators and former students alike are sharing their stories and memories of their “favorite teacher” as they follow his adventure on Facebook.
“Mr. Eilek was a great teacher who showed compassion to thousands of students in his class without favor or judgment,” said Julian Forrest. Forrest was Eilek’s student in 2011.
Eilek’s Native American roots extend beyond family and tribe. In childhood, he was a big fan of the running legend Billy Mills, a virtual unknown who came from behind in the 10,000 meter race to take the gold in the 1964 Olympics. The feat would make Mills the most celebrated Native American athlete since Jim Thorpe. Eilek often draws inspiration from Mills’ awe-inspiring final lap:
“Billy Mills is truly a champion and a legitimate American hero. I’ve watched his victory in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics on many occasions and his electrifying final lap in the 10,000-meter run brings tears to my eyes every time.”
Eilek’s passion for the sport of running has been lifelong, and putting it together with his passion to help Native American youth just seemed right.
He is raising funds as he runs for Running Strong for American Indian Youth, a nonprofit started by Billy Mills himself back in 1986. Mills, who grew up in poverty on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, was following in the tradition of the Lakota people to give back to those who contributed to your success. Running Strong is devoted to strengthening Native communities and peoples. Eilek’s goal is to raise $25,000 – you can help by donating to his Go Fund Me page.
Eilek is no stranger to injury and understands the importance of listening to his body in the completion of his goal. His shattered toe during a training run required surgery and set back his start date one year. “It was a raised sidewalk, and I packed my toe…it was a difficult setback.” After the operation and physical therapy, he was back to training for the big trek.
Eilek’s route will take him and his vehicle support team through the southern California desert into Arizona, New Mexico, and beyond. His plan is to complete approximately 30-35 miles per day, breaking up the run into three to four chunks per day to allow for nutrition, hydration, and recovery. He plans to arrive in New York City sometime in mid-August, where representatives of Running Strong for American Indian Youth will greet him and celebrate his achievement.