This Thanksgiving break, Jeremy Thode, athletic director for Center Moriches schools and former Smithtown school board president, is walking — and sometimes running — to all 59 Suffolk County Section XI high schools.
It is a roughly 300-mile trip that he started at 5 a.m. Sunday and hopes to finish in six 12-hour days, fueled by peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and energy gel. His goal is to bring attention to children’s mental health and well-being, issues he and colleagues wrestled with long before the pandemic made them even more acute.
"We were seeing increases in anxiety, in depression," in students, he said, along with — not coincidentally, he believed — a drop in school sports participation. He and other Center Moriches educators have worked this year to increase participation in sports, clubs and in-school counseling with mental health professionals, anything to reach students and "reel them back to normalcy."
Thode got the idea this fall watching Mark Wahlberg walk across America in the movie "Joe Bell." His family learned a couple days later when he made a dinner table announcement.
They did not immediately love it. His 14-year-old daughter, Olivia, wondered aloud how his 50-year-old, ex-football linebacker’s joints would hold up. Better than you might think, was the answer.
"I put in intense training," he said. "I’ve done up to 35 miles a day. I’ve done 20 to 30 miles a day for several days in a row." Sometimes, he said, he woke at 3 a.m. to put his miles in before the school day; sometimes he added some by doing laps at the Center Moriches High School track before afternoon games.
Thode chronicled his prep on social media and on a website, jonahsmission.com. He acquired four pairs of Hoka running shoes from Sayville Running Company and wears them in rotation. He started weekly visits to a Nesconset chiropractor, Daniel Holland, who said that the rigors of his patient’s training regimen "kind of shocked his body" but initial tightness in the "spine, thighs, ankles, feet" had subsided. "Surprisingly, his body’s doing great," Holland said
The itinerary, sketched out with the help of Google Maps, was to meet friends and supporters at the start Sunday at Center Moriches High School and head more or less west, hitting Eastport-South Manor, William Floyd, Bellport, Patchogue-Medford, Bayport-Blue Point and Sayville before jogging north to Connetquot, Central Islip and perhaps Hauppauge.
Many of Western Suffolk’s high schools are only a few miles apart. Out East, later this week, the going will be tougher. As Long Islanders tuck into Thanksgiving Day dinner, they may look outside and spot Thode, in his backpack and reflective vest, burning the longest sections of his journey, 11.5 miles from Shoreham Wading River to Riverhead and another 10.5 miles from Riverhead to Mattituck.
Most nights he’ll be sleeping in hotels and he expects much of the mileage will be done alone, though his boss, Center Moriches superintendent Ronald Masera, plans to join him for the last leg.
"Jeremy is on the front lines with this," Masera said. "He’s doing this basically to send a message to the student athletes, to all the kids in Suffolk County, that there are people who care and support them."