Commentary

Saunders: Barefoot Raleigh runner races for kids who have no shoes

bsaunders@newsobserver.comJune 1, 2014 

Neither rain nor sleet nor automobile drivers who don’t pay attention and run over him when making a right turn will keep Eddie Vega from his appointed rounds – which entail running around the country, barefoot.

Vega, of Raleigh, runs marathons – he’s known as the Barefoot Bandito – and when I spoke to him Friday he was on a bus in Boston, bound for the airport so he could make it to the marathon in Long Beach, Calif., on Saturday. He was scheduled to run in another marathon Sunday in Casper, Wyo.

The 54-year-old Vega runs barefoot, he said, to enter the Guinness Book of World Records by running 50 marathons barefoot in 50 states in one year. Before this past weekend, he had run in 35 and has five scheduled for this week.

For the poor kids

Don’t write Vega off as some self-aggrandizing egotist, though. He’s also running to, as he said, “focus attention on poor kids who don’t have shoes.” His goal, he said, is to raise enough money in each marathon for 300 pairs of shoes. Each dollar he raises buys one pair of shoes, according to the Soles for Souls charity website.

Kelly Modena, fundraising specialist for Soles for Souls, an international nonprofit group that provides shoes for poor kids around the world, called Vega an ambassador for the organization. “We’ve worked with Eddie for over a year,” Modena said. “The word ‘supportive’ doesn’t do justice to him.”

Running marathons barefoot, she said, “is a great conversation-starter. He runs with these cards, and when people say, ‘You’re so crazy. Why are you running barefoot?’ he hands out the cards telling people why he’s doing it. He spends his own dime to help us and has traveled with us to the Philippines to distribute shoes” after a recent hurricane.

‘He’s so great’

Vega is a native of the Philippines and has lived in Raleigh 28 years.

Kelly Hoskins, travel manager for the charity organization, was more succinct in describing Vega. “He’s so great,” she said.

Was Vega, who works as an IT specialist, a jock in high school? I asked him. “I was an athlete,” he said, “but I was always a bench warmer. I’m just an average person trying to do a special thing.”

So, how does a bench warmer become a marathoner with one foot in the record book?

“I started six years ago,” he said. “I volunteered to run for a charity, and after I worked so hard” to get in shape for it, “I said, ‘Why quit?’ 

Listen up, all of you couch potatoes who think running to the refrigerator during the commercial break before “Final Jeopardy” is revealed on TV is exercise a’plenty: He started when he was 48. Now, don’t you feel slothful?

Yeah, so do I.

Vega was struck by a car driven by a woman making a right turn while running a marathon in Kalamazoo, Mich., in May, but wasn’t hurt badly. On second thought, yes, he was. He was hurt that he didn’t get to finish the race.

I asked him what’s the worst thing he’s stepped in on his shoeless jaunts. Don’t look at me like that: You know you wanted to know, too.

The answer was what you’d expect.

Vega said he doesn’t have any special treatment for his feet. He ices them down after a race, he said, cleans them with soap and water and rubs a topical antibiotic cream on them to prevent infections.

Vega’s best time as a marathoner is 4 hours, 34 minutes – not record-setting, but Vega is already a winner before he crosses the finish line. So are the thousands of children who have shoes because of his efforts.

You and I don’t have to run marathons to help put shoes on the feet of poor kids. We can just run into the other room, grab a checkbook or credit card and donate to www.gofundme.com/barefootbandito.

One more thing: Curb your dog, so the only thing Vega will have to watch out for is inattentive motorists.

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or bsaunders@newsobserver.com

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