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Trek for Jessica draws scant dollars, little interest, but runner plods on

Tom Bassano is running nearly 60 miles a day as he crosses the country to raise cash for the Jessica Lunsford Foundation. Donations and attention have been sparse, but he plods on.

WILL VRAGOVIC | Times

Tom Bassano is running nearly 60 miles a day as he crosses the country to raise cash for the Jessica Lunsford Foundation. Donations and attention have been sparse, but he plods on.

From his end of the cell phone connection — an empty highway lined with barbed wire and mesquite fence posts near the tiny central Texas town of Sisterdale — Tom Bassano's mood sounded foul.

He had passed over mountains and dust-blown deserts since setting off from San Diego on an across-the-nation run March 3.

He has crammed down Three Musketeers bars and 99-cent McDonald's double cheeseburgers to keep from losing more weight than he already has — 18 pounds — while running nearly 60 miles a day on a tight budget.

Cramping muscles and a persistent cough keep him from sleeping more than a few hours a night.

His doctor told him before he got started that a stress fracture of his hip had not yet healed, and — after a 74-mile day in Arizona's Yuma Desert — his ankles were so swollen he called a nutritional adviser back in Florida to ask her, he said, "How many ibuprofens can I take before I die?''

But all this pain and fatigue is not what has made Bassano, as he puts it, "a little edgy.''

It's that so few people are paying attention to his run or contributing to the cause it is supposed to benefit, the Jessica Lunsford Foundation.

A former Dunedin High track star and 4:05 miler, Bassano, 37, trained for this with regular 20- and 40-mile runs.

"He would actually run from (his home) in Palm Harbor to my house in Spring Hill,'' said his mother, Flo Bassano, 58. "He would just show up on my doorstep. I was amazed.''

He persuaded his skeptical wife, Kimberley, to follow him in a minivan with their three homeschooled children. To pay for the trip, Bassano scraped together $5,000 from such sources as his tax refund and vacation pay from his job as a propane technician.

And, so far, he has received just about that much in donations.

"I guess I would have been better off just donating the $5,000,'' he said. "Sometimes I feel like I'm just out here wasting my time.''

Maybe the public apathy is because of Mark Lunsford's controversial and recently abandoned threat to sue the Citrus County Sheriff's Office, he said. Or maybe it's something worse.

At his lowest points — after a St. Petersburg Times reporter decided not to write about his run, after he narrowly lost out on a $10,000 MySpace.com Impact Award, after a clerk refused to let him use a convenience store's restroom that he had been counting on for miles — he said, "I get to feeling disgusted with the entire human race.''

According to his mother, Bassano is taking it hard because he is so sincere. He has two young daughters — Nicole, 12, and Paige, 9 — near the age of Jessica Luns­ford, the 9-year-old Homosassa girl abducted and murdered in 2005. Bassano thinks he got a glimmer of what Mark Lunsford must have felt when his autistic son, Tavi, 7, disappeared for several minutes on a trip to Honeymoon Island.

"I remember the fright that came over all of us,'' Flo Bassano said. "But my son, he was in tears.''

I picked up on Tom Bassano's sincerity after talking to him over the telephone for a few minutes last week. I hope he does raise more money, even though I have mixed feelings about Mark Lunsford and his charity.

I also think that even if Bassano doesn't raise another dollar, he's doing something great.

He's showing his family that an off-the-Interstate trip across the United States can still be an adventure. He's letting them witness a run that Frank Giannino, the cross-U.S. running record holder, said is one of the most remarkable such attempts ever.

"I think he's doing more than anyone has done under his circumstances and a shoestring budget, just on determination and raw talent,'' said Giannino, 55, who averaged 66.9 miles per day on his 1980 run.

"I'm very impressed.''

Giannino had the benefit of a recreational vehicle and a professional crew to take care of his needs: food, drinks, rest and massages.

Bassano's trip, by comparison, sounds like something out of a Merle Haggard song.

Other than a few donated nights in a hotel, he and his family have slept in tents, on the ground. Once he gets off the road after 12 to 15 hours, he said, "I'm back to being a father and husband. Sometimes I'm standing over that little camp stove, cooking dinner.''

And though he has not been able to match Giannino, as he had hoped, his body seems to be adapting to the ridiculous strain. The swelling of his ankles has subsided. His daily average —57.6 miles — will climb to more than 60 by the time he arrives in Daytona Beach, which he expects to do April 19.

Along the way, he said, "my kids are seeing stuff that most kids never get to see.''

That includes longhorn cattle, coyotes, wild pigs called javelinas, vast farms growing everything from broccoli to pecans. They have heard mountain lions growl, and they have eaten — in Mexican-influenced west Texas — Tres Mosqueteros bars and blisteringly hot peppers.

"You just wave them over a pot of chili and that will spice it up for you,'' he said.

Through it all, he said, his family "has been completely supportive. I have not heard one complaint. Not one time have they asked me how much longer until we go home. I love and respect them so much for the way they've handled this.''

And he really thinks he's wasting his time?

>>on the web

About the run

To learn about Bassano's run or contribute to his cause, visit

runfortheinnocent.com.

Trek for Jessica draws scant dollars, little interest, but runner plods on 03/29/08 [Last modified: Monday, April 7, 2008 12:10pm]

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