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UCF students walk across Florida to end cancer

Melissa Matoff, Brandon Gerhard and Greg Demers walk onto Clearwater Beach at Pier 60 after completing 165 miles in the Walk Across Florida. The three were among five University of Central Florida students, four of whom are from North Pinellas County, who participated in the event.

Photo by Theodora Aggeles

Melissa Matoff, Brandon Gerhard and Greg Demers walk onto Clearwater Beach at Pier 60 after completing 165 miles in the Walk Across Florida. The three were among five University of Central Florida students, four of whom are from North Pinellas County, who participated in the event.

CLEARWATER — Five college students trudged up to Pier 60 on Clearwater Beach, tired yet exhilarated.

No, they hadn't exited a beach hotel groggy from a night of partying.

The group, all University of Central Florida students and all but one from North Pinellas, had just completed the Walk Across Florida, a nine-day trek to raise money for the Lance Armstrong Foundation, also known as Livestrong and famous for the yellow wristbands that signify the fight against cancer.

It was Saturday afternoon and the tally was in: 165 miles walked, more than $3,000 raised.

The Walk Across Florida, which began in Titusville on the Atlantic Coast, was founded by Greg Demers, a University of Central Florida junior and a member of Kappa Sigma fraternity. He planned the fundraiser in memory of his fraternity's mentor, Brian Dornbusch, who died of cancer in November. He was just 33.

"I wanted to do something to honor him," said Demers, 21, of Oldsmar. "Something different that would draw attention to the cause. He was the alumni adviser and our mentor. Everybody knew him."

Demers, a marketing major with plans to attend law school, says he knew walking across Florida sounded crazy, but he wanted to raise more money than he might from a carwash.

"We met a preacher outside of Titusville and heard lots of stories along the way from people who had friends and family with cancer," Demers said.

David Marren, 21, Kappa Sigma fraternity treasurer and UCF junior majoring in economics, undertook the challenge alongside his brother Danny, 20. The brothers from Palm Harbor finished the walk to shouts of support from their mom and dad. Once at the beach, the younger Marren went off by himself to relax and cool off.

David Marren talked about people they met along the way.

"In the town of Christmas, this lady saw us outside a gas station," he said. "She bought us a case of water to drink. And near Ybor City, a homeless guy asked what we were doing. We told him, walking to raise money for cancer research. He pulled 50 cents out of his pocket."

"It was fun to walk through the small towns and talk to people," said Demers, whose mom greeted him with a big smile and a congratulations sign.

People were helpful, but the heat and humidity were almost unbearable, they said.

Logging about 20 miles a day on all but the last day drained the students' energy. At night, they pooled their own money to bunk in one hotel or motel room. They would grab a meal and cool off in the pool or sit in a hot tub to ease sore muscles. Early each morning, they headed out again.

"We got lost near Dale Mabry and Hillsborough in Tampa," David Marren said. "We took a shortcut through the woods and got trapped by some water. We couldn't get across. We tried to make a bridge with some logs and sticks. That didn't work."

"Finally, we came to a dry area and could walk across and get back on the road," said Melissa Matoff, 20, of Altamonte Springs.

Shortly after 3 p.m. Saturday, the group emerged at the top of the Clearwater Memorial Causeway, surrounded by cars and pedestrians edging toward the beach. Demers wore a sandwich board sign announcing the walk. They finished despite threatening clouds close behind.

Along the way, the students found strength, gleaned wisdom and discovered some tips for future walks.

"Keep walking. Just don't look back," Matoff said.

"Just have fun," said Brandon Gerhard, 21, of Palm Harbor.

"It gets really hard to go on, but moan and keep walking," said David Marren.

"Don't walk in May," Demers said. "Winter break would work better. We've talked about another walk, but this time it would be in December."

Fast facts

How to help

It's still not too late to make a tax-deductible donation to the Walk Across Florida. Visit www.livestrong.org/grassroots2009/walkacrossflorida.

UCF students walk across Florida to end cancer 05/18/09 [Last modified: Monday, May 18, 2009 8:22pm]

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