When you visit Dr. Larry Grogin’s house in Franklin Lakes, you might marvel at his ever wanting to leave it.
Although it’s maybe 45 minutes from Manhattan (traffic permitting, as if traffic ever permits), it’s in a clearing in what has to be called a glen, surrounded by green, green trees, with a lake glimmering just beyond them. The sky is deep blue, the house — built of logs from Montana and Colorado river stone and windows — welcomes, and the sound of birdsong is ever-present. It’s a romantic’s heaven.
But Dr. Grogin, a chiropractor and acupuncturist, also is a triathlete; he loves the house and its setting, and he gets strength from it. And he also leaves it constantly, to run and bike and swim. And, it turns out, to talk to people, to listen, and to learn.
Dr. Grogin has founded a nonprofit group called Strides for Humanity; through it, he will run eight legs of a course that will take him across the country. He plans to cover 1,100 miles, 30 miles a day, five days at a time, and he plans to talk to anyone who will talk to him, run with everyone who will run with him, and gather stories from them as he goes.
He will begin at 8 o’clock this Friday morning, with a send-off celebration at McBride Park in Franklin Lakes.
His plan’s roots go back to Patriot’s Day 2013, where he ran the Boston Marathon and found himself maybe 100 yards from the finish line when the bombs exploded. The plan was changed a few weeks ago, when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s. But his story starts well before that.
Dr. Grogin, who is 64, grew up in Paramus; his family belonged to the JCC there. One of his brothers, Jeffrey, is a founder of the early internet game Snood, and his other brother, Morty, made aliyah. Morty has six children; one of them, Ahava Emunah Grogin, is a marathon runner who battles cancer and blogs movingly about her fight. (Morty also had cancer; “we have crummy genes,” Larry said.)
Dr. Grogin lived in California when he was younger; he moved back to Bergen County in 1993, and to Franklin Lakes in 1995. His twin sons, Eric and Blake, who grew up there, are 29 now. He’s run marathons and competed in triathlons for decades. “I’ve been a runner for all my adult life, and a triathloner for a very long time,” he said. “I’ve done maybe 400, 500 marathons.”
“I was so close when the bombs went off,” he said. (To recap, the bombs were set by two brothers from Chechnya, Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, whose response to personal problems was to blow up and kill three people and injure hundreds, some severely. After a long hunt that shut down Boston and killed a police officer and wounded others, Tamerlan was killed and Dzhokhar tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for murder.)
“The race was stopped very suddenly,” Dr. Grogin continued. “They said the race is over. There was one bomb, and I was still in the exhilaration of the race, and of being almost finished, and then a few seconds later there was another bomb. We didn’t know what it was at first, but we didn’t have any reason to think that there weren’t going to be more of them.
“What was particularly frightening was that you immediately recognized that the policemen, who had been all over the course, protecting it, were frightened too. They didn’t know what to do either.
“And then we saw the policeman all running down Boylston Street, as fast as they could, their coattails flapping behind them, many of them looking like they shouldn’t be running. They were running as fast as they could, to rescue people. And it touched me so much, that these police officers all were running to help other people. No matter who they were rescuing, no matter what their color was. They were just running to help.
“They were Americans, running to do what Americans always do. People chose to take care of each other. We live freely, and we chose to take care of others freely. Those policemen ran to rescue people, and I thought that was something worth celebrating. That was the real birth of this run.”
The next year, Dr. Grogin and a friend, John Rinaldo, ran the 250 miles from New Jersey to Boston. The two men raised money for Paul Newman’s Hole in the Wall Gang Camp. Mr. Rinaldo is Catholic; “we left on Palm Sunday, ran to Boston in eight days, took Easter off, and then got to Boston on Patriot’s Day.” That’s the day the Boston Marathon always is run; the two men ran it.
What next? Strides for Humanity.
This new cross-country adventure has many purposes.
“It is supposed to put a highlight on humanity,” Dr. Grogin said. “If only we could recognize every random act of kindness, and show how great and how kind people really are.
“Usually we only hear about bad things. We want to stop and listen to the good.”
That sounds great, but how do they do it? There are some very specific actions the group takes.
Established about a year ago, Strides works with high-school and college-age interns. They’re a diverse group; some come from the suburban towns of northwest Bergen County, and others come from Paterson. They represent a range of socioeconomic backgrounds, ethnicities, and religions, and they learn from each other.
Trisha Dugan of Franklin Lakes is Strides’ chairperson, and she is in charge of the intern program. (She’s also Dr. Grogin’s training partner; she just began to run last year, and now, she says, it’s become an indispensable part of her daily life.)
“They have become a family,” she said. Her daughter, Jessica, is a volunteer; “she said that the best thing about Strides is that it broke down barriers between my friends and kids we never would have talked to; we’re at the same school and walk the same halls and never would have known their names.” Instead, Ms. Dugan said, “the kids sometimes laugh so hard together that we can’t do any work.” She tells the story of a high-school senior who came to a meeting all dressed up, to ask a girl, over Skype, to go to the prom with him. (She lived many states away; the Skype part made sense.) The girl said no, Ms. Dugan said, but the other interns padded and softened what could have been a crushing rejection.
“They are so diverse,” she said. “We have someone from almost every culture. Muslims, Jews, Christians; Indians, Africans. It was as though we have cast them for a movie.”
“They show such maturity and wisdom,” Dr. Grogin said. “When we asked what you would do if you were in charge of the world, a high school student said, ‘I would listen.’”
Students are just one of the groups of volunteers, Ms. Dugan said.
The run will benefit Oasis, a nonprofit in Paterson that “is a haven for women and children, and an opportunity for them, in times of need, to get job training and meals and GEDs.” It’s a day program that “provides really high-quality daycare, and about 750 meals a week.
“Oasis embodies the ideal of people coming together and working as a community to help each other. It’s a beautiful example of what we celebrate in America.”
The Strides for Humanity run will feature “one slated runner — me — and there will be guests,” Dr. Grogin said. “Some will be walking, some will be running, some will be trotting. I want to meet all of them. Anyone who wants to walk or run or trot — and talk.” (There also will be a truck accompanying him; it’s sponsored by Market Basket, a local supermarket.)
“The crazy idea is to go hang out with America in her backyard,” he continued. “It’s to celebrate getting away from divisiveness and celebrating diversity. We want to celebrate American values, like the values we believe we share with the Israeli people — gathering together to take care of one another.
“We have plans to do 30 miles each day. We will do it either faster or slower, depending on the company. I hope to be joined by a World War II veteran; if somebody wants to stand still we will. And I’m sure there will be other days when it’s just me and the support vehicle.
“And we will be collecting stories. My good fortune will be to break down barriers, to celebrate in backyards, churches, synagogues, and mosques. One of my sponsors, Opkix, makes a tiny micro-camera that mounts on eyeglasses or hats. So it will be my eyes and ears, and I will send it to social media.”
It is important to Dr. Grogin that Strides for Humanity, like the run itself, be entirely nonpartisan. He does not want to talk about politics, and he firmly shuts down any discussion that might trend in that direction, he said. “We made our office free of all of that,” Ms. Dugan confirmed. “This is a place of love. There are no political discussions allowed.
“Sometimes that can be hard,” she added.
Originally, Dr. Grogin’s plan was to run across the country, from New Jersey to California, finishing with the 26.2 miles of the Ventura Marathon. But then came his diagnosis. “At the urging of my family, I rescheduled,” he said. And he’s excited about the way the rescheduling is working out. “We have magically found ambassadors in each of the eight areas I’ll be running through, and they’re setting up interesting and exciting places to see; restaurants and churches and synagogues and mosques.” In a very real way, the slower pace he’s realized he will have to maintain will give him more time to look around, and to meet people and talk to them, and those interactions are vital to his adventure.
“We closed our eyes, and 10 magic ideas started popping up right away,” he said. “You can imagine that the words Forrest Gump come up all the time. There will be a bit of serendipity involved. I will go past Joe’s Barbershop, and Joe will come out, maybe, and say ‘Can I join you?’”
The first leg will be from Franklin Lakes to Bethel, Pennsylvania. Next will come Boston to Provincetown on Cape Cod. Then Chicago — including the Lollapalooza Festival in Grant Park there — to Madison, Wisconsin; then Atlanta to Chattanooga, Tennessee; Boulder to Aspen, both in Colorado; Eugene to Bedford, both in Oregon; San Francisco to Carmel-by-the-Sea, by way of the Big Sur Highway, and then, the last run, “from the fruit groves and nut groves of Ojai to Ventura, in southern California. We hope that people will join us for at least that last stretch.”
In fact, he’d like people to join him in any part of the run. He’s encouraging anyone who is interested to consider it. The information is on the website, www.stridesforhumanity.org.
Which brings us back to Parkinson’s. The elephant in the room.
“I’m being tested now, to be frank,” Dr. Grogin said. “I have made my livelihood telling people how to overcome health obstacles. This is challenging what’s been my life’s work, which is teaching people that their bodies can overcome challenges. This is the insidious nature of Parkinson’s — you have to learn to live with it.”
The diagnosis still is too new for him to have done that yet.
“One of the principal things about Parkinson’s is that you have a great drop in energy level,” he said. Dr. Grogin seems almost to be made of energy. “It’s unknown what running all these miles with Parkinson’s will be like. It is scary.”
But that absolutely will not stop him.
“I have chosen to focus on the challenge,” Dr. Grogin said. “I just feel blessed that I have this day. Tomorrow I will get up, and I will have more challenges and more choices. I will put this in my back pocket and move along.”
On Friday, he will begin his run to Pennsylvania. If you see him, be sure to stop and tell him your story.
Sunni Herman of Teaneck, the executive vice president of the Jewish Home at Rockleigh, knows Larry Grogin as a fellow athlete.
“He is a legend in our triathlon circles,” she said. “He is truly loved. He did incredibly difficult full Ironman distance races that many of us can only dream of. He is in an elite class of endurance athletes. He operates above the fray in so many ways.
“Larry is direct. No nonsense — with a sense of humor. Very focused on his objective, whatever that might be.
“And he truly feels the journey. After all, the journey is the destination.”