By JOHN J. BURO
OLD BRIDGE- Inevitably, the jokes subsided once the subject matter dictated it. Even for the clown prince of Italian cuisine, just the mere mention of Jamesy Raffone -the nine year-old poster child whom the JAR of Hope (JoH) is named for- or Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy -the disease in question- was enough to reflect.
Carlo Castronovo knows how fortunate he is. He, too, has a nine year-old among his three children, which is what led him to meet with Jim Raffone to begin with.
“About two-and-a-half years ago,” Castronovo recounted, “Jim was doing his ‘79 gyms’ push-up challenge and, that particular week, he was going to be at SETS in Jackson, which is owned by a very good friend of mine, Anthony Kapasakis. I brought my youngest son, who’s about the same age as Jamesy, and we did the whole workout, followed by the push-ups. Jim explained what this disease was, and what he was going through -there was a moment where he almost ‘lost it’- and, here I am, listening to him…
“He’s doing everything he can to save his son’s life. Now, I’ve got my boy right next to me and I’m thinking, ‘I’ve got to help this guy.’
While Castronovo has a naturally strong sense of empathy, having his son there did “help a lot.” As a father, it became easier to gravitate toward Raffone’s plight merely because only one parent can understand the pain of another.
Armed with newfound awareness, Castronovo -who began running less than four years ago and has since completed several lengthy races- reached out to Raffone afterward and, aligned with Anthony and two other teammates, raised over $10,000 while competing in the World’s Toughest Mudder (WTM), described on its website as “the most extreme, insane, imposing, pulse-pounding, heart-stopping 24-hour obstacle course challenge on the planet.”
“I learned a lot about JAR of Hope during that one. Now, whenever I run, it’s for (that cause).”
Still, the WTM was just an appetizer compared to last September’s running of the Grand-to-Grand Ultra.
The raw numbers indicated that 119 men and women started the 170 mile trek around the Grand Canyon. Ninety-two entrants finished the six-stage competition, with a winning time being 29 hours, 34 minutes and 18 seconds. Castronovo, wearing Bib No. 100 and running for Team Jamesy, completed it in 56:22:32, which was 50th overall. Day Three, in particular, featured a grueling 53-mile segment, which he covered in just under 22 hours.
“(Initially) I wasn’t going to do it,” Castronovo revealed, noting family and work commitments hampered his training regimen. “I would’ve still raised money, but I didn’t think I’d be able to (run it). But, Jim kept pushing me – ‘We need you; we need you.’ – and, so I went.”
And, with the full support of his wife, Darlene, too.
“She was great about it,” he said. “Anytime, I want to do a race -especially for JAR of Hope- she backs me one hundred and ten percent. She knows it’s not because I’m trying to escape my family -although it was nice not to have any screaming kids or cellphones for a whole week.”
As such, Castronovo’s training did benefit from Darlene’s staunch encouragement, as it allows him to run with a clear mind for a cause he wholeheartedly believes in.
Between questions, there was more banter, more frivolity. Then, the tone of the interview suddenly turned serious.
“We’re just so blessed, because there are many kids out there who, for whatever reason, can’t run. As I was going through the desert -and this is the God’s honest truth- I was thinking about Jamesy everyday. I’m out there, for hours and hours, and not talking to anyone. He stayed with me all that time, and I imagined him waiting for us at the finish line. That was all I thought about.
“Even though I missed my family a whole lot.”
But, Castronovo was also well-prepared for this race. During the prior week, he researched every detail, from what to pack to how to pack it. A lot of time and effort -and yes, dollars- went into this venture and he looked to maximize every bit of it.
By that dreaded third stage, Castronovo knew how difficult completing the race would be. Raffone and another team member, Matt LeBow, were unable to continue -Raffone, in fact, had nearly died on the course- leaving Castronovo and Joe Ippolito to forge ahead.
(Note: Ippolito finished 88th, with a time of 71:07:37.)
Though he was part of a small contingent, every runner on that course was fully aware of what JoH represented. Like a desert storm, word quickly spread about their collective mission.
When asked if he would do it all again this September, Castronovo didn’t waver. “Yes -definitely. It was such an amazing experience and such a great reason to run. If it wasn’t for JAR of Hope, I wouldn’t be out there in the first place, much less doing it again.”
Through both the good and bad, and sometimes downright ugly, he did manage to find solace along the way.
“There was something great about not having a cellphone, about being removed from society. There were no distractions -no radios, no nothing. The views from the mountains were Godly. And, among the stars at nighttime, you could actually see the Milky Way. It was soul-searching.
“And a beautiful thing.”