DESTIN — On Saturday evening some of the world’s best endurance runners will stride off onto the beach. They’ll watch the moon set, the sun rise and then set again — and they’ll still be running.
Six people will vie to break the world record for running the farthest distance in 24 hours in the sand as part of the third-annual Destin Beach Ultra Run.
About 90 more will participate in a 50-mile run on the beach Sunday.
The third-annual event is a fundraiser for the Special Operations Warrior Foundation, which provides full scholarships for children of Special Ops servicemen who have died in combat.
Mike Morton, the 41-year-old who holds the current American record for the 24-hour run (172.4 miles), is an Army Special Operations master sergeant stationed at MacDill Air Force Base near Tampa.
The run is for a cause that hits home for him, he said.
“Having seen families who have lost their dad or husband, that’s a tragedy that they continue to deal with even after all the services are over and other people have moved on,” Morton said. “The Special Operations Warrior Foundation stays there to help them for the long term. It’s important not to forget the families that were left behind.”
The runners have already raised about $35,000 through pledges and fundraising drives. Race Director Zane Holscher said he hopes the event can raise at least $5,000 more.
Holscher, a Special Operations airman who served at Hurlburt Field for five years, said he started the 50-mile race to raise money for the Warrior Fund, a cause he has supported since two fellow Air Force Academy graduates were killed in Iraq in 2005.
He met later with the widow and child of one of the airmen and saw first-hand the importance of providing for fallen comrades’ families.
Even though his service has taken him to another location, Holscher continues to return to Destin to organize the event. It’s grown exponentially over the years; in 2011, only 18 people finished the 50-mile race.
The 24-hour record attempt is a new addition. They’ve set up the run with painstaking detail so it should qualify as an official Guinness Book of World Records attempt, Holscher said.
The contenders will run up and down a one-mile stretch of beach in front of Tops’l Beach Resort in Miramar Beach.
The record for running on sand for 24 hours is 83.04 miles. The longest known run, unofficially, is 94.08 miles.
Morton said he didn’t really train for this weekend’s run. Holscher noted though that he ran — and won — two 100-mile races in the past few weeks.
He said he mostly focuses on getting fit, building endurance and getting his body efficient.
The 50-mile course, believed to be the longest of its kind on only beachfront, runs from Tops’l east to Seagrove Beach, turns back west to Destin Harbor and then returns east to Tops’l. Runners will start at 5 a.m.
The fastest runner to complete the race so far did it in seven hours, Holscher said.
Ann Gwinnup, a 39-year-old from Niceville who has completed the 50-mile run in Destin the last two years, said she tries to take a long run on the beach each weekend in the weeks leading up.
“It’s definitely slower (than pavement) and it takes more of a toll on your ankles and feet,” she said. “You have to pay more attention to your footing, but in terms of beauty, there’s no comparison.”
She’ll run at least half the miles barefoot. She loves to feel the sand beneath her feet and the water on her toes.
Once on a beach run, a group of stingrays swam along with her, tracking her for a few miles, she said. Last year during the 50-mile run, she found live starfish and even a sea horse that she stooped to toss back into the waves.
She hopes to complete this year’s race in about 12 hours.
Twenty-five relay teams also will be running the 50 miles. Two of those teams are deployed, but will start their race at the same time as the runners in Destin, Holscher said.
On Saturday, for runners not quite up for the endurance challenge, the Son of Beach 5K and Cross Fit challenge will be held at the Back Porch restaurant. Registration is still open; at least 65 people already have signed up.
Saturday’s events will be dedicated to the crew of Ratchet 33, the U-28 plane that crashed about one year ago, killing all four Hurlburt airmen onboard.
People are invited to Tops’l to cheer on the runners Sunday, especially those vying for the 24-hour record.
“They are going to be needing some cheering on by Sunday morning, for sure by Sunday afternoon,” Holscher said.
TO LEARN MORE: Visit www.destin50.com.
Contact Daily News Staff Writer Lauren Sage Reinlie at 850-315-4440 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @LaurenRnwfdn.