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Runner pets 200 dogs for charity while tackling Lincoln half-marathon

Runner pets 200 dogs for charity while tackling Lincoln half-marathon

First, there was Ollie.

Then came Maggie and Jake. Cooper and Lucy. Bella and Bruno.

And finally — finally — it was Layla.

The dog, a K9 for the University of Nebraska Police Department, was the final pooch to get pets from Mark Geist during this year’s Lincoln Marathon.

Geist, who ran the half-marathon on May 5, set out to pet 200 dogs along the course. He tackled it all — the pup petting and the race running — to raise money for Royal Family Kids’ Camp, which benefits children in foster care. He reached his goal of 200 dogs with about half a mile to spare, raising $3,000 in the process.

Geist, 38, thought of the fundraising endeavor a couple of weeks before the marathon. The Lincoln man pet pooches at last year’s race, too, but really it was because they gave him an extra boost. And 20 seconds of standing still felt nice. He finished having pet 88 dogs.

This year, he decided to add a charity element. Geist and his wife, Stefanie, have been volunteering for Royal Family Kids’ Camp for more than 13 years. The nonprofit hosts weeklong summer camps across the country for foster children ages 6 to 12.

The Geists help with a camp serving Lincoln, Grand Island and York.

“You don’t just see them come out of their shells. You get to see them be a kid,” Geist said. “These kids have had to grow up too fast. You see them enjoy being a kid, and then you get to see them explore a little bit more about who they are.”

This year’s session will accommodate 59 campers. There’s no cost for kids to attend the camp, but volunteers typically raise about $600 per camper to cover the costs.

Geist shared his fundraising plans on his Facebook page, and told some family, friends and coworkers. Some folks chose to pledge a certain dollar amount per dog he pet. Others pledged flat donations.

When Geist started the half-marathon, he spotted his first dog, Ollie, about 50 meters in. Every few hundred meters, he would spot more dogs.

He followed a standard procedure for petting. First, he asked the owner’s permission. Then he let each dog sniff the back of his hand before proceeding with pets. Sometimes he explained his mission, sometimes he didn’t. But he let each dog and human know what number they were in his growing tally.

Geist spent about 30 seconds with each dog. Geist, who said he’s not a competitive runner, didn’t mind taking the extra time. He used caution in stepping over to the sides of the race course, so he didn’t interfere with any other runners.

Geist said he had pet 175 dogs by the time he reached mile 11 or 12. His calves were aching and cramping. He could see the muscles moving and squeezing under the skin on his right leg. It hurt to jog more than a few feet. And he was seeing fewer and fewer dogs.

By the time he was approaching the finish line in Memorial Stadium, he was at 199 dogs petted. But there was only about half a mile left. He was surrounded by concrete, and there were no pups in sight.

“It was so dramatic,” Geist said. “I knew there was no way. Once I turned that corner to run along the side of the stadium, I know there’s no dogs there.”

Then he heard someone shout his name. “Mark! Mark!”

He saw former gym buddy Russell Johnson waving him over. As Geist approached, he saw Johnson, an officer with the University of Nebraska Police Department, point down. Sitting at his feet was Layla, a Belgian Malinois mix.

Geist, sporting a ball cap, kept his head down. He was fighting back tears. With a pet planted on Layla’s head, he met his dog petting goal.

He rounded the corner and headed toward the finish line when he met another buddy. This one offered to donate the remaining $600 of Geist’s $3,000 goal.

That’s when the elation hit.

“Petting dogs was fun. I do love dogs,” said Geist, who has two pups of his own. “Really, ultimately, I was thinking about the kids.”

As for Layla, she was “pretty stoked” to be the final dog, Johnson said.

Johnson knew about Geist’s endeavor, but when he spotted him about a half-mile from the finish line, he didn’t know Layla would be dog No. 200.

Johnson called him over.

“There’s a lot of people who said (seeing the dog is) an extra boost,” Johnson said. “It means that much more that I knew Mark. Knowing that it helps him, being someone who was doing this for a good cause, to help him finish that out was pretty cool.”

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It isn’t unusual in larger cities to see marathons stacked one after another on the running calendar, said Rich Harshbarger, CEO of Running USA, a national trade association. But it’s surprising to see the stacked marathon schedule in a market like Omaha, with fewer than a million people in its metro area, Harshbarger said. Especially in light of race registration numbers dropping nationally.

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