At 4:10 a.m. July 10, Darren Miller of Delmont stood before the Tsugaru Strait in Japan, wearing a Speedo, swim cap and goggles. Echoes of the song "Forever" by the Dropkick Murphys, heard moments before on his iPod, coursed through his mind, pumping him up. Months of intense preparation behind him and miles of open water before him, Mr. Miller said his mind suddenly went blank as he jumped into the churning 67-degree water and began to swim. Twenty-five miles and nearly 16 hours later, he emerged, exhausted and freezing, on the other side of the strait.
Mr. Miller's incredible feat was not a quest for fame and glory. Rather, he risked his life to raise money for families of infants facing cardiothoracic surgery at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh of UPMC. He joins others from the region who put their time, talents -- and sometimes their lives -- on the line to help others. Here are some stories of courage and compassion.
The Rev. Bruce Bryce of Whitehall also swims for a cause but not in international waters. The 75-year-old retired pastor is "swimming to Philadelphia" at Healthtrax Fitness and Wellness in Bethel Park. On May 2, he took his first of many strokes in the pool at Healthtrax to swim 300 miles to raise money for improvements to Baldwin Community United Methodist Church, where he serves as the volunteer congregational care pastor.
When he approached members of the church's board of trustees with his unusual fundraising idea, Rev. Bryce said their response was one of disbelief. The trustees asked how he planned to do it, and he won them over with his mantra: "one lap at a time."
He has since solicited pledges ranging from 10 cents to $1 per mile, with donations going toward his goal to raise $10,000 for the church's capital campaign. The money will be used to make needed improvements to the 65-year-old building, especially the kitchen, which Rev. Bryce described as "well-used."
He swims a few miles a day five days a week and estimated that it will take at least a year to complete the "trip."
Members of the congregation are tracking his progress on a poster that hangs in the church, marking destinations across the state in 30-mile increments.
"It holds the attention of the people and it draws them in," Rev. Bryce said. "Whenever I go to church, they ask, 'How far have you gone now?' "
Now at a little more than 60 miles into his trip, Rev. Bryce is nearing Johnstown. Then, it will be on to Altoona, State College and Reading. With a goal of 20 miles a month, he said, he is ahead of schedule.
"It becomes an ego thing to you, and you say you're going to do something and you don't want to say 'I quit,' " he said. "That's not my way of doing things."
On March 16, Bruce and Paula Cote of Baden took their first steps on a journey that will lead them 2,181 miles along the entire length of the Appalachian Trail. The couple has taken on this feat in an effort to raise money for Urban Impact, a faith-based nonprofit organization on the North Side that helps at-risk children and their families.
Their goal is to raise $100,000 for the organization; they have already received more than $54,000.
Mr. Cote, 52, is senior associate pastor at Christ Church at Grove Farm in Ohio Township. Ms. Cote, 50, is taking a break from teaching special education for kindergarten through fourth grade for Woodland Hills School District.
The Cotes began their hike at the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail at Springer Mountain in Fannin County, Ga., and hope to end it at Mount Katahdin in Piscataquis County, Maine.
During their trip, they will pass through 14 states -- Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.
This is a longtime dream for Mr. Cote, who is no stranger to challenges. When he was 35, he set a personal goal to reach the summit of all of the peaks of the Presidential Range of the Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire. He accomplished that at age 49.
Mr. Cote said their greatest concerns are the physical challenges of the hike and cited broken or twisted ankles as show stoppers, as well as excessive weight loss.
"The rigors of the hike are tremendous. There are so many issues that you can run into," he said.
To prepare, the Cotes hiked various trails at high elevations with full packs and did strength training. Mr. Cote is carrying a 34-pound pack; Mrs. Cote, a 29-pound pack.
Their goal is to cover 15 miles a day so that they can complete the trail by Oct. 15, when the northern terminus of the trail at Mount Katahdin closes.
"It might be slow and steady wins the race, but we definitely can do it," Mrs. Cote said.
Mr. Cote agreed and cited their cause as their greatest motivator.
"Failure is not an option," he said. "Even if we have to complete it on one leg, we'll hop to the finish."
On June 9 in Providence, R.I., Arielle Parris and Avry Martinson of the West End made the first of many bike pedal strokes of a planned 3,949-mile journey to Seattle, Wash.
The friends are raising money and awareness for Bike and Build, a nonprofit organization that coordinates cross-country bicycle trips to benefit affordable housing groups.
They each raised $4,500 -- the majority of which will be donated to youth-led affordable housing projects across the country -- and fulfilled a volunteer requirement of at least 10 hours of sweat equity helping on a local construction site.
Ms. Parris, 22, and Ms. Martinson, 25, share a personal interest in affordable housing. Ms. Martinson grew up in the Mexican War Streets section of Pittsburgh and described her family as poor. She said their lack of decent, affordable housing was a contributing factor in the death of her father, who took his life after facing the threat of losing the family's home.
"Housing is kind of a human right, and everyone should have reasonable and appropriate housing," she said. "When I saw an opportunity to get involved, I thought it would be a good way to honor him and make a difference."
A service trip to Vietnam in high school is what ignited Ms. Parris' interest in the cause. She and a small group of students helped build three houses for widows of the war.
"It definitely made a lasting impression on me that made me not only want to continue with affordable housing but just generally to do service," she said.
Ms. Parris and Ms. Martinson are riding about 70 miles a day for 70 days with a few breaks in between to work on construction sites and give town-hall-style presentations in the various cities they pass through.
Despite the grueling schedule, Ms. Martinson said, "there is no room for doubt. ... You have to have it in your mind that you're going to make it."
Mr. Miller's conquest of Japan's Tsugaru Strait -- the icy channel between Honshu and Hokkaido -- was his fifth such grueling swim in his goal to raise money for charity by crossing the seven most challenging channels in the world, a feat known as the Oceans Seven. He previously swam the Strait of Gibraltar, the English Channel, the Catalina Channel and the Molokai Channel in Hawaii. His remaining swims will be Cook Strait in New Zealand and the Irish Channel.
Mr. Miller, 29, swims to raise money for the Forever Fund, which he and Cathy Cartieri Mehl of Fox Chapel created in 2009 to benefit the families of the infant cardiothoracic ward at Children's Hospital. In 2010, Mr. Miller started Team Forever, the fundraising arm of the Forever Fund, through which 100 percent of all donations are channeled.
To date, he has raised about $50,000.
Swimming and traveling expenses for each trip total about $12,000 and are covered by Trustmont Financial Group. East Suburban Sports Medicine Center, 4C Technologies and Elisco Advertising also contribute, ensuring that every penny raised by Mr. Miller goes toward his cause.
Mr. Miller, an investment banker and swim coach at Franklin Regional High School, is also a motivational speaker and said he uses his swimming stories to spark support for his cause.
"Whenever you start talking about swimming in the middle of the night with great white sharks, [the audience] tends to pay attention," he said. "I'm trying to inspire others to get out and do something. ... You don't have to swim the English Channel to make a difference in the world."
Mr. Miller trains at the 78-acre Keystone Lake in Derry Township. To prepare his body for the extreme conditions in which he swims, he keeps his house cold year-round and has a 300-gallon cattle trough on his porch. In the winter, he breaks up the ice and sits in the freezing water. Mr. Miller said this helps build mental tenacity, which is more important than the physical aspect of his feats.
"It's absolutely horrible, but if I can overcome that physical pain, then I can handle anything out in the middle of that channel," he said.
This kind of determination is the tie that appears to bind such extreme fundraisers and, perhaps, rid them of fear, anxiety, misgivings and risk all for the good of others, he noted.
"You have to know who you're doing it for," Mr. Miller said. "That's the biggest motivator. Knowing what we're doing it for, knowing that we're helping people in need."
Shannon M. Nass, freelance writer: email@example.com. First Published August 9, 2012 4:00 AM