Over the past few years, Scotch Plains residents John and Jessica Withrow have dedicated themselves to competing in triathlons, not for the glory that comes with accomplishing such a feat, but rather to glorify a cause dear to their hearts.
The couple will compete in the upcoming Ironman U.S. Championship competition in parts of New York and New Jersey for the non-profit organization Reserve Aid, which John Withrow co-founded to raise funds for fully-deployed Reserve Service or National Guard members.
“A lot of people just want to run, and so they find space,” he said. “But we were different because we had a charity and were looking for a fundraising opportunity.”
Seven years ago, a friend and work associate, Lucas Detor, discussed with John Withrow his concerns about reservist friends who were called up to active duty in Iraq or Afghanistan and whose families were subsequently struggling financially.
“…Their combat pay was $25,000, but they still had the same mortgage, the same bills, the same car payments, the same everything. So they were really struggling at home, and none of these people were really asking for help,” John Withrow said.
According to the Reserve Aid website, 55 percent of married reserve service members report a loss of income as a result of being called to active duty.
These daunting realities paved the way for John Withrow and company to pioneer Reserve Aid. The organization makes need-based grants on behalf of military families of U.S. Armed Forces Reserves or the National Guard directly to the entities to which these service members owe funds.
After raising funds by hosting galas, John Withrow discovered a need for greater funding opportunities.
Having completed only one triathlon in his life, John Withrow devised a strategy to raise funds for the organization that was met with a great deal of skepticism.
“With everybody telling him you’re absolutely crazy, he realized, ‘Ok, we’re on to something here,’” Jessica Withrow said.
And so Team ReserveAid was born.
A team of 14 athletes and non-athletes participated in Ironman Louisville last year, raising more than $200,000 for the organization, almost $60,000 more than their initial goal.
Contributing to this success, Jessica Withrow said as Team ReserveAid completed loop upon loop of their course, volunteers and spectators began to distinguish members of the team. This led them to ask nearby family and friends about the team, and many even donated contributions from their smartphones.
“Part of the reason that we started doing this too was not just to raise money, but also to raise visibility of who we are and what we do,” Jessica Withrow said.
This year, the team’s main goal is to raise $140,600, or $1,000 for every mile.
Thirty athletes will compete in the triathlon on behalf of Team ReserveAid. Most of the team is from the tri-state area, with other team members coming from as far as Texas and Florida.
The 140.6-mile race will include a 2.4-mile swim in the Hudson River, a 112-mile bike ride on the Palisades Parkway in Bergen and Rockland Counties, and a 26.2-mile run beginning in New Jersey and finishing in Riverside Park in Manhattan.
The competition, to be held on August 11, will begin around 7:30 a.m., and competitors have until midnight to complete the race.
The Withrows train virtually all year for the triathlon. From October to April, the couple trains for between 9 and 10 hours a week. And in the 8 to 12 weeks before the triathlon, the couple trains up to 17 hours weekly.
Their primary training focus is building speed and power, layering in endurance closer to the date. On Saturdays and Sundays, the couple rides bicycles for four hours in Pennsylvania, and they finish with a half-hour run.
In addition, the couple has two young sons, and John Withrow gets to his city job by 7:30 a.m. So fitting in a morning workout can some days mean waking as early as 4 a.m.
Jessica Withrow said what motivates her to train is the knowledge that she is doing it for a reason greater than herself.
“It’s hotter in Iraq and Iran, and nobody is shooting at us,” John Withrow said. “This is my way to serve.”
You can make donations on behalf of Team ReserveAid by visiting their website’s donation page.