July-August 2016

Meet the Force behind the American Odyssey Relay

Bethesda's Bob Fleshner has directed the Pennsylvania-to-D.C. relay for eight years

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Photo by Liz Lynch

On April 29, Bob Fleshner sent off the first group of runners on a 200-mile journey from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to the southwest waterfront in Washington, D.C. It was the beginning of an extraordinarily long weekend for the founder and director of the American Odyssey Relay.

Once the last of about 107 teams crossed the starting line, the Bethesda resident began his own trek back to the District while also overseeing the logistics to operate 35 exchange points, a massive campground and runners oasis along the route, and a finish line festival worthy of such an endurance feat.

This was the eighth year that Fleshner, 61, had directed the relay, in which 12 people on each team take turns running on a series of roads and trails through Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maryland and Virginia to reach the D.C. finish line. The race benefits Team Red, White and Blue and Hope Connections for Cancer Support.

It took the winning team about 24 hours to finish this year, but as many as 39 hours for other teams—participants who weren’t out running caught a few hours of sleep on the ground or in a transport van at exchange points, in a high school gymnasium at the “Odyssey Oasis,” or at hotels along the course.

Fleshner didn’t get much sleep until the race was over. “In the few days leading up to it, I think, why am I doing this? Why am I putting myself through this stress?” he says. “And then during the event I have a blast, and when it’s over I just feel so great.”  

After working for years as a lawyer and health care executive, Fleshner came home one day and told his wife, Phyllis, that he was leaving corporate life behind to pursue his passion for running and entrepreneurship. He went looking for a way to combine the two and found Eric Lerude, a lawyer who, in his spare time, was putting on the Reno-Tahoe Odyssey, a relay race that starts in Reno, Nevada, and takes runners around Lake Tahoe.

“One thing led to another, and we agreed that it made a lot of sense to bring an Odyssey-branded relay to the East Coast,” Fleshner says. “And so, in 2007 we started working on the American Odyssey Relay.”

Fleshner spent the next 18 months mapping out his dream course, one he considered worthy of being called an “odyssey.” He relied on his connections in the running community to create a course that showcases the region’s best routes. His favorite leg is the fourth, which takes runners through farmland and onto a covered bridge before ending at Liberty Mountain Resort in Carroll Valley, Pennsylvania. “It’s a beautiful leg,” he says, “but not impossible like leg six,” which sends runners up the side of a small mountain.

“Bob’s passion for running is off the charts, but what is even greater is his desire and effort to put on such a cool event for his fellow runners and for the community,” says Lerude, a member of the team that helps Fleshner organize the relay. “During the event, he is everywhere, …[making] sure all of the details are being executed to his high standards. …There is not a race director who cares more than Bob.”

Fleshner says his favorite part of organizing the relay is the people he meets. One woman he contacted in order to correct a mistake on her entry form has become such a good friend that she was a guest when Fleshner’s daughter, Michelle, married in April. Another runner treated him to a Capitals playoff game.

“It’s those kinds of relationships that have been built up over the last seven or eight years,” Fleshner says. “Those are my favorite memories.”