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Marlen Garcia: He carries Lake Michigan water for the poor of Africa

Rusty Funk, race director for World Vision 6K for Water, has hauled 40 pounds of water on his back daily in August to spread the word about the race and the poor in Africa without access to clean water.

Rusty Funk fills a 5-gallon plastic jug with Lake Michigan water at Oak Street Beach, straps it to his back and starts a 6-kilometer walk on the lakefront, passing buff beach-volleyball players, tan teens and children building sand castles.

“The first time I came out here, I was nervous and embarrassed,” he said when I joined him for his daily 6K this week. “People were staring.”

But that was his goal, to get people to pay attention and ask questions. Hauling 40 pounds of water on his back every day for most of August is part of a slick marketing campaign to promote Saturday’s 6K for Water race and walk at Montrose Harbor for World Vision, a charity that among its missions provides clean water to the poorest in Africa.

“I’m not a good marketer,” Funk, who lives in the South Loop, said. “But I like talking to people.”

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Funk, 30, the 6K race director, said his back and neck ache from carrying the supersized canteen. He uses moving straps he bought at Ace Hardware to tie it to his body, trying to replicate scarves women in Africa wrap around their bodies to secure containers. He tied oven mitts to the straps so they wouldn’t cut into underarms.

An accomplished recreational runner, Funk has completed 17 marathons, 56-mile races in South Africa and two Ironman triathlons consisting of 2.4-mile swims, 112-mile bicycle rides and 26.2-mile runs. Yet, he has come to dread the runs to Lake Michigan with the empty container and the 6-kilometer walks back to the office with 40 pounds on his back.

“I thought it would be a cool way,” to promote the race, he said. “I’m a fit athlete. After Day 1, I was limping around.”

He wants the public to imagine the trek made by women and girls in Africa. They walk an average of 6 kilometers, or about 3.73 miles, for water, and their survival depends on it. That’s why Saturday’s race is a 6K, not the usual 5K runners are used to.

“We’ve seen 10-year-old girls carrying water on their heads or over their backs and pulling it up hills,” he said of his trips to Africa.

Funk and his colleagues in Chicago approach their work for the charity relentlessly as if it was a start-up. And in a way, it is.

Close friend Michael Chitwood, a former elementary school teacher who lives in Logan Square, in 2005 founded Team World Vision, the branch of the charity that raises money through marathon racing and now the 6K. The group has a significant presence annually at the Chicago Marathon. This year 1,350 runners will represent the team in the October race and raise about $1.6 million. From a lone race in Chicago, Team World Vision runners across the country will participate this year in 40 races, he said.

Another friend, Josh Folkerts, 25, of Lake View, raised $52,000 in 2014 in three races. He left his lucrative job as an accountant for Pricewaterhouse Coopers to work full-time for Team World Vision, but not before hitting up executives at the company for generous donations.

“We’re keeping kids alive,” he said. “They have a basic human need.”

Follow Marlen Garcia on Twitter: @marlengarcia777

Email: MarlenGarcia777@yahoo.com