A lifelong resident of Incline Village, Parker Fontecchio has seen Lake Tahoe more times in his life than he could count. But a few weeks ago, he observed it in a new light and from every angle as he walked the 72-mile circumference of it in an effort to raise funds for veterans while also boosting awareness about the challenges they face upon returning from war and trying to reenter into civilian life.

What started out as a fleeting joke quickly morphed into something much greater: the 72 Project.

For years, the 19-year-old has competed in endurance competitions such as the Spartan Race. Like every other large-scale, crowd-drawing event, COVID put the Spartan on hiatus and all 2020 events were canceled. In December, when Fontecchio noticed registration was open for a January 2021 race, he signed up, hopeful that the show would go on. But it wasn’t meant to be, and the competition was soon canceled as the pandemic continues to rage on.

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“I … wanted to do something, and my workout partner was like, “Why don’t you just put on something yourself?’” Fontecchio told Moonshine Ink. “He joked saying, ‘Why don’t you just run around Lake Tahoe?’”

That got him thinking

A personal trainer, Fontecchio already works out regularly for four to five hours a day, seven days a week with a focus on endurance. Yet running 72 miles to circumnavigate the lake still seemed like a bit much for him. Still, the wheels had begun turning and he thought of doing a farmer’s carry around the lake instead, meaning he’d walk the circumference while carrying two dumbbells.

Once settled on what he was going to do, Fontecchio focused on the why. He wanted to do something for a good cause and quickly settled on veterans. With many friends in the fitness industry and family in the military, he set out to find a foundation he could support and learned about FitOps, which helps veterans “find purpose through the power of fitness.” FitOps supports those returning from war and reentering civilian life by guiding them to become personal trainers.

“One of the big messages I’ve been pushing with this is, I’ve talked to a lot of veterans … when they come home from war, the war comes back with them, and the fact [is] that they’re dealing with PTSD and the other mental issues,” Fontecchio explained, noting also that veterans often have difficulty finding employment upon their return. “They really try, and [while] a lot of them don’t have a lot of job experience … we know that they’ve done so much for our country and they actually do a have a lot of experience and knowledge.”

Returning veterans are also typically very physically fit, something FitOps taps into so they can use that to their advantage.

“They talk a lot about PTSD, but other mental health issues factor down a lot lower when you’re not competing with as much stress,” Fontecchio said. “So just taking away that stress of making them personal trainers and getting them a job back in real life, in the real civilian world, will definitely help lower the mental aspects and the stress.”

SUPPORT SYSTEM: Parker Fontecchio spent the last night of the trek at Sand Harbor, resting for several hours so that friends and family could join him the following morning
to walk the last few miles of his journey around the lake. Courtesy photo

After setting his goal of walking from 9 a.m. on Jan. 18 to 9 a.m. on Jan. 21, Fontecchio set out on a test day prior, carrying a 30-pound weight in each hand. Turns out that was a little too much to haul for such an extended period, and he decided to cut the weight, landing on two 22-pounders. This specific number was no coincidence, but rather a nod to the 22 veterans that statistics indicate commit suicide in the U.S. each day. Thus prepared, on the morning of Jan. 18 he set out on his mission, joined by his workout buddy and best friend, Bennett Welco.

“I had a lot of friends and family and sponsors that wanted to come out and walk the last 2 or 3 miles with me, so we stopped Wednesday night at Sand Harbor,” he explained. “We took five, six hours of rest and started back up the next morning.”

Fortunately, the weather cooperated. Mostly. The first night, 60 to 70 mph winds moved in, making it quite cold. Further, wintertime road conditions forced Fontecchio to cut his mileage short. With the 11-mile stretch of roadway around Emerald Bay having no real shoulder and numerous blind curves, Fontecchio decided to bypass that section in the interest of safety.

“One of my main strategies when walking, our whole idea was to try to stay happy because I really believe in the power of a smile — and you can’t grit your teeth all the way through an endurance event. So just having fun with it just makes the event go by so much quicker,” Fontecchio said. “We were trying to keep the smile, but the whole time throughout, in the back of my head was what I’m doing right now is not even close to what they have experienced over in war … This is nothing compared to what they’ve done for us.”

Sixty-one miles and 134,802 steps later, the feat was complete.

Between word of mouth and  a Face-book post, the news of Fontecchio’s endeavor quickly spread. Through a fundraising link on mightycause.com his goal of $5,000 was easily surpassed, with a total of $7,763 raised by the end of its run.

“The whole community kind of came together,” Fontecchio said. “Everyone was calling and asking for updates, pictures. The whole community came together because we all know that we were trying to do it for a great cause — trying to give back for our veterans.” 

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