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Human Etch A Sketch: Coralville man uses running to sketch names of cancer patients, survivors

Rik Zortman checks street signs as he gets ready to #x201c;sketch#x201d; the name of cancer patient Cruz in capital lett
Rik Zortman checks street signs as he gets ready to “sketch” the name of cancer patient Cruz in capital letters while he runs in southeast Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on Monday, Feb. 10, 2020. This was the 900th name he’s sketched while running using a run mapping app on his cellphone. Zortman has sketched names for people in 30 of the state’s 99 counties. Zortman started running after his three-year-old son died of brain cancer. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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It started as a way to honor the memory of his son, but in the three years since, runner Rik Zortman — also known as the “Human Etch A Sketch” — has been using his runs to spell the names of cancer patients and survivors from all over the world.

Last week, Zortman, of Coralville, paid a visit to Cedar Rapids — Linn County being his 30th county — where he spelled out his 899th and 900th names — Tay and Cruz. His goal, he said, is to spell out 1,000 names across all of Iowa’s 99 counties by the end of 2020.

So, just how does one “sketch” on a run?

First, Zortman said, it’s important to find a spot that will lend itself to sketching — a gridded area works best. Then, Zortman said he sketches the name out on a piece of paper — looking at how many blocks he thinks it might take to write — and then sketches the route on a map.

The key to his sketching, he said, is a GPS app on his phone, which traces his run in real time, allowing him to see how the name is taking shape and adjust if need be.

The names, he said, come to him from all over the world via social media, emails or loved ones reaching out to him with a name.

Zortman said the project started with his son.

“I’ve been running since my son passed away in 2009,” he said. “I wanted to find a way to remember him — to keep his memory alive — and I decided I would start running.”

After his son’s death, Zortman said some students in his local school district set up a 5K run to raise money to help with the funeral expenses, and Zortman decided he was going to give it a go.

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“I had never run a 5K before — I wasn’t a runner — and I figured I’d end up walking most of it, but I actually ran almost the whole race, and at the end I’m thinking ‘this is kind of fun.’ ”

His son, Armstrong, was 3 years old when he died of brain cancer. Before he got sick, Zortman said the toddler was full of energy and life, always running around and always wanting to play with his four siblings.

“He loved to run around — he just didn’t want to keep still — so that’s kind of where I got the idea to run for him,” he said.

Since then, Zortman has sketched 900 names across 40 Iowa towns in 30 counties. Additionally, he’s completed sketching runs in California, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee and Wisconsin.

He also did some sketching while deployed overseas in Qatar — Zortman is a reservist in the United States Air Force.

Zortman said he likes to take advantage of the opportunity to run and sketch in different places because “I don’t know if I’ll ever make it back there, so I might as well get a run in while I’m there. I figure I’m there, I might as well run.”

Letters that have diagonal lines, such as Z or X or N, are the most challenging, he said, as they do not line up well with a normal grid pattern.

For those types of letters, Zortman said he starts with the first line of the letter, then pauses his GPS app and walks to the point where the diagonal line would land. He then starts the app up again and it automatically fills in the diagonal line, then he continues with his run.

Along the way, Zortman said he has met interesting people and collected a few fun stories to tell.

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“In one town, I do believe it was a Vinton, Iowa, I sketched out the name and thought no big deal. What I didn’t know is one of the streets I had to run on ended up being a drive-through, because the drive-through was actually part of their sidewalk,” he said. “Thank God, there was no cars in the drive-through. Otherwise, I might have had some trouble.”

Armed with nothing but the sketched-out route, Zortman said every run is an adventure.

“I have no idea what to expect,” he said. “I don’t know what animals to expect — I’ve come up on loose dogs plenty of times and I usually slow down or stop so they don’t try to chase me — I don’t know how the people are going to react. I’ve had people look at me weird or they ask me if I’m lost. I tell them no, I’m just running, and they just kind of watch me go. So I never know what I’m going to run into, what I’m going to see or who I’m going to meet and that’s one of the things that has been so neat about this project.”

Once he has completed a name, Zortman said he takes a screenshot of the sketch on his app and sends it to the person whose name it is or to their loved one who submitted the name, along with a video that traces the route he ran and incudes whatever photos Zortman took along the way.

Comments: (319) 398-8238; kat.russell@thegazette.com

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