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Brandon Hurst — Trekking Through Life

Brandon Hurst (’08) has an adventurer’s spirit; one that’s led him to hike on both U.S. coasts, mountain climb around the world and, most recently, run ultra marathons. But it wasn’t always that way. A Lakeland native, Brandon decided to go to Southeastern University because he felt a call to ministry. However, he felt stifled attending college in his hometown. He had to see if he could make it on his own.

His test? Hiking the 2,190-mile Appalachian Trail. His father, Mark, hiked with him for the first 10 or so days, but after that, he set out proving he could make it alone.

“I was a freshman in college, living at home, so for me, it was my first time on my own,” said Brandon. “And not on my own in civilization; it was in the woods. It was a big confidence boost. I thought: I can survive on my own.”

His inspiration to hike the Appalachian Trail started with a book.

Brandon read Bill Irwin’s autobiography “Blind Courage” four or five times and wanted to follow in the footsteps of the first blind man to hike the entire Appalachian Trail — with his seeing-eye dog — in one season. He decided to take a break from college. Brandon started his hike on March 1 and finished in July.

“It was one of the most incredible experiences in my life — five months of backpacking,” he said. “I’d take a few days off here and there to rest and resupply.”

He remembers a couple of scary moments early on, such as trudging through snow and ice at 5,000 feet in the Great Smoky Mountains. “I didn’t really have the gear for that. It was miserable and a little frightening for a kid who grew up in the subtropics.” Then, lightning storms hit as he traveled through Maryland. “That was probably the scariest thing. I was near pretty tall pine and oak trees with nowhere to go.”

At times he would walk two to three days without seeing another hiker. Other times, he’d run into five or six people vying for covered shelter for the night. His dad met him in Maine to be by his side for the last week.

From Psychology Grad to Missionary

Having conquered what would be the first of many goals, Brandon returned to Southeastern, where he was known as a good student who “always seemed to be in control of his life,” said Dr. Larry Hazelbaker (’76), professor of psychology. “He was scholarly and a genuinely warm and caring individual who earned the respect of his peers and the faculty here at SEU.”

Professor Patty Slaughter really pushed him and even made a bet with him to go to grad school. He agreed to apply to one university — Florida State — and if he was accepted, he would go.

“I knew Brandon had the intellectual ability to excel in grad school, as well as the ‘people skills/soft-skills’ to flourish as a counselor or in any profession that required working closely with people,” said Slaughter, now a professor of psychology, and chair of the Department of Behavioral Sciences at Anderson University in South Carolina. “I knew the world would be a better place if he had the opportunity to work with people directly.”

“Far too many of us today try to be someone we aren’t — I never got the sense that Brandon was trying to do that. Instead, he was genuine. I admired this quality then and continue to admire this quality in him today,” said Slaughter.

A day after graduating with a Bachelor of Science in Psychology, Brandon boarded a plane and headed to California to hike the 2,650-mile Pacific Crest Trail, which runs from the Mexican to Canadian borders. He started in San Diego and almost made it to Oregon — about 1,500 miles — before honoring his commitment to Slaughter and heading to grad school in Tallahassee.

After graduating with his master’s degree in counseling in 2010, he returned to the trail, determined to finish, but tendinitis forced him to stop with about 700 miles left. “It’s still on my bucket list,” he said.

He moved to Texas in the fall of 2010, lured by Jeremy Mount (’00), his former youth pastor, and a couple cousins. There, he met his future wife, Kita, at the church where he volunteered. He waited for a position to open up at the church, but it didn’t. He continued to wait tables and manage a restaurant to pay the bills, but he wasn’t happy.

“I had a strong heart for missions. I was interested in different countries,” Brandon said. When Jeremy mentioned a missionary internship program at the University of North Texas, he applied. “I didn’t know if it was really what I wanted to do, but it made more sense than anything else.”

He joined the Chi Alpha Campus Ministries team as an Assemblies of God U.S. missionary associate at the University of North Texas in 2012 and in 2017 joined the national office as the Expeditions teams mobilizer. In his current role, Brandon helps facilitate short term missions trips, known as Expeditions, for students.

“We want every student to go on a cross-cultural missions trip — in other countries or here, in an inner city, with underprivileged or impoverished people,” he said.

Finding Freedom in Mountain Climbing

Brandon and Kita were married in May 2012, and Kita gave birth to their son, Bryson, in July of 2015. Even though it means staying home alone with Bryson, she gives Brandon freedom to explore.

“She’s happy to let me go do it,” Brandon said.“She’s always afraid I’m going to hurt myself. I tell her I try to be careful. She realizes that I’m going to do it or go crazy. She’s very supportive and she’s proud of me,” he said.

One of the ways he explores is through mountain climbing. Fourteen thousand feet is a key number in mountain climbing. In the United States, 96 mountains — all west of the Mississippi River — eclipse that mark and are known as fourteeners. The highest is Mount Whitney at 14,500 feet.

“If you’re in the Lower 48, you can’t climb higher than that,” Brandon said. “It’s significant elevation. And it’s really glorified hiking. I’ve never done anything that requires ropes or ice picks. I hope to get to that one day. It would take training and a skill set I don’t have.”

Until then, he’s satisfied that he “climbed” Mount Whitney, trekking a few miles off the Pacific Crest Trail to do so, and several fourteeners in Colorado, a day’s drive from his Texas home. “A couple of those have narrow ridges — not a place you want to fall,” Brandon said.

When he heads west on a backpacking adventure, he tries to find one or two new peaks to climb. None will be as high as Mount Everest. He spent 12 days climbing to Everest Base Camp and a mountain summit where he reached 18,200 feet in 2016.

The Rocky Raccoon 

If you think running a 26.2-mile marathon takes stamina, try racing in a 100-mile ultra marathon like the Rocky Raccoon 100 in Huntsville, Texas. Brandon did that in February, finishing in 27 hours, 19 minutes.

Brandon has been a runner most of his life, playing soccer as a kid. “But I wasn’t super coordinated as far as doing anything with a ball is concerned, so in high school I started running track.” He continued running at Southeastern, but only to stay in shape, he said. That all changed when he moved to Texas, after his father ran a 50k (31 miles) marathon.

“I said I would never do a marathon, but after he did the 50k, I said: I want to try it. I did a local one here. People say once you do a marathon, you’ll either be hooked or you’ll never want to do it again. For us, we both loved it. It became: I wonder how far we can go? We did a 50-miler, then a 100k (62 miles), then 100-miler.”

At the end of Rocky Raccoon, he started crying as the race director congratulated him and handed him the belt buckle all finishers received. “I’ve never been emotional. But it was joyful, a sense of accomplishment. Even in that moment, I wanted to do it again.”

Running may become a family outing. Kita was in the military before she met Brandon and had no desire to run for fun. “In the last few months she’s picked it up again. She ran her first 5k and did well. We’re talking about doing a 10k in the fall and a half marathon next winter. She found a new love for it and is enjoying it.”

There’s no doubt about it; no matter where life takes Brandon, it’s sure to be an adventure.

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