By Paul Reese
Crossing all 50 states on foot seemed like a good way to enjoy retirement.
© 2000 42K(+) Press, Inc.
Like many things in life that end up taking on a life of their own, it all began innocently
enough. At the time, it seemed the
height of simplicity. It came as a result of reading a book: My Run Across the United
States (Track & Field News, 1970,
184 pages) by Don Shepherd. Eventually, this experience proved to me why one of the first
things a totalitarian government
should do is ban books. Reading can be very insidious.
Shepherd was a 48-year-old South African mine-worker who came to the United States in 1964
with the express purpose
of setting a new world record for running across the country. And that's just what he did—in 73 days, 8 hours, 20 minutes. With
no more logistical support than a light backpack, he set off solo from Los Angeles and
finished 3,200 miles later in New York
City, all the while maintaining himself on a budget of $10 daily.
As I read his book, I found myself dangerously drawn in. "I've got to try this some day," I caught myself thinking. That was
way back in 1970. But because of real-world commitments (a job, three kids in college), I had to wait 20 years for
"some day" to arrive—until 1990, to be precise.
By the time launch day had arrived, the question "Can I run all the way across the country?" had mutated somewhat from
Shepherd's approach. He traveled solo; I was pampered with logistical support from my dear wife, Elaine, who drove a motor
home. He focused on a record; I focused on enjoyment and adventure. He averaged 43.8 miles per day; my daily average was
barely over 26 miles. He was a mere child of 48; I was a venerable 73. And, oh yes, he acknowledged his debt to 31 ladies he
met along the way; though I could not surpass him in quantity, the quality of the TLC I received may have turned him green with
To my way of thinking, the bottom line to the differences between Shepherd and me is this: of all the people who have run
across our country (and the number tops 200), I admire him the most because his trip was solo and unassisted. (Come, now—
you didn't think those 31 ladies supported him logistically, did you?)
Conversely, of all the people who have run across the country, I envy him the least, for he was barren of true companionship,
of enjoying a mutual achievement (the synergy of runner and pit crew), joys not only of the running experience but also joys
forever mutually cherished after the actual running is over. It's now been a decade since I finished my run across the states,
but Elaine and I often look back on it with fondness and gratitude, and the important point is that the memories are ours, not
Shepherd Vs. Tulloh
But that's getting ahead of the story. Back to Shepherd. His record stood until 1969, when Bruce Tulloh, a prep teacher from England ran 2,876 miles from Los Angeles to New York in 64 days, 21 hours, 50 minutes (a 44+ mile average per day), a journey he describes in Four Million Footsteps (Mayflower, 1970, 175 pages). True, Tulloh crossed the country faster than Shepherd, but he ran 324 miles less. What's more, Tulloh had four people in three different vehicles supporting him, as well as being sponsored by Schweppes. Any wonder why I admire Shepherd more?
Tulloh affected my crossing in one way. I happened to mention to Elaine that, "You know, there sure was a big difference in the weight that Shepherd and Tulloh lost when going across the country. Shepherd lost 38 pounds, and Tulloh lost only 6." Bong! Down went the gauntlet! Elaine's attention to my calorie needs was so precise that I lost only 5 pounds. She fed me a hearty breakfast, a snack at every three-mile pit stop, and a five-course dinner, all of which resulted in a 6,000+ calorie intake per day. What's more, she insisted that I eat every bite of whatever she put in front of me.
Besides the weight thing, I was taken with a couple of thoughts Tulloh expressed in his book. "The difference," he said, "between Britain and the United States is that the Americans are mainly concerned with making a living, the British with living." And as I trudged across the country, I found myself in complete agreement with that observation and with his observation "that the human body has far greater powers of endurance and adaptability than most people give it credit for."
Shepherd and Tulloh provided my background, my research on the noble art of "tourist running." I knew of only one other person, James E. Shapiro, who had written a book on this subject. Shapiro, who ran from California to New York in 1980, related his experiences in Meditations from the Breakdown Lane (Random House, 1982, 237 pages). While Shapiro is a considerably better writer than Shepherd or Tulloh—in fact, a truly superb writer—I gained no new insights into a transcontinental run from reading his book.
A 166-mile race I ran in 1984 was also a chapter in this research. This race, run alongside my friend Dr. Ralph Paffenbarger, extended over four days at a rate of 41.5 miles per day. A lesson that Paff and I took from the race was that we hit the exhaustion point around 31 miles (50K) and that the last 10 miles were a struggle. From that experience, I concluded that I could handle a daily dose of the marathon distance for an extended period. Besides, it had a nice ring to it: a marathon a day. It turned out to be a pretty close estimate, in that over a 122-day period, never taking a day off, I averaged 26.16 miles per day. (My actual crossing was 124 days because there was a first day and a last day, both limited to 5 miles, both designed for media coverage.)
All of the foregoing is a roundabout way of saying that Don Shepherd triggered my first thoughts toward running across the USA. Fortunately, from the first time I broached the dream to Elaine, she was enthusiastic about it. "It will be a good way to see the country in slow motion," she said.
Partners Now—and Forever
From the outset to the finish, we were partners in the endeavor. That did not keep Elaine, however, from making two demands before starting: that we buy a new motor home for the trip and that when we arrived home, I would buy her a black Labrador puppy. Hell, I was so eager to get going, I'd have agreed to buy her a gorilla!
Before taking to the road, we did considerable planning. We agreed that we preferred back roads over the interstate in order to get a better feel for the country. By writing to the Department of Transportation of each of the 12 states through which we would pass, we received good feedback on the routes we had selected. Additionally, I corresponded with Marine Corps friends who provided useful information. Other planning included locating campgrounds and RV parks, deciding what gear we'd need to pack, considering daily-life concerns (security, yard maintenance, paying bills, etc.), and securing assurance from police agencies along the way that we were allowed to run on the routes we'd selected.
The modus operandi upon which we decided was that Elaine would drive three miles ahead, park, and wait for me to arrive for a pit stop. We decided on three miles because I was concerned about her being parked alone along the roadside and she, in turn, was worried about my safety being out of contact on the road. By limiting the pit stops to every three miles, we were in frequent contact. We adhered to this routine the entire way across the country.
The day I started at Jenner, California, hard on the Pacific Ocean, the issue of whether I could make the 3,200-mile run was still in doubt. But we approached the challenge one day at a time and by the time I reached 500 miles, I was confident I could go the distance as long as I was not sabotaged by injury or illness. It didn't take long to learn that my two secret weapons were nourishment and recovery. The nourishment came from Elaine's forced feedings and the recovery from crawling into bed shortly after dinner.
During our 124 days on the USA crossing, we experienced three distinctive highs:
1. Ascending Highway 50 and crossing the Continental Divide at Monarch Pass (elevation 11,312 feet) in Colorado.
2. Crossing the Mississippi River at Helena, Arkansas.
3. And the zinger: splashing into the Atlantic Ocean at Hilton Head, South Carolina.
The chronic low: both of us were constantly tired. Notching a marathon a day was no piece of cake for Elaine crewing or for me running. But offsetting this was the feeling that we were in control all the time, never doubting our ability to get the day's work done and, incidentally, being grateful to God every day that neither of us suffered an injury or illness.
Despite our confidence, the day I ran into the Atlantic Ocean and thus finished the USA crossing, Elaine and I were overwhelmed with the same feeling. We could hardly believe we had done it.
A Chronicle of the Trip
I devoted much of the following year, 1991, to writing about the adventure. This resulted in the book Ten Million Steps, published in 1993 (available through Cedarwinds, 800/548-2388), written in association with running author Joe Henderson.
Ironically, although we were happy to be back home, many times while I was writing the book, Elaine and I talked about how we missed the adventure of being on the road. Talk led, as it often does for us, to action. We were soon making plans to get back on the road. Elaine especially liked the prospect of "taking the boys" on a vacation. She was referring to her Labradors, Rebel and Brudder. But before we left, we needed a set purpose, a goal. I came up with the idea of running across all the states west of the Mississippi. There are 22 states involved, eight of which we'd covered on our USA run. So as not to be away from home as long as we'd been before, we decided to break up the goal. We'd spend roughly two-and-a-half months on the road each summer. We purchased a new, larger motor home with a generator so that on hot days Elaine and the dogs could enjoy air conditioning. During the summers of 1992 through 1996, while I was between the ages of 75 and 79, we crossed the 14 remaining states west of the Mississippi and logged 3,573 miles doing so.
Because we paced ourselves, these travels were easier than our original trek. Also, the process was made easier because my daily mileage dropped from a marathon a day to 21 miles a day, because my daily start time changed from 5:00 a.m. to 7:00 a.m., because I had days off when we drove from one state to another, and because the new motor home had more creature comforts than had its predecessor.
The Last States
It was only natural that once we'd finished the western states, we should look east and ask: "Why not go for broke and try to finish all 50 states?" The greatest impediment for this trek was my antiquity: I was now 80. Additionally, the wear on Elaine had increased: she drove the motor home, pit-crewed, mothered two frisky dogs, did the shopping, and managed a whole litany of chores. She very much wanted us to finish all 50 states, but she did not want to be on the road for an extended time.
We had already knocked down all 22 states west of the Mississippi, but had yet to deal with the challenge of Alaska and Hawaii. This left us with 24 states to conquer, 22 of them east of the Mississippi plus Alaska and Hawaii. True, there are 26 states east of the Mississippi, but we had already run across four of them (MS, AL, GA, and SC) on our USA crossing in 1990.
Throwing my antiquity (and, dare I say, mortality) and Elaine's concerns into the hopper, I decided that the only way (or at least the most prudent way) of getting across all these states was to plot the shortest route across each one. Which is precisely what I did in 1997 as, at age 80, I averaged 17 miles per day, while starting each day's effort at the luxurious hour of 8:00 a.m.
We used the motor home for 21 of the states and followed our usual plan: pit stops every three miles. For Florida, Alaska, and Hawaii, we rented a car, which Elaine drove every three miles for pit stops, as we had done in the past. Taking all three adventures together, I had run a total of 7,648 miles, Elaine had driven the motor home some 60,000 miles, and Rebel and Brudder had crossed 35 states with us. In all these travels, we had been on the road a total of 558 days, 353 of which I had been running. That mileage does not include distances when I was lost or off course.
Considering that there were three distinct sets of goals and challenges, I crossed a finish line not once, but three different times. When we crossed the entire USA, I felt exhilarated; I felt the same way when I finished the crossing of the eastern states, as it meant I'd then crossed all 50 states. The same was not true of completing the western states, however; the finish felt just like another day at the office.
When we stood on the sandy beach at Hilton Head Island after the USA finish, we had trouble comprehending that we had actually made it all the way across the country—we had trouble absorbing the reality of it all. That feeling was not with us after finishing the states west of the Mississippi, but there was exhilaration when finishing the states east of the Mississippi solely because doing so meant that we had completed crossing all 50 states. But in both cases, states west and east of the Mississippi, there was not the sense of accomplishment we had with the USA crossing; we more or less took those crossings for granted since, unlike the USA crossing, they involved frequent days off and less mileage.
In my life, I've found that many difficult things—many very trying times—become softened in retrospect. I don't want to succumb to that kind of thinking. To put this another way, despite my saying, "we more or less took these crossings for granted," never (with the exception of two ceremonial days of the USA crossing set up for media purposes) was any day easy. Every mile was work, but enjoyable work.
One of the most pleasant by-products of running across the western and eastern states was the writing of two more books with Joe Henderson: Go East Old Man reported on the western states, and The Old Man and the Road covered the eastern states. Both books were published by Keokee Publishing (800/880-3573); along with Ten Million Steps, they document the experiences in the level of detail we felt they deserved.
On what could be termed the truly unpleasant side of things, I do have one regret: that I had to "short cut" a handful of states—that is, I ran from one state border to another on a diagonal (such as from south to west) instead of crossing the state on a full east-west or north-south route. I wish I had run across those states on a full route.
And, in retrospect, had we the opportunity to do it over again, we'd make two changes affecting Elaine. On our USA trip, we had a motor home without a generator, which meant that the motor home was often sweltering during the day for Elaine when I was on the road. Both of us slept poorly on many nights when we could not locate an electrical hookup. I would have also gotten Elaine a dog to keep her company on that first crossing.
The End Result
What we did was important for a number of reasons. Arnold Schwarzenegger called it "a giant step forward regarding our concepts about aging. It will," he said, "awaken people in their 60s and 70s to their inherent physical capa-bilities."
It is important, too, in that the lessons and discoveries for us that resulted from it could—and in some cases should—
relate to many people. What lessons? What discoveries? Here are five:
1. A reaffirmation in believing in the existence of God. Suffice it to say I felt closer to God in the desert, in the mountains, or on a lonely road than I do when I'm trapped within the four walls of a church—a church made by man. On the road I was in God's church, and I more easily felt His presence.
2. A renewed appreciation for our country. America the beautiful. A noble land of rich resources, vastness, diversity, strength. A person has to be on foot, or possibly bicycling, to gain this appreciation. It will never come through driving or flying across the country. Associatively came a rekindled appreciation and respect for the pioneers who crossed the country in something other than a motor home.
3. We learned more lessons about accomplishing goals. If you want to accomplish something major, you have to reconcile yourself to doing it bit by bit, piece by piece, one day at a time. We also came to realize that if there's something major in your life that you want to do, try your best to do it. Don't let time pass by, fail to do it, then regret for the rest of your life the fact that you didn't do it. People should be aware that they can accomplish much more than they or others think. And don't ever believe what others say: they will often attempt to discourage you from setting off after your goals. Ignore their prophecies of doom. In our joyful journey, I learned—or at least reaffirmed—that there are two keys to accomplishing a goal: believe you can do it, then be fully resolved to accomplish it and be unflinching in your resolve.
4. A fourth discovery had to do with running. Once we took to running across states, I found this more enjoyable than the racing I had previously enjoyed. Each day offered a sense of excitement, adventure, and achievement that went well beyond that of racing. To all you runners, if you can, try injecting some variety into your life and your running. Take a week or two off and try an adventure run.
5. A philosophy of life. One of the fascinations, one of the main benefits of running for me, is the time and venue it affords for thinking, for meditating—something most of us should do more of in life. With all the time I had on the road, I poured forth enough ideas about life and living to float a battleship.
The Five "Ls"
These five stand out:
Live. Make the most of life because it passes quickly.
Laugh. Try to be upbeat and see the positive side of things, to see the humor in a situation. Don't sweat the small stuff. Our sense of humor helped Elaine and me many times as we made our way across the states.
Learn. Learn from each person, each experience. This was one of the attractions of being on the road that definitely enriched the experience.
Labor. Immerse yourself in worthwhile interests. To be fulfilled, a person needs to work at a job, an interest, an avocation, or a hobby. Labor is necessary to accomplish anything worthwhile. And usually the enjoyment that follows is in direct proportion to the labor expended, which is exactly when enjoyment ran deep with Elaine and me.
Love. Every day on the road I was reminded that the greatest of God's gifts is to love and be loved. I was reminded by the love expressed daily by Elaine, who did so many things to support me. The moments and memories shared with her are my keenest joy, my richest reward from 558 days on the road. She put it best on the final day of the USA crossing as we stood at the ocean's edge at Hilton Head Island: "It's over—and yet it will never really be over. It's something that will always be with us, just yours and mine."
Was It Worth It?
It's history now. All the traveling, all the running. It cost a heavy investment of time, effort, and money. And from that arises the logical question: was it worth the investment? In my mind, in Elaine's mind, the answer is an enthusiastic "Yes!"
We have so many memorable moments, so many treasured memories, and a profound sense of achievement from conquering so many challenges. And it was worth it for so many other reasons. We think we proved that older people are capable of considerably more than generally believed. Between the ages of 73 and 80, I covered 7,646 miles, crossing all 50 states on foot. Is that not ample evidence that "retirement" is not necessarily for resting?
We hope that younger people, seeing what Elaine and I did, will gain a new perspective on aging. Speaking of our USA run, Schwarzenegger said, "This provides proof positive to younger people that in their senior years they will be capable of considerably more than they previously believed." We also hope we sent a message about overcoming handicaps. Some people who, like me, have suffered prostate cancer, or asthma, or a bad back (spondylolysis in my case) will not be inclined to surrender to their handicap. Elaine and I accrued many personal benefits from the experiences. We added zest and quality to our lives. These trips together afforded us an opportunity to explore, appreciate, and better understand our country and its people. They reaffirmed our belief in the power of prayer. They bonded our marriage even tighter.
Hearing from people, young and old, who have responded to our message that you can be active no matter what your age, has been one of the greatest rewards for Elaine and me. That's important, because those sunset years go on for a long time for many people. Make them enjoyable—and memorable. Aim high. And go long.