What’s it like to Run Across the USA?

The Race Across the USA started on January 16, 2015 at Huntington Beach pier in California and finished at the White House in Washington D.C. Twelve “core team” runners and 11 state runners started this race across the country. Of the twelve core team runners, seven of us finished. Overall, more than 40 state runners joined us along the way running across one of the states or completing one of our 4-day events.

Running more or less a marathon a day for 4 ½ months was hard enough. But, I wasn’t only a participant – I was also a co-race director – a role that I shared with my wife, Sandy. Until today, I haven’t written anything about our adventure. But, today, my silence ends.

I had a lot of time and passion invested in this race. In order to stay within budget, we needed to find places to stay along the way. We slept on the floor in high school gyms and at churches. We slept in people’s homes and campgrounds too. Roughly once a week we stayed in a hotel room. All of this need to be planned ahead of time. Without this level of planning, Sandy and I didn’t believe we would be successful. We also had planned to stop at schools along the way. By the end of our journey we had visited over 5,000 students at 28 different schools. The school visits were one of the highlights of the journey.

The team reached Palm Springs in four days and this is where we said goodbye to those running the Urban Challenge (the first four days of California). Five runners continued with the core team all the way to the state border with Arizona. Crossing the Colorado River was definitely one of the high points of the trip. But, cracks were already forming and tempers would flair soon after (including mine). We lost Coop due to business obligations at the end of California. We shed three other runners in quick succession in Arizona. Jessica was forced to end her bid just outside of Texas due to a stress fracture in her foot and two cracked vertebrae in her back. Each one of these losses hurt a lot. But, each day, I tried to just focus on finishing the day’s run.

Prior to the race, I trained hard leading up to running 19.7 miles a day for 8 days in a row so that I could get my head around what running across the USA was going to be like. I also ran parts of the route through California with my good friend Linda, one of the other coast-to-coast runners. During the race, I just took it a day at a time – thinking about how great it would be to have a cold one and relax that evening. If my mind started think about how far we still needed to go, I refocused my attention on the progress I had made so far. In fact, I would often mislead myself into thinking that I was running only to the next aid station.

These tactics worked for a while. But, I realized that I need to take it up a notch. I mean, it took almost a month to run across Texas. So, here I kept my mind off running by coming up with little problems to solve. For example, I would see a “FOR SALE” sign and imagine building a home there. Would I build one story or two? Which direction would the house face? What would it be like inside? This was especially important during the middle of each day’s run when confronted with the monotony of doing the same thing day after day. If I did start to experience pain, of course, I would attempt to address it by adjusting my equipment, changing my pace or altering my running style. But, I knew that pain often comes and goes and tried to not worry too much about it. Sometimes I passed the time talking with the hero of the bunch – Newton – our oldest runner at age 73.

Finally, Sandy and I planned celebrations at the end of each state. This was a time to say goodbye to the runners who had run across with us. Likewise, we knew we were one state closer to our goal. We celebrated our progress at the end of each state with a team dinner. We also celebrated every significant milestone such as completing our first month or the 1000 miles or crossing the Continental Divide. Once we passed Texas, things really started to pick up. Louisiana only took two days. We knocked Arkansas out in a week. Crossing the Mississippi was a highlight. Tears filled my eyes as I crossed the bridge knowing that we were roughly two-thirds of the way through.

Snow just outside of Roswell, NM
Snow just outside of Roswell, NM

We got snowed on in Roswell, NM and also during the first two or three days of Texas at the end of February. Now just six weeks later in Mississippi, the temperature and humidity rose affecting all seven of the remaining runners. We crossed into Virginia near the end of May and put in ten back-to-back days of running. On one of the last days of our crossing, we put in a 30-mile day. As the temperature soared into the 90s, I had concerns that I might faint from the heat. Running up and down the hills of Prince William County were tough. But, knowing that we were only a day away from our goal, made it tolerable.

That night, I had a surprise visitor – my daughter Lauren. She had taken time off work to run the final day of our race with me. It was a good thing she came too because I was physically and emotionally spent. I gave her my phone and asked her to follow the route on the screen. After a few miles into the run that day, we picked up the Mt. Vernon Trail, eventually crossing the Potomac River along the Arlington Memorial Bridge all the way to the White House. The following day, we ran another 29 miles to the Chesapeake Bay, which of course empties into the Atlantic. Our journey was finally complete.

Three-way hug of Darren, Sandy and Lauren.
Three-way hug of Darren, Sandy and Lauren.

So, you might ask: “Was it worth it?” Honestly, my answer has changed over the ensuing months. As time passes, some of pain and hard feelings have faded and the strength of the friendships, good will, cooperation and support shine through. Every day, when I made it to one of the aid stations, I got a high-five and “Good job!” from the research assistants Andrea, Sam and Garrett. Without fail, Bryce, Rob, Nancy and Alex cheered me one as their car passed me on the way to accommodations for the night. Seeing the passion that all of the racers put into the school visits as well as the enthusiastic response from the kids was heartening to say the least. Beyond this, it’s satisfying to know that, by putting on this race, I have helped everyone who finished a segment, a state or the entire country to reach their personal goals.

Running has changed me. Beyond that obvious benefits of exercise, it has given me confidence. You see, each race involves a goal, a lot of planning, hours of training and finally, the boost that comes as a result once you’ve achieved your goal. I find, more and more, that I’m no longer trying to prove something. Instead, I’m searching for new ways to increase my impact. I have come to the realization that the “impossible” is merely “difficult”. And that there are even greater challenges in my future that involve supporting others in their journey towards improved health and fitness.

4 thoughts on “What’s it like to Run Across the USA?

  • April 18, 2016 at 6:14 am
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    Hi Darren,

    Very interesting to read your comments. While I did my Trans Am 23 years before yours, I see many common themes. It will be interesting to see how close you stay with the other runners, and I suppose social media will make it easier. Your dual mission of runner and 1/2 organizer creates a unique “shared reality,” as both a teammate within the group, but even more importantly as the shepherd and leader who had to deal with the organizational difficulties that the runners were not, necessarily privy to. For me, I stayed closest with the 2 race managers, and not so much with the runners, except for perhaps one. “Confidence,” actually, “more confidence” was my biggest takeaway, but not until after quite a long period of recovery and reflection. I knew there was NOTHING that I couldn’t conquer after completing TransAm. Nothing could ever be as difficult as the levels one has to push themselves to race across the country, physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Those additional layers of confidence made dealing with cancer and writing a book mere blips of difficulty that didn’t make me bat an eye. So I’m told I shuffled through each with the grace that my closest friends admired. I would be interested how easily you handle difficult life challenges going forward. I suspect they will be a breeze for both you and Sandy. Perhaps, one of the most unique things I experienced after all these years is how so few people can really relate or identify with the improbable challenge we conquered. Most people don’t really listen, and the accomplishment usually flies over the heads of those that the experience is shared with, unless, of course, they were directly involved one way or another. I consider that both good and bad. On one hand, you have so much to offer others that can help them with their difficult goals and challenges but, in the end, aren’t really interested in the “goods.” On the other hand, you get to fly under the radar, occasionally interfacing with those you went through the experience with and the oh so very few that are interested in your experience because they want to take on a similar challenge themselves. Best going forward, to both you and Sandy, for through your hard, hard, hard work and perseverance, you achieved, possibly a lifetime high, but more importantly, you enabled many, runners, crew, and close supporters, to have something so unique in this world to take forward with them, a gift that will never stop giving for a life time, not unlike teaching someone how to fish, so they can survive the difficulties of life’s challenges with a full stomach and the opportunity to help others they hold close and willing to learn and grow. Peace-out, my 2 friends.

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    • April 18, 2016 at 5:46 pm
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      David – couldn’t have done it without your support before, during and after the race. You spent hours and hours helping me to plan it over Skype. You and Jesse actually came out to New Mexico to cheer us all on! Thank you, David. I am grateful for you and this wonderful post.

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      • April 19, 2016 at 1:38 am
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        Darren, you’re very welcome. It was truly my pleasure. Credit given where credit due. The bonus for me was getting to meet and talk with so many special people. Best to you and Sandy on your new PCT hike and adventure.

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  • April 24, 2016 at 7:53 am
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    Darren (& Sandy),
    Read your recap of the race that Dave has forwarded. Very touching, and I’ve felt that way as well.
    These things are team efforts, and many cannot acknowledge the bonds of mutual aid, or their indebtedness to others. Fortunately, whatever they say, the organizer will always know (and BE known by other organizers) their role in bringing joy, adventure, and good health to your runners. You left them at the finish line, in most cases, in better health, and stronger mentally & physically, than they may ever be in the rest of their lives. Eventually (and I’m still getting positive feedback, often secondhand, over 20 years later), they will be forced to come to the same conclusion. These races are too big for most to visualize the immensity of the drama & glory while they are “in the arena.”
    Just since your race I’ve seen a video of my race across Australia made by one of our runners. I actually had to pay to get a few copies to Dave, and my co-organizer in Australia, and several others. In it he has several compliments he has never mentioned firsthand.
    My research indicates that running & walking are such fundamental parts of our genetics, that there is a direct feedback loop. Most people’s health and attitude improve when they are more mobile. You & others show the way forward. How others react to the tremendous example you have provided, unfortunately is impossible to predict. Several more experiments may be necessary! And we may not live to see them. But I hope & believe that our work will be followed. It may even be inevitable, since nothing else achieves the same results.
    When I ran across Australia, an elderly Aboriginal woman I met in the desert was the only one who thought the whole enterprise was A Good Idea. In their belief, one sets forth occasionally, walking along ancient pathways carefully memorized through millennia, thereby paying tribute to their forebears who created the land and the journey. I am forced to concur with this Wise Sister and her Tribe. jesse

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