Four years ago today, I set out on a major adventure that would forever change my life.
I was working at the television show “LIVE! with Regis and Kelly” when the producers decided to create a huge promotion to draw attention to the growing childhood obesity epidemic in the United States. They enlisted the help of renowned ultra runner and New York Times best-selling author Dean Karnazes and asked him to embark on one of the biggest challenges of his life thus far: to run across America in 75 days to support a great cause - Action for Healthy Kids.
After Dean was in, it was time to build a team to go on the road with him. A small group of athletes, support crew and production team were formed. The last piece was a publicist. And as soon as I was asked, I knew there was no other option but to say YES. I would live on a bus, run alongside an incredible athlete, and pitch my way through the country that I would never ever see this way if I said no.
So I packed one large suitcase, mainly full of workout clothes, and said goodbye to the Big Apple for a while, leaving behind my boyfriend (now husband) and my blow dryer (road life ain’t glamorous!) I flew out to Los Angeles and met the crew I would live with for the next 75 days. Outside of meeting Dean a few times before (and having run with him once back in 2008 for 25 miles on a treadmill - that’s another story!) I only knew one person on my team well, the rest were new to me, but all wonderful and charismatic people. The evening before the run began, I was introduced to my new home for the whole trip - a pretty groovy tour bus - plastered with Regis, Kelly and Dean’s faces, equipped with a living room, kitchen, bunk beds, bathroom, edit suite and an awesome driver named Mark. I loaded my suitcase into the bay and knew there was no turning back.
On the early morning of February 25, 2011, we all arrived at Disneyland in Anaheim, California to stand in front of the castle and wait for the countdown to begin “LIVE! with Regis and Kelly’s Run Across America with Dean Karnazes.” News crews were lined up, Dean’s family was standing by, confetti was ready to blast off and we were live on TV with Regis and Kelly. A big group of runners gathered around Dean, including myself, and before we could blink, the horn signaled GO and we were off!
Through Magic Kingdom we ran, then out of the park and onto the highways that would soon be the majority of our 75-day adventure. Our 3,000-mile route was already perfectly mapped out thanks to our incredible logistics team, every turn by turn accounted for months before we began. We were to lead Dean with cars, buses and bikes, but he was to remain on foot - for all of it. This journey was created to take us on a path through AZ, NM, TX, OK, KS, MO, IL, IN, OH, WV, DC, MD, PA, NJ, NY. Aside from the 40-50 miles Dean would run each day, there was a community element; we had planned a dozen 5k races in major cities across the country that the locals could partake in to get in some miles, donate to a great org and of course run with Dean.
Half of the time we all lived on the bus, the other half we lived in hotels, motels, any place that had a bed. We saw some of the most breathtaking sights - mountains, canyons, rivers, valleys, deserts. When we’d wake up to start the morning’s run, it would be 30 degrees and climb to sometimes the 90s when the sun would come up. We ate plenty of trail mix and picked up goods along the way; we met incredibly interesting people with unbelievable stories and lifestyles; we drove and ran through some of the most desolate areas of America before we entered huge cities for our 5k races such as: Phoenix, Albuquerque, Wichita, St. Louis and more. And we bonded and fought like brothers and sisters. We all dined together each day - a group of 20-40 yr olds all with different backgrounds and on this trip to fill very different roles. Some of us hailed from Texas, some from Colorado, some from NYC. But we all had one thing in common- we were here to support Dean, document his journey and get him to NYC safely by mid May. Each morning when we rose, we all had a job to do.
My job was to be the on-the-road publicist for Dean and the entire promotion and the author of the daily Run Across America blog, which captured each of Dean’s days, the ups, the downs, the glory, the exhaustion. My focus was to make sure that as we neared each small and large city, I was already in touch with the local newspapers, radio and television stations. Because we were running on a specific schedule, I had a good idea of when we would hit the city limit. Dean didn’t have time to stop and chat with me or any newscaster, so it became apparent early on that all interviews with Dean would take place on the run. And that my friends, is where my running career began. Day by day, I’d run a couple miles here and there to discuss with Dean his day ahead - which may have included a phone interview with the town paper or a visit from a local blogger who wanted to take pics. Camera crews were the best part; I had to give them a heads up that they’d too be running if they wanted to get some shots or words from Dean. There would be no studio visits, but I could however put the cameraman in the front seat of our pickup truck and drive alongside Dean so that they could interview him on the go. Our own road production crew had to do the same, as this was all for a national television program after all. It wasn’t always easy, but we worked together to make it happen.
The bulk of his support came from his trustworthy and strong crew, consisting of a trainer, former Navy SEAL and athletes of all backgrounds. While I was essentially running a PR office out of our bus most of the time, these guys were running with Dean, taking turns pacing him, handing him off food, hydration, clocking his miles, directing his turns, and always watching the traffic ahead and behind. Dean didn’t run on running paths too often; he was often on major highways, some back roads, a lot that had no signage at all. His crew was careful to lead him as he put one foot in front of the other sometimes in very terrifying situations where there was no shoulder to the road and the blind turns were abundant.
The journey was certainly a huge undertaking for Dean but it wasn’t always easy for us road crew members either. Most of us were new to each other, at least new to living together…on a bus, to say the least. And there were two buses - one for the production team and the other for Dean and his logistics and support crew. We traveled everywhere together and tried to find some days to have a little fun, especially when Dean would return from his day’s run and we’d park at the next sleep stop. We were all professionals but we tried to remember to enjoy every moment and embark on adventures in the towns we were passing through from time to time. We also celebrated MILEstones like achieving 500, 1000, 2000 miles, and so on. Plus, we made a point to all pose with every "welcome to" state sign as we crossed over a new border. These memories were recorded by the film crew and packaged every week to air on “LIVE!” as a “Real World”-style segment, showing the folks nationwide what we were up to on the road and how Dean was getting through each week. The highlights always showed that our 24/7 work schedule was draining at times, but we only got stronger as we went along.
Our 5k races in some of America's biggest cities were always something to look forward to. Most were held at local schools and the surrounding towns would come out to run and support. To see smiling kids racing for the finish line was always such a rewarding experience. It broke up the trip and brought a lot of what we're doing and why we're doing it into perspective. A highlight for me was our 5k in Indianapolis, Indiana, where we actually held our race on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway - where the famous Indy 500 is held. SO COOL to be able to run on one of the most famous venues in the world. And one of the biggest stops we made later on the trip was in Washington D.C. where we ran with hundreds of kids from a local elementary school to the lawn of the White House to greet First Lady Michelle Obama who was standing there with open arms. Dean’s trip by foot was taking all of us to such amazing places, meeting unbelievable people, and truly helping us to understand what our nation looks like at every turn by turn.
All of us ran with Dean, at least a little each day to do our respective business with him (feed him, roll camera, give him directions, introduce him to press, etc). Over time, he would have me hop off the bus to simply run with him, keep him company, tell me stories. I huffed and puffed a bit in the beginning until one day I realized I was becoming a true runner myself. On days I had no business to talk to him about, I spent it by a hotel, running in circles in the local town (so as to not get lost). I started to feel a new sense of self, and knew that I was becoming physically and mentally stronger. I was 25 years old and I was not only seeing this vast country for the first time, but I was seeing it by foot…slowly taking in every breath, experiencing every smell, taste, temperature, you name it. I was challenged by my legs, my mind, my heart and my capabilities. I didn’t have the luxury of internet in most remote towns, and I had to keep re-learning a community of people and how they interacted with one another. Doing my job by myself and in strange new places, away from family, with no excuse but to get it done, ended up being one of the biggest and best learning experiences of my professional and personal career.
On May 10, 2011, Dean had just about completed his 3,000-mile journey when he started to cross the George Washington Bridge, heading from New Jersey to New York City, aiming for his live, in-studio finish on “LIVE! with Regis and Kelly.” We all decided to do these last 7-10 miles together as a team, the way we started it in Disneyland. Helicopters soared above us, capturing our strides and we carried an American flag as we ran alongside the Hudson River. Dean had done it; he ran 40-50 miles a day, without any major injuries, no massages, and didn’t skip an inch of the planned route. Despite his past of running 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 days, we were all in awe of this man who was such an inspiring human with such a great heart. He was our friend and we felt honored to help him finish his journey and get him back to his family. So onward we ran with an eventual end on live television, confetti bursting once again and champagne flowing amongst us all. We all made it, but he DID IT!
There are so many details I could relay about this trip, because it was so full of excitement and have I said ADVENTURE? Heck, it was 75 days of running, exploring, learning, pitching, shaking hands. It was unlike anything I had or will ever do. Dean has written a chapter about this in his book “RUN,” but he couldn’t even sum it up.
Here’s the takeaway. This country is phenomenal. There are plenty of cornfields, way too many Pizza Huts, and even big cities surrounded by tumbleweeds. But the people of this nation are unmatched. There are still so many that are deeply humbled by life and yet they do not get to experience the luxuries that a lot of us others do. HEALTH is a huge problem in America. These folks need access to healthier food choices, better education about health and more exercise options. The message that Dean spread by running across the United States speaks for itself. We’re all capable of amazing things. Inspire someone today to do something great. Show them that they too can conquer amazing things by just putting one foot in front of the other.
I'd like to credit Dean for being the endurance bug that bit me. When I returned home from the trip, I immediately signed up for the NYC Marathon and finished four 26.2's and multiple half marathons within the next two years, got my personal training certification, started working for a fitness magazine, and then eventually upped it to triathlons and now Ironmans. Oh, Dean. THANK YOU.
I totally would do it all over again.
Dean, what do you think? :)
Run for your life,