The quote “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” hangs on a wall in my bedroom. I have read it every single day for the last two years. Little did I know that those words would be part of the driving force for my incredible journey. Together, with my mother’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, they would solidify the reason, the passion and the goal.
One thousand miles for Alzheimer’s.
When I first embarked on this insane adventure to benefit Hilarity for Charity, a foundation that benefits Alzheimer’s awareness and caregivers, it was not unlike many of the other crazy adventures I had attempted over the last few decades, except for the distance…That little technicality kept me awake many nights wondering what the hell was I thinking? Could I seriously pull this off? Was I too old? Would my body hold up against all those road miles? Can I actually run 1000 miles?
Yeah, there was some serious doubt. So much so that I didn’t even announce my run until two months prior to my start date. I was that unsure. But in my usual fashion I kept all those doubts to myself and just hoped for the best, knowing I would give it all I had for however far that would turn out to be.
The very first person I told about this insanity was the only person I knew would “get it.” The only person who would respond with the positive words I needed to hear, the only person I knew who would want in, who would selflessly put their own life on hold to follow and crew their crazy ass mother in a truly insane adventure of 1000 miles; my first-born daughter, Taryn.
I would round out my crew by inviting the only other person on the planet I knew had the experience and willingness to endure one more of my epic adventures; my little sis, Lynn.
The weeks leading up to it, Taryn would convince me to apply for a grant being given by the Trail Sisters, Camelbak and Under Armour. Applying would mean admitting this was really happening though. Finally, on the last day of the deadline, I submitted. Being chosen was simultaneously one of the coolest and most terrifying things so far.
Okay, we were really doing this.
On July 13th, 2018 I began the 1000 mile run from my front door in Enumclaw, WA. Following behind me would be my little two-woman crew in a big, shady looking cargo van with 280,000 miles already on her. The van would be our home for the next few weeks. Over time we’d devise a sleeping system, Lynn on the floor, Taryn in the front seat, me on the bench. We would cook dozens of eggs, mashed potatoes and soup on the camp stove in the back. We would swat endless supplies of mosquitos on the ceiling and just generally try not to stink up the place. But it was summer, and it was hot.
Those first few miles out of my driveway I passed all the familiar landmarks and was full of hope, determination and a little bit of fear. I tried to pretend that I had it all under control and that I was ready, but inside was another story… more like holy shit, you have really done it now. All these people, the news guy, the charity, my family and all my friends, what if I can’t pull this off? I’m 60 years old; my big running adventure days are numbered, right? Yet, here I am running down the freaking road like it’s a piece of cake!
But you know, that is the first piece of protection I would give myself. The ability to just say fuck it, I can do this. Believe it.
I hadn’t done any recon whatsoever. My daughter had mapped the route begging me to look it over, but I would only glance at it here and there. Maybe I didn’t want it to sink in. Maybe I just didn’t want to know what to expect. Everyday she would tell me where I had to get to and I would just do it. We would adjust and readjust the miles of the day based on how I was feeling and some days it took all I had to get to that last mile of the day. Between the map, issues with the van, the route, the wildfires, the heat; we had mastered the ability to roll with the punches and just keep putting one foot in front of the other, wherever that happened to be that day.
As early as the first day, a close friend of mine found me out on the road on the way out of town. Her visit would be the first of many times to come, unbeknownst to me, that my beautiful, amazing friends would seemingly just show up, many times in the middle of nowhere and usually just when I needed the extra distraction and boost to get me through another mile. They would scheme with Taryn, always wanting to surprise me and asking what they could bring. Two different times, friends showed up with a new pair of Hokas, saving the day. They would drive hundreds of miles, meet us in the middle of nowhere, some even coming out more than once. Those same amazing friends, my Sisters of Sole, would prove again and again, across a thousand miles just what true friendship means.
It’s still hard to remember each individual day out there, even harder to try to talk about and condense it into manageable tidbits. Moments stick out though, like how the first day ended up feeling, really, really long. Over 48 miles long. I made it into the main gateway of Rainier Park and proceeded to sit in the ice-cold water of the White River while my legs and feet throbbed with pain.
The next day we awoke from our first night in the van around 4am and started to sort out a routine to get me back out on the road. Day two would start with a nice long, steep climb up to Chinook pass as we headed out towards Packwood with another 40+ mile day. It was hot, and I suffered with nausea on and off for hours, but it was all just part of the adjustments my body was having to make in these early stages of the run. On top of that, I was heavier than usual and coming off a good spell of anemia and my longest run up to that day was a 24-mile flat run with a couple of girlfriends. Like I said, I’m kind of crazy. But I’ve been an ultra-runner for a long time, and my time in the desert completing a Badwater Triple (449 miles) had taught me that the body will adapt and get stronger if you take care of it. If it all worked out, I would run into my fitness on this journey.
I spent almost all 1000 of the miles on pavement. Wanna know what’s not fun? Try running on a busy four (or more) lane highway, with semis barreling past you, cars honking and flat, hot, black pavement that goes on to infinity. The noise alone is enough to make you crazy, hence my ugly earmuff headphones, which helped somewhat.
To level up from that misery, run down one of those crazy highways and have to wear a tight N95 mask because the smoke from fires surrounding the area you are running through is so bad that it’s either the mask or go home. At first the mask was suffocating and actually took me several hours just to get over the feeling that I was ok, and I could still breath, but man, it was bad. My crew had to constantly check the air quality every day just to see how safe it would be for me to run in, even with the mask. We had to reroute on three separate occasions for safety, all the while making sure I would end up with the thousand-mile goal.
I wore a Garmin InReach tracker for every single mile. It allowed my friends and supporters a bonafide glimpse into exactly where I was at any given moment. But it had its downfalls, like when my dad would see the little yellow icon sitting still for too long, he’d call up wanting to know what the heck was wrong. He’d either yell at us for potentially being murdered or yelling at me to get my butt moving again. Got to love my Dad.
My 61st birthday happened three days in. As the days wore on and turned into weeks, I started to notice a funny and amazing thing on those busy highways and mountain passes. I realized that the further I got into my journey, the stronger I was becoming. It only took 500 or so miles to kick in, but hey I’m not complaining. My 61-year-old body was adapting!
People often ask me what I ate and drank out there. The cool thing about being in the middle of nowhere, relying on gas station food is you can forget about all the rules for ultra running, the special foods, hydration formulas, etc. At the end of the day, all I wanted to eat out there was real food. Eggs, sandwiches, cookies, lunch meat dumped into a nice carton of cooked up instant potatoes (my favorite), along with instant noodle soup and canned chicken. Heck, I even walked into a McDonald’s along the route and had a big, fat cheeseburger! Yum! Sweet tea, ginger ale and water proved to be the best in the hydration department and I literally drank gallons of it. The only nausea I experienced happened early on. We were able to keep my body happy with real food and the occasional salt tab. To ward off more nausea, fatigue and heat exhaustion, my crew would happily bring out the “ice shirt” to torture me. As much as I hate that thing, I have to admit it’s a life safer. We take a long sleeve-hiking shirt that would get dipped into a cooler of ice water (over and over), barely ring it out and somehow get it on my body. Worked like a charm, but mother of God, that was cold.
There were some really tough days out there. The heat was a big one, hitting temps over 100 degrees. The smoke and wildfires impacted the route and sometimes my ability to move. We had to make hard decisions about reroutes on the fly with limited cell service and no way to scope the new route. There were sections where the bugs were so bad, we thought we’d lose our minds. One time, I had gotten up over the steepest, hardest jeep road to arrive at the top of a mountain and a campsite at Ollalie Lake in Oregon. We were so excited to have a camp site and not a pull off on the side of the highway, but the mosquitos were so bad, it made us question everything. Pure torture.
This was my journey and my rules and I specified I couldn’t be driven in the car anywhere. If we got to spend the night in a motel, it had to be on the route at the end of the daily mileage. When the van door hyper extended in the Dalles or got a flat tire in Bend, OR and the crew had to tend to it, I had to keep moving. Often times we had to spend the night in the van in very isolated or sketchy areas. Having to sleep in the van with all the windows up during the hot nights because of all the bugs, the baby wipe showers after a 14-hour day, only to get up and do it all over again, was always a treat.
There were times when some of my old injuries would reappear and make me think it was over, but a new day would come, along with 800 mg of ibuprofen, an inventive new way to tape said injury, and I would somehow find myself back on the road to live another day.
We also had a lot of fun out there though. When it came down to it, the only worries we had were literally to just keep me moving forward. I had Mt. Whitney permits on August 7th. I was on a deadline.
It was such an incredible feeling of freedom that I find it hard to describe. I spent a lot of time alone on highways through Washington, Oregon and California. I saw a lot of road kill, discarded needles, weapons, bottles full of yellow liquid…I had some magical encounters with a baby deer, a coyote and a woman we met on an Indian reservation that told us a tale of Mt. Jefferson and had experienced a loss to Alzheimer’s as well.
I saw beautiful sunrises and sunsets, some drowned in smoke. I got to see small towns and run over mountain passes I had never been to before. I got to make jokes with my sister and daughter hundreds of miles from home, often in the middle of nowhere. I got to eat scrambled eggs on the side of many highways. I got to run all day without a care in the world.
I knew this run would change me. It happened in ways I never expected, pushing myself, testing the boundaries of my physical endurance, the mental and emotional toll it took and the incredible feeling of accomplishing something so crazy, so out there, that I am still processing it to this day.
My final road miles led me to Lone Pine, CA and up the Whitney Portal Road. My dad, brothers, husband and friends would arrive to climb Mt. Whitney in the morning. I got to take my 76-year-old dad up over 11,000ft and see the sun rise on Mt. Whitney. He wouldn’t make it to the top, but I would lead a brother, daughter, husband and friends to the top of the mountain where I would hit 990 miles.
Standing on top of Mt. Whitney on that very last day of my journey and speaking to the one person I pushed so very hard for, my mom via cell phone will go down as one of the most incredible moments of my life. That I, a 61-year-old woman could push her body so far for something so much bigger than herself will always be a defining moment in my life. I am so proud of this achievement, and so honored to have had my beautiful daughter crewing her mother with a vengeance to detail, and the unbelievable amount of love and sacrifice she gave. Without her and my amazing sister none of it would have been possible.
We got down off the mountain late and in the dark, everyone exhausted. There was a scramble to sort out travel plans and food, snap a few pics and then it was just over. One thousand miles for my mom, for those battling Alzheimer’s, for the caretakers and the loved ones. One thousand miles for Hilarity for Charity. One thousand miles for myself.
I want to take one last moment and give a shout out to all the women out there finding their strength, their peace, and their power through the simple act of running/jogging/hiking. Every one of you who recognize the fact that the physical is so intimately connected to the mental and emotional parts of ourselves, bravo. At the end of the day I am just a woman, an ultra runner who knows what the letters DNF and DFL stand for, who knows what it feels like to be at the back of the pack, to actually be the last one to finish and whose accomplishments remain largely unnoticed because I am not young or fast. But during the summer of 2018 I ran from my driveway in Washington to a mountain in California and proved that age is just a number.