Monday, July 25, 2016

The Year 1986: My First Attempt To Run Across America

Thirty years ago this summer I was logging the final miles of my training to try and break the world record for the fastest crew-supported run across the United States. The year was 1986 and I was 21 years old.

The record was set in 1980 by Frank Giannino, Jr., who ran from San Francisco, California to New York City in 46 days, 8 hours, 36 minutes -- with a support team in a motorhome. My attempt to break his record would come six years after his successful crossing. However, I should begin by telling you a little about what lead to my considering a run across America at the age of 21.

I was attending the University of Montana and sharing a room with an old high school track buddy. One afternoon in the spring of 1984 I was lying on my bed successfully avoiding some homework when I looked at a map of the United States that my roommate had on the wall. As I stared at the U.S. map I thought about all of the running I had done in my life up to that point. I asked him, “Do you think anyone has ever run across the country before?” He wasn’t sure, but the possibility of it being done didn’t seem all that impossible. My mind was spinning with thoughts of how I could make such a run happen.

My first step was to visit the library and research as much as I could on the history of runs across America. Keep in mind, this was over 30 years ago... long before the Internet! I flipped through some books and learned that in the late 1920’s there was a footrace held across the United States called “The Bunion Derby”. I gave a sigh of relief. People had run across America! It wasn’t impossible! I would also find a book titled Meditations from the Breakdown Lane by James Shapiro, who documented his run across America in 1980 at the age of 33.

As I read that book I became absorbed in the journey that Mr. Shapiro had taken. His musings are sometimes humorous, occasionally philosophical, and constantly insightful as to what a person can experience running from one ocean to another. Following my research and readings, I decided that I would train for a run across America. In the spring of 1984, at age 19, I ran around my university class schedule and in the initial days I felt tired after only 8 miles of running. However, I kept at it and maintained total silence about what I was preparing for. I felt that if I were to announce my plan that I would be opening myself up to laughter and criticism that I wouldn’t be able to handle.

As my mileage increased, so did my confidence. It was now the autumn of 1985 and I was 20 years old. I decided that a significant step in the process would be to run my first marathon. As a broke college student I didn’t have the financial means to travel to participate in a marathon. So, I did the next best thing. I hopped into my 1971 Volkswagen Bug and drove 13.1 miles away from campus. I made a chalk line on the road, placed a bottle of water nearby, and drove back to the dormitory. Then, I put my favorite 80’s tape into my portable cassette player, hooked it onto my waistband, palmed a bottle of water, and began running toward the chalk line. I had no experience in training for a marathon, and had only read about the marathon accomplishments of some of the greatest American distance runners of the 1970’s and 1980’s – such as Frank Shorter, Bill Rogers, Joan Benoit and Alberto Salazar. Now it was my turn to try and conquer the 26.2-mile distance.

I ran comfortably and paced myself toward a 4½ hour marathon, averaging 10 minutes per mile. When I arrived at the chalk line and the bottle of water I had hidden in nearby bushes, I felt surprisingly good for the 75-degree day. I could have certainly used more water and since I was inexperienced when it came to electrolyte replacement I drank nothing but water. Regardless, I completed my first marathon all alone with two 20-ounce bottles of water. No, it wasn’t enough water for such a distance, but I certainly learned a lot during those 4½ hours on the road. I had conquered the marathon distance at the age of 20.

It wasn’t long after my "marathon" accomplishment that I began to wonder what the world record was for the run across America. Once again I ran to the library to see if I could find the answer. I found the answer in the Guinness Book of World Records for 1984 which credited Frank Giannino, Jr. with the fastest crossing of the country. He ran the 3,150-mile distance in the fall of 1980 in 46 days, 8 hours and 36 minutes. Some quick averaging told me that he maintained roughly 480 miles per week. That seemed staggering to me because I was only running about 80 miles per week at that point. I decided to confide in my roommate with my aim to run across America. Surprisingly, he was supportive – although I do recall a few comments, such as “You’re nuts!” and “That’s crazy!” I then told my parents, who were mainly concerned about the effect it would have on my college studies as well as my body. Word began to spread about my goal and while there were those who thought it was an insane endeavor to consider, there were others who were quite supportive.

It was December 1985 and the obvious question I was being asked was when I planned on beginning this huge run. I chose September 1, 1986 as the starting date, and decided that I was going to run from Dillon Beach, California to New York, NY. The first of September seemed like the best time due to the cooler temperatures as well as the fact that it was the same time of year that Frank Giannino, Jr. did his run across America. I would run the same distance he did while aiming to surpass his time by hours, not days. I then began writing to corporations looking for sponsorship. Of course, this was nearly 10 years before the Internet and I used an old electric typewriter to prepare my letters.

The first company I wrote to was New Balance, makers of running shoes and apparel. The company replied positively and provided me with $2,000 worth of clothing and shoes for training and for the run across America event. I was flying high emotionally and decided that the run needed a name. I called it “Trans-America ‘86”. During the remaining months of that winter I secured other sponsorships, including Timex; Gatorade; Spenco Medical; Runique Sock; American Land Cruisers; Bronson Pharmaceuticals; Oakley; Kampgrounds of America; and, Duracell. I trained hard through the winter months around my college class schedule, but decided that I needed to train full time in order to truly have a chance at breaking the existing world record. I decided to take a temporary break from college and return to my hometown in Alaska to train without distraction.

My parents and siblings didn’t quite know what to think of my clear commitment to this unique challenge. However, they remained supportive and quietly watched as I ran toward my goal. I had two objectives that still needed to be met. First, I needed to get more funding for the endeavor. Second, I still needed to get to where I could run 68 miles per day. I continued sending out proposals to companies and my training was progressing better without having to attend classes. I would get up at 6 a.m. and be out the door for my day’s run when my father would leave for work. I would run until lunchtime, about 5 hours later, having covered approximately 25 miles. My mileage grew to where I could run 35 miles and feel fine. However, the rainy season in Alaska was taking a toll on me and I accepted the invitation of a friend to live with him in Montana to complete my final two months of preparation. Training in the 95 to 100-degree summer heat of western Montana was actually beneficial and the elevation was considerably higher than my coastal home in Alaska.

The running days were long and my parents would write to me often and encourage me. Summer was slipping by and I was still in need of approximately $3,000 to get the run to the starting line. My financial sponsorship letters were being rejected and at the end of August 1986 I was one week away from the planned starting date. Essentially, I was without the needed funds and crew to head to the starting line in California. Finding people who would be willing to sacrifice 1½ months of their life to being on the road in a motorhome was a greater challenge than I first thought it would be. People, even students, have lives and it was difficult to convince any friends that moving across the country at 68 miles per day would be a great experience.

September 1, 1986 arrived and I was still in Montana – over a thousand miles away from the starting line. I had envisioned beginning my adventure on that day, but instead I was feeling disheartened and defeated. I had a pile of products from corporations, my training was as complete as it could be, and the discount sponsorship of a motorhome sat in California with nobody to pick it up. There are times in life when we can feel at our absolute lowest without any hope in sight when all of a sudden we’re given an unexpected opportunity. That’s exactly what happened to me!

My father had retired just a month earlier and my parents had recently sold the family home and were driving from Alaska in a motorhome to visit relatives on the east coast. They stopped in Montana to see me during the second week of September. They saw my discouragement over the run across America being sidelined due to funding issues. My parents listened to me, consoled me, and then my father said “We’ll be your support crew and use our motorhome!” I was shocked and overjoyed. In the few days that followed we got everything ready for the road. My crew would be my parents, my sister Amy, and two other friends from college. We arrived at Dillon Beach (Half Moon Bay) California on September 18, 1986 and prepared for the run to begin the next day. The weather was beautiful and I could feel my excitement increasing with each passing hour. After a wonderful meal and a good night’s sleep, I awoke at 4:30 a.m. ready to get the adventure started.

The nearest road to the starting point on the beach was about one-quarter mile away. So, in the darkness of that morning – as the clock approached 6:00 a.m. – I took the first few steps of my journey by myself as the crew was with the vehicle waiting for me to appear out of the darkness. I began at a fast pace, unable to hold back my excitement of actually starting this run of a lifetime. My strategy would be to run for 25 minutes and then to walk for 5 minutes, alternating this running pattern to have opportunities to decrease my heart rate while conserving body energy. I would take a one-hour rest after each 6 hours on the road. The crew encouraged me to slow down from my 7:30-per-mile starting pace and I settled into a pace covering 5¼ miles per hour. The aim was to do that pace for 13 hours per day on the road.

The morning was beautiful and drivers would beep their car horns as if they knew I was on my way to New York City. After the initial 7 miles, I began to settle in and focus on what I needed to accomplish. The starting jitters were gone and the butterflies that had done laps in my stomach earlier were fading as the morning sun came up over the coastal mountains. Getting through San Francisco was difficult and rather intimidating for this Alaska/Montana-trained runner. I opted for running on the sidewalks out of sheer fear of being struck by a car. This, I would soon realize, was a mistake. I ran through never-ending streets, yielding my way past stores, people and stoplights. I crossed a large bridge and came into a more rural setting. It was time for lunch and a rub down of my legs. The hour break went by with the crew feeling well and maintaining organization of fluids, shoes, socks, and all the rest that was required to keep me moving down the road. I had completed 32 miles that morning and resumed my running in the early afternoon.

As I was running I made it my aim to try and time my approach to intersections so that I didn’t have to stop. I was sticking to the sidewalks due to the amount of traffic, and the ups and downs from the curbs were not ideal. I was approaching what seemed to be the 100th stoplight of the day when the light flashed for walkers – or in this case ‘runners’ – to proceed. I went to step off the curb and found it to be an old drainage corner with a very deep, slanted curb on it. I came down a little off rhythm and landed on my right foot, which then rolled to the outside on impact. It snapped back in line right away and I made it across the street. I evaluated what had happened and realized that my ankle was fine. The trouble had occurred a little higher up. I had hurt my knee (LCL) only 36 miles into my 3,150-mile running adventure across America. I had not been hurt in any of my training miles (aside from blisters and sore muscles) and the thought of an injury on the first day of my coast-to-coast run was the furthest thing from my mind.

I tried to knock the pain out of my mind and continued to run to the support vehicle, which was about a mile ahead. After an excruciating mile, I iced my knee and decided to try another mile on it. That only aggravated the injury and made me realize just how hurt I was. I just couldn’t accept it. After thousands of training miles, all of the letters to potential sponsors, and enduring some hurtful words about how crazy my goal was, I was injured on the first day. My father decided to take me to a nearby emergency room and the conclusion was that I had injured a right knee ligament. The lateral collateral ligament (LCL) is on the outer side of your knee and runs from the top part of the fibula (the bone on the outside of the lower leg) to the outside part of the lower thigh bone. The ligament helps keep the outer side of your knee joint stable. The doctor came into the examination room with an x-ray and told me that my run was finished. I couldn’t believe it. I was released from the hospital and spent the rest of that day in emotional shock.

The next day I decided to do something that was really pulling at my heart. At the start of the run I had put some sand and water from the Pacific Ocean into a bottle that I was planning to always keep... along with sand and water that I would eventually obtain from the Atlantic Ocean at the end of the run. I sat there looking at the bottle and knew that I couldn't keep it. I just had to return to the start and pour it back. I returned to where I had stood the day before... full of excitement and wonderment about all that I would experience while running across America. I was incredibly sad to now be standing there injured after training for so long and dreaming about running coast to coast. I emptied the bottle and watched the contents flow from inside... and it felt very symbolic of my dream. The contents of my dream had flowed out of my life so abruptly and now my emotions began to flow out. I stood up and threw the bottle out into the ocean. I yelled out over the water, "WHY?" My frustration then turned to tears and I slowly walked back to the car.

I returned to Montana and went through physical therapy treatments for my knee, eventually being able to return to long-distance running shape. However, the sudden and painful ending of my first attempt to run across America in 1986 stuck with me for many years.

It wouldn't be until I was 41 years old (2006) that I would actually run across America, solo, simply to keep a promise I had made to my daughter, Ashlin, and her 5th grade classmates. I ran 3,260 miles in 108 days of running, averaging 30 miles per day across 15 states from Oregon to Delaware while pushing an 80-pound stroller containing gear, food and water. It took 20 years for me to finally reach my goal of running coast to coast across the United States. It wasn't for a world record, but rather something far more important. I kept my word to my daughter and her fellow classmates, all of whom are now adults in their early 20's.

There are indeed twists and turns on life's road and sometimes we face unexpected moments that can cause us great pain. Deciding whether or not we want to continue to carry that pain for years to come is a choice. I was able to let go of the pain and disappointment of my 1986 USA run attempt. Now, 30 years later, I am at peace with all of my dreams and efforts to run across America. I eventually accomplished what I always believed I could. What do you believe you can do that you haven't yet? Are you still reaching for your dreams? If not, perhaps today is the day that you should start reaching.

From Him, Through Him, For Him (Romans 11:36),

Paul J. Staso

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