Thursday, October 20, 2016

It Has Been 10 Years Since I Ran Into The Atlantic Ocean

Ten years ago today I completed the most challenging and demanding ultra-endurance run that I've ever done. On October 20, 2006 -- at the age of 41 -- I finished a 3,260-mile, 15-state, 108-day, 30-miles-per-day solo run across America while pushing an 80-pound jogging stroller of food, water and gear through the second hottest summer ever recorded in the United States.

I was apart from my four children (ages 6 to 13) for that entire summer and now my youngest child is only two months away from turning 17. He, and my three adult children, make me realize just how much has changed in the past 10 years. I did that coast-to-coast run to keep a promise I had made to some elementary children in Montana, and now my eldest daughter is an elementary teacher. Yes, a lot has changed since I ran into the Atlantic Ocean 10 years ago today.

Here are some of the words that I wrote the day that I finished my run across America on October 20, 2006:

Upon arriving at the ocean shore I was struck by a wave of various emotions all at once. There was relief for being done... pride in my accomplishment... praise to God for seeing me through... satisfaction of keeping my promise... joy for having loved ones there with me... and so much more. I dipped BOB's front wheel in the waves and then went into the water up to my knees, enjoying the moment of finally reaching this ocean I had aimed toward since June 23rd. There were people who had gathered to see my finish and I appreciate each and every one of them for coming out to see me and to say hello. There were many hugs, some tears of happiness, and a few shouts of joy. I've done it. I've conquered the entire United States.

What many thought was impossible for me to achieve has now been completed. This run across America is an accomplishment that I will always have. It is the pinnacle of my running career and was done for a positive reason -- to promote youth fitness through a promise I made to some fantastic students at Russell Elementary in Missoula, Montana. While the waves crashed over my legs today I felt waves of satisfaction flowing through me. I can't truly describe everything I'm feeling right now, but I can tell you that I have a tremendous sense of joy within me.

A couple of weeks after completing my run across America in 2006, I wrote the following words -- which sum up my feelings about that run between the Pacific Ocean and the Atlantic Ocean:

When my daughter, Ashlin, and I created the virtual Run/Walk Across America during the summer 2005 that the 4th and 5th graders successfully did at Russell Elementary School last year, I had no idea to what extent this project would impact my life... and the lives of others. When you embark on something of this magnitude, there is no way that you can come out on the other side of it without a change in your heart, outlook on life, and appreciation for the little things. My trek across America required over 6 million steps to get from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean. Crossing 15 states during the second hottest summer on record was certainly a demanding task, particularly when pushing a 80-pound stroller an average of 30 miles per day. I had to dig deep within myself to uncover strength and perseverance that I didn't know I had.

I went into the trek truly believing that I could accomplish it. I don't think that you can take on something like this unless you are fully committed to it and actually believe that you can complete it. Since my failed attempt to run across the country 20 years ago (in 1986), I've had to endure comments such as "You're crazy!"; "You'll never make it!"; "That's impossible!", and similar reactions. Even while on the trek this summer I was regularly hit with such comments, as well as having to endure occasional actions -- such as being forced off the road purposefully by drivers; having things thrown at me; and, being spit upon. Many people would not take a moment out of their day to try and understand what I was aiming to accomplish and why I was putting myself through this incredibly difficult task.

For many people, it was easier to simply dismiss me as some crazy guy pushing a stroller... perhaps an unemployed stranger without a foothold in reality... or a "Forrest Gump" wannabe. I had a thief try to steal from me, and others who purposefully tried to hinder my path. So many people shot me a look of skepticism, negativism, and sometimes just plain rudeness -- as though I was simply an obstacle or distraction on their way to work, the supermarket, or some other pressing destination. If they would have just taken a moment to listen, they would have learned that I'm a 41-year old father... an educated man with two Bachelor of Arts degrees and who operates a business... a man who truly enjoys encouraging kids and motivating them toward greater fitness... a man who was willing to put his life on hold to keep a promise to some kids... a man who accepted the risks of a solo journey in spite of the odds... a man who believed in his reason for running.

As is always the case, there are two sides to a story. I also met people who were willing to assist a complete stranger in fulfilling a promise... and realizing his dream of crossing the continent. People across America reached out to me with open hearts and open homes. They picked me up off the road at the end of a long day, and provided a place to shower, be fed, and sleep -- returning me to the road the next day. People went out of their way to help me succeed in this journey, and I honestly would not have made it to the Delaware coast without them. With each passing state I got a more clear picture of the heart in America's "heartland". Not everyone who took me in for an evening entirely understood this slim, tanned distance runner from Montana. However, the ones who took the time to help me were not judgmental and truly accommodated me in order to set me up for success. I'm truly in awe of the people I met along the route.

Some people would stop their vehicles because they were curious about my reason for running. Others would simply hand me money and say, "Keep Going!" On more than one occasion I had complete strangers pray for me, and offer exceptional words of encouragement. Somehow, the run seemed to impact more and more lives the further I got. It resonated with many people, and it seemed to inspire and motivate people in their personal lives. I never imagined that would happen. Most often in life it is when we are not looking for blessings that we are hit smack in the face with a blessing beyond measure. That happened to me during the journey. Yes, I've experienced both sides of humanity during the run across America... from the bad to the good. The reactions from people to what I was doing were as wide ranging as the countryside I crossed. I had to endure harsh words that sometimes hit me like needles, similar to the hard rains that I would have to endure on the road. However, I enjoyed the serenity of kindness bestowed upon me by strangers who would quickly become friends, and whose acts of kindness were more beautiful than the most picturesque sunrise I saw during the trek.

Several things came out of the run. First and foremost, I kept my promise to the Russell Elementary students. I also fulfilled a lifetime running dream and pushed myself beyond what I ever imagined I could endure. I grew closer to the Lord and gained a deeper appreciation for loved ones and the life I've been given. It's not possible to genuinely spend time with someone who is homeless beneath a highway overpass and not realize the blessings in your own life. To look into the eyes of a drifter -- who is hitchhiking his way to an unknown destination -- is to know that you're fortunate to have purpose and direction in life. To spend time in homes where unity is nonexistent, and where happiness seems to be as chipped and worn as the leaning picket fence outside, is to know that you can reflect unity and happiness in your own life in hopes of creating a ripple effect in this world. And that's really what this is about... a ripple effect. My 3,260-mile run across America should not be the end. Hopefully, there will be a ripple effect by those who were touched by the journey. That's my hope. Whether it be someone that I met along the way whose heart was positively impacted by my trek, or someone who simply heard about it through a local media story and thought "Perhaps I should do something to make a difference." You just never know what ripple effect your actions will have in this life.

I've received messages from some runners who have been "inspired" by my journey and are now planning on embarking on a trek of their own. It has been said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery... but that may be on a case-by-case basis. Nobody will ever be able to duplicate the true purpose and effort it took to make the run a success, and although there was no national news coverage about what the Russell Elementary students achieved, or the promise I kept, those of us who were touched by the run know... and that is what is truly important.

My trek across America was an experience I will always hold close to my heart. To stand under a star-filled sky at 3:00 a.m. in the plains of eastern Montana, miles from the nearest person, is something that is hard to describe. The serenity, silence and beauty truly makes you realize that there is something far greater than yourself. Regardless of your spiritual beliefs, you cannot stand in such places as I have and not feel the presence of a greater power. To be completely alone on a road stretching off to the horizon and watch the sun come up as antelope graze nearby is something that is etched in the mind and soul forever. This journey was pounded into my heart and memory with each step I took. It is a part of me forever, and no amount of written words will adequately express all that I experienced and felt during the 108 days of crossing this great country.

I've had many people suggest that I write a book about my experiences, or that I develop and market the virtual Run/Walk Across America curriculum. Time will eventually unfold the post-run activities and undertakings, but for now I am enjoying a bit more 'normality' and am readjusting to a my life in Montana. I received an e-mail today from Scott Sehon, who ran across the U.S.A. with Dave Bronfenbrenner in 2003. Scott wrote,
"I'm 3 years removed from mine, and it all seems like a dream to me now. But if I'm ever having a down day, all I have to do is think about the trip and I'm able to smile. I hope that your run will be able to do the same for you. I realize that your emotions and feelings towards your run must be very, very different than mine were and still are. You were running solo (I can't even imagine that. I'd run across the country twice with someone else before even thinking of going solo - not out of fear for my safety, but out of fear of losing my mind!), and you had kids that you were away from. That must have been very tough... as you said it was on a number of occasions. Dave and I were single guys in our 20's, with nothing pulling on our heartstrings. So, all my blessings to you for keeping your promise to the students and completing your mission. As someone told us when Dave and I finished our run in Oregon, and I will now pass on to you: "Hey, you've run across the country, and no one can ever take that away from you."
I truly appreciate Scott's words... from one trans-con runner to another. The day will come when the vivid details of the run will fade a bit -- one of the pitfalls of time and aging. However, the pictures and videos I have from the trek will always be a reminder to me, and a story for my children and grandchildren to cherish in years to come.

I have become the 5th person to run solo and unsupported ocean to ocean across the United States. That's a distinction that I'm proud of because I know the complete effort it took to realize that goal. Based on the record-breaking heat of the summer, the very northerly mountainous route, and countless other factors, the chance of failure was significant. Heat illness, physical injury, and other barriers could have stopped the trek at any time. However, I was able to persevere and realize my dream. I hope that my run across America will stand as a testament to what can be achieved when a person develops his or her abilities and uses those abilities for a positive reason. I hope that kids will look at my journey with eyes open to imagination, and challenge their inner spirit to be the best that they can be. A body that is fit can take you on amazing adventures. We only have one body to carry us where we want to go, and fitness lessons need to be learned early. As many adults will attest to, fitness gets harder the older you get.

My run across the United States is now in the books. I've accomplished my goal and stayed true to the intent and purpose of the trek. I look back on the path I've traveled with great satisfaction, knowing that my footsteps were placed for a positive (and hopefully influential) reason. I thank all of you who have encouraged me through each step, and who have showed me that the act of a kind word or deed can be an incredible driving force to success. I thank God for blessing me with the vision for this project, and the ability to see it through to completion. To each and everyone of you who helped to bring this adventure from one coast to the other, I extend my sincere and heartfelt appreciation. It has been an incredible journey and one that will forever be a part of me. Thank you for joining me through these 3,260 mileposts. What a run... the run of a lifetime.

My entire journal from the 2006 run across America can be seen here.

Keep reaching for life's mileposts!

Gotta Run,

Paul Staso, Founder & President
The P.A.C.E. Fitness Foundation, Inc.

P.A.C.E. is a non-profit organization aimed at Promoting Active Children Everywhere.