“You’re waking up at what time to run with a stranger?” asked his wife. The question came loaded with subtle tones of dismay.
This past Sunday I drove down to Pennsylvania and ran with Sandra Villines. Who’s that? “That” is the woman poised to crush the female world record for running across the United States. The current record, set in 1978 by Mavis Hutchinson, is 69 days. This coming weekend, Sandy is set to break that record by two weeks.
Holy shit is right.
For the last several weeks I have been tracking Sandy’s progress across the US through her website and knew she was getting closer and closer to me. Last Friday, after I made the decision I was definitely going to meet up with her, I emailed her crew through the website. They gave me the okay and let me know roughly where she would be.
Sunday morning I left home two hours before sunrise in the cold October rain and punched Mercer, PA into the GPS. The goal was to time my arrival with daybreak so I didn’t show up in the dark and scare anyone. After an uneventful ride down I-79, I used the Garmin tracking on Sandy’s website to figure out exactly where she was at the moment and parked on the widest shoulder I could find. I ran west about a mile before spotting the headlights of her crew’s car. When I got close enough, I introduced myself, made sure it was okay to join her, and fell into pace heading east on Scrubgrass Road, a quiet back road in Pennsylvania farm country.
Okay, now what?
Sandy is unassuming. There are no less than six various colored, blinking safety lights clipped to her fluorescent green vest. A small white car that has slowly traveled across the country with her is nearby. Sandy tells me that talking makes her tired, so if I want to talk she’ll listen but don’t expect a lot of conversation. After two hours in the car, with plenty of time to think, I realize I have nothing to talk about. We trade awkward conversation starters, but I’m hesitant to ask the questions I’m sure she’s heard a thousand times now, or worse, accidentally bring doubt into her mind:
Why are you doing this? Are you tired? Do you think you’ll make it?
As I settled into Sandy’s routine pace –slow and steady– the conversation loosened up. We made our way over the rolling hills of western PA, talking about races we’ve run, races we’d like to run, and her daily routine. It turns out we’re both eyeing Vol State sometime in the future. She’d like to run BFC, and I’ll eventually give Badwater a serious thought. Back in 2016 we both ran the Winter Beast of Burden in Buffalo. She took third in the 100 miles distance while I finished second in the 25 mile distance. We both laughed when a herd of cattle excitedly galloped down their fence line with us. Somewhere in there I forgot that this wasn’t just a normal run. It slipped my mind that Sandy was breaking a world record and I was just tagging along for a little while.
Before I knew it an hour had passed. Sandy suggested to her one-man-crew/roadside superstar Jay that I should sign a witness statement for Guinness World Records. At the time I didn’t realize this was code for “I’d like to run alone now.” At the next roadside stop Sandy thanked me for running with her and waved goodbye. I chatted with Jay and filled out a witness statement. Five minutes later I was running the six miles back to where I had parked earlier in the morning.
It’s been five days since Sunday.
It’s not everyday a transcontinental and world record breaking run comes through my (extended) backyard. After waffling about it for a week or so, I am really glad I took the opportunity to meet and run with Sandy. She took on a challenge I can barely fathom and with a dedication, drive, and sense of urgency I lack in nearly everything.
I was only with Sandy and Jay for about six miles. Jay stops every half mile to keep Sandy fueled and hydrated. They work with a routine and efficiency that rivals finely tuned machinery. Jay helps Sandy switch jackets on the run, jogs alongside as she stomachs another gel or a bite of banana, and has a massage stick ready for her when she wants to stretch a bit. And he does it all with optimism and a smile. This is as much his transcontinental challenge as it is Sandy’s, and she couldn’t do it alone.
I’ve been thinking about Sandy and Jay all week. Every time I run, Sandy is out there running, too. Jay is pulling the car a little further ahead and prepping for the next aid stop. When I’m grading papers and meeting with students, Sandy is making her way through another state. And when I’m at home, sitting on the couch, wasting time online, Sandy is still moving toward New York City and a world record.
Thinking about all that somehow makes me feel both invincible and vulnerable at the same time. I should be out there doing something great. It should be me taking on incredible challenges and pushing my limits. I should be doing …something.
But I don’t know what.
And I don’t know how.
And that’s where I’m stuck.
I had a brush with greatness and then, with a smile and a wave, I saw it run away from me. I’m left with a sense that I’m not pushing hard enough in my own life. My goals aren’t big enough, and my dreams aren’t fantastic enough.
If I genuinely learned something from meeting Sandy, I don’t think it’s about running.
It feels bigger than that.
What I learned from Sandy and her “miracle run” is that if you want it bad enough, anything can happen:
Set a goal.
Break it into manageable pieces.
And work at it at.
One step at a time.