Transcontinental Runs

Steve Gourley
Ultramarathon Running
Term Paper-Davis

One of the most distinct features of humans exists in the fact that we a re innately motivated to achieve certain goals. We are in essence a specie of curiosity, always testing how much stress we can take both mentally and physically. There have been many people over the years that tested their mental and physical states, but few can say they put their very existence to the limit like James Shapiro and Bhaktimarga Swami. Shapiro, an American runner and author, completed a virtually solo run across the United States in 1980, covering 3,026 miles in eighty days of trials and tribulations.(Shapiro preface) Swami, a Hare Krishna monk in Canada, is well on his way to completing his trek across his native land.(Internet 96)

It was the age of 33 in 1980 when Shapiro started to run from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic Ocean.(Shapiro preface) While the distance of over three thousand miles seems near impossible, Shapiro had plenty of experience in ultra-running prior to his trip. He began running in his early youth, participating on his schools’ track teams. He enjoyed little success in these early races but was confident that one day he would find a long distance where he could excel. In 1975, after witnessing the Boston Marathon, Shapiro decided that he would run a marathon himself. Five years and thousands of miles later Shapiro had run several marathons and even ultramarathons up to fifty miles long. But the thought of the solo venture across America was not a glimmer in Shapiro's eye until he met two runners who had run the length of England across America. He then made it a point to train twenty miles a day for eight weeks up until his departure in July of 1980.(Shapiro preface) If he finished he would join a select group of twelve living runners that have mastered comparable runs.(Shapiro preface)

After catching a one way flight to California from his native state of New York, Shapiro settled on Dillon Beach as his starting point for its beauty and openness.(Shapiro preface) Shapiro was going to have to get used to this sense of openness, for except for parts of Utah, Nevada, and Wyoming where a car accompanied him for hydration purposes, he would be traveling the open lands of America alone. "It was scary to sense how alone I was going to be and how much I would have to live with myself, and be comfortable doing so."(Shapiro preface) There was no turning back for Shapiro now. "I had made a big promise to myself and the world," he say's. "Now the only thing left to do was to keep it."

So that morning in July Shapiro started off to keep his promise. While an adrenaline rush would carry him through the first few miles, Shapiro would soon realize the magnitude of the trip he had taken on and the obstacles he would encounter.(Shapiro 8)The thoughts of Bruce Tulloh, a harrier who once trekked the United States in the 1960's comes to mind.(Shapiro 10) Tulloh once calculated that it takes 4,000,000 footsteps to cross the country.(Shapiro 10) This is of no comfort to Shapiro who feels like in the early stages of the run he has gotten nowhere. "I only have 3,985,000 footsteps to go," complains Shapiro after completing twenty five miles.(Shapiro 10)

About fifty miles into the race, Shapiro begins to feel like he has gone somewhere. He has traveled through three counties and is enjoying a change in the landscape. "I have gone somewhere different on the Earth," says Shapiro as he relishes in the smell of fields and fresh air that he was devoid of in the fumes infested city of New York.(Shapiro 11) But this kind of oneness with nature was often ephemeral, as Shapiro had to keep strict attention to his running system that he had designed. Shapiro's plan of attack for the 3026 miles was marked down to a science, optimizing the amounts of recovery time he gave his legs and lungs for pacing matters. Shapiro would run for fifteen minutes,(about one and a half miles) and walk for five minutes which comes to a sum of one and five and a quarter miles an hour.(Shapiro 20) Shapiro stresses the importance of walking for his completion of the venture. "Most journey runners do some amount of walking either to get through a period of injury or as a standard part of their mileage," he says. (Shapiro 21)

The first day of running would come to a close for Shapiro as he logged in near his goal state of fifty miles. A tired and sore Shapiro could now contemplate the days activities. "That opening day marked one of the great transitions in my life- one of the infrequent times a totally new way of life impresses itself on one's whole way of doing things," Shapiro reflected. Shapiro's termilnology of a "new way of life" would be the key to the next couple months of the run.(Shapiro 17)

The first major change in his lifestyle would be the way he sustained his very own life when dealing with the necessities of eating, sleeping, and drinking he would often make one stop a day at a diner along the way and load up on three meals worth of food. This tactic of consuming large amounts of food allowed Shapiro to not waste time on stopping in and out of restaurants all day or worry about where the next diner would be located. As far as sleeping arrangements went, Shapiro often would check himself into a motel at the end of the day.(Shapiro 17) If worse came to worse Shapiro would take advantage of the tent that he carried on his back and camp out. The tent was a one pound model that also rolled up into a sleeping bag. The combination was one of the few things that Shapiro carried with him in a pack that also held his maps, socks, travelers checks, and water bottle.(Shapiro 53)

Speaking of water, Shapiro was also often aided in states containing deserts by handlers that drove alongside him in an attempt to keep him as well hydrated as possible. "No greater love hath a journey runner and a handler," says Shapiro who commends the handlers for giving the runner not only fluids but moral support.(Shapiro 60) Shapiro had two handlers in three select states where the desert temperatures would measure ninety degrees in the shade.

The other major "new way of life" would be in the mark of extreme highs and lows that would mark Shapiro's personality. For example during one day of running Shapiro was totally immensed in his run, enjoying every aspect of his travels. "Some people need to hear only a certain strain of music from a beloved piece of Bach to feel a rush of emotion that comes with that intimate friendship," he says. "As for me, the sight of rushing cars and trucks on that four-lane highway and the peculiar whine and hiss of the traffic evoke a deep, secret kind of feeling in my heart. Without embarrassment and in perfect tranquillity at the prospect of being misunderstood or of not being understood, I can say that I love I-80. In fact, I adore it." (Shapiro 55)

Shapiro would also achieve an emotional high from many people he met along his journey. Shapiro's expedition often made drivers curious as to whether Shapiro was running along the highway because his car broke down. Often many truckers and even women showed trust in Shapiro, by stopping and asking him if he needed a ride. "I was a lonely man in a way, my work was lonely and I tried to expect nothing from the world, so such small gestures seemed so rich," Shapiro said. (Shapiro 75)

But not everyone was so kind to Shapiro and encouraging of his expedition. One instance that Shapiro was not fond of took place in Nevada when he came upon a group of construction workers on the Union Pacific train tracks. The truckers, numbering about twenty men, took turns hurling insults and rocks at Shapiro. It was not the gestures that bothered Shapiro. "I couldn't prove myself to every single person I met,"he said, " It was okay to be disliked. If they had a problem with me it was theirs, not mine." For Shapiro, it was the rocks that shortened his temper as he confronted the truckers and scolded them for acting so inhumane.(Shapiro 128)

Another thing that bothered Shapiro along his run was the trash that he encountered, especially trash that could not be decomposed. He came across baby bottles, shoes, diapers, just to mention a few, that made him to sick to think about how inconsiderate the human race is sometimes. Shapiro did his best along the journey to ensure that he did not pollute the land any further. "I never threw anything away on the road that would not decompose without a trace," he says. "It wasn't always easy to haul tin cans and plastic trash for dozens of miles before finding a trash can, but how could one not?"(Shapiro 76)

Once Shapiro got over the shocks of the hassling workers and trash along the highway he was free to concentrate on finishing up the run. The eastern part of the run and the conclusion of the adventure was not easy for Shapiro as one of his feet got infected from not properly taking care in changing his socks. He would visit a doctor who gave Shapiro some antibiotics to heal the scars. After a few days of recovery Shapiro would be able to trek cross country again, only at a more reasonable pace. He reached the 2000 mile mark in Iowa, and was now in the home stretch according to the words of runner Don Ritchie in his head," The first thousand is easy but the second thousand will be the hardest. The third thousand will be easy because your heading for home."(Shapiro 177)

As the run got closer to New York, Shapiro had gotten more confident. "I had already been alone, been unhappy, been afraid, been sick, and broken down, been in rebellion against the run, and I had gotten through all that," he says. With that said, Shapiro knew that nothing was going to stop him from finishing the run. The mountainous state of Pennsylvania would be Shapiro's last difficult test, as the frigid air of some unseasonably cool fall days. After conquering Pennslyvania it was time for Shapiro to go home to the finish in New York's Central Park, a mere 421 miles away. Shapiro picked this finish because of its symbolic nature, for the New York City marathon finishes there.

Shapiro had a strange mindset in the last week or so of the run. "There was no predominant mood in these last few days," he said. "The earlier anticipatory bouts of sadness that had gripped me when I thought of having to end the run had been replaced by a sure sense that enough was enough." Shapiro battled through tiredness and restlessness on the final few days to finish as he had now wished. Eighty days of trials and tribulations had come to a close as friends and family greeted Shapiro in the famed Central Park. Like a true warrior, Shapiro had won the battle of a lifetime, a battle that he will remember forever.

The other story of a transcontinental traveler is of Bhaktimarga Swami a forty three year old Hare Krishna monk from Canada. Swami left Beacon Hill Park in Victoria on April 12, 1996 to walk across Canada in what Swami refers to a "journey of spiritual healing for the nation."(Internet 96)

"Society's greatest experts have tried to solve Canada's problems of political alienation, violence, crime, family breakdown, and hopelessness, by various economic and political means," he says. "But none of these efforts can succeed on their own. We must bring a spiritual focus to our efforts," he says.(Internet 96)

Like Shapiro, Swami has had his share of complications in the run. In one of the early stages of the run, Swami's support van, driven by a fellow religious leader, was hit by an oil rig in May. At first the accident was serious, because Swami often relied on the van to carry food and necessities, but the duo got back on track rather shortly. Another thing that Swami encountered like Shapiro was extreme heat. He trekked through many days in which temperatures hovered over the ninety degree measure. Swami subsequently lost a lot of weight that caused much of the public to be concerned about the spiritual healer's health. But Swami has reported that he feels stronger than ever. One more episode that caused trouble for the Swami was an incident in which Swami wanted to get close to a herd of cattle that were grazing in a pasture. The cows took unkindly to Swami invading their territory and attacked the religious leader.(Internet 96)

Basically outside of these three episodes Swami is completely enjoying his trek. He enjoys being able to rise early and take to the roads. He has grown fascinated with different aspects of nature especially bodies of water where he enjoys swimming with the ducks.(Internet 96)

Other aspects of the run that he has taken kindly to are the stops at different houses. Many families have heard about Swami's journey and have been more than welcome to provide meals, shelter, and a shower for him. The hospitality suggested by the families gives the Swami hope that the future of Canada will be promising. Despite all the pleasure Swami is gaining from his run he has made it a point not to forget about the purpose of the journey. He often stops at local schools or auditoriums to preach to youths about how Canada can make their country better for the future. He also often stops in temples to keep in prayer with God to give him strength for the run and strength to reach the youths of Canada.(Internet 96)

Swami's expeditions and preaching have not gone unnoticed. He has been interviewed by newspapers and television stations two or three times a week. This media attention has made Swami a nationally renown figure. He has become practically a legend on the highways as truckers honk at the recognition of the spiritual ruler.

The accounts of Swami have been recorded practically daily on Ultramarathon World. He has traveled for over two hundred days and hopes to finish within eight months. Swami averages about fifty kilometers a day and expects to finish the eighty five hundred kilometer run through all ten Canadian provinces in about eight months of walking. It seems the final stretch will be the hardest for Swami as temperatures in early December hover around the freezing degree mark.(Internet 96)

My Opinions of Transcontinental Accounts

I really enjoyed reading the accounts of the transcontinental runs. I especially enjoyed Meditations From the Breakdown Lane. It was a highly enjoyable and motivational book. It showed man's triumph over his own pain and hardships. In a time when athletics seems to be flooded with overpaid and arrogant athletes, it was a welcome change to see a man like Shapiro run for the love of his sport, not for the attention factor.

On the other hand I am a little ambivalent towards the accounts of Swami. While I am impressed with the mental and physical strength he has showed in trekking across Canada, I am a little concerned about Swami's true purpose in the voyage. Throughout the trip he appears to be extremely concerned with interviews and gaining the attention of the public eye. I would just hope that Swami will fulfill his true intentions in the journey of healing the wounds of Canada and not spend as much time doing interviews.