I don’t believe any big adventures, at least not mine, start with one singular idea – cause and effect are not that linear, or traceable. This adventure is no different. If I had to trace it back, I’d say I got the idea of running across the country because I met a girl who did it before me. I met Anna Judd in 2014 in rural Virginia where we clicked off 27.something miles chatting about feminism, family, and the power of community. In short, she inspired me. Here was this hippie cocktail waitress/artist covering the United States on foot to both understand what was outside her own Orange Country bubble and to raise funds for the veterans’ community – a community she herself wasn’t a part of, but felt connected to. That was the seed.
Then I met Shaun Evans in 2015, also running across the country, this time for the special needs community, spreading the message of inclusion and teaching people that “Yes, you can!” I met up and ran 10 miles with him in rural Iowa (then again is there any other type of Iowa?). The seed had taken hold.
In February of 2016, I, along with three of my amazing girlfriends, set out to run 161 miles over four days along the coast of California to honor the 161 US servicewomen who have died supporting operations since 9/11. I was floored by the feedback I got from my loved ones, my acquaintances, and complete strangers. I still haven’t pinpointed the connections, but something about running for a cause mobilized and inspired people. I don’t know why I was so shocked, I’ve been inspired by runners in 5ks. I’m inspired by people every day. I’ve run races for charity before and I love my races with my Team Hoyt family. I understood the direct connection between my lending my legs in exchange for my Bella’s energy and inspiration. But this was something different, less tangible. I didn’t fully understand how or why, but I understood that I could do some good for others through running really far.
Then, of course, I ran into roadblocks. Original plans didn’t turn out. The legal paper was confusing. Executing the plan meant trying to file non-profit paperwork from Kuwait, and eventually would mean giving up my active duty career in the Marine Corps. I got offered a promotion and a sweet gig in Tokyo. 3600 miles was really, really far. It was going to be really hot in Arizona in August. I hadn’t committed to anything. I was going to do a similar run with another organization in 2018. I had a dozen legitimate reasons to postpone or cancel altogether.
Then I read John Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley in Search of America,” and I read it right after the 2016 elections. Never had I ever read a book so well-timed and in tune with my own feelings. Like Anna, I had spent my first 18 years of my life in a bubble – granted, mine included a sea of corn peppered with tractors while hers was an actual sea dotted with surfboards – but a bubble, nonetheless. Then, I spent my next 10 years or so going everywhere I could – both in the United States and across the world. If there was a chance to go somewhere new, meet someone new, I’d be there in my old vagabond sweatpants and favorite travelling flannel. As a side note, everyone should have a travelling flannel. Still, in all that travelling I’d managed to lose touch with my fellow citizens, with the communities that made up my country. I’d grown up in the country, was educated in the city, and lived on both coasts. I’d spent 10 years serving my nation’s policies and its citizens, but I felt like I was still in my bubble. I was John Steinbeck (minus Charlie and the impressive literary resume). I knew I had to do it. I had to run across the country because I was supposed to. I was supposed to meet these people and these communities. I was supposed to learn about them and from them. I was supposed to be the person on the other side of the adventure. I’ve heard people say, and often I’ve stolen, the phrase “the best way to learn a place is by running it.” So that’s what I’m doing. Running, more than driving and certainly more than flying, allows you to truly sense the space you’re in and connect it to the space within you. You can hear, smell, and see your surroundings – the good and bad. You have time to process and think about what’s going on around you as much as what’s going on inside you. That’s my search for America.
Now, what to call it? If naming a child was anything as hard as naming this event (and the non-profit behind it) I’d like to apologize to any progeny of mine in advance. I wanted something that was short and sweet (and had an unclaimed domain name), but that encompassed what I was trying to do and how I felt about the adventure. Becca and I tossed around ideas of something in a foreign language, perhaps a native language? We thought about naming it after someone. We thought about alliteration and the appeal of the hard k. We thought we could incorporate my name. Then I remember reading a story about Rick and Dick Hoyt – a duo team in which the father (Dick) pushes the son (Rick) in a specialized racing chair in road races, bike races, and even Ironmans. In the book Dick recounts the conversation with Rick after their first race. Rick told his dad that when he was in the chair, he didn’t feel like he had a disability. He felt free, and even called himself “free bird.”
That’s it. That’s how I feel. I’ve never spent a day in a wheelchair. I’ve always been able to use my legs and arms. I’ve always been able to speak what’s on my mind (to the chagrin of some). But Rick nailed it. I felt free when I ran, too. I felt physically free. I could go anywhere as long as I had my two legs. I didn’t need a car or bike. I can turn left or right. I can keep going or turn around short. Most of the time I’m not even limited by distance or location. I’m not running to get somewhere, I’m just running.
I feel free, or maybe freer, emotionally and spiritually too. I feel like I can meet my demons one by one and move past them. I feel like I can strip off my insecurities, my obligations, my worries. I’m free from all that. All I have to do is breathe in, breathe out, left foot, right foot, drink water, and eat food. How simple is that?
I feel that same freedom in my communities. Communities help free some of that baggage, too; some of that responsibility. Communities help free me from isolation and all the problems that come with it. Again, I’m not sure why it’s there, but I feel the connection between running, community, and freedom. Thus, Run Free was born.
So that’s the origin story, because “I loved Forrest Gump” seems like too much of a cliché.