‘Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.’ Helen Keller
On 17th August 2011, Chris Finill and Steve Pope set out to run over 3,100 miles across the USA. From their starting point in San Francisco to their final steps in New York, this is their remarkable tale of endurance, tenacity and adventure.
‘I got into ultra running in the mid-90s,’ Chris tells us: ‘And it was through ultra running that I met Steve. Before a 24 hour race we were doing together in 2007, Steve gave me a book by Jim Shapiro, who ran across the USA in 1981. I was completely captivated by the adventure of it all - and so our idea was born.’
What initially started out as a bit of a joke eventually crystalised into a solid plan, which took around 3 years of meticulous planning. ‘We decided to attempt the challenge with my wife Julia and friend Ben Southern, who would follow us in a support vehicle. Our route would take us from the west to east coast in 80 days. On a 90-day tourist visa, that gave us 5 days wiggle room either side!’
‘Choosing to start at Half Moon Bay meant that we were actually able to run out of the Pacific, dry our feet and start running. We knew we had around 40 miles a day to cover, so it was a case of getting our heads down and plodding eastwards.’
Emerging from the Pacific at Half Moon Bay in California
Just 3 days into the challenge, Chris received some bad news. ‘Sadly, we heard that my mother had passed away. It was expected, but still devastating. I’d already discussed with my family that if the worst should happen while I was away, that I would carry on, so that’s what we did - but it was definitely not the start I’d hoped for!’
Following their initial setback, they continued onwards across the central valley of California into the wilderness of Yosemite, before entering the imposing Death Valley in Nevada, where temperatures regularly reached a scorching 45 degrees: ‘We were running with backpacks full of ice and diving into the air-conditioned support vehicle every 5 or 6 miles, just to get some relief from the intense heat,’ says Chris.
Tackling the heat in the Nevada desert
After around 400 miles, another spanner was thrown in the works when Chris got a suspected stress fracture on his left tibia - something which could have ended their attempt. ‘I saw a physio, who told me to stop running,’ says Chris, with a knowing smile: 'In the end, I took a day off before deciding to walk instead. We averaged around 35 miles a day for 6 days before I tentatively started running again - and miraculously it seemed to be okay. Somehow, I got away with it.’
After a shaky period through Utah, where Chris admits he was concerned he wouldn’t complete the challenge, things started to look up as they reached the soaring Rocky Mountains in Colorado. ‘By that point, we were feeling strong,’ says Chris: ‘It had been quite hard up until that point, with injuries and generally feeling quite down. Running through Colorado was the boost we needed and the scenery was simply stunning - it was a real high point.’
Selection of trainers worn throughout the run
The other obvious high point was reaching New York, their finish line. ‘We had planned to get to New York in time to run the New York Marathon - and we reached Manhattan at 11am the day before the race! We went to pick up our race numbers and ended up blagging our way into the pre-marathon reception for the elite athletes. A rather large smoked salmon caught our eye at the reception buffet, which we rather boldly wolfed down before continuing the final 10 miles to reach the Atlantic.’
‘The sun was just starting to set as we reached our finish line at Brighton Beach, and we plunged head first into the Atlantic ocean to celebrate. One of the people waiting to meet us was Jim Shapiro, whose book had originally inspired us - which was a lovely circular feeling to the whole experience and quite special.’
In Brooklyn with Jim Shapiro, the inspiration behind their adventure
In the end, it took Chris and Steve 79 days and 22 hours to complete their run - 2 hours less than their original target. ‘I always like to say we ran 3,126 miles - with the final 26 miles being the New York Marathon! In a way, the marathon was a relatively easy running day, as we’d been running 40 miles a day up to that point.’
Such an incredible feat wouldn’t have been possible, in Chris’s opinion, without the support of Julia and Ben. ‘Some people do this run completely unassisted - and I have no idea how!’ laughs Chris, ‘Julia and Ben were fundamental to our success. Although we ran over 3,000 miles, Julia had to drive 3 times that distance, as we regularly finished our day over 100 miles from the nearest motel. Then we’d have to drive back to the same spot the next day to start the run again.’
Heading into the Nevada desert
While specific training didn't really come into play for Chris, he stresses the mental training needed for a challenge of this scale. ‘What was crucial in my training was understanding how Steve and I would get on,’ says Chris: ‘We ran from my home in Surrey to his in Sheffield to see how we would get on in terms of personal chemistry, which was very helpful. We recognised the success of this run was as much about our bond as it was about our physical fitness.’
‘Ultra running has ultimately taught me to compartmentalise when the going gets tough - focussing on the here and now rather than the what-ifs and maybes.’
And would Chris take on the challenge again? ‘Yes, but more slowly - I’m 61 now!’ he laughs: ‘Lands End to John O'Groats is my next challenge - I’d like to do that within the next couple of years.’
‘After all, it’s not what you do in life that you regret, it’s what you don’t do’.
You can read more about their adventure in their recent book, Across America on Foot: 27 Stories of Adventure, Endurance and Inspiration.