24: Fifty States — One Nation

24: Fifty States — One Nation

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Spirit of America

Fifty States — One Nation

Experience, travel — these are as education in themselves.

~Euripides

What’s the best way to experience America? One step at a time. And that’s precisely what I set out to do in 2006 when I endeavored to visit all fifty states in fifty consecutive days. Oh yeah, and run a marathon in each of them while there.

Yes, you read that correctly. Starting on a warm and balmy day in September, I began my quest of running fifty marathons, in fifty states, in fifty days with the Lewis & Clark marathon in St. Charles, Missouri. It seemed like a fitting place to embark, given it was the 200th anniversary of the Lewis & Clark expedition.

After Missouri the plan was to head west across the country, stopping in each successive state to visit, explore and run a marathon. As you might imagine, the logistics, scheduling and research were every bit as challenging as the running itself. Given the awkward timing of various marathons across the nation we weren’t always able to follow a straight line from one state to the next, but rather zigzagged across the country in a complex web of travel.

A complex and glorious web of travel — and one that was made all the more meaningful by the presence of my family. My wife, a dentist, had adjusted her schedule to join the procession, and our two children — Alexandria (age eleven at the time) and Nicholas (age eight when we began the trip) — would be taking fifty days off school to travel with us. Well, not exactly off school. My mom, a retired school teacher, would also be part of the crew and the children’s respective schools would send her the weekly lesson plans each Sunday night so that she could “road school” the kids as we ventured. My father also came along because, well, we’re Greek, and where one family member goes the others are soon to follow.

It might be easy to conclude that seeing the country so quickly would be an indistinguishable blur, but just the opposite was true. I remember every single state with amazing clarity, even to this very day, nearly a decade later. Because we traveled so quickly, the differences between geographies, cultures, climate and cuisine were markedly pronounced. There was no dilution of memory as there may have been had we toured various regions months or years apart from each other.

The first thing that was readily apparent was how vast and unexplored the West still is, even now, two hundred years after the Lewis & Clark expedition. Driving from Missouri to Colorado, for the Boulder Backroads Marathon, (via Memphis, Tennessee; Gulfport, Mississippi; Little Rock, Arkansas; Wichita, Kansas; Des Moines, Iowa; and Lincoln, Nebraska) the open spaces along the highway became broader and broader, and the humidity dropped lower and lower. This dynamic became even more pronounced as we moved from Colorado through Wyoming, the Dakotas, Montana and Idaho, eventually arriving in Seattle for our first seafood fest!

I watched the kids marvel as the fishermen hurled massive salmon from their coolers to awaiting merchants at Pike Place Fish Market. Soon we would be making one of those our dinner, along with freshly caught crab and clam chowder, the thick fresh smell of saltwater drifting in off the Pacific as we sat at an outside table watching the sun go down.

From Seattle we would fly to Alaska, only to encounter an early-season snowstorm! Thankfully our expedition was sponsored by the outdoor clothing company The North Face, so we had plenty of warm clothing. Not that we needed it for long, because the next day we found ourselves in the tropical splendor of Hawaii sipping Mai Tais (well, at least we adults were) and slathering on the sunscreen. Thankfully my body was holding up to the daily marathon routine so I was able to enjoy the great diversity of people and places we were experiencing, along with the colorful Hawaiian umbrella in my drink.

After Hawaii we flew back to the mainland and resumed our land-based travels eastward through the Southwest and Texas. Not only had the landscape changed, but so had the language. I remember the race director of the Dallas Marathon greeting us in a thick Texan drawl: Howdy y’all! Thankfully my in-laws from Lubbock had joined us so we had interpreters. By the time we departed for the Midwest my language skills had become quite adept: We’re fixin’ to go. See y’all later.

We arrived in Green Bay, Wisconsin on October 24th, which corresponded with Nicholas’s ninth birthday. Unbeknownst to any of us, they had a big party planned for him. Just as unexpectedly, Nicholas announced that morning that he wanted to run the final nine miles of the marathon to celebrate his ninth birthday. You’ve been hearing a lot about my experiences traveling across America, so I thought it would nice to get the perspective through his eyes, too. Nicholas is now eighteen and tells his side of the story like this:

As a nine-year-old kid, not much really sticks with you. You hope to get enough time to play at school and you generally live your life without thinking twice. More than half my life has passed since that frigid October day in Wisconsin, but the memories are carved in my mind like writing in stone. I awoke in the early morning buzzing with nervous anticipation. It was my ninth birthday and I decided to run the last nine miles of the marathon with my dad. I revered my father as a god, as most nine-years-olds do, and I wanted to be just like him. The only problem was my four-foot frame would only take me so far.

There I was, a sight to behold, a nine-year-old running down the streets of Green Bay with a chase vehicle in tow and a wide grin on my rosy face. The run itself was memorable but the destination was amazing. I have been a fan of football my whole life, from playing in the sandy beaches of Southern California as a kid, to under the lights as a high school senior. Football has always been my athletic endeavor of choice.

I joined up with my dad and the rest of the runners a few blocks from the finish line and we turned onto Lombardi Drive and I saw the holy shrine of football: Lambeau Field.

Our course took us around a lap of the field itself — which they had opened exclusively for us runners — and I couldn’t help but imagine all the plays Brett Favre had made not twenty yards from where I was running. After the run, my father and I were given a private tour of the locker room and team facilities and I was given my very own happy birthday signed football by some of the Green Bay Packers.

At the conclusion of our tour, the Mayor of Green Bay presented me with a massive green and yellow cake, with nine burning candles the size of hot dogs to top it off. It was more than enough to feed all the runners and volunteers alike. For a wide-eyed nine-year-old, it was more than a dream come true.

I am eighteen now and preparing to go off to college, but I still reminisce about that magical fall day in Green Bay.

Eventually the procession of cross-country gallivanting brought us to the fiftieth and final state for the New York City Marathon. It had been a most extraordinary journey, one in which we saw firsthand the tremendous diversity of people and cultures across this great land of ours, and in that final marathon of running through the five boroughs of New York I got to experience it all over again, only this time it was compressed into 26.2 miles.

Crossing the finish line that November day in Manhattan, I was struck by how varied and eclectic we are here in America. We wear different clothes, eat different foods, speak with different accents and enjoy different pastimes. Yet in some fundamental way we are also all very much the same. We believe in freedom and liberty, and we continue to harbor the hope for a brighter tomorrow, a better future for us all. Walking through Central Park, draped in a Mylar finisher’s blanket as volunteers rushed around to tend to all the runners, I realized that while America may be comprised of fifty states, we remain united as one nation.

~Dean & Nicholas Karnazes

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