Thursday, April 10, 2014 | 2 a.m.
The odds of success are overwhelmingly against her, but Las Vegas cancer survivor Helene Neville is convinced that she will be the first person in the world to run the 10,000-mile perimeter of the contiguous United States.
The 53-year-old grandmother and nurse is her own medical miracle. She underwent three brain surgeries in the 1990s to beat Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and was treated with follow-up chemotherapy and radiation. In 2012, she was diagnosed with T-Cell Lymphoma.
Yet she still manages to run 25 miles a day. Her record-breaking run started in 2010 with 2,520 miles in 93 hot, sticky and summer days from Ocean Beach, Calif., to Atlantic Beach, Fla.
Last year, Helene spent 45 days running from Vancouver, B.C., south to Tijuana, Mexico. She became the first runner ever to transect America west to east and north to south.
Is she crazy? She answers that question via YouTube.
Now comes the final two legs: She starts another 2,000-mile run in Florida on May 1 heading to the Canadian border in Maine with the end date of July 11. She estimates that it will be a 72-day trip passing through Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, Washington, D.C., Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut and New Hampshire.
In Philadelphia, she will stop to place her brother Anthony’s urn of ashes in the grave of their maternal grandparents. The final run of 3,400 miles across the top of the country to complete the 10,000-perimeter of the lower 48 states will be next year — from the Canadian border in Maine to Washington state.
“My run is not to realize my own dream but to inspire others to realize theirs,” she said. “My challenge is to motivate others into action.”
There’s no question that Helene is a remarkable woman and a visionary with an indomitable spirit. She runs for various causes and nursing charities as she uncovers the needs of others across the nation, inspiring them to run a full, rich life built on fitness and nutrition.
She wants to restore the health of America: “It’s up to you and me to take positive action to ensure that the future is everything it can possibly be. I can inspire others to rethink their own impossible one person and one mile at a time.”
You can follow her history-making run via Twitter @OneOntheRun and at Facebook.com/oneontherun. Also donate for her expenses and the new pair of running shoes she has to buy every 500 miles. Maybe Tony Hsieh and Zappos can help with that one!
Her first book, “Nurses in Shape,” was published in 2009, and after that fourth cancer scare in 2012, she published her second book, “One on the Run 93 Days Across America.” Her third book, “Border to Border,” will be published next month. She’s told her inspiring story at more than 47 hospitals and 38 schools and businesses during her runs across America.
Here’s our remarkable conversation:
Why are you really doing this? Not just the charity aspect, but physically why are you doing this?
That’s a great question. It’s not so much to realize some dream I have because I’ve never really dreamt of running across the country numerous times, but I do it to inspire others so that maybe they can think about realizing their own dreams or just simply rethinking their own impossible. Whatever that may be. You know, health is the best asset, and if we don’t take care of our body, it’s not going to take care of us.
That’s true. Where did the idea of doing the four perimeter legs of America come from?
No one’s ever done it, but I really get a big impact from visiting as many hospitals or people along the journey. I was so successful in the first run in 2010, and then I did the one in 2013 not too long after having chemo, and I just thought I’m going to just keep going. So I just decided to keep doing the whole way around the entire lower 48 states.
Was the idea at first just to run one leg?
The idea was to go from California to Florida across the southern U.S. Only a handful of people had ever done it. All men and all have done it in the winter months, so I thought that I’m going to do it in the summer.
Did you read about it somewhere, and it just clicked?
Yes, there is a website where they have been gathering statistics on people who have transected America on foot. I’m not even sure how it came about, but I just knew that I could do it, and I thought I wanted to give it a try. Everybody thought, of course, that I was crazy, but …
I think that they still must … but they are now in awe of what you achieved. Is it almost a marathon a day that you’re doing?
Yes, the first run I did 25 miles a day. A couple of times it was 50 or 60. And the last run I was averaging about 37 miles a day. But I take it on as a job. If my counterparts, meaning nurses, can be on their feet for eight, 12 or 16 hours a day, I sure as heck can stay out here on the highway in their honor in promoting health.
Yes, but one never thinks of a 53-year-old grandmother having battled cancer and undergone three brain surgeries to take on the task of running around the perimeter of America.
I know! I’m trying to carry the torch. I’m fighting age the whole way!
Are you healthy now?
Oh, yeah! I have been healthy all along. I consider myself very healthy with just a few setbacks here and there since the early 1990s. I called a friend right before my 2010 run. She was about 75 at the time from Philadelphia where I grew up, and I said, “I’m going to run across the country.” And she just yelled at me and said, “Are you crazy? Just have one of your sons call me to tell me what state you died in.” And she hung up on me. That was pretty much the reaction I got.
What’s so interesting about this is that you battled brain cancer with three surgeries before you ever did the run. Then you’re getting ready for the second run, and you have lymphoma.
Yeah, actually I had Hodgkin’s Disease in the 1990s, and then it abscessed in my brain. It was a benign mass they took out. The fact that I had three brain surgeries to get rid of this abscess relating to the cancer was a huge setback. In 2011, when we moved to Nevada from Arizona, a simple blood test revealed a low white blood count, about 1.8, and from there I went to several oncologists.
It was presenting itself like a leukemia, but it’s a T-cell, and, for me, it only affects my white count. It makes you sluggish, lethargic, and your stamina is not there. So I’m pretty in tune with my body. As soon as I felt able, I was off running.
And I presume that being in tune with your body is revved up because of the running?
I believe so, and eating right and I exercise all the time. I really watch what I put in my body.
What are the logistics for you on the road? Is there a car that follows you? Where does the luggage go? Where is the change of clothes? Where do you do your washing?
I’m glad you asked that because I think people assume I am with a crowd or a group. For 2010, we bought an old, dilapidated RV. My friends and I just put our money together. This is such an underfunded, underreported thing I’m doing, so I just literally called friends and family and said, “Hey can you spot me $100 here, $100 there?” So we got a collection going and in 2010 bought this dilapidated RV. I knew I’d outrun that thing.
We had drivers that would fly in and out at different locations and drive for about a week or 10 days. We were so self-conscious of the gas and fuel costs, they would just drop me off on the highway I-10, in the middle of nowhere, and the RV would drive ahead 25 or 30 miles and I would just run to it. So every day I’m out there running 25 miles or more with everything I need to survive for that day on my back. And it’s 113 degrees or more every day. So I did in fact outrun the RV! It was towed in Destin, Fla., but I kept going.
Do you still have the RV, or is something else now following you or moving ahead of you?
No, the RV I sold to somebody in Texas on the way back to Arizona. But the last run, Avis donated a car, and we had drivers. They paid their own way and they would fly in, drive and then fly back to wherever they came from. And the car, again, they would just drop me off and drive ahead with the gear and just sit there and wait. And we couch surfed. I stayed in people’s homes, which I loved because it really gave me a chance to see America and meet people up close and personal.
When you start up again next month in Florida and wind up in Maine, how will it work?
We’re actually going to use my car. We weren’t able to get a deal or a sponsorship, so we’re going use my car. It’s going be transported to Florida from Las Vegas, and then I’ll fly there and then when I finish in Maine, we’re going to leave the car there. I have friends in Vermont, so they’ll babysit the car for when I’m ready for the last leg in 2015 across the top. The car will already be out there providing it makes it through this last trip. It’s an old car, a 1998 Isuzu Trooper. So all it has to do is, I’ve been talking to it everyday: “All you have to do is go 25 miles a day and rest. Every day. That’s it!”
What do you eat on the run? What’s the day’s timetable? Up at 7, running by 8?
Yes. Since we’re a grassroots, bare-bones operation, I do the social media myself, and I’ll be out on the road at 8. I eat oatmeal or rice, fruit in the morning and green tea, and I’ll take the same thing, lots of fruit, lots of rice with me, on the road. And afterward I’ll eat a steak and all plant-based foods.
To hit the hay at night depends on how long the day’s run takes me. Some days I’m just slow and sore, and it might take me eight hours to do 25 miles. But as soon as I’m done, sometimes I feel good and want to go shopping or get my nails done.
It works, and this time around, I’m fortunate to get some sponsorship from Mobile Medical Service, who do compression garments. I wear the compression sleeves, socks and shorts, and it helps with fluid, to get the fluid out of your body and moving along so you don’t get any swelling. I swear by that stuff.
I’m guessing that everything you need for the day is in the large backpack. Then you restock with water the next day?
Correct, and food. And actually on my 2013 run, I carried my brother’s ashes with me the whole way. He is with me on this next run, too. His death was very unexpected, and my mom passed away in 2002. We have a little memorial fund for education for underserved kids in Philadelphia.
It’s just to inspire people. No matter how bad you feel like you have it, there is always somebody worse. You always have the capacity to or capability to be a leader by example. Despite all the odds, you can still teach somebody something.
Have you ever had a narrow escape with cars on the highway?
Yes, two days from the finish line in Florida, I think they may have been purposely gunning for me, it was so close. So I’ll never forget it. Then another time in Texas, somebody chased me. Near a truck stop, but I knew that I could outrun them.
Now you can’t run on interstates, right? You have to run underneath them or beside them?
Well, my run in 2010, I ran on the interstate all the way to Mississippi, and in Tallahassee, I jumped back on I-10. So I did run on the interstate. In Texas, New Mexico, Louisiana, Mississippi, yes, you’re allowed to. Arizona and I-8 coming out of San Diego, I found out that you weren’t allowed to do that. Or I wasn’t allowed, but since I was so close to the state line of Arizona, they let me go.
But the police did pull you in once?
Yes, this last run near Canada, outside Seattle, I was on I-5. Because up north, there are very few roads. There’s not much choice. So I ran on the interstate, and the police did pick me up. But they were really nice, they took photos and then became fans of my Facebook page.
You must have friends all across America.
I think so. I think people think that if I’m out there and I’ve gone through this and that, what could they do? I just hope they think that to themselves or share it with other people that they could do something. Whether it’s just changing one habit or behavior toward a healthier life.
You’ve run in snow, sleet, wind, sun, heat, everything, right?
Down here in the southwest, there’s not much snow and sleet I’ve run the first two runs and this one coming up, I’ve started on the same day, May 1. So I run in the heat. I love the heat.
Is there a significance to it? Is there a reason for starting May 1?
Actually, I started the first run around May 1 so I would hit Phoenix by Nurses Week the 6th through the 12th. My last run, I’m going to start in Maine on Jan. 1, which was my mom’s birthday. So I will be running through sleet and everything else.
Did you ever think first of doing it all at once, or did you know that it would have to be done over a period of four to five years?
That’s another great question. I wish that I would’ve had enough money to do it all at once. When I finished in 2010, I felt so good. I could’ve run back, but of course it takes money and time away from work. It’s just not possible. It’s a record that’s achievable if you have time and things are well planned.
So you will be the first to do the entire parameter? What an achievement. Extraordinary! Congratulations!
That’s correct. I keep thinking about swimmer Diana Nyad, who was in her early 60s. She is about 10 years older than me, and she did something phenomenal. So I aspire to her. To be 10 years older, and she can do that. It gives me a little oomph and hope that maybe I can do this, too.
You have to finish this now. You started it. What psyches you up in your mind not to quit?
The music I run to, the people who write, these people who are nameless and faceless that just out of the goodness of their heart post something inspirational on the Facebook page. That’s really nice to hear. To see the smiles of people when I come through their town or some young boys and girls who jump in and run with me for a half a day. That psyches me up a lot.
How many pairs of shoes have you run though?
A lot! The first run, I packed every pair I had, which was about 20, and I had to send them all back because my feet were so swollen. And then this last one, I try to get 500 miles out of a pair of shoes. It’s different for everybody. What works for me doesn’t necessarily work for somebody else.
I have a great respect and admiration for you for attempting this. It will be a world record when you achieve it owned by a Las Vegas resident. And you’re halfway there?
That’s right. I’m halfway there right now. I just have to go a couple of months, and I’ll be 75 percent there with just one more leg to go.
What do you have with you running as a form of communication?
A cell phone and a walkie talkie that’s only good for a couple of miles. The first run in 2010, it was so hot that my cell phone died, my music, everything, and it was just me and the sounds of silence, but I really loved it. It was slow enough that you really get to look at the environment and smell the smells and see all the sites. It’s a peaceful feeling for me.
So when anybody says to you “you’re nuts,” you say?
I say “Try it!” “Nuts” is sitting in your car at the drive-thru waiting 15 minutes for something toxic to eat. That’s my comeback. I’m living in peace and health and just loving everything about my life and what my body can achieve.
You’re a brave and remarkable woman. I wish you well.
Thank you for following my run and taking an interest in it. I loved watching your “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” growing up. I was dirt poor and thought I’m going be on that show someday, and here we are talking about something I’m doing and will complete for a world record. Dreams can come true.
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
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