A Brief History of People Running Across America

Fictional character Forrest Gump wasn’t the only one to do it, not by a long shot

A relatively significant number of people lace up their shoes to run across the country every year. Department of Defense

In Forrest Gump, a movie which opened on this day in 1994, its main character, Forrest, runs across America several times.

A popular 1994 film based on a book written in the 1980s, Forrest Gump won six Oscars and a number of other awards. It’s a fantasy film: Gump passes through key moments in American history, like the Vietnam War. And the fact that he runs across America is just another crazy thing that happens to him. But people do run across the country every year–more in recent years.

“Between 10 and 20 people run across the country every summer now,” Jim McCord, who ran across the country in 2002 and now tracks other runners on Facebook, told Jen A. Miller for The New York Times. “Thousands more people have climbed Everest than have run across the country.”

Although it’s not a common feat, Miller writes, those who do choose to run across the country are connected to each other–and to fans and followers–by social media. When McCord completed his epic journey, it was harder to get the word out, he told her.

Today, fans of the runners can follow their progress at the USA Crossers Facebook page. At the time of writing, the page reports 12 people currently walking, running and marching across the country. Many are fundraising for charities. Most are men–a fact that may reflect the systematic penalties women runners face. The first woman to walk across the country was Barbara Moore in 1960, writes Martin Fritz Huber for Outside.

The modern history of crossing the country on foot starts in 1909, Huber writes. In that year, a seventy-year-old man named Edward Payson Weston walked across the country. “By the time Weston made the trip (in just over one hundred days) he had long since established himself as an international celebrity in the popular sport of pedestrianism, or competitive walking,” Huber writes.

“Distance walking in the late 19th century was an incredible spectator sport—people followed it like it was the World Series. And this guy was really the athlete of his day,” author Jim Reisler told Huber.

A Brief History of People Running Across America
With a cane, boots and a double-breasted coat, Edward Payson Weston must have cut a dashing figure on his stroll across the country. Library of Congress

Running rather than walking across the country didn’t become a thing until the running boom of the 1970s, Huber writes. At that time, the feat become a competitive event with people tracking their times. “At a time when the spirit of running in America was extremely competitive–even among amateurs–the trans-America run became the ultimate test of endurance,” he writes. “During the seventies, the record was set and broken four separate times.”

The 1980 record–set by Frank Giannino Jr.–was only broken in late 2016, by a man named Pete Kostelnick. Kostelnick ran the 3000 miles from San Francisco to New York in 42 days, six hours and 30 minutes, beating the previous record by more than four days.  

Another cross-country runner is working on a different project right now: repeating Forrest Gump’s storied run, which was anything but the most direct route. Marathoner Robert Pope has covered more than 7,000 miles in an attempt to recreate the route of Gump, who famously “just felt like running” and had no real goal.

Pope is running for the personal challenge, he told Red Bull, but he’s also raising money for two charities: the World Wildlife Fund and Peace Direct. You can follow his journey on Twitter.

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