Expedition Ultra

By Shan Riggs

Seventeen years ago I was taking a red-eye flight to Chicago from Miami after a 3-day music festival.

I was looking for something to read in the airport bookstore when I came across Dean Karnaze's book, Ultramarathon Man. In the book, Dean talks about running now-famous races like the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon and the 100-mile Western States Endurance Run. He also tells stories about unheard-of feats of endurance such as running a 200-mile relay race solo and 350 miles in one go.

I was intrigued. Despite having gone four days of practically no sleep, I read throughout the entire flight and finished the book as soon as I got home. The next day I signed up for my first ultramarathon, the Chicago Lake Front 50-Mile.

At the time I had mostly run for fitness and had only one marathon under my belt in which I felt as if I might die and still barely finished in under 4 hours. I thought that one marathon would be my last. But after the Chicago Lake Front 50-mile, I caught the ultra bug. I also realized that I was actually competitive at these crazy things. I have now completed over fifty ultramarathons and have been fortunate to win some along the way.

Beyond competing in races, I was intrigued by the idea of someone pushing themselves to their limits as a form of self-inspection. How far can I push myself when every cell in my body is screaming for me to stop? I’d already completed a handful of 100-milers, the longest races I could find - how could I push myself even more?

In early 2008, I hit upon an idea, what about a 200-mile run? Would I be capable of something like that? I was living in Chicago and volunteering for a nascent non-profit, Meddles 4 Mettle. Started by Dr. Steven Isenberg of Indianapolis, the organization takes in medals donated by endurance athletes and awards them to courageous kids who are under treatment for a serious illness such as cancer.

At the time, the organization was active only in Indiana and Chicago and they wanted to get the word out to encourage more donors and volunteers. Turns out it was about 200 miles from Indiana to Chicago; interesting. What if I ran non-stop from my home in Chicago to a hospital in Indianapolis as a way to raise awareness (and money) for M4M? This could be the perfect physical test for a great cause. The "Medals 4 Mettle, Windy 2 Indy" run was born. Starting on a Saturday in June 2008 I left my home in the South Loop of Chicago and Monday morning (50+ hours later!) I arrived at the Clarion North hospital in Indianapolis. It was the most difficult two days of my life. Previously, I had done races in which I needed to run overnight without sleep, but this run required two nights of sleep deprivation. I actually fell asleep several times while running and nearly fell into a ditch. With only 45 minutes of sleep, I made it to the finish on Monday morning greeted by reporters, family, and friends. Many other fun things happened on that run, if you are interested you can read about them here.

In addition to proving to myself it could be done, my support crew and I raised money and brought a lot of visibility to M4M. I did many interviews with radio, tv, and print outlets, which gave me the opportunity to talk about M4M and its mission. M4M now has over 70 chapters around the world. While I can't claim this run helped them grow from two to 70 chapters, it did get the ball rolling. It also proved a concept. These unique endurance challenges don’t just give me a way to test my limits, but they can also direct more support and awareness to charities.

A few years later, after recovering from M4M, and running many more ultramarathons, I started talking to friends about other long-distance challenges. That’s when someone asked if anyone had ever run the length of Illinois. We looked into it and it turns out no one else had been crazy enough to try. In July 2013, a small group of us decided we would give it a shot. 410 miles in one week, 50-75 miles a day, about 60 on average - all to support some local running-related charities.

It was a challenging week, to say the least. It involved blood and pain in feet and other places, hyperthermia on a summer's night, pushing a broken down truck, flooded roads and other near calamities. But in the end, I and one other person, Chuck Shultz, completed the run.

Since we had run literally all of Illinois, it was time to look at places farther away from home. So in 2015, another small group of us ran 166 miles across Panama in order to raise money and awareness for a local school. It was a memorable adventure. It felt like the entire country had our backs. There was a lot of media coverage, with hundreds of people running with us, riding their bikes, or driving their cars during the last several miles. We even had a fireworks display at the finish.

Fast forward to 2020, I was living in Connecticut and working for the Hartford Marathon Foundation. When March 2020 happened my work was suddenly on hold and I had extra time on my hands. This is when I decided to do something that I had dreamed about doing for a while; run the United States from coast to coast. It ended up being a three-month, 3,255-mile trip, running about 40 miles per day. The run received a lot of local and national press and raised over $45,000 for Foodshare, part of Feeding America. It also produced a new brand and website: Shan Runs Across America. You can see a short video about that run produced by Connecticut Public Media here. After seeing what I could accomplish, I was more committed than ever to this expedition-style run for charity.

In part because of the Shan Runs Across America run, the next year I was invited to be a member of Team USA in the inaugural 1,000-mile relay race across Australia called 1,000 Miles to Light. The concept was Team USA vs. Team Australia, 4-person teams with each runner doing 5-kilometer legs across New South Wales, organized by world-famous ultrarunner Pat Foster. The run supported Reach Out, an organization that supports youth mental health, something very timely and needed in 2021. Also, it turned out that another member of Team USA happened to be the guy who inspired me to get into all these crazy runs in the first place. The Ultramarathon Man himself, Dean Karnazes. Dean and I had run into each other a few times over the years, but this was the first time I had the chance to explain how much of an inspiration he had been to me.

Like most things in 2021, Covid changed our plans. Because of new restrictions after we landed in Australia, we moved the event to a bubble at an Army base, rather than running across all of New South Wales. Still, we had a ton of fun. We got to run with Kangaroos, I almost got eaten by a dog, we raised some money for Reach Out and there was a very cool full-length documentary made about the whole expedition (they are still looking for U.S. distribution). Dean wrote a great write-up about the run in an article in Ultrarunning Magazine.

That brings us to 2022 and the most epic and meaningful trip to date, the East Coast Greenway Expedition. My partner, Joshuaine (Josh) Grant, wondered aloud one day if anyone had run the entire East Coast Greenway, a 3,000-mile trail that runs from Key West to Canada through twelve states and 450 communities. It looked like there had been some bikers and a few walkers, but no runners had completed the entire route. So we reached out to the small non-profit that supports the greenway, the East Coast Greenway Alliance, to work together to promote the greenway and support the alliance's mission. We planned to bring attention to the Alliance with a run/bike expedition where I would run 40 miles a day while Josh rode her bike, towing our gear (while working full time). By the time we finished 78 days later, we had raised around $20,000, been in 50+ news articles, and met with hundreds of friends and supporters. Oh yeah, we also got engaged! Mary-Paige McLaurin of the East Coast Greenway Alliance put together a wonderful short film on the expedition here.

So, what now? Well, obviously the next expedition is a 2000-mile run/ride from Canada to Mexico on the west coast! We are working with the Adventure Cycling Association to support its mission of inspiration and adventure. We plan to start in September of 2023. You can find more information on our website, where you can find links to our Instagram, Facebook and Strava.

On to the next adventure!

Photo: Mary-Paige McLaurin @mpmclaurin


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