On Monday, April 22, ultrarunner and Boulderite Jay Rawlings took his first steps in a 180-mile, seven-day endurance relay that will see him running the equivalent of a marathon a day for a week.
Less than a month before standing at the starting line, he was not able to run a mile without walking.
Three months ago, Rawlings applied to run one leg of an endurance relay across the country. He was accepted and joined the team of 15 long-distance runners selected to run 22 segments of a nearly 3,000-mile route that started in Los Angeles on April 15, to finish in New York City on Sept. 6. His plan was to spread his 180-mile trek over eight days, thereby running about a marathon each day. To do this, he was going to train like he was preparing for an ultra-marathon — he had previously completed one marathon and two ultramarathons. He wanted to build up to running 120 miles a week. But he came down with debilitating back pain just weeks after signing up for the relay.
“I basically woke up one morning and my whole upper back was just frozen,” Rawlings says.
He continued pushing himself, running 20 miles that morning and 13 miles the next day, but zero on the third — he could not run a mile without being forced to walk a portion of it. He could not even turn his head, and it remained slightly canted forward, but his back was much worse. He describes it as turning into an intense ache or burning sensation from his spine into his left shoulder, traveling along his arm and even tingling down into his hand. His chiropractor and personal trainer speculated that it might be a herniated or bulging disk.
After a week of pain that prevented all exercise, Rawlings says, he decided that he was not going to bow out of the relay, and if he could not run, he would do anything else he could to get in shape for the relay.
“I realized that I was not going to heal,” Rawlings says. “If this were a race I was doing purely for myself, I would have withdrawn.”
But this relay is not aiming for the record books, and no prize money awaits the runners at the finish line. The relay is a charity event called “MS Run the U.S.,” and its goal is to raise $500,000 for multiple sclerosis research. Rawlings himself has raised almost $4,900 in donations. This chronic, often disabling disease that attacks the central nervous system affects more than 400,000 Americans, including Rawlings’ mother, Annie Hayashi.
Hayashi, who is 60 years old and lives in Chicago, experienced back pain and unusual fatigue for years before she was formally diagnosed with MS in 2003. At that point, she was working more than 70 hours a week. Ten years later, she still lives with a high degree of movement for someone living with MS and is able to hold down a 40-hour work week. She had been an avid runner most of her life, but complications from her MS, which she experienced before her formal diagnosis, have kept her from finishing a 5K run for almost 13 years.
“I’m both incredibly proud and very humbled by this,” Hayashi says of Rawlings’ participation in the relay. “But I am worried about him. I’m going to be, like, holding my breath for those seven days.”
It won’t be the first time she’s been worried for Rawlings.
As a child, Rawlings’ boo-boos were often outside the scope of Bugs Bunny Band-Aids and kisses from mom. At six months old, he was hospitalized due to a bacterial infection from a camping trip in Yellowstone. When he was 5 years old, he tumbled backwards out of a third-story window while playing hide-and-seek. He had climbed onto the windowsill behind a curtain to hide. The seeker entered the room and Rawlings leaned back, popped out the mesh screen and fell. A juniper bush broke his fall, and he emerged from the plant virtually unscathed — although, he did lose the game.
One of Rawlings’ close calls was featured on the September 1989 cover of Life Magazine. Traveling between parents as an unaccompanied minor, Rawlings was flying from Chicago to Denver when the plane, United Flight 232, crashlanded outside of Sioux City, Iowa.
296 passengers had boarded the plane and 184 passengers were pulled from the wreckage alive, the 11-year-old Rawlings one of them. Most of those seated around him did not make it, but he only suffered third-degree burns on his right calf and right arm. Those who have seen him running through the foothills in Boulder might have spotted the scar covering most of his right calf.
While living in Chicago during the summer of 1999, he heard a panicked knock at his apartment door. A pipe was leaking gas, and everyone had to evacuate immediately. He and his future wife, Heather Bowler, fled the building. A minute later, they heard an explosion and she felt a prick of shrapnel hit her leg. Rawlings carried her farther away to safety as the building burned to the ground, along with all their belongings. In 2006, a head-on collision sent him to the hospital for week with a broken collarbone and a punctured lung.
In total, he counts no fewer than five scrapes with death. His friend, Tony DeLio, calls Rawlings “Nine Lives Jay.”
“My own mother, upon hearing these stories, wasn’t thrilled that I was around someone who indirectly invited these kinds of happenings,” DeLio wrote via email. “But we talked it out and realized Jay always survived these occurrences and, quite frankly, could be a living good luck charm.”
Rawlings wrote his own how-to-walk-your-way-to-completing-seven-marathons-in-seven-days training plan, and for the last two months, he has focused on time spent on his feet, a common ultramarathon training philosophy. He hiked up the steepest slopes in the foothills, followed the meandering pedestrian paths in Boulder for hours, and pedaled a recumbent bike on his easy days, which he says does not agitate his back. At the pinnacle of his training, in a two-week period he hiked Bear Peak seven times, Green Mountain twice, and did both in one day. His longest hike clocked in at 17 hours. In March, he began working at Vision Link and walks to and from work daily, a 5.25-mile commute each way.
“No one ever said how you cover the miles, as long as it’s on foot: running, walking, crawling — whatever I have to do,” Rawlings says.
A week before he arrived in Barstow, Calif., where his portion of the relay began, Rawlings said he had regained much of his range of motion, and the pain has receded to just his upper back. He has even been able to jog for a couple miles.
Rawlings joined the relay relatively late in the selection process. He was not assigned any of the three segments in Colorado. Instead, he heads north from Barstow, through the arid Mojave National Preserve, crosses the Nevada border and wants to be in Las Vegas by April 28.
“The only other choice was to run through Nebraska,” Rawlings said before he left for Barstow. “It’ll be desolate, but there’s a certain beauty to be found in desolate.”
His training has not been ideal, but he says he is confident that he will arrive in Las Vegas on April 28.
“When I take those initial steps, I don’t think the fear will cease to exist. I think my determination to do it and my excitement at starting will just be so much stronger that the fear won’t have any power,” he said. “I can’t go to Barstow with any doubt in my mind that I’m going to be in Las Vegas a week later, and that’s the way I’m going to do it.”