Fulcher's amazing run around the country set a world record 25 years ago
At the time, the idea seemed absurd.
Sarah Fulcher, a 25-year-old woman from High Point, announced she was going to run around the perimeter of the continental United States — an improbable journey of more than 10,000 miles that would take her longer than a year to complete — all in the name of inspiring America’s youth to become more fit.
Everything about this stunt — it had to be a stunt, right? — seemed preposterous: The audacious physical challenge of such a run. The complex logistics of pulling it off. Not to mention the fact that, well, she’s a woman.
Why would anyone believe this could actually happen?
They wouldn’t, except for this: Fulcher — a lean, mean, running machine with a seemingly bottomless reservoir of energy — had just become the first woman to run across Australia. She ran 2,727 miles in 96 days, meaning she averaged running 28-plus miles — more than a marathon — every day.
And then there was Fulcher’s exuberant enthusiasm and limitless optimism. When representatives of the National Fitness Foundation approached her about a run across America, she didn’t even blink. “No, let’s run around America,” she said. “It’s farther.”
That’s the kind of woman who might actually be able to run a lap around the country — and, in fact, that’s exactly what Fulcher did. Over the course of 438 days — from July 1987 to October 1988 — she ran 11,134 miles, establishing a world record for the longest solo run.
This Wednesday will mark the 25th anniversary of the completion of Fulcher’s amazing “Run Around America,” which ended Oct. 2, 1988, near Los Angeles. She still holds the world record, according to “Guinness Book of World Records,” and her run has been recognized by Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!, which highlighted Fulcher’s feat on a calendar.
“That run seems like a long time ago,” Fulcher says during an interview at her home in High Point, “but it’s obviously something I’m very proud of.”
Fulcher had been running since she was 12 — she competed in Junior Olympics — but ironically, she had started out as a sprinter rather than a distance runner.
“I remember telling my mother I would never run more than a hundred meters or a hundred yards,” she recalls. “I said it was too far.”
As she grew, though, it became apparent that she was more suited for distance running, so she gradually moved into that realm. She ran mostly 5-kilometer and 10-kilometer events, and the longest distance she had run before her 1986 run across Australia was a mere 13 miles.
“At the beginning, I had some skeptics say, ‘It’s too far — no one’s ever done this before,’” Fulcher says. “But never in my head did I think I wouldn’t make it.”
Fulcher left from the Laguna Beach area of California and headed north. She ran to Seattle and hung a right, ran through the country’s northernmost states and hung another right when she got to Maine, went all the way down to Florida and then headed west again. The trek took her through 34 states and Washington, D.C.
She logged an average of right at 26 miles a day — the equivalent of a marathon — for 438 consecutive days.
“I ran every day because it was a continuous solo run,” Fulcher says. “I was determined to run every day — I was manic about running every day. I got sick one day” — she thinks it was a 24-hour virus — “but I still ran 10 miles.”
Fulcher remembers using an unorthodox icing treatment on her legs during the run, sitting on bags of ice twice a day to rejuvenate her weary legs.
“That would flush out the old blood and put the fresh in, and your legs would feel refreshed,” she explains. “Some people said I should be using heat, but the ice worked for me.”
A small chase crew traveled with Fulcher as she ran, and she usually had police escorts as she entered new cities. She visited countless elementary schools and conducted fitness tests, and many cities held events to honor Fulcher. Local running clubs and track teams often met her and ran with her for short stretches.
The media loved Fulcher. The Associated Press, Reuters and CNN all reported on her run, for example, as did regional media outlets wherever she happened to be passing through.
“It was an amazing time,” Fulcher says. “I met so many wonderful people along the way. I tried to meet as many people as I could and pick up the spirit of America, and to this day I feel like that’s what I found.”
Fulcher, now 51, continued running after her “Run Around America,” but she had to give it up about five years ago. She suffers from intense lower back pain, the result of numerous practice combat jumps when she served in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division in the 1990s. She remains active by walking at a local track — using a cane for stability — and running in water at the YMCA.
She’s now retired from the military and spends much of her time volunteering at the Guilford County Animal Shelter.
“I miss running,” Fulcher says, “but I fill that void with my work at the animal shelter. It’s been difficult, and a lot of times I look back on my life and think, ‘I wish I could run again,’ but I realize that I can’t. Running was a big part of my life.”
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