In the weeks leading up to a July 13 reunion with family and friends on the Seattle waterfront, Bainbridge Island resident Greg Nance spent 84 days battling tendinitis, baseball-sized hail and tornado warnings while running from Long Island, New York, to Ocean Shores on Washington’s Pacific Coast. The 33-year-old had been dreaming of the trip for nearly a decade.
In February, Nance launched Run Far Foundation, an organization dedicated to supporting youth mental health. His run raised money to start funding projects, tallying more than $108,000 to add to his other cross-country stats: He crossed 14 states, running 3,156 miles in 5,867,148 steps, burning 524,412 calories and three pairs of shoes on the way. (“Half of what I expected,” Nance said. “Brooks makes amazing shoes.”)
The cause is close to Nance’s heart.
“It’s personal for me because I’ve dealt with all of this. Anxiety and depression led to me drinking and drugging from 16 to 23,” Nance said. He knows he’s not alone. “These issues of mental health and addiction and recovery really touch every single one of us, directly and indirectly.”
Nance started running April 25 at Breezy Point, Queens, on Long Island, where he dipped his toe into the Atlantic Ocean. Then he was off, through Linden, New Jersey, and Levittown, Pennsylvania. Although the avid runner had years of training on his legs, his body started to rebel. In the Pennsylvania foothills, his Achilles tightened to the point that he couldn’t do a calf raise on his left leg. After the next 30 miles, the tendon had ballooned. It was only Day 4.
Taking care of your body while running an average of 37.6 miles daily — roughly a marathon and a half — is “a game of whack-a-mole,” Nance said. Compensating for his ankle led to hip pain, which led to back and shoulder pain.
That was the first lesson of the trip. “There’s no running from this,” Nance said. “You gotta run into it.”
Just keep running? Nance could do that. (And yes, he heard plenty of “Forrest Gump” references as his beard grew bushier.)
A multisport athlete growing up, he fell in love with track as a high school senior. In college, he joined the University of Chicago track team. But a shadow followed him — Nance was drinking heavily. He couldn’t finish his freshman season.
But he kept running, and went from focusing on short sprints to distance. He ran the Chicago Marathon in October 2009 and later qualified for the Boston Marathon.
“Whoa,” Nance remembers thinking. “I’m getting better at this. This is really enjoyable.”
He went on to become a Gates scholar and studied at Cambridge, but pressures began to mount. He was homesick, heartbroken over a breakup and anxious about wasting his opportunity. Pubs helped self-medicate his worries, and soon Nance had blown through his stipend. The university’s provost sat him down and called him a disgrace. “It’s like a ton of bricks coming down on me,” Nance remembered. “I’m broke. I’m going through withdrawals. I feel terrible.”
But Nance still had running. He laced up his shoes and ran through the English countryside. His legs and lungs burned, but he felt the most clearheaded he had in years.
The next month, December 2011, he ran a 50k on Britain’s Jurassic Coast. That same month, he quit drinking and using drugs — and started dreaming about running from New York to Seattle.
In the years since he got sober, Nance has accomplished other major feats of endurance and coordination on foot: a 155-mile run across the Gobi Desert, another across the Atacama. In 2019, he completed the World Marathon Challenge, running seven marathons in seven days on seven continents.
Despite the success, Nance still had to fight for sobriety. After the World Marathon Challenge, his race sponsor showered him with Champagne. He went back to his hotel and fantasized about using painkillers for the first time in years.
“That was a really jarring, really tough thing to go through on the heels of this really big triumph,” Nance said.
On Day 30 of his run across the U.S., that concern reared its head again. In the Minnesota prairies, Nance’s hamstring barked and his hip flexor ached with a grinding pain. His left ankle started to swell with tendinitis. This run, this big dream, seemed like it might be over. Each convenience store he passed tempted him to go inside. “I kept thinking I could just down half a bottle of ibuprofen and that gives me a few more hours,” he said. Those were his darkest moments. “I started looking for this old crutch, painkillers.”
Between his core running team and encouragement online, he pushed through. “I ran the next 500-plus miles in pretty intense pain, but was able to do it with literally zero painkillers of any kind, which is one of the things I’m proudest of from the experience.”
Physical challenges weren’t the only obstacle. Nature didn’t take it easy on Nance, either.
In Ohio, he ran through 13 hours of downpour that led to painful blisters on his feet. Running west through Iowa, he watched hundreds of lighting strikes per minute flash a few miles to the north. “It’s like I’m in some crazy special effects movie,” Nance said. “There’s really nothing I can do. I gotta keep going because I want to get to shelter or some amount of cell reception.”
In South Dakota, he ran under black skies past centuries-old oak trees snapped like matchsticks by a tornado. The team decided to spend the rest of the day inside (catching “Top Gun” at a movie theater, naturally).
Nance was relieved to finally reach Montana when his phone buzzed with a severe weather warning urging him to take cover immediately. Baseball-sized hailstones were being reported. He later met several people whose roofs had been demolished, and heard that Yellowstone had experienced highway-destroying floods. “We ran through that. That was our first 10 miles in the corner of the state,” he said.
The highlight of the trip was the people Nance met along the way: A retired Philadelphia firefighter who said he was glad big burly guys were starting to share their low moments with each other. An Amish jogger who had hiked the Appalachian Trail and started sharing his love of adventure with his community youth. A tribal elder on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Montana who is mentoring the next generation.
One standout interaction happened in Ohio. Nance was having ankle issues and was stopped by a local sheriff. Nance was moving so slowly that the sheriff didn’t exactly believe he’d been running across the country. The area has a fentanyl crisis. “He thinks I’m a drug dealer,” Nance said. He ran Nance’s license. But over the next hour, the sheriff told Nance that they don’t have many teachers or coaches in his area. The sheriff had taken on a lot of that role instead, working to give kids in his area a better future.
Nance figures they fall on different sides of the political aisle; they’ve probably had very different lives. “And yet, we’re super aligned on this and we want to find ways to better support kids,” Nance said. “And that was really powerful.”
The cross-country run has generated $108,844 (and counting) toward supporting community service projects. Nance said he’d love to see Seattle-area youth — ages 16 to 23 — apply for funding. Microgrants of $100, $200 and $500 can be used for almost anything that supports community action. Host a schoolyard picnic or concert, organize a roadside cleanup or meditation circle, plan a fun run or paint a mural. “If young people are getting together and doing good, we think that’s the antidote to mental illness and addiction,” Nance said.
The final mile into Ocean Shores, Grays Harbor County, might be Nance’s favorite mile he’s ever run.
As he jogged into the seaside town, hundreds of people were honking their horns. Bystanders shoved chocolates and water in his hands. People reached out for high-fives or stopped him for hugs. A few ran with him. Then a siren started going off, and he turned to see a firetruck escorting him to shore — with his dad filming out the passenger window.
The sun was beginning to set as he stepped onto the beach. He spotted his 4-year-old and 7-year-old nieces. They’d been waiting to play all summer.
“Uncle Greg, what took you so long?” they wondered.
Next time, he’ll just have to run faster.