Sandra Villines' record-breaking (and life-changing) run across America

Sandra Villines ran 3,125 miles through 12 states -- averaging 57 miles a day. This picture was taken on Day 46, in in Bellevue, Ohio. Jay Lee

Sandra Villines couldn't understand how she had gotten herself to New York. She crossed through the gates of New York City Hall at 1:24 a.m., in the dark and in the rain, and wondered aloud: "How did we get here?"

Exactly 54 days, 16 hours and 24 minutes earlier, she had left, on foot, from the steps of San Francisco City Hall. Now she was all the way across the country.

"With your legs," her companions answered.

As absurd as Villines found it, her journey was over: Last Sunday, she completed a cross-country run of America in record time, becoming the fastest female to traverse the nation on foot since Mavis Hutchinson in 1979 (who completed it in 69 days, 2 hours and 40 minutes).

Villines' push to the finish included 139 miles and 40 uninterrupted hours of running, save for a few 30- to 45-minute breaks for snacks and stretching. The ultramarathon-length final leg was born less out of necessity and more of a personal desire to just get it over with, she said. She also wanted to avoid arriving in the city during the New York City Marathon, which took place the same day as her projected finish, and planned her last days of running to ensure she reached the city hours before daybreak.

"I remember thinking, 'It's going to be over in 10 seconds, the Garmin is in reach,'" Villines said of the final steps. She told her team to take the picture, then asked if they were finally done. "There was a sense of relief -- we're done, we've made it."

Looking back on it, she realized that before she left, she knew she would end up completing the run, even if the record became untenable. Just running across the country at all -- record or not -- would be an accomplishment.

Villines totaled 3,125 miles through 12 states and averaged 57 miles a day. She narrowly avoided a snowstorm in Colorado, crossed through miles of peaceful, flat cornfields in Nebraska and Iowa, sweated through desert heat in Nevada in early September and shivered through runs in the low 20s in Ohio. She was spared no type of weather throughout the country, Villines said, listing off the various conditions: headwinds, rain, thunderstorms, humidity, 100-degree heat and blizzards.

Villines focused on sighting. She'd find a spot in the distance, focus on that point and try to lose track of time. If she couldn't run, then she'd walk. As long as she was "moving for a purpose," regardless of her speed, she was getting closer to the end.

Occasionally she was joined by curious runners who found out about her quest through her website and local news coverage. Strangers used the Strava tracker on her website to find her RV and drop off food and well wishes for her and her crew. One encounter, in Illinois, reminded Villines of the greater purpose behind her run. A woman drove by and tried to take a picture of Villines, then told her she wanted to go home to get her daughter to join.

The daughter, Emily, was 12 or 13, Villines recalled, and ran with her for 2 or 3 miles. They talked about how Emily got into running and how she wanted to be a veterinarian. Days later, Emily's mom found Villines' contact info and sent her an email about the experience, and how she was so excited to point out Villines as a role model for her daughter.

"I was so touched by her mom and that this little girl being so excited to run with me," Villines said. "It engaged me, reminded me why I was there again, to not forget that it was about inspiration."

She'd never envisioned herself as a role model, Villines said. But if she helped Emily have confidence and believe in her goals, then she achieved part of her mission, miles before the actual finish.

"Sometimes, there were days where I didn't want to run. I'd be tired, I didn't want to do this anymore, and it always felt like people showed up at the right time," Villines said.

"It was a reminder to me not to give up. My mission needed to be finished."

Villines set out two days after Mimi Anderson, a British runner and longtime ultramarathoner. Anderson had initially planned a cross-country run for the year prior, but she delayed her trip because of a torn meniscus. On the 40th day of her run this year, Anderson was forced to stop after 2,217 miles and nine states. An MRI in Indiana revealed that because of the previous meniscus tear surgery, she had no cartilage left in her knee. The risk of serious implications was too high.

"On 7th September 2017 I set out to get a new world record, but unfortunately my body had other ideas," Anderson wrote on her personal blog. "I can say without doubt that I gave it my all. The vastness of this country is magnificent, and it was a real privilege to have actually run though it."

For Villines, there is no set next step or record to break. She returned to work as a district manager for Walgreens in her hometown of San Jose, California, the Friday after she finished the run, and she knows she'd like to compete in the ultrarace Badwater 135 again, which she won earlier this year. And there's something to be mined from this experience, as a motivator, a coaching tool or as a message to others.

"It was life-changing, for sure," she said. "It was a journey about inspiration."