Woman who ran perimeter of U.S. stops by Rowan to promote book, visit friend

Published 12:00 am Monday, August 1, 2011

By David Freeze
For the Salisbury Post
On July 21, 1987, Sarah Covington Fulcher began a long epic journey. Her goal was to run the perimeter of the United States in one continuous run that would take 438 consecutive days to complete. Along the way, she covered 11,134 miles, a distance that is still recognized by the Guinness Book of Records as the greatest individual running accomplishment ever.
Long-distance running and athletic competition were not new to Sarah, but harnessing her tremendous drive and ability were. She had already ran across Australia, and found the Marine Corps boot camp so easy that she was honorably discharged. Newsday magazine reported that she left boot camp because it wasn’t hard enough.
Sarah already knew what ‘hard’ really meant. She was born in New Jersey on Valentine’s Day in 1962 with congenital hip dysplasia. Sarah wore an orthopedic splint to reshape her shallow hip sockets and to make her legs straight and normal. The splints and treatment worked and her running and jumping ability were exceptional. By age 14, Sarah had set a state record in the Junior Olympics long jump and excelled in middle distance running on the track. Sarah’s family then lived in North Carolina, but moved to Georgia and later to West Virginia. She entered the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in hopes of running track. Before running in a meet, Sarah left college and had her short stint in the Marine Corps. Woman’s Day Magazine reported that Sarah left the Marines to try her hand at film making which eventually took her to Australia.
After enrolling at Salem College, Sarah decided to raise money for world hunger organizations by running across the continent of Australia, a distance of 2,700 miles. It took 97 days, but Sarah wanted more. She found a natural ability within herself to endure long and hot runs. Sarah counted the Australia experience as fantastic, and sought her next adventure.
Her accomplishments included being the youngest runner across any continent and the first woman to cross Australia. The Guinness Book of Records credited the accomplishment to Sarah Fulcher, aged 24, from North Carolina, USA. Along the way, she raised $50,000 for world hunger.
With such an amazing resume in hand, and the ever-increasing need for a new challenge, Sarah met George Allen of the Washington Redskins. President Reagan had named Allen as the chairman of the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports. Allen also wanted to raise funds to build the National Fitness Academy, and thought Sarah to be the right person for his project. Allen seemed confident that she could actually achieve the task of running the perimeter of the US.
Sarah was asked in an interview why she didn’t just run across the U.S., to which she replied, “It would not be outrageous enough to be worthwhile.”
And so the “Run Around America” began. Sarah had two support RVs as she started up the West Coast. ARCO sponsored the fuel, Asics the shoes, and Bonne Bell the cosmetics. The goal was to break a record set 18 years before when a man walked the perimeter of the US, but just as important was Allen’s plan to demonstrate that most Americans were unfit.
Allen said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, “Sarah’s run will touch the lives of millions of Americans though the duration of the run, and she will become an inspiration to our nation’s youth. Fulcher, as I am, is motivated to improve the state of fitness in our nation.”
“Coach” Allen ran with Sarah as she left the site of the proposed Fitness Academy in July.
Sarah’s support team included an exercise physiologist. She used stretching, sports massage and swimming to keep her body going.
“I made sure we found a place to swim each day,” she said. “In the beginning, I swam first and then ran. Eventually as we crossed the northwest, I found swimming where I could.”
By this time the Associated Press was following her run, and publicity for the effort was spreading ahead. Increasingly, she found media and town officials waiting for her. Sarah stopped often to do TV and radio interviews. At every opportunity, she met with students and provided fitness testing. Following the fitness testing, Sarah would run out the door and continue her mileage for the day.
As the days continued to pass by, Sarah settled into a regular pace of 126 steps a minute. Each day began at 5:30 a.m. She was averaging 32 miles a day, and relying on the massage, swimming and sitting on ice bags to keep her body in shape. Sarah has no idea how many calories a day she consumed, but she did drink 2,000 calories of Exceed sports drink daily. Sarah and the team used Exceed to make pancakes and drank lots of coffee. She ate danishes and M&M’s to provide energy. Sarah slept with her legs propped straight up in the air, which released the lower back muscles.
Often police escorts would arrive to lead Sarah through the more populated areas. Sarah said “I only got lost twice, in California and Chicago. In Chicago, we had a police escort and still got lost.” While passing near Seattle, Sarah met a man going the other way who was trying to do the U.S. perimeter run in the opposite direction. She made him pancakes and off they both went to continue their journeys. Sarah never heard from him again.
Challenges continued to present themselves, but Sarah began to focus on her “inner journey.”
“I never had any doubt that I could make it,” she said. “I did think of quitting once in Minneapolis where it was so cold. I had on six pairs of gloves, had a garbage bag over my running clothes, and I was freezing. Still I knew that I wouldn’t quit.”
Sarah spent so much time alone on the daunting journey that she soon began to think of herself as a “video camera,” gathering images of all the scenery. Sarah fondly remembers a florist in New England who ran out to hand her a carnation as she passed by in the snow.
The cold lessened as she turned south through the eastern states. Sarah’s only physical problems included some knee swelling and IT band issues. Her weight maintained at 117 pounds. Mile after mile passed. Sarah came through Salisbury on Feb. 28, 1988, running into town from Spencer where she was interviewed by the Salisbury Post on the 27th. A mother of a wheel chair-bound child named Bobby brought him to meet her on the road. She talked with them, and gave Bobby a T-shirt before continuing on her way.
As her journey reached Florida and turned west, it took Sarah a solid month to cross Florida.
“I found the fittest kids in Florida,” she said.
Heading west, she covered long and quiet stretches with less traffic. The trip became more spiritual, and Sarah realized that she loved the Arizona desert the best. She once got a ticket for crossing a bridge, and the Border Patrol stopped her from running twice. When they realized that she had already been commended by the State of Texas, she was allowed to proceed.
The Run Around America came to an official end as Sarah entered Los Angeles Stadium during the halftime of a nationally televised football game on Oct. 2, 1988. She had worn out six sweat suits, 15 pairs of shorts, 20 T-shirts, and 26 pairs of shoes. The Guinness Book of Records stated, “The longest run by an individual is one of 11,134 miles around the United States by Sarah Covington Fulcher (US).”
Still seeking adventure, Sarah joined the Army and was stationed at Fort Bragg with China Grove resident Amy Hintz Epley. Both ladies tried out for and made the Fort Bragg women’s running team scheduled to compete in the 1996 Army 10 Miler. Epley remembered her friend by saying, “Sarah was always the top runner, and was always so positive. She is just one incredible woman. I sure miss running with her.”
The Fort Bragg team won the women’s championship.
“A strong bond was formed on long training runs,” Epley said “I had stayed in touch with the others, but I had not seen Sarah for 12 years until she came to Salisbury for her book signing. I walked into the book store, and before I left, I bought five books.”
Sarah has been recognized in books, newspapers and magazines and interviewed on the NBC Today show and many others. Her world records were recognized by the US Congress on May 15, 1989.
Sarah lives today in High Point, and visits Salisbury often. She volunteers with the Faithful Friends animal shelter, and still wows people with an incredibly upbeat personality.
“Sarah’s Long Run” is available at the Literary Bookpost on Main Street and at Crazy Feathers Publishing in Jamestown. Author David Burl Morris was born in Salisbury and he continues to sort through all of Sarah’s memorabilia. An expanded second edition is now in the works. Additional information is available at www.crazyfeathers.com