One Man, One Cause On Foot Across America

Words:  Jack Alexander
Pictures: Eric Keeler

In September we met with Eric Keeler, a Chesterfield local raising money for Spinal Research by running coast-to-coast across the United States. He was back in the UK to apply for another visa before heading back out to complete the second leg of his epic journey, from Denver, Colorado through to the Pacific coastline of California.

“When times were tough, I’d remember how far I’d come, and all the people who’d supported me along the way, and everyone who’s donated to the charity.”

Geography buffs out there will already know the immediate challenge awaiting Eric upon his return – the Rocky Mountains. Stretching for more than 3,000 miles from British Columbia, in western Canada, all the way down to New Mexico, The Rockies contain the highest peaks in central North America.

For Eric, crossing the mountain pass was inevitable.

It was an ominous prospect in itself, made more so when, less than two hours in, Eric beheld huge red clouds gathering on the horizon. “I saw the dust rolling in and knew I wouldn’t make it,” says Eric. An hour and a half from civilisation, Eric opted to set up camp, tying both the tent and his stroller, filled with all his worldly belongings, to a nearby tree.

It had been a season of extreme weather in the US, with four hurricanes in the space of five weeks charging up from New Mexico into California. Combined with huge quantities of ash left over from wildfires, phenomenal dust storms were enveloping entire swathes of the Midwest. “Give it a few hours,” thought Eric. “It’ll blow over.” He spent the next 18 hours trapped inside his tent competing with 80 mph winds just to keep it on the ground.

He showed me a video clip filmed from inside. The noise was deafening, all around him the walls flapping wildly. I asked him how he possibly slept. He laughed: “I didn’t!”
Eric continued south into New Mexico, where he spent another long night clutching a knife and bear repellant, his tent circled by coyotes. Then he followed the highway west into Arizona, Nevada and finally California, where he linked up with Route 66 and spent seven days in the Mojave Desert. A giant section of the highway was, quite literally, deserted, as the road was closed for maintenance. “It was the most peaceful, the most alone I’ve been – it was the last challenge.”

As Eric left the desert landscape behind and followed the telltale signs of civilisation, straight-lined twilight silhouettes and wires hanging vine-like between, he found himself churning through the final miles of his Herculean endeavour. California meant the end; it meant the ocean.

Eric resisted the urge to swim until reaching San Diego, where his family were waiting to welcome him and cheer him along as he took a most well-deserved plunge.
3,646 miles, 186 days, 2 feet and 1 man with a cause; he’d done it.

“When times were tough, I’d remember how far I’d come, and all the people who’d supported me along the way, and everyone who’s donated to the charity.”

Eric has been raising money and awareness for Spinal Research, the UK’s leading charity for funding research into spinal cord injury, for over five years. In that time he’s raised over £7,000, mostly through his running, and his latest endeavours look to add a further £12,000 to that figure.

Shortly after completing his adventure, Eric returned home to the UK. “It was only after two weeks that I had the realisation: I’m not going back!” he tells me. “But at the same time, it’s not really over.”
Eric refers to the opportunities which have arisen since finishing the run; the possibility to share his story and further promote the cause of Spinal Research. In December he was interviewed by BBC Radio Sheffield, and has been invited to speak at his local schools in the Wingerworth area.

“I still don’t consider myself a runner!” Eric claims. Despite that, he plans to keep himself busy through 2019 by setting up his own running company, providing running apparel and virtual racing events to all.

With each competitor choosing a race and completing the distance however they like, whether that’s on a treadmill, as part of a running group or as a personal challenge, virtual racing is a surprisingly simple concept which has taken the running world by storm. The best part is, with just a few simple calculations, wheelchair users can convert their distances into conventional ‘steps’ and compare their stats the same way as everyone else.

“It’ll be for everyone,” says Eric, “a network for support, and to compete, and completely wheelchair accessible.”
It’s clear that, for Eric, running is about people. Perhaps that’s why he still doesn’t see himself a runner, because he is, and will always be, an amateur who achieved the extraordinary, who crossed a continent on foot, and of all the things experienced along the way, valued the human connections most of all.

“I got by on my own two feet, but I owe so much to the kindness of good people along the way.”

As I made to leave and shook Eric’s hand, I commended him once more on his achievement, and he chuckled.

“Well, all that’s left now is for you to have a go,” he said.
Well, there’s an idea.

To learn more about Spinal Research, head online to www.spinal-research.org. If you’d like to show your support for Eric’s incredible achievement you can still sponsor him through his blog at www.c2c.run. And speaking of which, Eric’s been shortlisted at the Running Awards in the Best Personal Blog category, for the second year running. Register your vote online at therunningawards.com. To look back at the journey, and follow whatever comes next, you can find Eric on Instagram at run.the.usa, or on Facebook at Corner to Corner – Running Across America.