A 50 state, 11,208 mile walk
Possibly one of the greatest testimonials for walking is Robert Sweetgall's 11,208 mile foot journey through all 50 states. Sweetgall walked the entire United States in one year, averaging 31 miles per day.
Robert Sweetgall's 50-state walk across America; 1984-1985:
365 days, 20 million footsteps, 1.6 million calories of food, 24 blisters, 5 major snowstorms, and 7 nights of lodging in jail!
(For more information on Sweetgall's trek, check out The Walker's Journal)
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- Washington WIC Program
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THE WALL STREET JOURNAL, Leisure & Arts
"When Sweetgall Walks, People Listen"
-- By Fredrick C. Klein
The weather is getting nice now, and soon the nation's highways will be filled with walkers-for-the-cause. People will walk to call attention to their pet problems or to raise money for a variety of charities. It's turned into a trend.
Rob Sweetgall, however, stands out from the tramping throng. He's walking to promote walking. You've got to give him credit for being straightforward. Sweetgall, a 37-year-old blue-eyed blond, used to be a chemical engineer, but he chucked that to become the Johnny Appleseed of recreational walking. In 1982 and '83, he marched 10,600 miles around the perimeter of the U.S. His latest solo odyssey, begun last Sept. 7, will take about a year, cover some 11,600 miles and touch all 50 states. (He managed Alaska and Hawaii by flying in, hiking around a bit and flying out.)
At towns and cities along his route, he gives speeches to school groups and service clubs and interviews to the local news media. This week, amid the browns and greens of the vast Nebraska flatlands, he passed the 7,000-mile mark. He says he feels great but, then, what else can he say? "It wouldn't look good if I dragged around all tired and depressed," he admits.
But really, folks, he does feel wonderful, and he owes it all to walking, which he calls the "perfect" exercise. "It's cheap, you can't get hurt unless you step in a hole and you can do it anytime," he says. "You can't ask for more than that."
If you won't take Sweetgall's word for it, how about Dr. James Rippe, head of the Center for Health and Fitness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester. Every six weeks, Sweetgall hikes to an airport and hops a plane for Worcester for two days of tests at the center and the university's department of exercise science. Then he returns to resume his trek. The researchers relish the task because it gives them a unique chance to study walking's physiological effects.
"Rob is compressing a lifetime of walking into a year. If the activity poses a danger of overuse injury, he'd show it," says Dr. Rippe. "So far, he's tested clean, and he's in great all-around shape.
"He's an unusual athlete, but we've found that even he can get his heart rate up to training range from walking in a relatively short time. For the average person, 45 minutes of determined walking three or four times a week will provide all the exercise his heart needs without the sweat or injury hazard of running."
Sweetgall, of course, isn't taking a stroll in the park. When he isn't guinea-pigging in Massachusetts, he walks 30 to 35 miles a day, seven days a week, with the fervor of a convert, which he is.
As a boy and youth in Brooklyn, N.Y., about the most strenuous thing he did was bowl. He was graduated from Cooper Union and, still sedentary, went to work as an engineer for duPont Co. in Delaware.
Then his father and several relatives died of heart attacks within a brief period. Sweetgall figured he had better shape up, and took to jogging. This led him to running, marathoning, and ultra-marathoning and the triathlon.
Eventually, he decided everybody should work out. He quit his job and started the Foundation for the Development of Cardiovascular Fitness. It consists of himself and an office in Newark, Del., which is closed when he's on the road.
Lacking money, knowing everybody shouldn't or couldn't run, and needing to dramatize his cause, he hit upon his around-the-U.S. hike of 1982 and '83. He started out with a friend driving a support van that doubled as a place to sleep, but the guy quit near the halfway point. He carried on alone for the last 144 days, finagling free lodgings nightly. He discovered that he met more people and preferred traveling that way.
Sweetgall is alone again for this trip. He sleeps where he can. He has bunked in two jails, a grain elevator, some churches and stores, and a lot of private residences. "I'm constantly amazed at how many people let strangers into their homes," he remarks.
In his eight months out, he has braved below-zero temperatures in Washington, 60-mile-per-hour head winds in North Dakota and several feet of snow in Colorado (photo, left). A Nebraska tornado just missed him last week. Police have shooed him off interstate highways coast to coast. He's had a dozen foot blisters and a couple of sore throats.
Worse than all that was getting his clothes laundered. He travels with only a waist pack holding five pounds of clothes and gear (he's re-supplied periodically by mail), and when he can't rinse a few things in his motel he must strip in a Laundromat while he does his washing. Several times he's posted sentries to make sure nothing untoward occurred.
Abjuring ear-plug radios on grounds of safety and principle, he must occupy his mind through the hours of lonely trudging. He does this with varying degrees of success by searching for roadside junk and coins (he's found $82 so far) and playing "mind games" like recalling in detail each of his days on the road.
He believes it's all worth it because of the response to his speeches. "Kids make the best audiences," he says. "A trip like mine tickles them, and they love the idea of walking-just walking- as an achievement." Some older people get the message, too. "I met a man of 84 in Toledo," says Sweetgall. "He shook the hand of Edward Payson Weston, the greatest American walker ever." When Weston was young, he walked from Boston to Washington to shake hands with Abraham Lincoln at his 1861 inauguration. "The man said that meeting Weston started him on a lifetime of walking for health. He told me that now I could tell kids that I shook the hand of somebody who shook hands with someone who shook hands with Lincoln. I told him that might not impress many kids, but it sure impressed me."
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