In 2013, when endurance athlete and motivational speaker, Diana Nyad, fulfilled her dream of being the first person to swim the 111 miles of open water from Havana, Cuba to Key West, Florida non-stop her sights were already set on the next goal. Within a year, she and Bonnie Stoll, her closest friend and Cuba swim expedition leader, laid plans to launch the biggest walking initiative in American history. They made their EverWalk a reality in 2016, motivating people around the country to get up off the couch and walk their way to being their best selves.

The 2017 EverWalk (September 10 – September 16), their second ever, was a 131-mile journey from Boston to Maine, and I had the pleasure of walking 5 of those miles with Diana. Her passion for life is electric. She is a seeker and a dreamer, a compassionate person whose ultimate goal is to be someone who embraces the human spirit. She talked about her historic swim and how she chased that dream for over 35 years, eventually finishing a quest that was truly epic, a word that she and Bonnie kept coming back to.

Along the ground we covered up the New England coast, step by step over 7 days, Diana shared much of herself with all of us and with each of us. Of EverWalk, she said, “I believe everyone has it in them. People want to be everything they can be. This is not an Iron Man, it’s not running the Boston Marathon 20 times, it’s something possible and difficult. There’s something about travel. We’re not in a car. We’re traveling on our two legs, moving down the road and there’s something very empowering about that.” Diana and Bonnie envision EverWalk becoming the word in walking, a resource for vacations, health, books, and research.

EverWalk

Her dreams extend beyond the athletic world into that of theatre with hopes for a one-woman show someday. As an expert storyteller, I watched Diana motivate, challenge, and encourage a slapdash group of tired walkers every night and every morning with stories about making each day worthwhile and living with purpose. As soon as she picked up that bugle, played Reveille, and shouted “ONWARD!” we were off. If there is anyone who can make it to Broadway and bring a story to life, it’s Diana Nyad. She said, “I’m big on setting a high bar that I may never reach. I might not make it all the way, but I will become the best I can be, shooting the highest.” She and Bonnie succeeded in making every single walker, all 108 of us, dig deep to be the best that we could along the path from Copley Square to Cape Elizabeth.

(click image to play video, credit: EverWalk Facebook page)

I personally set out to do this walk because I wanted an adventure. I needed to see if my body could handle the miles. What I never anticipated were the incredibly inspiring people I would meet along the way, who would reiterate over and over again that this life is our one shot to get it right, that we either make changes and live our dreams, or settle for mediocrity. There was a nurse, judge, statistician, journalist, Emmy-winning screenwriter, endurance athletes, dancer, technology developer, state department employee, nonprofit sector employees, a two-time platform diving Olympic bronze medalist, retirees, marathon runners, hikers, and everyday folks who just love to walk.

The stories poured out as feet pounded the pavement. An 81-year-old woman with lung cancer who never smoked a day in her life, doing EverWalk, then heading to Patagonia for a hike, squeezing the sweet bits out of life. A woman walking for her husband who had just lost both of his feet to diabetes. A group of friends who have traveled the world and hiked Machu Picchu, the Pyrenees, and Kilimanjaro. Another woman who hadn’t traveled in years and was scared to commit, not fully knowing if she could walk 131 miles (she was faster than most of us). There were at least 3 who had hiked the Camino de Santiago and one woman who had finished 47 of the 48 4,000 foot peaks in New Hampshire. A woman who was in a terrible car accident with her daughter several years ago and had to learn to walk again. A woman who made the tough and selfless decision to move in with her parents to care for them in their elder years. A grieving woman who had suffered a loss and saw this as a way to continue the Shiva tradition of walking to end mourning. And, mothers who left young children at home to pursue a spiritual experience for their own personal growth.

I also had the chance to walk with Adrianne Haslet, dancer, motivational speaker, amputee, and all around badass. She lost a leg in the Boston Marathon bombing and has challenged every naysayer who claimed she would never dance again, including a doctor who told her not to have hope and said her chances were one in a million. She determined from that point forward, she would be that “one.” Her story is powerful and when asked her reason for doing this walk, she said, “I never thought I would walk through New England. I remember face-timing with my parents at lunch that first day, and I told them we’ve all come so far and I can’t believe I’m doing this EverWalk. It’s just amazing. It feels so good to be walking. If people knew what it was like to actually learn how to walk again, I feel like they would take on larger obstacles in their lives.”

“Why walk? We walk so we don’t have to see the world in a blur.  We walk for the bits of wonder available to the slow.” – Jane Anderson, the Emmy winning screenwriter, 2017 EverWalker

There are more accounts of personal triumph, sadness, and adventure among this group of sojourners, too many to tell here. The breadth of life lived, the scope of wonder, is no surprise when one stops to think about the type of person who might sign up to walk 131 miles in a week. A certain sense of pluck is required. A cautious, internal, balls-to-the-wall gutsiness that must be had to imagine one’s everyday, ordinary self dauntless enough to complete such a journey.

There is a freedom in this exercise of putting one foot in front of the other, but there is also a challenge to it. Diana described this event as being difficult, but not unattainable, and I can’t think of a better way to express the arduous nature and incredible reward that is EverWalk. I’d be lying if I said this was easy. By day 3, bodies had visibly started to break down. Feet had all manner of blisters and rashes. Every lunch stop became a holy act of foot care where the sacraments of Advil and gel Band-Aids were passed from hand to hand. People knelt before one another, soothing aches and pains, offering compression sleeves, speaking words of encouragement for the remaining miles. Diana and Bonnie made the rounds, placing kind hands on weary shoulders, bestowing strengthening smiles, and walking beside those who needed an extra push to achieve the finish line each day. Their care and compassion for every person on this walk was tireless and uplifting.

EverWalk

The sights, smells, and sounds of EverWalk ring in my memory as I sit still in a quiet room, recalling the rhythm of my feet on the pavement. Waves gently rolling in on the coastal tide, seagulls’ woeful cries above a fish market, the salty incense of low tide, meadows singing with crickets, marshes thick with amber sedge, the musk of a dead skunk on the roadside, red-tinged sugar maple leaves signaling summer’s last sigh, the sweet smell of apples fallen beneath a tree, whimsical painted homes in tiny don’t-blink towns, the deep tone of a lighthouse foghorn calling lost sailors home, the grit beneath shoes on asphalt…step, step, step, onward to the next destination.

And onward EverWalk goes. The next journey has not officially been announced yet, but the movement’s site has information about potential future walking events.  Although I focused on the women I met, EverWalk is open to all, and there were many wonderful men walking alongside with stories of their own to tell. For those who think the distance too difficult or the body too old, I encourage you to nurture the thought of committing to a walk. There is a comprehensive training guide, and there are also shorter walks available for sign-up each day during EverWalk events.

As I approached the EverWalk arch at Cape Elizabeth, our final achieve point, the scene became misty as tears blurred my eyes. My body hadn’t entirely let me down, friendships were deepened, and my life was so much richer because of this experience. If I can do this, what can I do next?

EverWalk

Leah LaRocco with Danielle Taylor Bowker (left)