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Crushing Stigmas & Miles: Paul Johnson Making Strides In World-Record Transcontinental Run Attempt

Fifteen hours on the road. Sixty-five miles a day. Forty days straight.

Paul Johnson is undertaking what less than 400 people have done before — running coast-to-coast across the United States. With every step, Johnson is pioneering a new meaning to physical and mental health for himself and communities across the country.

Johnson, a Penn State Navy ROTC alumnus, is currently on his 3,000-mile trek across the country, aiming to complete his attempt in under 40 days. With that timeline, he would smash the current 42-day record. Johnson’s success means more than the miles, though. It’s about the journey that got him here.

Johnson graduated from Penn State in 2018 and spent his free days in Happy Valley as part of the Triathlon Club and at the Bicycle Shop downtown. Directly after graduation, he was commissioned by the Navy and headed overseas to Spain.

The toll his deployment in Spain had on Johnson was enough to impact him for a lifetime. Like many sailors in the Navy, Johnson fell coping with alcohol. When he returned to life back in the United States, he spent two years in San Diego where one of his friends, a fellow Marine officer, convinced him to run the Marine Corps Marathon alongside him.

The intense training for the marathon provided the perfect motivation for Johnson to work through his mental health struggles and provided him an outlet for escape.

While completing a marathon is a large enough feat in and of itself, the two ambitious runners decided to try to qualify for the Boston Marathon, too, and both hit the sub-three-hour requirement after five grueling months of training. This kickstarted Johnson’s love for running, and on January 2, 2023, he made the decision to start running every single day.

This quickly turned into ultra races, 100-mile quests, and 24-hour spans of running. He ran in his first 100-mile race the last week of April in 2023. Less than a year later, he will finish his countrywide trek at just about the same time.

Johnson’s first introduction to the transcontinental run was in Happy Valley when current record holder Pete Kostelnick made his way through town in 2017. Kostelnick clocked in at 42 days and about six hours. Taking side roads and downtown streets, Penn State was a part of his journey, and Johnson wanted to include it in his path as well.

“When he ran through, that was my first introduction to like, ‘Hey, this is a thing people do.’ Not very many people, but people do it,” Johnson said.

A few years later in 2021, Hellah Sidibe became the first black man to complete the 3,000-mile journey. Learning about Sidibe’s trip reignited the idea in Johnson’s mind, and he began the research process and toyed with the idea of doing something extraordinary.

So, how does one prepare for this treacherous task? Along with heavy lifting, direction from his Naval reservist coach, specific marathon training, and another Marine Corps Marathon, Johnson clocked some serious mileage. He started his targeted training for the transcontinental around November 1, marking a five-month training cycle until the time he began the attempt.

“We started with the 100-mile weeks, [ranging from] 100 to 130 miles. And then as time went on, we kind of started pushing the weeks and the mileage. By the end, I was doing 200-mile weeks and about 35 or 40 hours of running a week,” Johnson said.

Even with all of his training, nothing can really prepare one for the full natural forces and issues encountered on the road.

“The wind has definitely beat us up. We’ve had snow delays. We got about 12 to 14 inches of snow one night, and we had to wait five hours for them to plow the roads so we could get through,” Johnson said. “The winds have probably been the worst part, but I think we’re past most of it. In New Mexico, I spent a whole day just walking through a 40-mile-per-hour headwind. It’s not efficient to run. You have to walk, so those are very slow, demoralizing days.”

It takes a team of people to help when morale gets low and Johnson needs assistance. His crew is headed by Rob Sembiante, a former Special Operations Navy diver and ultra runner himself. His job is to take as much stress off of Johnson’s plate as possible and to handle logistics.

Johnson is also accompanied by his mother, Janice Johnson, and a full media team. The media crew is in charge of posting content to social media and capturing shots to help promote the journey. Many of Johnson’s company are former veterans themselves, including crew member Mindo Estrella.

Estrella is on active duty alongside Johnson in the Marine Corps, but their relationship goes back far further. When Johnson was making his way through the Penn State Navy ROTC program, Estrella served as his drill instructor.

The two developed a special relationship as a student and leader inside the battalion that grew into roles as an advisor and mentor. Their connection continued to strengthen, and Estrella was Johnson’s first salute after being commissioned.

“He was honestly the first person I asked to come out and crew, and he had some conflicts, but he’s out here now, and we’re having a blast,” Johnson said.

Each member of Johnson’s team works together and is key to his success. From foot massages, encouragement, and coordinating follower and fan meetups, Johnson expressed his appreciation for those alongside him.

“The joke is, my job is to eat, sleep, run, and complain, because that’s all I really have time for,” Johnson laughed.

Johnson’s team wakes him up around 4:45 a.m. every day with shoes laced and out the door of the RV by 5:30 a.m. The first hour of his day is critical, and typically the hardest of the 15 he will endure throughout the remainder of the day. The pace picks up after the first four miles, and Johnson usually takes two 15 to 20 minute breaks over the course of the morning.

At about seven to eight hours in, or mile 33, a lunch and rest stop is warranted. Johnson eats anywhere from 10,000 to 12,000 calories a day to fuel his body. After a bite to eat, a hit of caffeine, and the occasional nap, he enters his easier half of the day.

Unlike the morning, Johnson only takes one short break in the afternoon and stops running either 15 hours after he starts, typically around 8:30 p.m., or whenever he reaches 65 miles. His daily goal is to clock in 65 miles, but each day is different.

When the team makes it back to the RV for the night, Johnson has his routine nailed down.

“I shower, eat as much food as I can, and pound a lot of ice cream,” Johnson laughed. “They typically massage my calves and feet for about 30 to 40 minutes and then we’ll go to bed.”

While the journey has certainly been taxing on his physical health, it’s no match for the mental toll that Johnson is trying to raise awareness and fundraise for as a part of his voyage.

Johnson partnered with Team Red, White, and Blue — the largest veteran health and wellness charity in the United States with over 200,000 members. Its goal is to provide training, promote events that bring the community together, and build physical and mental wellness.

Raising money for the group along the way brought deeper meaning to Johnson’s path and with each mile he runs, he can see the impact.

“Running has had such a huge impact on me, and it helps me out a lot,” Johnson said. “I know physical activity, in general, there is such a huge connection between that and mental health, and that’s really what we’re trying to promote out here.”

Not only have Johnson and his team promoted the importance of mental health and exercise, he has served as an inspiration for many people, non-runners and athletes alike. Many have joined Johnson for some miles as he passes through their city.

“I had a 10-year-old come out the other day and she’s like, ‘I’ve never ran more than four miles. But I’m gonna run 10 with you today.’ And I was like, ‘Well, if you do three more, you can do a half marathon.’ She ended up running 15 miles that day,” Johnson said.

The support from town members, in tandem with police and fire truck escorts, made Johnson realize just how many people are impacted by his transcontinental run. Many have shared empowering stories with him that help to put things into perspective.

“There was another woman who worked a double shift at the ER so that she could drive three hours to come run with me the next day, and she ran her first marathon,” Johnson said.

From a fun, downhill slope to a winding road overlooking a majestic landscape to a smiling face on the side of the road, there have been many factors that have helped propel Johnson forward.

Johnson operates under two simple strands of advice: accept that you’re going to fail but also just keep moving.

“A lot of people don’t do things, or don’t try things, or don’t set goals because they think about it and they’re afraid they’re gonna fail, or it’s not going to work out, or they don’t know how to do it, and it’s gonna go wrong. And people just get in their own ways,” Johnson said.

If Johnson had set off on his journey with a mindset of failure, he never would’ve gotten started. The mental toll is exhausting, so he has to constantly fill his mind with motivation and not doubt his capability.

While he isn’t currently on his pace to break the world record, Johnson stressed the importance that whether he fails or not isn’t the point. He has to keep looking just 10 feet in front of him and continue making progress day by day.

He doesn’t view the 65 miles as a complete stretch but instead focuses from landmark to landmark. When he hits his final destination of New York City, the feeling will be infinite.

“As long as we keep making progress, as long as we keep moving, we will get there eventually,” Johnson said.

Johnson is set to make his way through Happy Valley in the coming week or so. Folks interested in tracking Johnson, running with him, or donating to Team Red, White, and Blue can head over to Johnson’s official website for more information.

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About the Author

Ally Eaton

Ally is a freshman public relations major from York, Pennsylvania and is one of Onward State's social media editors. She gets to write awesome feature stories and create epic content for our social media pages. Ally is a lover of country music and Trader Joe's. If you'd like to discuss March Madness or your most creative coffee order, feel free to contact her on Twitter @allyeaton31 or in her inbox [email protected].

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