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Transcon Planning 101: 10 Avoidable Mistakes

1. Relying solely on Google

Whether you’re driving, cycling, or walking, Google Maps does a halfway decent job of telling you a good route between any two points.

The problem is that it does only a HALFWAY decent job. The few times I’ve used it to plan a route, I’ve found myself at dead ends, gated private roads, or dangerous roadways with 70 mph traffic and no shoulder.

Sometimes that’s unavoidable, but most of the time it’s actually VERY avoidable.

For more hints and helpers, check out my post on Route Planning.

2. Not scouting the entire route in advance

Closely related to the above, you can run into some real problems if you don’t scout the route.

You might be able to get away with scanning most of it in Google Street View; and while, to be honest, that’s incredibly tedious, it’s worth the time to ensure that road you’re planning to take has decent shoulders and isn’t what the folks in Iowa called “Grade B – Unimproved”, a euphemism for a rutted, weed-strewn horse road that last saw traffic in 1860.

But there’s another angle, which is the matter of road construction (or destruction). Three times, I’ve run into situations where the course we had chosen and checked out on Google had literally been removed from the ground or just weren’t legal. In one case, it was a demolished bridge in Big Spring, TX. In another, it was 3 miles of turn-up and blocked-off highway outside Sweetwater, TX. And in the third, the route ran straight through the Gila River Indian Reservation–something we could not have seen without checking it out first–and we were told by a very kind but insistent Apache cop to turn around and go the other way.

If you can, go drive the route several weeks beforehand to make sure it’s still there, it’s legal, and it’s safe. Relying on photos of the route taken in 2009 isn’t going to cut it, and you’ll be kicking yourself about your unplanned detours.

3. Assuming there will be shoulders for your baby stroller

In case you haven’t fully immersed yourself in the sport of transconning, there are basically two ways people run across the country: Crewed and Screwed. Crewed means you have a van or an RV or some other kind of support vehicle hopscotching along to wait for you at planned hydration and fuel stops. Screwed is short for Self-Crewed, and the play on words is deliberate: folks who are self-crewed carry all their food and liquids with them, usually in a road-ready baby stroller. Next time you’re out there and you see someone on a lonely stretch of Arizona Highway 82, offer them a cold water and some food or even a plastic garbage bag to use as a rain poncho.

Running Screwed means that you’ll be pushing that hand-me-down Thule All-Terrain jogging stroller you got on eBay for 2500 to 3000 miles. It will take up room on the road.

Don’t count on paved shoulders unless you know for a fact that your road has them. If your road doesn’t have paved shoulders, look for packed gravel shoulders. If all your road has going for it is that it’s quiet, count on it NOT being quiet at the absolute worst time.

Road with no shoulders and steep embankments should be avoided avoided at all costs. If you’re lucky, you’ll be able to keep that stroller steady while standing on a 15 degree slope covered in pine needles. If you’re not lucky, you risk being hit by a car.

4. Assuming there will be food in the next town

Especially if you have special dietary needs or preferences. A lot of small towns “roll up the sidewalk” after dark. Everything’s closed, even the ratty little convenience store in the rough-looking gas station. In towns like that, the nearest actual restaurant or grocery store might be 25 miles away, and that’s another full day of running.

The obvious solution is to pack more food, but that adds weight to the stroller or your backpack or whatever you’re using to haul supplies. Even if you’ve got a crew, you need to actually VERIFY that the places you plan to stop will be open.

5. Assuming your normal running gear will be sufficient

If you are running across the Mojave Desert, even in February you will need a sun hat with a neck flap or a brim large enough to keep the sun off your head.

If you are running in West Texas oilfield country, expect windblown sand to make your legs raw.

The longer you go, the more you’ll find you need extra tough-duty or spare shoes, head rags, toilet paper, Chapstick, heavy-duty sunscreen, and more.

Take a look at our gear and supplies post for more info. You don’t need to bring ALL that stuff, but it darn sure helps.

6. Taking an RV without thinking about where you’ll park it

Out in the middle of nowhere, your best options for parking a class A or class B RV are going to be the wide gravel pull-offs just past highway exits, farm entrances, or in towns of sufficient size, strip mall parking lots. If you’re looking for a place to park overnight, your best bet is to look for an RV park or a Wal-Mart.

One thing you probably don’t want to do is try to find a place to park that giant Marathon Coach on the side of a two-lane road outside Nowhere, OK (yes, there is a town by that name!).

It goes without saying that your crew won’t be driving what amounts to a rock band’s tour bus 6 miles at a time and just waiting for you to stop and grab a Powerade and some Oreos.

I actually know of one transconner who tried to do that and found she had to go back and get the family car to tow behind the RV, drive the RV ahead and park for the night, then take the family car back to the day’s run start to crew the runner. And of course, crewing out of a sedan or SUV can get pretty cramped and unpleasant pretty quickly.

Personally, I’d recommend getting a cheap cargo van, BUYING it (not renting), and working that into your transcon budget. They’re much easier to park and most roadside pull-offs are at least van-friendly.

7. Assuming that you’ll run your marathon or hundred-mile pace

You won’t. You may have qualified for and run Boston at a 3:00 hour pace, but you won’t run 8.5 miles an hour the whole day, all-up-all-in. If you’ve done “hundos” before, you know that your rest time, bathroom time, and everything else is part of your time for the day. When you’re planning where you’ll end up for the day, figure that in. I’ve found that a good rule of thumb is that water and snack breaks should be kept to 5 minutes every 6 miles or so, and daily meals should be kept to less than half an hour. If you see a guardrail, sit down on it, take off your shoes, and massage your feet.

Day 1 is going to look good.

Day 2 is not going to look as good.

Day 3 is going to look a little tougher.

Day 10 may remind you of running Vol State, but you take it in stride.

Everything after that is going to suck. You’ll hit mountain roads with no shoulder, dangerous bridges where you have to wait for traffic or run like hell to beat it, and long stretches of absolutely no shade. Your skin’s going to be salty and sunburned, your feet will feel hot, swollen and blistered, and your joints will ache.

Use every minute you have to not just run but tend to your physical well-being. Plan to slow down, or you will have unplanned slowdowns.

8. Powering through the pain

I know some of you are David Goggins fans, but let me tell you: it doesn’t matter how tough you are, whether you used to be in Special Forces, or are just a masochist. A 100-miler is one thing…and a thing that can often be done in less than 24 hours.

But your body can only take so much suffering before it causes downstream problems: blisters, swollen ankles, edema, cellulitis, bulged discs, sciatica, back pain, exhaustion, heat stress, rhabdomyolysis, hives, and more.

I’ve had every one of those except cellulitis, and that felled my friend Jacob Fetterolf on his attempted record-breaking run across Texas.

Pain is, as I like to say, like a snake in your car. If you ignore it, it will bite you. If you fight it, it will bite you. If you acknowledge it and deal with it calmly and rationally, it might not bite you. At least your chances are better.

You. Must. Slow. Down. You must rest and take care of your body. Do it when you can (I planned rest days every 300 miles or 10 days, whichever came first). Otherwise, you will stop, whether you want to or not.

9. Not training for it

Before I ran across the U.S., I practiced by running a 100 miler (the Honey Badger 100 in Wichita KS), then the 223-mile Capital to Coast Relay as a solo runner, then the 349-mile Relay Iowa as their first solo runner. After that, I did one last practice run on Texas (850 miles).

Each time, I learned something I didn’t know before: how to fuel for super long distance, what kind of shoes to wear, when and how long to stop, the importance of protein, the importance of sleep, how stress affects blood sugar, the physical and emotional toll that such runs take, and finally, the importance of planned rest days.

These were all hard-earned lessons I wish someone had taught me.

I cringe every time I see someone from the USA Crossers FB group tell the world that they quite their job, grabbed their trucker hat and hiking boots, and are headed out the door to find whatever’s out there.

I. Just. Can’t. Maybe it’s because I’m diabetic, obsessed about controlling variables, or something else. But to me, not training is not planning, and failing to plan is planning to fail.

For more info, read my post on transcontinental mindset and training for a run across the U.S.

10. Thinking that sheer desire will get you through it

A lot of people Dream Big. Forrest Gump big. They read of another’s transcontinental run and they picture themselves out on a lonely stretch of road, just them and the stars, shuffling into infinity as the coyotes howl in the distance.

Then reality kicks in. Shoes wear out. Bodies get sunburned. Feet get blistered. You trip on road debris and scrape your palm on a guardrail, ripping of 2 inches of skin. Injuries seem to be around every corner. You get jumpy after hundreds of miles of running 2 feet from 70 mph traffic. Sleep deprivation and exhaustion set in. And after you’ve taken as much as you can physically stand, emotional volatility, moodiness, and depression can set in.

A lot of the people who’ve finished transcontinental runs, including myself, describe the feeling at the end as a sort of “Moses on the Mountaintop”, glowing-faced epiphany bordering on the spiritual.

You may start your run motivated by nothing but ego: attempting to break a record as the youngest or fastest or oldest or first person to run backwards across the U.S. (by the way, In fact, I’ve written about the reasons many people run across the country. Ernest Conner holds that record). But when you get to the ocean on the other side of the continent, you will not be the person you were when you started.

In fact, you will no longer care why you started, only what you learned along the way.