"One day, I just started running." - noted harrier Forrest Gump
It started out as a bit of a joke.
"One day last year I was late for a class," said Tracee Gruskiewicz. "I had been out running on my own. I had to sprint like half a mile to get there and when I did, I was so out of breath. My professor, Dr. Rodney Mills, said, 'What are you doing, running across the country?'
"I said, no but that sounds like a good idea. He laughed it off, but a week later he said, 'You were serious weren't you?' And I was."
She was indeed. Gruskiewicz, a former Austin Peay cross country and track and field runner, was once the Austin Peay record-holder in the 3000 meter steeplechase. A four-year competitor for Doug Molnar, Gruskiewicz completed her eligibility in 2010 but has continued to run on her own to stay fit.
But no one runs across the country just to stay in shape; Tracee needed motivation. She found two causes that would spur her onward. One came through her work with 4 Feet 2 Treat, a non-profit organization she works with in Clarksville designed to train therapy animals to help those with mental and physical disabilities.
The other was inspired by a church retreat to Panama City, Fla. last fall, when she heard the tale of Cole Ferguson, who had cerebral palsy, and his mother, who were killed in October 2011. Gruskiewicz called the run "Cole's Run" and ran to raise money to provide scholarships for his two younger brothers.
"I decided I wouldn't just do this to do it," Gruskiewicz declared. "I wanted to break the record, but I wanted it to have more meaning. That's what really pushes you every day; I don't know if I would have made it."
A cross-country run required even more training. Gruskiewicz entered the summer hoping to average 35 miles a day, with built-in days of rest periodically penciled in to the calendar.
"When we were training for cross country, we maxed out at around 100 miles a week," Gruskiewicz said. "My longest week this summer was more than 250 miles. No amount of training could have completely have prepared me for that."
If running nearly 300 miles per week sounds difficult, that's because it is. All Gruskiewicz could hope to do was remain uninjured as long as possible.
"Of course, that didn't happen," she revealed. "I got it out of the way early; I was injured by the second day. It was terrible. I hurt my Illotibial band (a layer of connective tissue extending from the iliac crest to the knee that links the gluteus maximus to the tibia) first and then my Achilles, and those are the two injuries you absolutely don't want to get as a runner. When I tore my quad, things just got more difficult."
There was never any thought of stopping.
"I dropped my miles down, but I couldn't quit," she said. "I was really worried. There's only so much I could do each day."
The days were long. For Gruskiewicz, running an average of 35 miles per day meant stopping every six to nine miles in order to replenish some of the 6,000 calories she was dropping during that stretch. Days that began at 6 a.m. would often end after midnight.
Heat, a factor in the desert, wasn't the toughest element thrown at her. Sandstorms were prevalent in many western states, while humidity would be a factor as she made her way through some spots in the south. Night running, which helped her combat the heat, presented its own challenges; Gruskiewicz had to be alert constantly for approaching cars that may not see her until it was too late. Bears and wolves also presented challenges during the run; Gruskiewicz often stayed close to her truck and her team in case she needed to get off the road quickly.
She saw many sights and had many experiences on the road, but passing through Clarksville proved to be one of the highlights of Tracee's run.
"I went a little bit out of my way to end my run for the day at Freedom Deli (one of the main sponsors of the run)," Gruskiewicz explained. "It was awesome. I had a lot of friends that came out and ran with me. It was totally worth it to have such a great support group."
After 95 days, 12 states and nearly 3,000 miles came the plunge into the Atlantic Ocean. In addition to raising money for two separate charity organizations, Gruskiewicz set the record as the youngest woman to cross the country in the fastest time.
"At first, I was so glad to be done," she stated. "Then there was a bit of sadness. There's a feeling of 'That was awesome, but now it's over'. The mileage didn't really hit me until last week when I sat down to look at it. I averaged 45 miles in that last week, and it was the toughest week by far. But in the end, it was worth it."
Asked if she would do it again, Tracee doesn't hesitate.
"I think I will do it again," she mused. "Next time, my goal would be to break the overall record, which is about 69 days. That's about 45 miles a day, which I think I can do if I stay healthy."
For more information about Tracee's run or to donate to her causes, visit http://4feet2treat.com