Stepping into New Territory – a Relay Across America and the Student Journey

Melissa Schmidt standing next to pace car during race

As a Transition Specialist at Moraine Park Technical College, I often help GED/HSED students transition into programs, making sure students are connected with outside community resources they may require, and assisting students in navigating the many amazing resources MTPC has to offer. I encourage potential students to take the leap to being a college student, and the enormity of that decision is not lost on me.

At times we all need to be encouraged to leap into uncharted territory. It helps us to grow as humans–to gain insight about ourselves and the world, and helps us realize our untapped potential. A student’s leap into college has some similarities to my own personal journey to becoming a relay runner for the nonprofit MS Run the US.  It’s a longer story, but here’s hoping you find it interesting and relevant….

When my good friend Amy Van Dyke asked me if I’d be interested in running six consecutive marathons while sipping Starbucks in early June of 2014, I flat out told her no. It wasn’t physically possible for me, I was sure of it.

She wasn’t convinced, and kept telling me that she could see my potential. She had run many miles for the nonprofit MS Run the US, once running across the entire state of Colorado–13 consecutive marathons. It was inconceivable to me, but I had run many of her longer training miles with her, so she thought I could do it–with training. Over months, her persistence and belief won me over, and I very reluctantly agreed. I had never run a marathon before, and I was pretty injured with a SI joint sprain that was constantly aggravated because I didn’t take the necessary time to rest.


Amy VanDyke has run over 800 miles   raised over $45K for MS Run the US

When I first started to train for the MS Run the US relay in winter 2014, I had to walk a minute, then run a minute due to back and referral hip flexor pain. Very slowly and gradually I increased my running time and decreased my walking time.  I had to really focus on stretching, Epsom salt baths, icing, and good nutrition. I also saw a sport and spine chiropractor weekly, who initially advised me not to participate in the relay for fear I would permanently injure myself. Against his advice, I slowly trained, and kept him in the loop. He reassured me when I thought I was injured for good, and he gave me great stretches pre and post training runs to help my back and hip.

I arrived in Los Angeles, California on April 10, 2015 to run my segment starting at Santa Monica Pier and ending in Barstow, CA (151 miles in 6 days), I prayed that I had prepared enough. I followed a very detailed training program that MS Run the US provided to each of the 18 segment runners, but self-doubt was still there. Not only did I need to really take extra care of my back and hip, but I had broken a finger just days before, thanks to my puppy. He had jumped up at me, and in protecting myself (fingers straight out) I jammed my finger so hard that it fractured. I still had never run a marathon up to that point, really out of anticipation of making my final day of running extra special (or crazy, whichever). I wanted my first marathon to be the last run –Day 6 into Barstow, CA. I had run up to just 25 miles in all of my training runs, and in each of the 5 days leading up to Barstow. A marathon is 26.2 miles, so I hadn’t met the mark.

Running in the desert in April is very quiet and desolate. It can be 50 degrees in the morning and 90 degrees by noon. The air is very dry with low humidity, which is the nicest part. The scenery is beautiful, but its desert brown with little green, Joshua trees, lots of cacti, plenty of sand, occasional homes with crazy dogs (I was chased more than once), lots of hills and switch backs, and sometimes relentless Santa Ana winds. Occasionally you meet a local who is curious about the MS Run the US Jeep following me, or the huge MS Run the US RV.

I was very lucky on Day 4 of my run in 2015 to meet a local named Stephen. He was (and is still) a runner—sometimes running up to 16 miles a day while he listened in on work conference calls. We were in Palmdale, CA and he waved down the Jeep and wanted to know what the relay was all about. I stopped briefly to say hello, and our 2-man crew stayed and chatted with Stephen. As I ran on, I later learned that Stephen was so impressed with our effort that he wanted to offer us all a glider ride on my last running day, which was in 2 days—my marathon day! The crew and Stephen exchanged numbers, and told me that he was an engineer for a company that creates the inside of drones, but that he had a side hobby of flying glider planes. Once I was done running and resting back at the RV, I called my husband who happens to teach aviation technology at Fox Valley Technical College. I was wondering if this engineless plane called a glider was an experimental aircraft, and he reassured me that it was not (my husband takes safety very seriously, and isn’t much of a fan of experimental aircraft). He also told me that by all means I need to experience a glider ride and take Stephen up on his offer! I was starting to really look forward to my last running day!


Day 5 into the Santa Ana winds

Day 5 of the relay was in the way, however. The map said it was supposed to be flat and a little downhill, but the Santa Ana winds kicked up and decided to blow west instead of east. I wore a wind-breaker that day, and remember very distinctly running into 30+ mile-an-hour gusts of wind that would not quit. It was the hardest run of my life to this day. I was in my head that day and my leg muscles were screaming at me. I wanted to stop hundreds of times, and I am sure I cried. But I wasn’t there running for me. I knew I had thousands of people watching my progress on social media updates who supported this relay for multiple sclerosis.  I had worked hard to train and raised over $10,000 to be a part of this team. I was honored to be the first runner of the entire 18-person relay across America for MS that would end in New York City in August. I felt I couldn’t let a single person down, so I pushed forward one step at a time, and learned that I could physically do so much more than I ever thought possible. I learned that I had a lot of personal power that day.  I learned that my body could accomplish what my head didn’t want to do.  And I learned that an entire community of people had my back, even if Mother Nature did not.

Stephen and me at the start of Day 6

Stephen and me at the start of Day 6

Day 6—Marathon Day. Glider Day! Stephen wanted to run with me, and although I really didn’t want him to at first, I agreed. I wanted to run these miles on my own, especially the last day. We compromised, and I let him run the first 13 miles with me, or half of the day. It was just what I needed, having some company that day. I learned all about Stephen’s hobby and how he gives glider rides to kids considered “at-risk” for dropping out of school. He was a true philanthropist. He insisted on donating to the relay, and gave a generous donation to my segment for the chance to run a part of the day for the cause—the hope that someday we find a cure for multiple sclerosis.

Stephen left to head to work before the promised glider ride, and I had just a little more than 13 miles to go. I checked my watch and realized Stephen and I had run about a 9-minute pace for that half, which was faster than I should have been running at that point, but I was impressed! I started running and felt my right calf tighten all the way down to my Achilles and was a little concerned, but kept going. I crossed a bridge, and realized things were going downhill fast for me, and not in the way I wanted. My right calf was rock hard, and I couldn’t even get my thumb in it to massage it. I slowed down and tried to think about something else besides the pain I was in —I was so close to the finish line!  The last 7 miles included 5 miles of loose sand—the kind that would be hell to run on in 80 degree weather on mile 144.  A sand path. Our route was avoiding a military base that we couldn’t get clearance to run through, so this was the alternative fastest way to the finish—the KOA campground in Barstow, CA. It was the route taken by the 2 relay runners before me, as well, in 2013 and 2014.  My right calf felt like someone was stabbing it with a knife repeatedly with every step on that evil sand path. I knew I was close to possibly rupturing my Achilles, so I would stop and stretch as much as I could and continue forward.

The last 2 miles were hot black pavement, and when I finally made it off the sand path from hell, I quit thinking about pain and just kept cycling my legs, even melissa-finish-ms-2014though they were done 11 miles ago.

I was running along the frontage road towards the KOA.  I really didn’t know exactly where I was or how far I had left to go. It’s like when you’re running a race and people keep yelling to you, “You’re almost there!” but you’re not. It’s right around the corner, but then there’s another corner, and another…. That’s how the last mile felt—forever.

I was running with a limp, but I was not going to walk across that finish line. I always tell the people I train, “You don’t walk to the finish line when you see it! You sprint! You always sprint to the finish!” Well, I didn’t sprint, but I did run. Finally, I could see the crew and the tall MS Run the US finish banner that I was to run under. It was, like all big adventures that come to an end, a little anticlimactic. It was me, 2 wonderful crew men that took care of me and drove me around all week, and that was it!  Quiet cheers and accolades for the feat of lifetime that I couldn’t imagine ever doing again. Little did I know that I would do it again in 2016, and again in 2017 (August 5).

I couldn’t walk as soon as I stopped running. My heel had seized up, my calf was hard as a rock. My amazing crew (who had followed behind me slowly in the Jeep on the sand path and felt sorry for me) had a bucket of ice waiting and I put my leg in up to my knee for as long as I could stand it, trying to decrease the swelling and pain.


The plane pulling the glider

It was time to recover fast, because I had a glider plane to ride! We ate fast, cleaned up, and sped 2 hours to the little desert glider airport known as Southern California Soaring Academy, where we met Stephen and some other glider pilots. I was given a little tutorial about what would happen as I limped to the front of long, skinny 2-seated glider that would be dragged by a long cable by a powered airplane way up above the mountain tops.  We were towed behind this plane, lifted higher and higher, until the desired altitude of around 9,000 feet. The cable released and retracted at that point, and we were left with an eerie silence as the powered aircraft flew back to the airport and left me with Stephen, who I was now praying was an experienced pilot. The glider then would soar and glide around under the control of the pilot, the thermals or columns of rising air created from the heating of the Earth’s surface keeping us up there as long as we wanted. The weather was considered perfect for such an experience this day.the-view-from-the-glider

Stephen let me take control of the glider at one point, and we flew over the ridge in the Earth known as the San Andreas Fault. Every view was amazing and a new perspective of life and nature.  We glided around for about an hour in the stillness, flying over the beautiful California desert landscape and the mountains of the Angeles National Forest. I couldn’t help but think about how freaking lucky I was—even with a bad calf and ankle strain. This was one of the best days of my life.

The next day I met Larry – Segment 2 runner for MS Run the US. He was to run from Barstow to Las Vegas, 9 consecutive marathons. He had a lot of special desert gear—and filled the RV with a lot of special beer, also.  One thing I’ve learned about ultra-runners along this journey is that they are quirky, and they like their special foods and beverages along the journey….or else! If a runner wants a Coke and salt and vinegar chips at mile 20, they get it (that would be me).  If they want a bag of M&Ms at mile 10, they get that, too. Everyone knows what works for them to keep them going.  Oh, and “hangry” is a real thing—it’s when someone gets angry because they are hungry and have low blood sugar. It’s a common term used on the MS Run the US journey, and the crew knows to watch for it!

The run I just described was my first experience with ultra-running. In less than a month I will run the last segment of the relay as Runner 18. I start in Sunbury, PA, and run into New Jersey. The MS Run the US relay will end in New York City with anyone who wants to cross the finish line with us.


Ashley (in orange) pushing her mom Jill Kumlien in the Brewers Mini Marathon

This past year has been an emotional roller-coaster for the founder and CEO of the relay, Ashley Schneider. Ashley’s mom unexpectedly passed away from MS on January 10th this year.  Usually Jill walks the finish with help, and I chose this segment because I wanted to meet the inspiration behind the relay, and cross the finish line with her. This year will be bitter sweet, therefore, crossing that finish line, and knowing she is there, but in spirit. Ashley’s dad passed away just a few weeks later, with no real cause known except the presumption of a broken heart.

My training includes running between 55-80 miles per week for the next few weeks. My goal is to stay injury free, get up early each day (sometimes 4am) to run, eat well, and get to the start intact. This race is bigger than me, and I train with the purpose in mind. I wear my MS Run the US bracelets to remind me of why I am running.  This year I raised over $13,000 for MS Run the US, the nonprofit organization that donates raised money to research and those living with MS who may need accommodation. This year, the 5th year of the organization, they reached the coveted benchmark of over $1 million raised. Every person I have met with this organization has been an extraordinary human being, going beyond what is expected and customary and normal to be and do more. Another bracelet I wear says, “Go and Do”.  It is a reminder to me that we are here on earth to serve, and if we aren’t serving in some capacity to help this human race move forward, then why?

The Student “Relay” Experience

At Moraine Park Technical College, we serve students every day that are looking to change their lives for the better. I feel fortunate to be able to serve in education, which I am as passionate about as health and wellness.  When I meet with a student, I see nothing but human potential. We have no idea what we are capable of until we start taking steps forward in the direction of our dreams. Sometimes, it takes a year before we get our footing, learn the load, and find a new normal.

In 2016 I ran the same exact route again for the MS Run the US relay. I hit the same 5-mile sand path. The Jeep had already returned to the finish. I quietly panicked, and I wondered if my calf would seize up again. I took some quick steps anticipating the worst, and it was fine! I wondered what the issue was the year before—that’s how effortless it was–and I sprinted to the finish.

Looking back on this story, one can draw many similarities between a student’s college experience, and my first years of running the MS Run the US Relay.  I started with a lot of self-doubt, unable to conceive this journey for myself. Many of our students feel the same way. They know others can do it, and may even know people close to them that have gone to college, but they never envisioned themselves with that potential.

Then enter the encourager—someone that has a vision and sees potential in someone that they might not see in themselves. For me, it was my friend Amy. For students sometimes it is family, but sometimes it is a staff member at Moraine Park Technical College that says to them, “You can do this!” We say it until they start to believe it for themselves, and then start to take steps in that direction.

Sometimes we have the naysayers in our life — those that say we can’t or shouldn’t do it. Our students sometimes have negative people in their lives that tell them they can’t be successful in school, or that school is a waste of their time and money.  Sometimes the naysayer is the voice in our own head that enters in sporadically and tries to wreak havoc on our progress, like I had during my run into the Santa Ana Winds.  That is when we need to call upon our support system the most.

I had the support of my husband, who helped me to carve out the time for the training, helped with my nutrition, and was my biggest cheerleader as he saw my daily efforts. My good friends ran dozens of miles with me as I trained. My chiropractor kept my body aligned and encouraged me. During the 6-day relay, I had the entire MS Run the US community cheering me on, and sending me messages each day to my phone. In moments of self-doubt and fatigue, I would stop and catch up on texts and Facebook messages, and they truly made my effort less arduous. I also had my daily crew, who made sure my only job was to run and recover. Without a knowledgeable, upbeat crew to support my every step, I could not have finished what I set out to accomplish.

The support system for a student at Moraine Park Technical College is a strong one! Our students have countless resources of support — transition services, counseling, advising, student life, tutoring, accommodations, career and employment services, and more!  We have supports in place to help a student succeed, if and when they are needed.

All great accomplishments require sacrifice of some kind, and it is rarely discussed. Sacrifice is often behind the scenes, and only our family members and/or good friends know what we endure on a day-to-day basis towards a big goal.  Our students often juggle work and school, lacking time freedom with friends and family. Financial sacrifice is common, and well, forget about getting enough sleep! Free-time to oneself is considered a luxury. Envisioning a positive future story as a result of the sacrifice is what it takes to keep moving forward. It also helps to keep in mind that the sacrifice is temporary.  In the thick of 25-mile running days, I envision a smooth relay experience, and I envision helping a cause that I believe in. Keeping that in the forefront of my mind helps me to be okay with losing sleep and less time with friends and family.

Another analogy between the relay experience and the MPTC student is that of the second-year experience. It’s easier! For me, I had hundreds of running miles behind me, so I had confidence that I could do it again. The same is with our students after their first semester or year of experience behind them. They have learned what it takes to be successful. They are accustomed to the load. They have adapted to this new normal, and have more confidence that they can and will be successful.

This journey of human potential is unique for us all, but it begins with a thought that we can be and do more than what we are currently doing. It really doesn’t

The MS Run baton

The orange MS Run baton

matter where it comes from, this idea of improving upon ourselves. What matters is that we consider the opportunity and either act on it, or discern a little longer until we can make a decision.

The decision to run for MS Run the US has changed my life and my perspective on human potential. It has given me the growth mindset that I see everywhere now. We are meant to continue to grow in our education, our knowledge. Our IQ is not fixed. Much the same, I believe our physical bodies are not limited, either, but can always improve, even as we age.

If we can help students to realize and adopt this growth mindset, we will help them to not only improve upon their own visions of themselves, but also help them to see the same in others, and in doing so help our communities and the world move forward, passing on the baton.

If you’d like to learn more about the relay and follow my journey, go to My segment starts on August 5th in Sunbury, PA. Currently the relay is in Illinois.

Written by Melissa Schmidt