Twenty miles a day on foot felt like this: as if someone had beaten your soles with a hickory cane, and then threw rocks at your shins. It was a purposeless hurt, this September hike through New England, with the last peaches and the first apples on the trees, and the carousels sitting still in the little villages with witchy histories. The locals selling blueberries at the farm stands all asked the same question: “Why are you doing this?”
There was no answer, really, except that Diana Nyad likes to explore new categories of endurance the way astronauts like to go beyond dark horizons, and we wanted to go with her, to see what it was like.
Something about the late miles every day made the theme song of “Jeopardy” start running through your head. Maybe it was the backbeat of shoes on blacktop, or the metronome arm-swinging. When Nyad swam from Havana to Key West through the Straits of Florida in 2013, one of the songs that looped in her salt-soaked brain was Alex Cuba’s “Si Pero No,” the lyrics of which roughly translate to, “Yes but no. No but yes.” Which is the perfect ambivalent expression for someone who chooses pain over comfort, who dreads yet welcomes it. At some point in the walk, when Nyad’s heel started to feel like a drill bit was driving into the bone, she simply cut a hole in the insert of her sneaker to relieve the pressure, a piece of makeshift triage so she could keep going. She didn’t want to stop, no matter how much she wanted to stop. Si pero no. See?
Nyad and her longtime friend and logistics partner Bonnie Stoll named their strange adventure “Everwalk”: a 131-mile endurance trek up the coast from Boston to the tip of Cape Elizabeth, Maine, at a pace of 20 miles a day for a week. The strangest thing about it was that more than 100 people voluntarily chose to follow, including a pack of Washingtonians, a handful of Californians and yours truly. As a sportswriter, you watch a lot of champions do magnificent things that you can describe with only the limited, hobbled language that comes from watching others move while you yourself sit in a chair. Secretly, you want to come unmoored. “There’s a threshold you cross where it’s no longer physical, but mental,” Nyad says. Hard to feel that from a seated position.
On Sept. 10 at 7 a.m., Nyad blew Reveille on a bugle in the middle of Copley Square, and we set off. Eight hours later, we stumbled into the cold surf of Marblehead, Mass., to cool our knees and ankles, silently staring zombie-like at a tangerine sun sinking in the horizon, as if it was the End Times.
The next morning Nyad asked, “How do you feel?”
“Good,” she said.
At the end of the second day, we collapsed on a grassy field in Ipswich, Mass., trying to hide what my friend Jane, a Los Angeles screenwriter, described as “a secret vein of crankiness” over the sense of pointlessness and pained exhaustion. But then Nyad drew everyone into a circle and started talking about her obsessive 30-year quest to swim from Cuba to Key West without a shark cage. She finally succeeded on her fifth attempt. “I’d swim from the early morning to early evening, until it felt like I could see the curve of the Earth,” she said. “There’s something about getting somewhere under your own power.” She also said, as an endurance athlete, “sometimes you meet your maker.” That seemed to put people back on their feet.
On Day Three, our feet felt like fish skeletons, as if the bones were about to poke through the skin, and it was amazing what gnawing agony a single grain of sand in a shoe could induce. We walked through Beverly and Manchester-by-the-Sea and on into New Hampshire, with its low tumbledown stone walls and old clipper ship harbors with soaring white steeples. In every town, people stared curiously and asked, “Where you headed?” When we told them all the way to Cape Elizabeth, there would be a long pause, and then would come the inevitable, “Why?”
We stammered and realized we had no easy reply. No, not to raise money. No, not for charity. No, it wasn’t a race.
In Newburyport, Mass., a guy passing on the street said, “Where you going?”
“Whoa,” he said, lifting an eyebrow. Then he looked back over his shoulder. “I’m going down the street to the bar.”
As we walked, we began to make odd observations. We wondered what made the grass grow in September while the head-tall sunflowers nodded and turned brown. The tilt of stones in old graveyards got us thinking that some of the people we passed looked like ghosts. The lady with the sun shining through a sheer red parasol. A man wearing a lavender blazer and a straw boater. We made up Stephen King plots to match the spooks. When our imagining grew too fanciful, a smart young woman shook a cup of ice, and said, “I’m imagining this is a gin and tonic.”
We ate like wolves, because each leg of the walk burned more calories than we could replace with the Panera sandwiches Nyad and Stoll had delivered to lunch rest stops — two per person, and no one left a crust behind. On the rattling school buses that carried us to $100 a night motels at the end of the day, you could hear the popping of plastic wrappers on the Lance’s cheese crackers. It was the only time in anyone’s life a registered nurse was heard to say, “Be sure to eat your potato chips.”
On Days Four to Five, something changed. We actually started to crave the long striding days and extreme sensations, the plunging of feet into ice buckets and cold oceans and hot baths. It was, presumably, the breakthrough endurance athletes talk about, when the body miraculously decides to adapt to its circumstances, and the almost unbearable becomes almost pleasurable. We felt fine as we strode up the beautiful blur of New Hampshire coastline and into York, Maine, where the sun glittered like shards of broken glass on the ocean, and from tall green bluffs we watched surfers pick their way over jagged rocks, and fishermen troll, and people loll under colorful umbrellas.
People had learned they could walk through pain. They walked in compression bandages, and ankle tape and knee braces, ignoring the hot strikes in their arches and hips, listing along like slightly damaged ships that could still make way. And that was when and how they discovered their why.
Everyone had their own reasons to keep going. For the ebullient Adrianne Haslet, ballroom dancer, blade runner and mountain climber, it was another bold demonstration against the Boston Marathon terrorist attack that took her left leg in 2013. “I’m a survivor defined by how I live my life, not a victim defined by what happened in my life,” is her motto. She was absent for just one day during the trek, to go to New York for the 9/11 memorial ceremonies. She was back the very next morning to resume trudging along with everyone else.
At one point she told Nyad and Stoll, “My leg hurts.”
Stoll said, concerned, “Do you need to stop and take it off?”
“It’s my good leg,” she said, wryly.
A tall, robust wood-beamed figure of a man walked because he was fighting off cancer, which left multiple scars carved on his chest. An 82-year-old woman walked because she still had enough vitality to maintain her stately sun-hat pace for five straight days and 100 miles, and finally quit only reluctantly, because she had to go to a family wedding. A civil servant from the District walked because he had recently taken retirement after 40 years. Jack and Susan, with “no accolades after our names,” walked because they wanted to show what kind of mettle ordinary folks have. One walked because she had recently lost her mother. Another walked because she had just realized her husband was an alcoholic. Many walked because the once-glacial pace of aging had turned into the backside-whiplash of an amusement park ride, and that makes endurance athletes out of all of us eventually.
Because it hurts. That’s why.
“Did you ever meet a 90-year-old who said the whole thing was a bowl of cherries?” Nyad asked.
Nyad walked because she is defiant about aging and wants to impart what she knows about enduring to others, by leading them on journeys through extreme corridors. Last year, she and Stoll walked 133 miles from Los Angeles to San Diego; next year, they’re planning to go from Seattle to Vancouver. She will be 68, and she has the glow of a sprite, and the deepest lines in her face are the laughter-creases around her eyes. “I feel I’m in a prime,” she says brightly. The only trouble with following in her slipstream is that when your feet hurt, you don’t dare complain to her, or she’ll bring up the time the box jellyfish wrapped itself around her neck and stung her until she lost her sense of smell.
On the morning of Sept. 17, we approached the end at Cape Elizabeth in a deep fog, which lay like a cream over the water. From a distant lighthouse a foghorn blew in its turret, the low bass note vibrating through the air and into your chest. It sounded one-part triumphal welcome and one part a mournful goodbye. Si pero no. Yes but no, no but yes. At that moment we were in Nyad’s distant borderland, glimpsing her curve of the Earth. We had moved somewhere very far away under our own power. No matter how much we wanted to stop, we didn’t want to ever stop.
“And isn’t that the perfect place to be?” Nyad said.
Correction: A previous version of this column had an incorrect name for one of the walk’s organizers. Her name is Bonnie Stoll.
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.