Few exercises leave someone exhausted, sweaty, and sore like running does. It’s a trifecta that even some of the biggest health nuts are happy to do without. That’s why, for most people, the word “marathon” represents a seemingly impossible achievement. Of the few who dream of accomplishing such a thing, even fewer actually will. Running 26.2 miles in a day requires months or sometimes years of intense training. It takes countless hours spent sweating out step after step under a hot summer sun, a humbling experience for those who are brave and confident enough to try. To most people, a marathon seems like far too tough of a challenge to take on. But Rachel Aldrich isn’t like most people. “Crazy,” Rachel says. “That’s pretty much the first word anyone says to me when they hear what I’m doing. They tell me I’m crazy.” It’s easy to agree with those people, as hearing about what Rachel is planning to do can be mind-boggling. Between August 6th and August 16th, she will be running roughly the equivalent of ten marathons in a row, as she follows a 245-mile route spanning from Fort Wayne, Indiana to Youngstown, Ohio.
Such lofty aspirations certainly do sound crazy at first. After all, what Rachel will be repeating ten times in an eleven-day span is something that people train for months or years to do once. But she has good reasons for choosing to do this. Last October, Rachel became one of 16 runners in America chosen to participate in the MS Run the U.S. relay, a mega-marathon of sorts funded by the nonprofit organization MS Run the U.S. The organization aims to raise money towards researching a cure for Multiple Sclerosis (MS), a deadly disease that attacks the body’s central nervous system. The goal of the relay, which extends from Los Angeles, California to New York City, a distance of over 3,000 miles, is to raise $500,000 through donations towards MS research.
The route is split into segments, with each runner given a different segment to run, and since the relay began on April 15th, Rachel has been waiting for her turn to help the cause. At 22, Rachel is the youngest member of the relay team that was put together by Ashley Kumlien, the founder of MS Run the U.S. Ashley’s mother, Jill, was diagnosed with MS in 1980, and that inspired Ashley to run the entire relay route from LA to NYC by herself in 2010, raising money for MS awareness and research the whole time. Now, Rachel and her teammates are following in Ashley’s footsteps, hoping to raise as much money as possible through the relay.
For Rachel, however, the relay is not about displaying her distance running abilities. Just like Ashley, she has a personal motive that extends far beyond a simple physical test. Ten years ago, Rachel’s mom, Debra, was diagnosed with MS. Since then, they have been learning to live with the reality that a serious disease is a major part of their lives. “Day to day, it’s not any different,” Rachel says. “My mom is actually really lucky. We caught it fairly early for her, so she takes a daily injection, which is her medicine, and it’s kind of slowed the progression of the disease.”
While Rachel knows that her mother is lucky, she admits that it hasn’t always been easy. “It was hard, I think, at first,” Rachel says. “There have been times where I’ve had to give my mom shots if she couldn’t reach the spot she was supposed to. Even though she does that to herself every day, for me to have to do that to her, it just really hits home, and it really is just scary, thinking that this is a disease that could affect anyone at any time.” Despite the hardships brought on by her mother’s disease, Rachel hasn’t let it get in the way of her life outside of home. A Cleveland native, she grew up playing soccer and softball, which she continued through high school. She found that she enjoyed the conditioning that came with being a high school athlete. Afterwards, she went to Otterbein University, where she graduated last spring with a bachelor’s degree in math.
It was during her college years when she discovered a passion for running. “All of the sudden it just became this big thing, where I would go out and run almost every day,” she says. “I just found that I was really good at the long stuff, and I really enjoyed it, and I found a lot of friends and support through that. So it just kind of stuck with me.” Once she realized how much she enjoyed running, she wasted little time in building her racing resumé. Not including her upcoming relay, she has completed seven marathons and three ultra-marathons, or races longer than the traditional 26.2 miles. While exploring her passion, she realized that she could use her running talents to help others. “I’m not a wealthy person,” she says. “I’m not a powerful or influential person. I’m a poor college graduate. All I have is right now this ability to run, so I’m using that and my heart just to try to do something to make a difference to help someone, to save someone’s life.”
After breaking the news to her mom that she was going to run in the relay, Rachel was greeted with the same response that she has become accustomed to lately. “She pretty much told me I shouldn’t do it, that I was crazy, that I was going to get hurt, that something bad was going to happen to me,” she says. “But slowly, as we went through the whole process, it turned out that my whole family was really supportive and really behind me. They know I do crazy things, but they know I take care of myself and that I’m able to do that.” With her family offering their suport, she then had to start training. Despite her extensive background with distance running, she still had to take part in grueling workouts, and the unrelenting Cleveland weather didn’t made things any easier. “This summer training it has been very hot and very humid,” she says. “And there have been days where mentally I just…I can’t do it.”
Whenever she feels like giving up, however, she finds more than enough motivation to keep going by thinking of her mother, and of everyone else who suffers from MS. “I’m definitely going to be looking to them to power me through the hard miles, the hills, the heat, and all of that,” she says.
“They’re in pain a lot. They struggle in the heat a lot more than I struggle in the heat. I can do this for ten days. I can make myself vulnerable, and tired, and hurting for ten days, because they have to do it their entire lives.” Rachel hopes that same mentality will transfer over to her actual relay. Though she admits to being somewhat nervous about the sheer distance that she will have to cover, she has found a way to ensure that she will never lack the determination to keep pushing herself. Rachel will be dedicating each day of her segment to a different person suffering from MS. She will wear that person’s name on a sign her back each day, and it will serve as a reminder of why she is putting herself through such a draining challenge. After she completes her segment, she will join her entire team in running the final 10 miles to New York City together. For those ten miles, they will be pushing Jill Kumlien, the inspiration behind the relay, in an adult disability stroller, which Rachel knows will make for a very emotional experience.
Rachel hopes that her run inspires people with MS to never give up in their battle with the disease. “I want to show all the people that I know with MS firstly that, you know, they’re not alone in this fight,” she says. “That there are people who know them, people that have no idea who they are, who want them to be better, who want to find a cure for this disease.” But Rachel’s intentions don’t stop there. She aspires to reach an even broader audience. “I also want to show everyone, whether these are runners or non-runners, that you can take something you’re good at, and use it to help other people, use it to make a difference,” she says.
As for those who think that Rachel is crazy, she wouldn’t have it any other way. “You have to do something crazy to get people’s attention,” she says. So far, her plan has been working. On the MS Run the US website, where Rachel has set a personal goal of raising $10,000 through donations, almost 70 people have stepped forward and donated in her name, most of whom Rachel doesn’t even know. “It really touches me every time I get a donation,” she says. “Not to sound cheesy, but every time this happens it makes my heart smile.”
Shortly after completing the relay, Rachel will begin pursuing another method of helping others: she will start working towards her masters degree in math at the University of Akron in the hopes of one day becoming a teacher. Even with the time demands that this will entail, Rachel has no plans on letting it affect her running. “I want to be that 80-year-old that is in, like, the 5k race, running and walking, no matter how slow I have to be,” she says. “I want to run the rest of my life. I hope that I’m healthy enough to be able to do that.”