The Story Behind the Relay

The BEGINNING

I’m from small city in Southwest Louisiana called Lake Charles. It’s in the heel of the boot if you will. My mom grew up further east along the Gulf Coast in a town called Cut Off, not far from the mouth of the Mississippi. All my life was spent along the bottom of the state of Louisiana, with an ever-increasing awareness of what was going on with our coastline.

Every couple of years, we would go the few miles to Holly Beach to lay down Christmas trees to help erosion. Every summer to Grand Isle, a barrier island off the tip of Louisiana, and ever year we'd find a different outlay—there’s a little beach, no beach, jetties or bricks laid out almost like an amphitheater to stop the erosion. Recently the shrimping boats were trawling so close to the coastline that dead fish washed up along the beach.

This is not your beautiful white sands. This is sediment. This is the Great River, the Mississippi River washing up to create the shore. Over time, I've realized that relationship, that the beaches are not old, they get renewed ever few years. The beaches, the marshes and wetlands, they are a living—and a dying—thing.

2010

Nearly eight years ago, we had the BP oil spill… It was a crazy disaster—to see so many people struggling on top of what’s already been happening with industry and hurricanes year after year.  I've come to think that this story of my region has just been something in me, living in me since I was a young person.

And yet, just at this time I had moved away because my art career needed a city. I had run away from home as long as I could remember, and running back home was what this project was originally all about. I thought this time I’m going to run home in a real physical way. I wanted to do it in a way that was talking about a cause that is really connected to a larger story. I want to lay down some ground, physically and literally in Louisiana, and I want to work for something in my home that has meaning, that really needs help.

The PIVOT

So there I was focused on this solo journey, this athletic feat—me the extroverted brainiac who usually played scorekeeper instead of point guard in gym class—and then the inevitable happened, I had an injury. I can't stress how much this injury changed everything.

I was having heart problems—not heart problems, but I had a day, two days, where I was having chest pains. I called my doctor and they told me you have to go to the hospital. I didn’t want to go to the hospital. I wanted to watch the Cubs game. So I went home and watched the World Series, but the next day I was still having chest pains. I went to the hospital.

In the end GOOD NEWS. I was ok.

The next day I went out for a run. Something was wrong with my ankle. All the foot specialist could make out was that I was wearing the wrong shoes when they put me on the treadmill for the stress test, and with the incrementally increasing incline and speed that mimics running uphill, I either tore something or something, so I was out, for an unknown duration.

I felt out of control.

I knew having the test was the right thing—I had to find out if I was going to die, all these things, but then I felt like I was dying because I couldn’t run anymore. It sounds dramatic, and in the grand scheme of all the problems in the world... EXACTLY! I was suddenly thinking—“All the problems in the world” and I’m worried about not being able to run. All the problems, there are so many problems, and suddenly I realized I needed to have a bigger picture.

the talking to each other problem

It’s not that I suddenly changed my mind and decided coastal erosion is no longer a big problem. It is, but I realized that there is a bigger problem. Not a bigger, more important problem, but a bigger, more encompassing problem that is keeping things like coastal erosion from ever pushing further into the conversation as it cycles year after year.

I have discovered that running and raising money and awareness for coastal erosion is not necessarily going to change anything, especially the fact that the state has had money sitting in the bank to spend toward coastal erosion. They haven't spent it, and perhaps it's because the problem is so huge and so difficult to tackle.

The difficulty lies not even in the environmental situation itself, but in the people—the oyster farmers, for instance. The oyster farmers don’t want us to "fix" the river because then that keeps them from putting food on the table. They’re good people and they need to feed their families, but we also need to fix the river and the coastline for 100 years from now.

The problems are huge and if we can’t talk to each other… If the oyster farmers can’t talk to the scientists—that’s the problem. We can’t talk to each other, and the talking to each other problem is the big problem that our country is having on the whole. That’s what I realized is happening across the nation, all those hundred towns and cities, everywhere, beyond the hundred towns and cities, and I couldn’t address it on my own.

I’d be exhausted running a marathon every day. Even if I wasn't injured. Even if I could. But if I had four awesome women, who are working with me and rehearsing with me and figuring out those skills to talk to people and we were doing the outreach and finding the way to get into those towns and do that work then we could begin developing a way to have those conversations. We could begin that work. And changing the tone. And we’d have those conversations when we got to Louisiana. And we’d have those conversations in Iowa. And Missouri, Minnesota. All these places.