What One Woman Learned Trying to Run Across California

Three friends set out to prove you don't have to be an expert to go for something extraordinary.

Ali Butler Glenesk set a goal for herself to run across the entire state of California, testing the limits of her body and mind.

What One Woman Learned Trying to Run Across California

Three friends set out to prove you don't have to be an expert to go for something extraordinary.

Ali Butler Glenesk set a goal for herself to run across the entire state of California, testing the limits of her body and mind.

This story is part of Women of Impact, a National Geographic project centered around women breaking barriers in their fields, changing their communities, and inspiring action. Join the conversation in our Facebook group.

Ali Butler Glenesk wasn’t going to let her middle-of-the-pack status keep her from earning the title of the fastest woman to run across California. She planned a route, reached out to two friends to support her endeavor, and started training. She would have to run about 10 marathons in 10 days to beat the time for the route she’d picked.

Having run thousands of miles in training, Butler Glenesk would pull all her preparation together for one extended push. Her goal was to run 262 miles from North Lake Tahoe to Stinson Beach.

For support and encouragement, Butler Glenesk’s friends and fellow runners Maryam Khan and Noam Argov joined her on the adventure. Argov, a National Geographic Explorer, documented their journey in her film “Running Across California”—while also running four marathons herself. She describes the trio as “out to prove that you don't have to be an expert to go for something extraordinary." (Read about this 2018 Adventurer of the Year redefining what it means to be a ultramarathon runner.)

The pursuit pushed Butler Glenesk to ignore her own doubts about her strength. “When I look back on my life, the things I am most proud of are the moments when I didn’t listen to the voice in my head that said you aren’t good enough or you can’t do it,” she said.

Each day, she ran about 26 miles, with Khan and Argov alternating between driving the car and running. The first day was challenging, Butler Glenesk explained, but she hit her stride on the second day while running through an area of the High Sierra.

“There was magic in the middle days, because when you start your third marathon in a row and you have legs … you are like my body is amazing. This is crazy,” she described.

By the sixth day, her muscles tightened and her legs, buttocks, and quads started to give out. She decided to go until she couldn’t stand up anymore. On the seventh day, she ran four miles and spent a brutal eight to nine hours walking. She was disappointed at her progress; she was prepared to run, not walk.

Hands swollen, suffering from a heat rash, and past the point of exhaustion, Butler Glenesk was still determined to finish. She rested for a day to prepare for her final marathons, but after 175 miles, she stopped. It was her eighth day and she’d made it to Fairfield, California—87 miles short of her goal.

“I failed, and it was still the highlight of my year,” she explained. “I wanted to run across California and in doing that I found out how far I can go. If that’s the metric, then I think it was a success.”

Lauren O'Brien is a digital news writer at National Geographic, covering topics related to culture and exploration.