Sometimes the only way to accomplish something that stands the world on its ear is through one’s feet. Such is the case with Las Vegas resident Helene Neville.
Neville, a five-time cancer survivor, recently was invited to be the first American to run the length of Cuba. But the 57-year-old is determined to do what she originally set out to do: represent the U.S. in its entirety by running the two remaining states — Alaska and Hawaii — she yet has to conquer.
In assistance of Neville’s unwavering cause, a fundraising campaign — “Rethink the Impossible Below Zero” — and donation website has been established to help raise the necessary funds to support this unprecedented, historic and humanitarian mission. The campaign goal is to reach a minimum of $25,000. Although only running for about a month, the donation total received so far is $280.
The enduring human spirit
On Sept. 23, in front of a crowd gathered at the Westgate Las Vegas Resort & Casino, Neville completed the last 500-mile leg of a seven-year, 12,855-mile solo run across every state in the continental United States. In doing so, she became the first woman, and second person, to ever achieve such a feat, and she is the only person to have completed it entirely on her own, without a backup team or support vehicle following her.
While Neville physically arrived on foot, she drove home the message she had spread all across America — “Rethink Impossible.”
The story of her running journey is much more than simply an athletic achievement for this transcontinental runner, world record holder, nurse, health advocate, fitness coach, author, entrepreneur, Flag for Hope star, inspirational speaker, mother and grandmother. It is a true testament to mankind in terms of the human spirit and what it can endure. It also speaks to her discovery of the extent of human strength and beauty, both in herself and in the people across this amazing country we live in.
“I had a much deeper purpose than an athletic one,” Neville acknowledged, revealing that she began the run in an attempt to get past the grief of losing her mother and to find herself.
“If you put action behind a thought or a dream, you can do with it whatever you want. I used to believe the adage, ‘Where there’s life, there’s hope.’ But with hope (alone), you go nowhere. With action, you can go anywhere. You have to push the limits. We don’t know the limits of human potential or performance.”
Meeting challenges head-on
Doing the entire run with no plan and no money, Neville began and ended each day in unfamiliar surroundings, asking and receiving help from strangers. She chose to look for kindness in others rather than stay on guard expecting the worst. Some of the areas she ran into were considered so bad that the police wouldn’t even go there. Yet Neville found nothing but kindness and compassion in people from all walks of life, even those in the worst circumstances.
“On July 4, 2010, I was running in south Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and got lost at a bridge,” she recalled. “I was in a dilapidated area; some of the houses didn’t even have front doors because of the destruction left behind by Hurricane Katrina, which had happened five years earlier. A black gentleman saw me and came out of the house and asked if I was lost.
“When I run, I wear zinc oxide all over my face and a white cap. He must have thought I was part of the KKK (Ku Klux Klan). He invited me into his home and shared with me ribs, sweetened tea and corn on the cob.
“We started talking, and I stayed all night with him and his wife. The next day, he walked me to a market where his buddy met me and walked me to the interstate. His friend also gave me a blueberry pie.”
Neville literally has hundreds of stories she amassed about the folks she met along her journey. In 2015, while running across Idaho, a sheriff ran part of the way with her to protect her because forest fires had brought out bears.
In Huntington, West Virginia, she encountered summer monsoons on a daily basis. There, the windshield wipers on her personal vehicle, which she drove to her next-day starting point after completing each leg of her run every day, went out in a very depressed area. A local mechanic worked for four hours to fix them at no charge.
On the other side of the coin, a millionaire couple in Florida took her in and threw a party for her to help raise money for her run.
All alone on the highways of America, surviving on whatever was in her backpack on any particular day,, Neville began her way around the perimeter of the United States in five segments: from California to Florida, Canada to Mexico, Florida to Maine and Canada (Eastern Maine) to Washington state.
Starting this adventure in 2010, she finished running her last segment through Middle America — Wyoming to West Virginia and back — on May 1, two weeks after completing cancer therapy after receiving a new diagnosis.
We’re all in this together
Through the entire five segments, people she never had met took her into their homes each night after her daily run, fed her, moved her support vehicle 20 to 50 miles ahead of each starting point for the next day’s run, bought her groceries and placed water every three to four miles along her running route.
“I trusted people I didn’t know with my keys … and my life,” Neville said.
Still, the obstacles she faced throughout this seven-year period were immense. She was sidelined by cancer, enduring chemotherapy, radiation and three brain surgeries, only to run 25 miles a day, sometimes more, after recovering.
During her run from Canada to Mexico, she also carried a 22-pound urn filled with the ashes of her brother, Anthony Quintal, who had passed away just before the start of that segment.
But despite the summer heat of the Deep South; record humidity in the Midwest; wildfires in the West; treacherous terrain, blizzards in the mountains, severe altitude sickness, constant logistical and financial issues; a broken heel bone and rib; monsoons and hurricanes; the new cancer diagnosis and pneumonia; and an attempted assault and abduction, she kept running.
And, somehow, after running miles each day, she would harness the strength to visit hospitals, schools, fire departments, cancer centers and communities to share her story.
Neville self-funded her runs by selling her website’s official One On The Run T-shirts and her books, which are titled Nurses in Shape, The Right Dose; Nurses in Shape, One on the Run – 93 Days Across America; and One on the Run: Border to Border 2013. Her fourth and fifth books, Nurses in Shape, Nation in Shape, Edition II and One on the Run, Rethink Impossible are due to be released soon.
“I run to inspire others to realize their dreams,” Neville summed up. “I run to promote health, hope and unity in America, and to encourage all people to ‘Rethink Impossible.’
“Overall, I think that some people need to be reminded that it’s not ‘them’ or ‘they,’ but rather ‘we’ or ‘us.’ You can either choose that which divides us or that which unites us. I went out to unite people. For seven years, I dedicated my life to making the world a better place. I didn’t just talk about it, I showed up.”
Neville not only has made a difference with her feet, but also with her heart.