In 2010, the struggling economy forced Richard Cohen and his wife to close the family business, a baby furniture and accessories store outside of Atlanta. They had whittled their life savings trying to save the business. And they knew they would soon lose their house. Cohen started looking for work. "But after a week," he said. "I got pretty frustrated and decided I'm not in the frame of mind to look for a job." So he decided to go for a little run.
On Valentine's Day 2011, Cohen, then 60, touched the water at Jacksonville Beach and set off on a 2,350-mile journey across the United States. He ran 20 miles a day, taking only occasional days off, while his wife, Sheryl, accompanied him in the couple's 11-year-old car. Five and a half months later, on July 28, Cohen reached the San Diego coast.
He wrote a book about his experience, 20@60, A Baby Boomer's Run Across the U.S., which was published earlier this year.
In 2012, Cohen and his wife moved to Tampa, where he used his background in counseling psychology to launch Small Business Solutions, which helps people start their own business, or helps with any issues they have with an existing business. "I help people learn problem-solving skills and how to manage themselves," he says.
Cohen, 62, recently spoke with City Times/North of Tampa editor Richard Martin about his journey, and what he learned from it.
How did you get the idea to run across the U.S., and how did you prepare for it?
When I closed the business, I had never been in a position of not having a business, or being unemployed. For about a week, I went online to look and see what jobs were out there. We knew our house was going to be foreclosed on. But after a week, I got pretty frustrated.
I thought while I was running marathons 20 years earlier that it would be neat to one day run across the U.S. The more I thought about it, the more it made sense to take a break from reality.
Over the Christmas and New Year's time frame (in 2010), we visited friends in Estero. I started thinking about how my body would handle a few runs down there. I ran 6, 8 and 9 miles over a three-day period. My next step was to see if my body could handle a 20-mile run, to make sure my knees and hips were okay. When I saw that everything seemed fine, I decided I would do six 15-mile runs over a three-week period. I felt that would get me in position where I could get on the road, and I would get in shape from that point on.
What challenges or injuries did you encounter during the run?
The first month, I had one blister after another on my feet — no matter how much Vaseline I used. But you just run with it until you work your way out of it. The only injury I had was when I was crossing a bridge in Mississippi. I had a knot between my foot and the bottom of my leg that was almost paralyzing. It was so painful. I could barely move the next day, and Sheryl said, "you're not running today."
In Albuquerque, there was (smoke from the) Wallow Fire, which was the largest wildfire in Arizona history. The winds were blowing directly in my face for 10 days. I had to use surgical masks while I was running.
How many pairs of shoes and socks did you go through?
I wore through eight pairs of shoes and 48 pairs of socks. While I was running, my feet grew two sizes. I started with an 8 1/2, then went to 9, then 9 1/2.
What were some highlights of your journey?
By far the best runs were out in New Mexico, where there was absolutely nothing but beautiful scenery and crystal blue skies. And there's an area called VLA, or Very Large Array, a configuration of 27 huge radio telescopes that are pointed to the sky. It's been in a few movies. These telescopes are enormous — 80 feet in diameter. They are stretched out over miles. It was just incredible to run through there.
I also did a daily blog (20at60.com). It ended up there were almost 17,000 people following me around the world. The comments I got really surprised me. They were talking about how inspirational it was. They were telling me personal stories. That kind of helped motivate me.
How did you and your wife decide to relocate to Tampa?
We decided if we're going to move, why don't we just pick a best-place scenario? Why don't we just pick our ideal spot? We wanted plenty of sunshine. We wanted to be near the water. We love the beach. We wanted to be in a city with a nice-sized Jewish population. We wanted to be somewhere on the eastern United States. We looked up how many synagogues were in Tampa, and found six or seven. So we moved down here.
What are your favorite places to run in the Tampa Bay area?
For the first 14 months I was here, I was out running on Bayshore Boulevard four to five times a week. I live two blocks off of Bayshore. But when spring came, I decided I like smelling the flowers, so now I run through some of the neighborhoods near Hyde Park.
What advice would you give to a new distance runner, or someone who is thinking about an ultra-distance feat?
I figure that if you're going to be a distance runner, you need to be in a frame of mind where you enjoy it. If you can do that, the training is easy because you want to get out there, instead of forcing yourself and looking at your watch.
What other hobbies do you have?
I love traveling. I love getting in the car and driving for hours, stopping in a place and waking up running in a new place. My wife and I just enjoy hanging out. We go to Clearwater almost every weekend and sit on the beach for four or five hours.
What's your next goal?
Actually, I'm in my next goal — living in an area that is near the water. My wife and I have been married for 42 years. We're living our dream right now. We love the place we live in Hyde Park. The people we've met are as nice as can be. If this is the way my life will be for the rest of my life, I'll be as happy as I can be.
Sunday Conversation is edited for clarity and brevity.