Meet Paul: the British Soldier Running Across America

In People / Groups, Running

Paul Wheeler is not your average human. A retired soldier, Paul is currently undertaking the mammoth, gruelling, head-spinningly difficult task of running solo, and unsupported, from California to New York, a hefty 3,000 miles. That’s 115 marathons back to back, with one rest day a week. To put this in context, more than 4,000 people have scaled the summit of Everest since the first expedition in 1921, compared with just 300 people who have successfully run across the United States.

Paul and Wheelson, the Thule stroller, on the side of the road

Paul set off from the Golden Gate Bridge on 1 June and expects to finish his run on the Brooklyn Bridge by the 1 October, giving him a cool four months to raise money for The Royal British Legion. During a rare pit stop in a cheap motel in Nebraska, Paul managed to acquire enough Wi-Fi to tell us what it’s like trying to traverse an entire continent with as little equipment as is needed for a Duke of Edinburgh bronze award.

Paul and Wheelson in San Francisco before the almighty challenge begins

The Idea

Why would a thirty-five-year-old guy from the Isle of Wight – and a self-proclaimed ‘average runner’ – embark on such an almighty challenge? After 12 years serving in the British army, and four subsequent years as a civilian, Paul found himself somewhat lost, having spent most of his adult life living out of a backpack. Finding it hard to settle into a nine-to-five job and a house, and finding his dream of taking on at least one life-affirming challenge drifting, he decided to do something about it.

“I’d spent years and years reading autobiographies and watching documentaries about amazing people who’d undertaken some incredible challenges and expeditions all around the world and I'd finish all of them asking myself "Why can't I do that?" or 'What's stopping me from doing something similar?’"

Before ‘the idea’ Paul had completed two marathons and one ultra-marathon, but had never taken on a task quite as daunting: “I’d always liked running, so once this idea entered my head there was no stopping me putting a plan together.” He adds, almost cavalierly, “I felt like running across a continent and just chose the US. I'm roughly following Highway 80 across the country, but as long as I'm heading east each day then I know I'm not going too far wrong.”

Wheelson and Paul on the open roadSnapshots from Paul and Wheelson's transcontinental run across the United StatesPhotos from Paul's social media accounts chart the long, open roads and the vast US landscape

The challenge of blistering heat, lack of sleep and Super Noodles

Almost two months into his challenge and he’s doing well. In his first six days, Paul managed to get 145 miles (233 kilometres) under his belt, through a hot and sunny California. It took five whole days of running before he caught a glimpse of cloud and then experienced some rare Californian June snow.

Onward to Nevada – “the hardest state by far” – with its desolate scenery and blistering heat which demanded a change of tack: “I ended up running at night because the heat was stupidly hot,” Paul explains. A consistent enemy throughout, the 40-degree heat meant dizziness, vomiting, nose bleeds and, when shelter wasn’t around, burying his head under his stroller – more on this in a moment – for 10 minutes at a time, just to get some respite. Running at night was a simple decision: “it meant I didn't get to see a great deal of Nevada, but I just wanted to get across it as quickly as I could.”

Paul Wheeler QuoteUnless a donation from friends, via his GoFundMe page, rewards him a motel, hot shower, or a meal for the night, Paul spends most of his evenings camping in the safest spot he can find, chowing down on energy bars, porridge and dehydrated instant Super Noodles and resting his legs. He tries to get in as many calories as he physically can when he stops at the nearest town, drinking more than 10 litres of water a day, while singlehandedly “keeping Gatorade in business.”

Now more acclimatised to the heat, it’s the humidity he is currently struggling with, which rises the further east you go into Nebraska towards Iowa.

Paul and stroller Wheelson at the Nebraska / Iowa state line as Paul runs across America

Sleep is also a big problem,” he says. “You would have thought that I'd be out like a light each night, but sometimes I really struggle. Numerous times I've only slept for about two hours in total. Sometimes I just give in and decide to get up and start running again.” 

Meanwhile, he’s already on his third pair of trainers and expects to go through five over the course of the trip, getting US friends to post to his nearest local post office en route as they map his progress.

Loneliness, Tom Hanks and a loyal stroller

With only his social media followers to provide continuous support, and the occasional traveller, loneliness and tedium are daily battles. Sometimes his only company is  his 45 kilogram sidekick Wheelson, a stroller donated to him by sponsor Thule to carry all his food, water, clothing, cooking and camping equipment. Wheelson is named after Tom Hank’s inanimate companion – a volleyball – in the film Cast Away, with whom Hanks spends four years on a deserted island.

“It’s my all-time favourite movie… so it's a play on his name, as well as my own ‘Wheeler’” says Paul. “It’s very lonely, sometimes I go days without talking to people, but doing it solo and unsupported was always part of the challenge. I sometimes talk to Wheelson, but he's not the best at holding decent conversation.”

Mind you, he does provide comedy: “On numerous occasions people have stopped me because of the blistering heat outside and they think there’s a baby in there, even Highway Patrol have stopped to question me.”

Thule stroller Wheelson is Pual's only sidekick as he runs across America, solo and unsupported

Small gestures, large incentives

Podcasts and music help, as well as breathtaking sights, such as the red rocks of Utah and the wild horses in Nevada, which Paul cherishes. That, and the kindness of strangers. The hospitality of the American people has helped enormously, from those stopping at the side of the road to give him an ice-cold bottle of water, or winding down their window and handing him a $20 note to get a meal in the next town. He’s even had offers of a bed for the night.

Everyone has been so nice. They've let me sleep in their spare bedrooms, their front yards, use their shower and some have even done my laundry for me! I feel blessed. I really have been so lucky with the people I've met.”

On a journey that’s seen him run alongside a busy interstate in a size 2XL luminescent trucker vest, have an intimidating exchange with a gang in Sacramento, and having been warned not to approach people’s driveways in Fallon, Nevada, if he ran out of water because he’d be “shot before making it 30 feet [10 metres]” – what keeps him going?

Paul says he imagines the Brooklyn Bridge appearing over the horizon – sure, the sense of achievement, but also relief, emotion, completion. “I promised myself that I wouldn't drink whilst on the run and that I'd reward myself with a beer at the finish line in New York. Some days I can really taste that beer!”

It is this that spurs him on every day, along with thoughts of spending Christmas with his family and raising money for The Royal British Legion.

“They’re a fantastic charity, providing financial, emotional and social support to anyone that’s served, or is still serving, even if you’re a veteran. Not only that person but their whole family with lifelong cover is supported. I hope to raise a lot more money for them for the rest of my life.

You can keep track and read more about Paul’s adventure on his blog, by checking out his Facebook page, Twitter or Instagram. If you would like to support him on his expedition, you can donate to The Royal British Legion via Paul’s JustGiving page.

And, if you fancy reading about another trans-American expedition, check out the retired US marine who cycled across the States in our article Racing Across America.