Ed West talks to a Catholic who prayed the rosary 35,000 times while running across America, dodging wild animals on the way
America is a country of open expanses, limitless prairie fields, mountain ranges and desert, and extreme cold and heat. But most of all America is vast, the distances between its oceans almost incomprehensible to the European mind.
One man who certainly knows all this is Jeff Grabosky, who on May 20 arrived on the shore of the Atlantic on Long Island, New York, having run from southern California’s Pacific coast, a 3,700-mile journey which he undertook to encourage Americans to pray. Along the way he prayed the rosary 35,000 times.
It was the end of a journey that began long before he set off. Grabosky, 28, grew up in a Catholic family in New Jersey, graduating from the prestigious University of Notre Dame in 2005, after which he landed a well-paid job in the insurance industry, married his college sweetheart and bought a house.
But in October 2006 he suffered a double blow. His mother lost her battle with cancer and less than a week later his wife walked out.
Devastated, Grabosky sold up and moved to Washington DC to be closer to his brother and sister, and a few days later went for a six-mile run. Although painful to his out-of-shape body, it made him decide he would dedicate his life to running.
His love of athletics, like his Catholicism, came from his mother, and the two things were intimately connected. She ran every day, and prayed while she did so. “She always brought me and my brother and sister to the track or the park,” he says. “I would always watch her run and pray together at the same time. So I put the two together at an early age.”
Catholicism was central to this Polish-American family. “Mass was a big part of our daily lives, praying every day and every night. It was never forced, it was up to us if we wanted to or not.”
It was after running a marathon in 2008 that the idea first entered his mind: he would run across the entire continent of America to encourage people to pray.
“The idea just grew on me. I really felt pulled in that direction, that I was supposed to do that. When everything came together in 2010 that’s when I decided to go ahead.”
The immediate question one has to ask is: what did his friends and colleagues think about it? As it turns out he worked at a specialist running shop, and so they more or less understood. “They know me and weren’t that surprised. The store owners even sent me running shoes along my route.” He got through 12 pairs.
He moved in with family and trained for five months, building up his strength for the ordeal ahead. He would run 200 miles a week, acclimatising to running at high altitude, planning the route and what supplies he would need.
“There was a lot of logistics that went into it,” he says. “I didn’t take a route that anyone else has taken, I just planned it myself. So it was hard to find roads to run on. In some parts of the country there were roads that not many people have ever run on.”
America is 3,000 miles coast to coast, but Jeff decided to take an eccentric route in order to visit “family and old codger mates” along the way, making it over 3,700 miles in total. He used Google Maps, and also wrote out index cards for each day with directions.
Only 43 people have run from ocean to ocean, although 200 have run “somewhere near across the country”, he says, “but I’m the 43rd person to run and it was definitely a long route in total.” It took him 121 days, running the equivalent of 141 marathons.
American history stretches east to west, from the first English settlements in Virginia to the modern dominance of California in the age of entertainment and computers (and road movies always move in the direction of the Golden State). But logistics made it necessary to go the other way. “Towards the end I was definitely hurting and I didn’t want to go over any mountain ranges or anything that big,” he says. “Besides, I also knew a lot of people on the East Coast so I would use that as motivation.”
He began in southern California, just north of San Diego, on January 20, and was soon in the state’s vast interior desert. It was an experience that stretched him physically and spiritually.
“The desert was tough. It was close to 90 miles from town to town, so I brought a tent and camped out a couple of nights in between. That was difficult: to not see too many people and to be running through in those hot conditions, with the problem of supplies, it was very mentally challenging”.
“I felt reflective, just being so far away, thinking Jesus had to go through with this, I felt a connection with that. I felt like I emerged out of the desert a different person to the one when I entered. It’s hard to describe. It’s definitely a very spiritual experience.”
And then there were the hills. Although he trained at high altitude, breathing was still difficult. “I was a little bit south of the Rockies, but it still reached 8,000ft in elevation and it got cold up there. It was 11 degree Fahrenheit [-12 degrees centigrade]. It was also very windy.”
In Texas, he says, “it got really, really difficult. The winds were sustained over 60 mph and because of the drought the dirt and dust blew around. The wind was strong enough to knock me over, and there was limited visibility because there was sand everywhere. And there were cars still on the road so I was trying to avoid them.
“The dust didn’t hurt but it did get everywhere. I had a bandana around my mouth but it still got around my mouth, my nose, my eyes. There were tumbleweeds like you see in movies, and they were actually thorny and were being tossed very fast and I got hit in the legs with them and that actually hurt.”
There is often a great overlap between endurance sports and religion, and many athletes have faith. It is perhaps because of the mental strength that faith gives an athlete, perhaps because the physical torment helps one to understand the human suffering that religion helps to make sense of.
“It was very difficult but just through prayer I was given the strength to complete. There’s no way I could do it on my own and I knew it was going to be very challenging but I had faith that God would carry me through. Every time I thought I was out of energy or running into a tough place mentality He helped to pull me through. Prayer was really how it was done; it’s a physical feat but to me it’s more about spiritual accomplishment.”
In Oklahoma he had to stop for a medical, fearing a stress fracture, before heading north to Notre Dame in Indiana to see old roommates and colleagues.
“That was very important in my spiritual development,” he says. “It was great to be back, they were very welcoming. I had a prayer service. I prayed the rosary. I gave a talk about why I was doing it. It was a great point for reflection.”
There was a half marathon that morning and he talked to the runners, to encourage them on their journey, and “hopefully provide them with a little inspiration”.
He reflects: “If I had gone straight from that point in Texas I would have saved myself 500 miles, I basically took a 500-mile detour but it was that important to me.”
So why run for prayer? It’s an unusual idea, I suggest. “I was initially considering doing something for charity, perhaps for cancer, which is important to me because of my mum, what she dealt with. But I wanted to include as many people as possible, not just any single disease. And I thought the best way to help as many people as possible was to pray for what they needed.”
In all he received some 3,500 prayer requests, an experience he found emotional. “The further I went in the less it became about me and more about the people I was praying for. Because of the prayer requests that were sent in I felt really privileged to have an insight into how everyone is struggling. Being able to pray for them was such an honour. I started up praying for all these people and they ended up praying for me as well. I felt the powers of those prayers, the protection and the graces I received. When I was struggling, in physical pain or mentally exhausted, I would look at the requests and see children suffering with terrible illnesses. People in a lot more painful, difficult situations. That gave me inspiration.
“People continued to email me from around the world, they would post on my website or on my Facebook site. Even on the road people would stop me and ask me what the heck I was doing and I would tell them and pretty much every time they gave me one or two requests to pray for. That was really encouraging. It showed me that the world really does need God and does need prayer.”
Along the way he estimates that around 300 dogs chased him, 10 together at one point, and he even ran into a mountain lion, but his experience with people increased his appreciation of human generosity.
“It’s not something I expected to encounter but it’s been constant throughout the run how much people were willing to give of themselves and what they have, even if it’s very little. That really encouraged me to be more generous with the blessings I’ve been give. That’s not something I expected to find but God works in funny ways sometimes.
“Construction workers would on a couple of occasions stop me and give me a few dollars. They didn’t even ask, they just figured I was someone who could do with some help. It was a humbling experience, but one that has increased my faith in people.”
The final stretch took him to Washington, where his brother and sister live with their spouses.
“I had a niece who was born three days after my run so I was really looking forward to that. I ran my most miles in a week at that point” – a staggering 350 miles.
From there, his journey took him through his home town in New Jersey, where he visited his mother’s grave, through New York City, “right through Times Square”, and across the Brooklyn Bridge, where on Long Island he jumped into the Atlantic Ocean.
Now resting in New York Grabosky describes himself as “just a bit sore, a bit tired”. When we speak he’s about to do a five-kilometre fun run, which he does every year (it must be like a walk to the fridge for him).
The good wishes and support of strangers has been the most important aspect of the journey. He spent 18 nights enjoying the hospitality of people he never met and says “there are friends who will be friends with for a lifetime. I have people I know all over the country.” Most of all he cherishes the prayers and help of people, in this great, vast nation built on prayer and Christian hope.
“Starting out I thought it was going to be the scenery I’ll remember most,” he says. “But it was actually the people who were the highlight of my trip.”