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This Harvard Student Ran 70 Miles Back to College
When it came time to return to Cambridge for her junior year, Brinkley Brown decided she’d get there with her own two feet.
Brinkley Brown’s alarm went off at 3 A.M. Today was the day: She was moving into her dorm for her junior year at Harvard University. But while her classmates were loading up their cars for the long drive back to college, Brown had a different plan. She was going to run 70 miles from her home in Concord, New Hampshire, to get there.
Brown was already a dedicated runner. When she was a little girl, her dad used to let her ride on his shoulders while he walked local 5K races. As she grew older, they started jogging together, building up their distances. By the time Brown was in sixth grade, she realized that running was the sport for her.
“I just didn’t look back,” she says.
In college, she chose not to run for a team, opting instead to run by herself or with friends. The summer before her junior year, she got a job with the Appalachian Mountain Club in New Hampshire’s White Mountains where she was surrounded by an active community of bikers, runners and swimmers. A few of her coworkers were serious long-distance runners, and as she watched them train, she began to wonder if she could tackle that kind of challenging mileage —like, say, running 70 miles back to college?
“I wanted a fun way to end the summer—and the idea was born,” she says.
Although she’d completed five half-marathons and a 20-mile race before, she’d never done anything like this. At first, she thought she might spread the distance out over the course of a few days, stopping to spend nights at friends’ houses along the way to Cambridge, Massachusetts. As she mulled over her idea, she mentioned her thoughts to her dad.
“He was like ‘Brink, you know you can do that in one day, right?’” she says. That sounded kind of crazy, but the more she thought about it, the more she realized it could be exactly the challenge she craved. By early June, Brown was committed to running the 70-mile distance in one go.
Brown was getting in plenty of running, biking and hiking during her summer in the mountains, but once she decided to do the back-to-school run, she began taking training more seriously. She scheduled a few longer runs every week and she’d often train both before and after work. There wasn’t much of a set plan; it was more about paying attention to how her body felt.
“You know when you come up with an idea, and it’s so wild and so crazy that you haven’t quite thought it all the way through, but you know you’re all in?” she says. “That’s how it was. In the beginning, I was just super excited and wanted to build a base by running and stay active.”
By the middle of the summer, her wild and crazy plan had begun to sink in. She hadn’t told too many people about it at first, as she worried that it would start to feel real if she did. But in July, she began spreading the word. Some of the people she told volunteered to run by her side for a few miles. Others, as she expected, thought the idea was insane and their reactions made her doubt herself just a little bit. Could she really run 70 miles in one day?
Those doubts started to vanish as the date got closer. “As the summer was winding down and I was preparing to get back to school, I was like, ‘I’ve worked hard,’’ Brown says. “‘I’ve done all I can and this is what I have been envisioning since June. I’m going to go for it.’”
Finally, August 31—the day she’d been waiting for—arrived. Her alarm went off long before the sun would rise. She donned her headlamp and lightweight backpack, laced up her running shoes and was out the door by 4 A.M. Brown was joined by two friends who would run with her for the first several miles. The group started out with a previously agreed-on pace of 9:00- to 9:30-minute miles, a speed that felt excruciatingly slow.
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“I was trying to hold back,” she says. “I didn’t want to start out too fast. I was just so ready to go and get back to school. It was probably good that I had people around me to keep down the pace.”
Despite her impatience, the early section of the run left a profound impression on Brown. She had carefully chosen a course of smaller, safer roads rather than a major interstate—and the scenery was incredible. “People say stargazing is great at night, but I’ll tell you, stargazing in the early morning before sunrise, that’s just magical,” Brown says. “We watched urban Concord turn into rolling hills and farmland. We saw the sun come up.”
Twenty miles in, she made it to the designated meeting spot, where her parents were waiting with water, snacks and encouragement. From there, she continued to meet up with them every 10 miles. Brown’s mom had purchased a pack of neon paper from Rite Aid that morning, and at each stop, she was holding up a new sign: “Brink, you’re my rock star!” “Brink, I love you!” “Brink, you’re almost there!”
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Other friends joined Brown at different points throughout the run. Having them along was the “absolute best,” she says. They talked about school, work, families, friends, summer adventures, comfort zones and so much more. “Running and being active fosters some really special conversations that you can’t plan,” Brown says. “I wish I’d had a paper and pen to write them down.”
Around mile 52, Brown’s legs were starting to ache so much that she thought she might not be able to continue. That’s when her dad got out of the car and ran with her for more than a mile. He didn’t say much, but his presence gave her the strength to keep going. Besides, she already had a rough idea of the thoughts going through his mind.
“He was walking the fine line of being an encouraging parent,” she says, “but I think in his head he was saying ‘Brink, you know you don’t have to do this. You know I'm proud of you…Please take it easy.’”
Mile after mile after mile went by. Despite the pain, Brown’s extraordinary determination never wavered. “I honestly enjoyed every minute, including the minutes that were a bit challenging,” she says. “There was no part of me that thought I wouldn’t make it. I didn’t know if I was going to be walking or crawling or if I would have to hop on a bike or be on someone’s back the last couple miles, but I knew—because I had pictured it since June—that I would touch the door of my dorm and that I would make it.”
Finally, she reached the homestretch. As Brown approached her dorm, she picked up the pace after miles of a slow, steady slog. She raced down the middle of the road with a couple friends running behind her, cheering her on. Her mom was waiting at the end with a sign that read “Brink, you did it!” Brown ran past her to touch the door of her dorm.
It had taken her 12 hours and 21 minutes to make it from Concord to Cambridge. The group toasted with champagne and watched the sun set over the Charles River. “It was magical,” says Brown.
The hard work wasn’t over yet: Like all returning students, Brown still had to move into her dorm room. She had some nasty blisters the next day, but otherwise, her running recovery went smoothly. She was back running on the roads by the next week.
With one huge feat behind her, Brown has begun pondering what her next running adventure will look like. She recently floated the idea of running a half-marathon with her dad and she’s looking forward to experiencing runs in the equatorial heat when she studies abroad in Africa this coming spring. And on her recent 21st birthday, she ran 21 miles in celebration—all the way to Walden Pond.
Looking back, Brown says the 70-mile adventure on foot ultimately taught her that running requires an effort beyond pure physical strength. “Perhaps more important is mental endurance and your belief that you can push through temporary pain. If you can keep your mind occupied as the miles are rolling by, you know that you’ll make it to the finish line,” she says. “It’s so cheesy when people say that if you set your mind to something, anything is possible. But I think that’s 100 percent true. More than 50 percent of running is mental.”
Feeling inspired to tackle some serious distance of your own? These pro tips will help you run faster.