After (literally) running from sea to shining sea, Ashley Schneider is helping relay teams of marathoners cross the country to raise money for multiple sclerosis.
On a March morning in 2010, Ashley (Kumlien) Schneider stepped onto the Golden Gate Bridge on a journey across the country on foot.
Stats don’t exist on how many women have tried such a feat, but we do know how many had succeeded at the time: just 15. Would she become the 16th?
If so, she’d be doing it mostly alone. She and her boyfriend at the time, an Australian named Andrew whom she met on a cruise ship where she used to work, would sleep in a donated camper. She’d get to and from her starting points in a late-model Toyota Camry donated by someone in San Francisco.
If any of the previous women who’d done this had advice for her, she wasn’t interested. “I just wanted this experience to be mine, whatever I created it to be,” she says in the basement work area of her home in Delafield. “I was hesitant to connect with people who had run across America, or read books about it.”
Schneider hatched the plan while, just after college at UW-La Crosse, she was working what some may consider a dream job as a fitness coach on a cruise ship. She met strangers from throughout the world, and many wanted to know more about her country and dreamed of exploring it. Their passion awakened an epiphany: She should run across America, and make it a fundraiser for multiple sclerosis, the disease that so affected the life of her beloved mother, Jill Kumlien. One day in Barcelona, it crystallized: She would quit her job on the cruise ship, move back to Wisconsin and start the training that could convert her from a recreational runner to a cross-the-nation ultramarathoner.
“At that moment, I realized something that I loved, which is running, could raise awareness for something I care about deeply, which is MS,” she says. “That’s when I knew what I was supposed to do.”
When she started, the year of training – and her love for the inner peace that hours on the road bring about – gave her a quiet confidence she could finish the monumental task ahead of her. A Christian faith that she grew up with re-emerged, thanks to the example set by her mom, and it reassured her in times of doubt.
She did not envision then what her solo journey would become: MS Run the US, a Milwaukee-based nonprofit with national reach in which 70 runners have joined a now-annual relay across the country, retracing Schneider’s steps from California to New York. It has raised $1.4 million to fund research and help with daily living expenses for people with multiple sclerosis.
At the time, she just wanted to run a marathon a day until she reached the Atlantic Ocean and to meet her own fundraising goal of $500,000. Every step, she found inspiration from her mother.
“Watching my mom losing physical abilities due to MS was part of what drew me to exercising,” she says. “I loved moving, and I really appreciated it because I had seen what it was like to lose that.”
That first day started ominously. It took a half-hour to go a half-mile, as she was swarmed by strangers who’d come to run the first steps with her, and TV cameras there for interviews. When she broke free from that scrum, 17 miles in, she stopped at an agreed-upon spot to refuel. But where was Andrew? Lost. Driving in a foreign country, on the opposite side of the road from what he was used to, took some adjusting.
Soon enough, life became more predictable, and the year she’d spent preparing for this, running up to six hours a day, paid off. She’d consult Google Maps on her BlackBerry, figure out her route and go. She got to Nevada, where the directions said, essentially, follow the same highway for 50 miles. Same went for the Plains states, and the prairie states in the middle, and the Eastern states closer to the end. She ran every morning, broke around lunchtime to wolf down a footlong sub, some salt-and-vinegar chips, a cookie or two and a soda, rest a bit and then hit the road for another long stretch in the afternoon.
By Ohio, she had fallen a bit behind schedule, so she upped her regimen to 32 to 45 miles each day, six days a week. Sometimes, darkness would fall and she’d keep going. Hours would pass almost without her noticing. She’d get lost in a semi-euphoric trance, fueled by endorphins. “The times I’d get most emotional would be by myself when I was running,” she says.
On Sept. 28, six months and a week after taking those first steps on the Golden Gate Bridge, she crossed another bridge, the George Washington, into Upper Manhattan with skies so gray the skyline couldn’t be seen, flanked by a crew of New York runners who ran her into their city. Her mother and father were in town from Wisconsin. Friends and extended family had gathered, too.
The journey took a very slight toll on her physically: two blisters and a short bout with heat exhaustion. The mental strain proved tougher to navigate, but she always had a ready answer in moments of self-pity. “Nothing sucked as bad as my mom not being able to get on a bike or losing her driver’s license,” she says. “It was more emotionally painful for me to think about not being able to run.”
But amid the satisfaction of finishing, she also felt an emptiness. The second goal of her quest, the fundraising for MS, came up short.
That seed grew, two years later, into MS Run the US. Each runner in the relay would run a marathon or so a day for six consecutive days, and raise at least $10,000.
Slow, slow hands, like sweat dripping down our dirty laundry. No, no chance, that I’m leaving here without you on me.”
Anna Perna belts out these lyrics, from Niall Horan’s “Slow Hands,” because why not? She’s running, she’s alone, and she’s somewhere in Illinois or Indiana, on her more than 120-mile leg of the relay. It’s 2017, the first time she’s done it. “You just sing out loud,” she says, “because no one can hear you in the middle of nowhere.”
Perna, who lives in Wauwatosa, learned about MS Run the US at her gym when another runner who’d done the relay posted a flyer. It struck Perna as a great opportunity. Like Schneider, she watched MS rob her mother of independence through the years, and saw the financial toll it took on the family to build her a handicap-accessible house plus buy her a van and scooter so she could get around their hometown of Green Bay.
“Insurance is never easy,” she says. “I’ve seen my mom struggle and stress over that. If we can make it even an ounce easier for someone, it’s worth it.”
She didn’t need to be convinced about the cause, but faced doubts common for would-be relay runners: How can I run a marathon a day for six days, and how can I scrounge up $10,000 in donations? Perna started running casually in college at UW-Stout and was training for a marathon when she learned about the relay. But doing it six days in a row, without rest days? Yikes.
Here’s where Schneider enters the picture. She has a way of calming nerves and making tasks that seem impossible sound normal, achievable. She, who’d never done a marathon before coming up with her idea, made it all the way across the country. You surely can do one leg of it, right? Perna believed she could do it, and Schneider provided the coaching, plus ideas and infrastructure for fundraising.
For seven months, Perna trained. She’d run in the morning before work, and often again after work. She maxed out at 70-75 miles a week. She ran two actual marathons, plus other 26-mile runs in training – some, in winter, on the treadmill at the gym. That led to confused looks from others working out. “I had to restart the treadmill over and over,” she says. “Then the same people would cycle through and look at me like, ‘You’re still here?’”
The questions continued at her fundraising events and even once she was actually on the roads, doing the relay, in summer 2017. “We actually had a lot of people stop on the side of the road and say, ‘Are you guys OK?’” she says. In some cases, those questioning her safety and sanity turned into donors. It started conversations, and incredulity turned to admiration for her commitment to the cause. “I was definitely touched that so many people donated,” she says.
On her leg of the relay, Perna would get out the door early in the morning and break every five to seven miles, when the MS Run the US support vehicle would meet her so she could refuel and rest a bit. She tried to be off the roads by noon daily, doing 26 miles or so by lunchtime. The miles melted by, but not without a struggle. “The third day, I was really sore,” she says. “But by the fourth day, I was like, ‘My body can accept what I’m doing to it.’”
She and Schneider have a way of making the running piece of this seem like less of a big deal than it is. Long-distance running exacts a brutal toll on a runner physically. The pain can be relentless, the desire to quit quite rational. Most people who do gut out the training and complete a marathon will show up for work the next day waddling like they need a wheelchair. The last thought in their mind is, “Let’s do it again, and again, for six consecutive days.”
Perna actually got ahead, so the last day she had to do “only” 23 miles. Along for the journey was her mother, who enjoyed running herself before the disease robbed her of that option. At the finish, in Fort Wayne, Indiana, another dozen family members, plus her best friend, gathered to cheer Perna home. “I didn’t cry the whole week,” Perna says, “but once I finished, it was very overwhelming, just hugging my mom and realizing what just happened.”
When her mom’s birthday came up months later, Perna asked her the best part of the past year. Without hesitating, her mom listed that finish-line moment in Fort Wayne.
The experience moved Perna, so much that she signed up for another year. In the summer of 2018, she traded the flat farmland of middle America for the final leg, which stretches from eastern Pennsylvania to Manhattan. “It’s a long journey,” she says. “It’s so exciting when you accomplish your goal.”
Schneider grew up in Brookfield and lives in Delafield. As the relay enters its eighth running, much has changed. Her mother died in 2017 from complications from MS, which she had for the last 36 years of her life. Sponsor deals have allowed them to upgrade from the Camry, which crossed the country for the relay’s first five years. A social media coordinator travels with the runners and posts frequent video updates. Schneider monitors most of the relay from home, where she and her husband, Aaron, have two young children and a third on the way.
And she gets to help decide what people and causes will get the money they raise. One of the recipients, Jeffrey Lichtwalt of Kenosha, has struggled with the disease since he woke up suddenly blind on Thanksgiving when he was 29 years old. The three decades since have been a profile in endurance amid regular setbacks to his health, although he did regain his sight. Last summer, he had to switch to a wheelchair due to numerous falls and resulting concussions. The van he bought needed a lift. That’s when Schneider got involved, contacting him after being referred by another MS-related charity.
“When they said they were going to take care of everything, that was a big burden lifted,” he says. MS Run the US covered nearly all of the $3,900 cost, giving Lichtwalt a tool to retain his independence by being able to go wherever he pleases.
“She’s wonderful,” he says of Schneider. “She’s very caring and very compassionate.”
While the relay has always had a strong local connection, it’s never actually crossed into Wisconsin because the state is a bit out of the most direct route across the country.
This year, that changes. On July 7, a runner will complete the 13th leg of the relay at City Lights Brewing in the Menomonee Valley. A party – and a citizens’ relay of Milwaukee-area runners from Waukesha to the brewery – will welcome the official runner. Three days later, a party will see two different runners off on the next leg of the relay.
This year Schneider was finally able to route the relay through her hometown due mainly to an abundance of runners. The record 38 quality applicants for 18 spots allowed Schneider to expand the route and open some legs to two runners – with obvious benefits for fundraising as well.
“I would not bring it to Wisconsin without coming to Milwaukee,” Schneider says. “I love Milwaukee, and we have a lot of runners here.”