Sam Bencheghib running through Monument Valley in Utah. He started at the Atlantic Ocean on July 26, 2019, and finished at the Pacific Ocean on Feb. 1, 2020. (Courtesy of Martin Parent)

Q&A: Sam Bencheghib, the mountainhawk who ran across America

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3,055 miles. 13 states. 191 days. The Brown and White spoke with Sam Bencheghib, ‘19, who ran from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean to raise awareness about plastic pollution in the oceans. He started on July 26, 2019,  and finished Feb. 1, 2020.

Q: What inspired you to run across the country? 

Sam Bencheghib: When I was a sophomore, I worked with my brother Gary, who is two years older. Together, we founded makeachange.world, which is an environmental media organization, and what we pretty much do is try to combine our passions for the environment and adventure. So, making short episodes to raise as much awareness as possible through views online, or coming up with these crazy ideas such as running across America to get people’s attention and then talking about the issue is really what drove me to come up with the idea. I was asking myself what I can do after graduation – to do something crazy, to do something that could raise as much awareness as possible.

Q: How did you prepare for your run physically and mentally? 

SB: I’d never ran a marathon before attempting this challenge, I’d never ran a half-marathon either. So it was really the cause that motivated and pushed me day in and day out, so despite how difficult it seemed to run 3,000 miles and be out there on the road for six months, it really came down to preparing for it mentally. Just telling myself that I could do it and getting used to running everyday. When I was at Lehigh as a senior, I would go running everyday whether it was three  miles, five miles, 10 miles, just getting used to it, and to the pounding on my legs. Obviously, preparing all the logistics for the big trip because, on top of running, you have to coordinate all the events and cities that you are going to, the meetings and the school talks, the meetings with the politicians and on top of ideas for the videos, plan my route, rent the RV. So there’s a lot of moving parts of the run and so that took a lot of time, too. I approached Adidas and Parley for The Oceans, an environmental agency that partnered with Adidas to make these shoes that are made of plastic bottles. I told them about my idea to run across the country in their shoes, and they immediately said yes. 

Q: How did you stay motivated throughout your run?

SB: It was funny, you wake up everyday at 7 a.m., telling yourself you have to run 20-30 miles a day. I took 46 days off, and the days off sometimes were harder than the running days, because along the way I was trying to meet with as many people as possible, from school students to business owners, to small town mayors to state governors, to really try to have as much impact about plastic pollution and try to raise as much awareness as I could. So I was running on shoes made from plastic bottles, and along the way, making videos and hosting these events in as many cities as I could along the 13 states that I ran through.

I went and worked with and spoke to school students sometimes I was in a room with 740 kids and when you’re speaking to that many people and you see the sparkle in the kids’ eyes, they’re so engaged and attentive to the message that you have to tell them. I was super driven and motivated as soon as I left those school talks, so although some moments I really doubted myself and I doubted my ability or the fact that I could actually run whatever miles that day or actually get to LA I kind of told myself that I just have to push through it, and I guess one of the mental things I convinced myself to do along the way was not really think about LA, and just set incremental goals along the way. So whether that was reaching the next big city, or reaching the next state line, or getting to the next corner and pushing through that way, that was really why I think I succeeded and why getting through all those days 191 days day in and day out of a lot of running.

Q: What were some of the highlights of your run?

SB: It was a six-month journey and I’m 22 years old. So this run was 2.4 percent of my life, which doesn’t seem like a lot… but I don’t know. When you’re running everyday, it just feels like it’s never ending at times. But I think moments that really stand out are talking to the Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, meeting with Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly. Meeting with those big players was really cool because I could hear their perspective when it came to plastic. I think the moments that really stand out are when I was crossing the Rockies. I was there for a week and the temps reached -30 (degrees). I would be running through knee-deep snow and I really thought that I couldn’t run a mile further, so the conditions were super tough at that point in time.

Q: Did you get any injuries during your run? 

SB: I got a really bad injury when I got to Flagstaff, Arizona, and I had 500 more miles to go. It was right around day 150, and I actually almost tore my Achilles tendon in my left foot, and really thought that I couldn’t continue. But I went to see a few doctors, and they told me that I had to rest for four weeks. I said I had an event planned when I got to L.A. four weeks from then, so I had to push through the broken tendon on my left foot. Luckily, it wasn’t too serious, and although it hurt for a while, it was OK, and I made it through.

Q: What did it feel like when you finally ran into the Pacific Ocean?

SB: It’s pretty crazy when you’re chasing something for six months, and it’s really all you are thinking about day in and day out, and then you finally get there. You’re surrounded by 200 people friends, loved ones, people you haven’t seen in six months. So jumping into the ocean, feeling the water for the first time, it was truly, truly magical, and I think with that, there’s not many things in life that you work so hard toward and then there’s a concrete finish. When you work toward something and there’s a goal you have in mind, it continues, and you go on. But with this run, you jump into the Pacific, and that’s it, then it’s finished. So that was a really weird feeling. It was incredible, but I’m definitely happy it’s over. 

Q: What are you planning on doing now?

SB: I was planning on moving to New York to really build Make A Change World, the organization that I started with my brother and sister, into the proper environmental media company, so that was my plan all along. But I was definitely scared about being my own boss and not really having a salary besides some of the partnerships that we have with Make A Change. 

I was scared of moving to New York, paying rent and paying all the bills, but about two weeks ago, the influencer Ryan Serhant, a real estate developer in New York, and ‘Dude with sign’ put a contest together of giving someone a free year in NYC. So a free apartment, free food, free transportation for a year, to live in the city and pursue a dream. So I applied in this contest about a month ago. The craziest thing happened as I was running on Highway 62 in the middle of the California desert. I’m 15 miles in, and then I see ‘Dude with sign’ holding up a banner, saying, ‘Which way to NYC,’ and then he turns it around and it says ‘You win.’ So I jumped into his arms and was super happy, but essentially it was super cool because there were 28,164 applicants. They picked me out of all those people to pursue my passion to go to New York City for a whole year with their support, and to build Make a Change World into an environmental media organization, so that’s the goal. In about a week, I’m flying out to New York. I’ll be living full-time in New York trying to develop this media company.

Q: What do you think students can do to reduce their plastic waste and become more educated about these issues?

SB: Everyone has seen the photo of the turtle with the straw up its nose and pictures of beaches with pollution. Everyone is aware it’s a problem, but I think people don’t realize the importance of every single action that you take, and you can make a difference as an individual. Every decision you make as a consumer can go a very long way. The average American produces 4.5 pounds of trash a day. If everyone can pledge to reduce their plastic consumption – whether that’s buying a Hydroflask or a reusable bottle, saying no to plastic straws – you don’t really need a straw in the first place and then bringing a reusable bag when you go grocery shopping – or even just bringing your backpack from school and not using plastic bags – there are so many things we can do. As Lehigh students, people that are pretty educated, it should be a reflex to bring all these reusable items with you as opposed to plastic.

That’s a big reason why I went on this run. I saw that there was a huge lack of awareness, education and action as a student, and I felt like no one really cared. Realistically, it’s a problem for everybody because there’s only one ocean, and every second breath we take comes from the ocean, so it’s super important to protect it as one of our most important resources. I think it’s critical for everyone to care and know that they can make a difference. 

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