I walk into Gold's Gym on a Wednesday morning and remind myself to act natural.
Truth is, I take no pleasure in working out and take even less pleasure in watching people who work out watching me not work out.
So I hesitated when Helene Neville suggested we meet after a quick photo shoot during her daily 10-mile jog, a dawdle for a woman who's literally run across the country.
Helene's chatting with one of her gym mates about repetitions and cool-downs when I walk in. She's wearing those rubber glove-type shoes — the ones that look like they were nabbed from a monkey suit. I evaluate my own outfit in my reflection on the glass door.
Shit. I'm wearing a silk scarf.
We sit in a pair of chairs by a few large weightlifting machines, and she tells me about her running history and her current campaign. Turns out Helene Neville didn't run across the country for fun, nor did she pick the 2,250-mile transcontinental route through the southern United States in the middle of summer to get a tan.
No, this woman's altruistic, on top of everything else. She wants to bring attention to the challenges facing nurses.
"Everyone knows we're in a health crisis in this country," Helene says. "And nurses are on the front lines of the conflict. To be able to make a difference in this country's health, nurses have to lead by example and be ambassadors of health."
Helene's been a nurse for more than 28 years. She sleeps about eight hours per night, lives on lean proteins, a ton of vegetables, rice, and green juice. She laughs at the need for caffeine and "diet"-labeled products, and winces at the mention of vending machines (especially the ones currently installed in hospitals). I exhale when she admits to having the occasional craving for birthday cake and Dairy Queen.
Helene says she was first motivated to get in shape after battling Hodgkin's disease, which she defeated in 2001, and having three brain surgeries between 1991 and 1997. In 1998, she thought she'd start her fitness goal by training for a marathon.
Twelve years later, the 50-year-old's completed 26 marathons, including the Boston Marathon, and founded her own marathon in Des Moines, Iowa.
She leans in to talk over the sounds of the machines about the three months she spent running across California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida with nothing but an RV in tow. Her mission was to stop in every hospital that would have her, and to talk to nurses about her healthcare vision.
The hardest part about her resolution wasn't the sun that made her cover her face in zinc oxide, the three times she had to replace her cell phone because of the sweat in her sports bra, the numerous times she was almost hit by oncoming traffic, or the days she knew she would have to run 60 miles to get to the next rest area.
The hardest part of running 2,250 miles, Helene says, was having the guts to get started.
"People do the New Year's resolution every year and it doesn't last," she says. "But just start small and make a genuine commitment. You can only succeed if you're committed to what you're doing."
To get ready to run across the country, Helene trained for months. She ran to and from work every day in a 25-pound vest, she logged her progress, and she increased her distance incrementally. Oh, and she had a killer running playlist, full of American funk, Euro techno, and Madonna ("of course").
After finishing her first book, Nurses in Shape, in 2010, and keeping track of her two sons, all while maintaining a few contracted nursing gigs, she's decided to do it all again.
In March, Helene will start a 1,420-mile run from Vancouver, British Columbia, to Tijuana, Mexico, hopefully with stops in even more hospitals.
I skip around Helene's question when she asks me if I'm a runner, and use the injury excuse I've had since high school.
"Don't worry, my trainer will take care of that," she says. I look across the room to see a large, muscled man smiling at both of us, but I think we both know it's going to take a lot more than some hot guy in gorilla shoes to get this scarf back to the gym.