Carolyn Ward’s Goal to Race in All 50 States is Achieved
Story and Photo By Richard DuPertuis
The woman from Redding ran hard on soft Maui sand. It slipped beneath her feet with each stride, robbing her of traction, but she bore on, eyeing the finish not that far ahead. She thought she led the race, and she was pretty sure she was set to win in her class. But Carolyn Ward knew for sure she was going to triumph anyway, much more than in this one 10-kilometer event in the state of Hawaii.
She was poised to finish her personal goal of running one race in every state in the country.
Such a crowning victory would likely never have happened if not for the three Redding women clustered at the finish line and cheering her on. Long-time running friends Marge Dunlap and Arlene Bidwell brimmed
with excitement for her, and Nancy Ruffner asked race officials at the finish to announce Ward’s triumph. “They handed me the microphone,” Ruffner says.
Ruffner says she, Dunlap and Bidwell had just done a shorter 5K, so they would be sure to be there when Ward came in. All four women share the love of running, she says, especially in Hawaii. “How could anyone not want to do that?” Ruffner asks. “The gun goes off and the adrenaline starts going all over the place. It's just fun.”
Ward dashed out of the sand, across the parking lot, made one last turn into the finish chute. She finished Valley to the Sea, her 50th official state race, first in her class, ages 70-99. A fifth member of the California running clique, Laura Miller, was still out on the course finishing a half-marathon.
For someone who just achieved the fulfillment of a 50-state quest, Ward’s response was surprisingly sedate. “It was nothing special,” she says. “It was small race, about 500 runners. It was flat. We ran out on the road, turned around and came back on the beach.” She pauses for a moment before adding, “I don’t get excited about much.”
She leaves the excitement up to her friends. “I was elated for her,” says Dunlap. “I felt it was unfinished business for her – and she did it!”
These five women have run together for 10 to 40 years, in different races—5K, 10K, half marathon—and now race in classes ranging from age 60 to 80. They met at races or through the Shasta Wonderland Elite Athletic Team (SWEAT) running club in Redding. As good friends do, they support each other’s personal pursuits.
Ward says her life of running began about the time she turned 40, after her doctor advised her to exercise. “Walking wasn’t much fun, so I decided to run,” she recalls. Her husband, Mort, ran with her.
The couple’s running got serious after they retired. “We sold the house and everything,” she says. “We bought a big motor home and lived in it full-time for six years. It’s a good lifestyle.” They set the goal to run in all the states and traveled all over the country to achieve it.
For Ward, the trip to the southern states stands out as her favorite. “The people were super, super friendly at this race in Mississippi,” she says. “They invited us to their homecoming football game, and they invited us to go tailgating with them. They treated us like family.”
The Wards had only five states to go in the lower 48 when their quest together was tragically cut short. While on a training run, Mort suffered a heart attack and died. A grieving widow, Ward sold the motor home and settled back into Redding. But within a year, she was back on mission, traveling in a smaller motor home with friends. Together, they checked Indiana, Ohio, Kentucky, Missouri and Kansas off her list.
“She’s not the kind of person to go, ‘Oh, what am I going to do now?’” says Ruffner.
What Ward did next, after about a two-year break, was take on Alaska alone, driving that little motor home from Redding to Fairbanks and back in August 2012. Part of this nearly 5,600-mile trek included the Alaskan Highway, which took her out into some of the most remote regions of the 49th state. Alone.
“I saw bears and buffalo and moose,” she says. “I knew if I broke down there’d be nothing to do but wait for somebody to come by, but I wasn’t that worried. And I didn’t have any trouble.”
“She’s one of those calm people,” says Bidwell.
“Carolyn’s an amazing woman,” says Ruffner. “She wired her own house and sewed her own drapes.”
“She can do anything,” says Miller. “She put in the floors, did the floors, and built her patio. She’s like the original Rosie the Riveter.”
After returning from Alaska, Ward figured she was as close to her goal as she would ever get. She told her friends, “I can’t drive a motor home to Hawaii.” Years later, at a party, Dunlap urged her to run that 50th state. She and Bidwell said they would come along. “I said, ‘You guys make the arrangements, and I’ll go,’” says Ward.
Minus Miller, who moved downstate a few years ago and runs with them only occasionally now, these sturdy Redding seniors still run a few miles on the Sacramento River Trail every week. They are still close friends who do a lot of things together, but running is always there. Ward says she runs twice a week.
Dunlap beams, “We just don’t know how to stop.”