Two young women from Saline are among 28 people on a coast-to-coast run across America.
Abby Rentschler and Emily Diehl, both Saline High School graduates now in college, stopped in the hometown Tuesday on their 49-day run from San Francisco to New York. They’re running to raise funds for the Ulman Cancer Fund, which helps young adults battling cancer.
(Donate to Abby’s efforts here or Emily’s efforts here).
For Rentschler and Diehl, the cross-country run was inspired by personal loss, the desire for physical challenge, and the need to do something bigger than self.
Rentschler’s grandfather passed away after battling melanoma for 17 years.
“He never told anyone until the final three years of his battle because he didn’t want to burden anyone with it. I wanted to emulate that bravery, courage and selflessness, coming on this run,” Rentschler said.
Diehl, too, was touched by cancer. Two of her grandparents fought cancer and a close family friend named Lynne Coughlin, her fifth grade teacher, passed away after a fight with cancer.
“I saw everything that goes into the battle and how strong the patients were,” Diehl said. “I really wanted to do something to support them.”
It doesn’t hurt that Rentschler and Diehl were captains of Saline High School’s track and field and cross country teams.
“The idea of running across the country spoke to me as the go-getter runner that I am,” Rentschler said.
Rentschler, who’s entering her senior year studying pre-med at Alabama, was also seeking something profound.
“I was looking to do something that was bigger than myself, this summer. Running across the country for young adults with cancer, for the Ulman Cancer Fund, seemed like the best way to do it,” Rentschler said.
Diehl, who studies at Northwestern, agreed.
“I’ve always loved running but I loved that I could run for something greater than myself,” she said. “Running has always been about myself and my races and my times. Now I finally get to give back to others while doing it as well.”
Diehl said she was also attracted by the cause of the Ulman Cancer Fund.
“I really like the mission of the Ulman Cancer Fund. I like that they’re so hands-on with the patient, that patients get one-on-one counseling, and that (patients) get a navigator that helps them through the whole process,” Diehl said. “I like how personal the organization is.
The run started in San Francisco. Each day the runners have breakfast, usually donated by a grocery store or their host. Then they set off for their next location. Some run. Some drive in vans. They take shifts running (in pairs) and driving, usually running anywhere from six to 14 miles in a day. At the end of the day, they sleep in churches or at the YMCA or whoever will allow them to unroll their sleeping bags for the night.
Not surprisingly, they’ve experienced moments they will remember all their life.
On their rest days, they visit hospitals and meet patients they run for. In Omaha, they visited a new cancer center and created art projects with cancer patients in the lobby.
“We’d go around the hospital rooms and ask them to come paint with us. A lot of them were open to share their stories. It was cool to hear about how much it meant to them that we were doing something like this,” Rentschler said. “It really brought me back to the mission of my run and reminded us how important it was that we were doing this.”
One of Diehl’s favorite experiences was running through Yellowstone National Park.
“Running through Yellowstone was amazing. We ran by bison. We saw so many of the beautiful sites of Yellowstone. We ran on a trail frequented by bears – it was a little bit scary,” Diehl said. “Seeing everything on foot, you notice everything more.”
The hardest day of the run was a 14-mile stretch in mountainous Idaho.
“It was just 5,000 feet of elevation. We did our longest mileage day, all uphill. It was insane. It was crazy,” Rentschler said. “But the view at the top was worth it. Those are the kind of moments you suffer the pain for.”
Rentschler dedicated that day of the run to her aunt, a day after learning about the diagnosis.
“In the moments where I was really frustrated running up the hill or when I thought about how tired I was, I thought of my aunt, or my grandpa, or all those other people we dedicated our run to and it helped me re-center,” Rentschler said. “Because I knew there were other people who’d kill to be in the position and in the health I was.”
Arriving in Saline Tuesday was an important milestone for both young women.
Both lit up when she was asked how it felt to run home.
“It’s amazing,” she said.
The first person she saw, running in from Lohr Road, was her aunt and her cousin.
“Having a family member diagnosed with cancer while you’re running across the country to fight cancer is something you never expect. It was hard,” Rentschler said. “So seeing her just triggered it. I started crying.”
The Saline stop made the once-in-a-lifetime experience even more memorable for Diehl.
“You never imagine you’re going to run across the country – but you really never imagine that you’ll run across the country through your hometown,” Diehl said. “So seeing all these people I knew from cross country and from living in Saline, (including) my parents, it’s been really awesome to be home.”
Both Rentschler and Diehl were proud to share their hometown with their new friends.
“We’re very excited to show the rest of our team what we love so much about our hometown,” Diehl said.
Rentschler, Diehl and 26 other runners have bonded on the trek. Only Rentschler and Diehl and one other duo knew each other before the run.
“All of them are very passionate about what they’re doing. We clicked immediately when we met the first day,” Rentschler said.
“We’ve made 27 lifelong friends. We already have plans to visit each other after this. They all inspire me so much,” Diehl said.
The runners expect to arrive in New York, where they will be greeted with some fanfare, on Aug. 5.
“I’m excited. But I’m not thinking about it,” said Rentschler, who’s now looking to savor the experience. “We only have 11 days left and this group of people is the most amazing group of people that I’ve ever met.”