Country Crossed

Paul Johnson raised money and awareness for veteran wellness in his run across the U.S.

photo of Paul Johnson running through the gates below Old Main onto College Ave with other runners behind him by Nick Sloff '92 A&A


The mornings were the worst.

At 3:30 a.m. for the first half of his 52-day run across the United States, and at 4:45 a.m. for the second half, Paul Johnson would wake up to the sound of his crew banging on the side of his van. He’d chug some pre-workout mix that included 150 milligrams of caffeine, try to eat some solid food, then squeeze in a five-minute nap while the van drove to that morning’s start line. “And then they just kick you out the door into the cold and drive away,” Johnson says. “And you’re like, ‘All right, I have to start moving.’”

Trudging became jogging, then running. After the third mile—“like clockwork,” he says—Johnson ’18 Eng would have to stop to use the bathroom, and take another short nap. But after he woke up from that nap, the caffeine began to kick in, and the miles came more easily.

The total miles, from Los Angeles to Times Square, were 3,001. Midway through the journey, Johnson stopped focusing on his bid to finish the transcontinental run at the record pace of 42 days, 6 hours, and 30 minutes set in 2016 by Pete Kostelnick (whose route, like Johnson’s, took him through University Park), but by the time he had completed the trek on April 21, Johnson, a lieutenant in the United States Navy, had raised $498,000 for Team Red, White & Blue (RWB), an organization that supports veterans’ mental health and wellness. That fundraising total has continued to climb—to just over $592,000 as of May 21—and revenue from private screenings of a documentary of the run that his team will release this fall, he says, will add to that figure.

Johnson crossed the country with a five-person crew riding behind in a 39-foot recreational vehicle and a transit van. The crew members helped ensure he ate roughly 10,000-12,000 calories per day, got the naps and caffeine he needed, and stuck to his route, which took him through howling desert headwinds, major cities, and University Park in April, where several dozen students, ROTC students, Penn State Triathlon Club members, and children ran along behind him as he ran down the Allen Street mall. “It’s such an energy boost,” Johnson says of having running partners, which he encountered throughout his journey. “You just forget about the pain and you’re just enjoying the moment.”

On the final day, after the New York Police Department, with scooters and bikes on the ground and a helicopter overhead, had cleared the way for the final few miles of his run, there were several hundred runners trailing Johnson. “It’s not often you get to stand on an RV in Times Square, popping champagne bottles, and the police are there popping bottles with you,” he says. “It was pretty wild.”

Johnson averaged between 10 and 13 minutes per mile for the majority of his run. He wrapped up each day with a quick shower and a foot massage with emu oil, and estimates he went through at least 17 pairs of running shoes during the journey, mostly because his heels would drag on the asphalt due to his short, heavy-legged stride. In between and often during runs, he ate anything he felt would help overcome his caloric deficit. “Potatoes, peanut butter, Oreos, Gushers, Fruit Roll-ups … I ate three bags a day of those small powdered donuts you buy at the grocery store,” he says. Some miles were easier than others. Johnson recalls one day in New Mexico when the headwinds were 40 miles per hour, and all he could do was walk through it. On another day, he could not stay awake, and neither naps nor caffeine could get him going.

But running had become part of his daily routine well before he started racing, first in the Marine Corps Marathon in 2022, then on to a couple of 100-mile races last year. Getting up each day to run—and ceasing what had become a regular drinking habit—helped Johnson realize he had been dealing with anxiety, depression, and poor sleep for years. “The more I ran and the more I did physical activity, the more it helped me cope with and deal with those symptoms,” he says.

Johnson, who is stationed in Newport, Rhode Island, is training for more races this summer, including the Eastern States 100 in Little Pine State Park and the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) 100-mile trail run in Chamonix, France, both in August. He also plans to help crew races for the people who served on his crew, including separate runs through Death Valley and Antarctica by crew chief Rob Sembiante. He is proud of completing the transcon and the money he raised for Team RWB but wasn’t sentimental about the end of the run. “I think a lot of people expected me to be very emotional about it,” he says. “The emotional parts for me were in some of the states, some of the people that we met who came out to run with us and share some of their stories. But the last day … it was like finishing any other race.”


Watch Johnson's run through University Park



To support Paul’s fundraiser, go to