walk across America

Noah Coughlan walks on Idaho Street Monday during his trek across the United States to raise awareness for Batten disease.

Dylan Woolf Harris/Elko Daily Free Press

ELKO — Noah Coughlan expects he’ll weigh significantly less and have a bushier beard when he walks into Boston early November. He’ll undoubtedly be beat and ready to rest. But, he’ll also have met a lot of people and drawn attention to a good cause.

To raise awareness for a cause that’s dear to his heart, the Vacaville, Calif., native embarked across the United States on foot, from San Francisco to Boston.

Sisters Catie and Annie Allio, whose family is friends with Coughlan’s family, were born with Batten Disease, a rare genetic illness that affects an enzyme in the brain. Slowly, healthy children with the disease show symptoms of deterioration.

“Over time, affected children suffer mental impairment, worsening seizures, and progressive loss of sight and motor skills. Eventually, children with Batten disease become blind, bedridden and unable to communicate, and presently, it is always fatal,” states the Batten Disease Support & Research Association.

Batten has no known cure.

Coughlan started running specifically for the two girls he knew, but that cause grew. He began meeting families who also had a child suffering from Batten. He’s planning to meet many of them along the way, planning his path to go into cities where children with Batten live, such as Provo, Utah, where he is expecting three families.

“I started running for the two girls,” he said. “I ended up running for the entire community.”

He said he also has been invited to speak at a couple schools.

“I wanted to do something so big for something so rare to draw attention to it,” he said.

He said before people rally behind research to cure rare diseases, they need to know about the disease. He hopes the walk will draw attention to his cause, and he’s also talking to people in the cities and towns along the way, including Elko, where Coughlan found himself Monday after 24 days of walking and running.

The time to go

The window of opportunity to do something like walk across America was open. The time was right, Coughlan said. At 29 years old, he’s physically capable and he doesn’t have major responsibilities at home, yet, such as a family.

He’s also at an age where he’s mature enough to roll with the punches that America’s roads and highways, landscapes and unpredictable weather are bound to throw.

Coughlan’s first stop in Elko — before checking into his hotel or grabbing a bite to eat — was T-Rix Bikes. Pushing a jogging stroller with a large American flag fluttering in the breeze, Coughlan walked down Idaho Street with his phone out looking at a map of Elko.

He had been in need of a part for the front axle of his stroller, which holds food, water, clothing and other necessities.     

The front pin in his stroller wheel snapped earlier in his journey, but he was able to buy two in Carson City; he was told it should last until Boston.

It didn’t. It snapped again along the way. Coughlan replaced it with his spare, all the while worrying that the spare would also break in the middle of nowhere, rendering him unable to pack his stuff.

T-Rix rounded up four front-tire pins from its boneyard. Coughlan bought them all and a small bottle of electrolyte drops.

Seeing America

Coughlan packed minimally. He wore a tank top, sunglasses, basketball shorts with a pocket knife hanging from his hip, and running shoes when he strolled into Elko. But he expects to go through 15 pairs of shoes by the time he finishes. He said he’ll pick up the shoes as needed.

He made a late decision to carry an American flag with him, but he said it was one of his smartest choices.

“I have had nothing but an overwhelming positive reception from people of all walks of life, all different backgrounds. Passing motorists will honk, they’ll wave, I heard a lady ring a cowbell the other day,” he said, crediting the flag partly for the friendliness.

The flag also allows motorists to see him easier as he runs along the side.

“I’m seeing the goodness of Americans. I’m seeing the goodness and the kindness of American people, firsthand,” he said.

A bike-shop customer recognized Coughlan from the road. She said she saw him headed west on Interstate 80, and then again a few days, driving the other direction, she saw him again.

Later, Coughlan smiled, saying it’s common for motorists to recognize him after he’s pulled into town.

Planning along the way

The length and time needed to run from coast to coast requires a flexible plan.

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Coughlan wasn’t originally planning on running along I-80. For a while, he planned to travel along U.S. Highway 50 — nicknamed for its remoteness the Loneliest Road in America — until he began to worry that water supplies would be too scarce.

He said on Sunday night he pulled off the road somewhere near Dunphy for the night, but he’s slept in campgrounds, cabins and hotels.

“Hotels have been very hospitable to give me a complimentary room to help me out,” he said. He aims to cover 32 miles each day, always stopping before the sun sets. He’s hoping to find a place to camp near Deeth tonight.

“Every day is an adventure,” he said.

So far, he’s suffered a shin inflammation, he said, which was discouraging, but not enough for him to turn back.

He’s traveling solo, but he’s not alone. Friends are helping him spread the message, contact families affected by Batten and plan other logistics.

A friend of a friend with an Elko connection called the runner while he was in town and told him she was able to get a room for him at the Red Lion Hotel. This was after another friend had secured a room for the night at Motel 6.

Crossing the country — coast to coast — on foot is a rare feat. Coughlan pointed out that more people climb Mount Everest than have run across America. Even fewer people have done it a second time.

Coughlan believes he’ll be the 27th person to cross America twice. In 2011, Coughlan ran across the country, starting in San Diego and finishing in Jacksonville, Fla., for the same cause. The trek took four months and 12 days to complete. But back then, he had a support team. Seven different friends and family members rotated in as shadow driver while Coughlan ran along the roads.

Coughlan graduated from a police academy in 2008, he said, and he plans on working in law enforcement. In the back of his mind, though, he knows that even fewer people have walked across the country three times.

For information or to make a donation, visit run

To learn more about Batten, visit bdsra.org.

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