It started almost as a joke between friends.
Brig. Gen. Curtis Buzzard, the commandant of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy, and cadet leadership had challenged each member of the Corps of Cadets to run one mile to raise awareness for sexual assault and harassment.
The challenge was initiated because April is recognized as Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Month (SAAPM).
Class of 2021 Cadet Jordan Lawson and a couple of his friends in Company B-1 saw the challenge and decided one mile wasn’t nearly hard enough and set their sights higher. They eventually decided to take on retired U.S. Navy Seal and ultramarathon runner David Goggins’ 4x4x48 challenge. Four miles, every four hours, for 48 hours.
They sent word to their platoon and then all of B-1 as more and more cadets signed on for the challenge. At midnight eastern time on April 21, more than 50 cadets walked out of their houses throughout the country into the pitch-dark night and began to run. At 4 a.m., they went out again and then every four hours for the next two days they laced on their sneakers, walked outside and ran.
For some, it started as a solely physical challenge, but with each run, the cause became more and more central, multiple participants said. Alumni reached out and offered to support the cause and help raise awareness. Survivors reached out and thanked them for running. When people questioned what they were doing, the participants were able to strike up a conversation about the importance of the cause and why they were running.
“As we get further into this, I’m not doing this for myself,” Lawson said after completing 40 of the 48 miles. “Clearly it’s painful. I’m doing this to raise awareness for those this issue has affected. I’m one of those people who hasn’t really been affected, or seen people affected by sexual assault and harassment, but hearing from those who have reached out during this has really made it real for me.”
Class of 2022 Cadet Kimberly Kane isn’t a member of B-1, but she signed on for the challenge after hearing about it from Lawson. Not a runner by nature, she said she decided to take part to push herself to the limits and see how far she could go.
Then mile after mile her mindset began to change. She hadn’t expected to finish the challenge, but with each run she found the motivation to push herself by no longer running for herself, but instead for those who were victims of sexual assault and harassment.
“I think that change comes from realizing that at a certain point, it wasn’t about me and my own goals anymore,” Kane said. “When you run and you run and you run, you no longer find the motivation to keep going for yourself. You have to kind of switch your mentality from being a me mentality, because at that point you’re hungry, tired and thirsty. You don’t want to do this anymore. You have to switch your mentality from being purely inwardly focused to instead thinking about the people outside of you.”
Before they started to run, the cadets decided to use social media as an accountability device. After each run, they had to post to Instagram to prove they had finished the four miles. They also created a group chat to encourage each other and help keep each other motivated. Runners who were feeling tired or down during a run could call or facetime another participant mid-run for motivation. Others would call or text after each run to check in.
They also used social media to raise awareness for sexual assault and harassment and create a conversation around what they were doing.
The challenge started with about 50 cadets and 43 of them finished all 48 miles, but by the time they ran the last mile the movement had already spread. Class of 2020 Cadet Eden Elizabeth Phillips said members of the Long Gray Line reached out to let her know they were starting their own challenges with their units.
They saw new cadets in the incoming Class of 2024 start running in solidarity and more companies throughout the corps made plans to do their own 4x4x48 challenges.
By the weekend, the challenge of running 4,500 miles for sexual assault and harassment awareness, with each cadet running a mile, had been pushed to 50,000 miles because the corps had already completed more than 20,000.
“I think the whole point of an awareness month, or a challenge like this, is really just to remind people that every single person is going through their own challenge,” Phillips said. “This is one that is avoidable and one that we’re dealing with as a rabid problem even in our corps. So, hopefully it just reminded folks to think outside of themselves, even at this time where we’re all pretty isolated and it’s really easy to just sort of dwell on ourselves right now.”
West Point has held multiple stand down days over the last year and a half in order to address the issues of sexual assault and harassment. While two days of running may not cause a massive change, Lawson said the value of the challenge was to create a conversation around the issue and change people’s mindsets.
“There have been times when I’ve had to stop running and just walk it out and understanding that my pain in that moment is incomparable to what the people we’re running this for have faced, it’s really given me a good perspective,” Lawson said.
Kane said she found that mindset around mile 30. It was 4 a.m. on the second day and she had been asked to record a video on why she was running. She said she spent the first half of the run trying to figure out what to say and as she ran lap after lap around the track by her house the reason she was out there became clear.
“Just because we are running, it’s not doing anything directly to help sexual assault and sexual harassment and it’s still going on of course,” Kane said. “But if we can show the survivors that we love them enough to show them support, then I would run another 48 miles just to show somebody that we cared for them and that we love them that much.”
Phillips hit her wall at mile 36. She had been running an 8:30 mile pace for each set up until that point and then her time cratered to 10 minutes a mile. To break through, she focused on the cause and refused to walk because her pain was only momentary, she said, while survivors of assaults must carry the scars and pain with them. Her next run was her fastest of the entire challenge.
Lawson’s came at a similar time when a shooting pain in his foot forced him to walk instead of run. Instead of letting the pain stop him, he used the time to reflect on the cause and why 50 of his peers throughout the country were traversing through mile after mile.
Looking back at the challenge, the participants called it “brutal,” “terrible” and “painful” but despite the sleeplessness and sore bodies they also said it was “incredible” to see it spread from a crazy idea between a few friends to becoming a mini movement within the corps and the Long Gray Line.