NORTH LIBERTY– It’s clear 18-year-old Rae Heim doesn’t do anything half way.
She went from entering her first road race at the age of 15 to running across the entire country just three years later.
Her goal evolved from a personal self-challenge to raising $5,000 for a national charity.
She committed to it without a lot of intense training, without much assistance and entirely without fear. She is accomplishing it with persistent determination, graciousness to all who want a piece of her time, and a tireless smile on her face.
And she is doing it all barefoot.
The Carroll, Iowa, native started from Boston on April 1, with a daily mileage schedule, pre-arranged overnight stops and a plan to reach Huntington Beach, Calif. by November. Rae passed through North Liberty on June 20, about half way into her seven-month journey. She made an appearance at the We Run shop owned by Kris and Brian Tharp, who hosted Heim for an overnight stay. Members of the Tharps’ organized running club were able to have a bit of a run alongside Rae and talk with her about her experience, about running, and about setting personal goals.
Running wasn’t initially one of Rae’s goals; though she played softball, she had never enjoyed running. She entered her first 7-mile race on a whim, about three hours before the event was to begin.
“I had never run more than a mile and absolutely hated the thought of pounding the pavement,” Rae wrote on her Facebook page of that fateful decision. “But somewhere and somehow during those ridiculously hilly seven miles in Davenport, Iowa, I fell in love with the very concept of running.”
Rae said she was happy to prove herself wrong.
“I never thought I’d be a runner, but once I crossed the finish line, it was like, ‘Wow, I just accomplished this thing no one ever thought would happen.’”
In her own split decision with its surprising outcome, Rae hopes there is a message for everyone.
“Anything is possible,” she said. “Really, anyone can do anything. You just have to put your mind to it.”
Once Rae put her mind to it, she didn’t let anything come between her and her new passion. When a broken toe interfered with her comfort in running shoes, she dumped the shoes and ran barefoot. She has run sans footwear ever since.
“There weren’t a lot of people in my town that ran barefoot, but I knew there was a barefoot running community,” she said. “Once my toe healed and I tried to put my shoes back on, it was like wearing weights on my feet so I just stayed barefoot.”
Rae did have to put shoes on when running through New Jersey, she said, because the streets were covered in broken glass and other potentially dangerous debris, and she occasionally wears Injinji toe socks when the pavement gets hot enough to burn.
“But other than that, a little piece of glass doesn’t pierce my skin because my feet are so calloused,” she said.
The idea to run across America came when Rae signed up for the Des Moines marathon and met Marshall Ulrich, record-holder for running across America in 52.5 days. After talking with Ulrich at his book signing, Rae experienced another spontaneous ambition.
“I thought, if a 57-year-old could run across the country, maybe I could too,” she said.
Her personal dream of running cross-country became even more inspired just a couple of months before heading to Boston. She decided to up her ante and raise $5,000 for a non-profit organization that provides a pair of shoes to a person in need for every dollar donated.
“I realized what a huge opportunity I had to help people,” she said. “I knew I wanted to do something with shoes. I found Soles4Souls, and now it’s like I’m running barefoot so other people don’t have to.”
So far, Rae has raised over $3,000 toward her goal.
It didn’t start out easy, though.
“After the first week of my trip, my mom and I cut back my daily mileage, because I was doing insane miles every day,” she said; running 30 to 44 miles each day in the first part of the week and marathon-length treks the rest of the week caused injuries to her Achilles tendon and ankles. “I bit off more than I could chew, mileage-wise, and I had barely any rest days built into it, so by the end of the first week, I was ready to throw in the towel.”
But talking with her mom, Lesleh, and her sister Kendall– also both runners– got her through the toughest first moments. Modifications in her schedule allowed a better pace. And the knowledge that her effort is going toward something bigger than herself is what keeps her feet on the pavement nearly every morning of her 3,000-mile journey.
“Whenever I look at all the donations that Soles4Souls has gotten, it’s 3,000 pairs of shoes and 3,000 people’s lives who might change because of a pair of shoes,” Rae said. “That’s what keeps me going.”
Kris Tharp of We Run said the trick to obtaining goals like Rae’s, or anyone’s, is to break it into smaller targets and take it little by little, whether it’s walking the trail or running a full marathon.
“My guess is a lot of people do what Rae did that first couple days, when she was running 30 or 40 miles. What I learned is that you don’t have to run the whole thing. You can walk/run, walk/run,” said Kris. “Lots of people have this vision that they have to run the whole 26 miles, but more than half the people who do a marathon actually do the walk/run method. Almost everybody could do it if they take it in little chunks like that.”
Lesleh said Rae’s trip has even motivated host families the barefoot teen has met along the way.
“She has stayed with a lot of athletic people, but she has also stayed people who have not done anything athletic in years, and many of them are back at the gym because of what she has inspired,” said Lesleh.
Kris believes that Rae’s message can inspire runners and would-be runners to get out and take that first step, however small.
“I hope they set a goal for themselves,” Kris said. “Rae set her own goal, and they see it can be achievable because she is doing it step-by-step. And they see it’s not just about her. She is doing it for others too. I hope that runners who want to do a 5K will think ‘If Rae can do it, I can do it too.’”
And after 1,200 miles of barefoot running, Rae has shown she can definitely do it, all the way from sea to shining sea.
Lesleh is the creator of the Run Girl Run line of women’s athletic running apparel, which is sponsoring Rae’s run. Anytime Fitness, a gym in Las Vegas where Rae works as a manager, is also sponsoring Rae.
For more information or to donate, visit Heim’s website at flavors.me/raeainslee, or send a check to:
Rae Heim– Runs America
119 4th St. #505
Des Moines, Iowa
To donate to Soles4Souls, visit