• NC Raw

The Finish Line: Katelynn Ledford

It was hot that day. Not your typical 80 degrees, beautiful sunshine, breezy summer day. This was a 99-degree scorcher in the shade and a fry-an-egg-on-the-asphalt-103-degrees-everywhere-the-shade-did-not-touch summer day. The kind of day where you thought your skin was actually crisping like fried chicken cooking in hot grease. Yea, it was pretty warm alright, and it was only 8:00 in the morning promising to get even hotter as the day crept along. I snapped out of it as my fiancé, the Amazing Kallup, called out, “you ready to get this show on the road?!” That meant it was go time. We fell to our knees, intertwined our fingers together, and said a prayer for strength, endurance, and protection.

Going through the motions of lacing up our shoes for the last time on our journey catapulted me into a tsunami of mixed emotions. I began to feel a lump wedge in my throat. I took a deep breath and wiped the tears that puddled around the edges of my eyes off quickly, as this was not the time yet. The tears could come after we finished this thing. We had everything packed up, the coolers filled with waters had fresh ice in them, and my last task was to slather heaps of sunblock onto my already reddened shoulders.

I traced over the one brave soul that came out to run the last leg of our Trail of Tears run across the United States with us. Samantha from Stilwell. She displayed eagerness, with a bit of uncertainty. Not sure what the day was going to bring, or what kind of battle laid ahead. I thought to myself, fantastic! It exhilarated me to think about her getting out of her comfort zone. I knew that was when the growing process would take place, and a part of her life was about to change forever.

“File in behind me, stay as close to the white line on the edge of the road, and let me know if you need to stop, ok?” Kallup said as he staggered off the ground from stretching. Throwing my usual thumbs up, a kiss on the cheek, and just like that, we were on our fortieth day of running into our final destination. We kept it at a steady pace. Not too fast, the blistering heat kept us from burning the road off, but we weren’t slithering like a snail either. Left, right. Left, right. I kept telling myself one foot after the other. I could feel the sweat trickling down my back.

I winced looking up ahead past Kallup, and I could see what seemed like an enormous mountain coming up. Okay, so maybe it was only a slight incline on a hill but after running an estimated 390 miles so far, even a speed bump looked like Mount Everest. I chuckled at this thought, especially thinking about the Ozark Mountains we had previously run through the week before. This is a walk through the park. That thought boosted my morale, and I literally felt like I was sprinting up the hill.

We would jog three miles and like clock-work, our support crew a.k.a. Kallup’s mom and Linda Loco, would be pulled off on the side of the road waiting for us with ice cold waters, water to dump on our sweat drenched heads, and our nutrition. Good ol’ mom and Linda. They chased us all along the whole journey of running to Tahlequah, Oklahoma. They made sure we didn’t get flattened like a pancake out there running down the sides of interstates, and that we stayed on track during our mission. In other words, they made sure we didn’t end up running to Florida. That water felt like it had come straight off of a glacier, as we each showered our heads to cool off.

I glanced at Samantha and immediately I could tell she needed some encouragement. I told her not to give up, to push through the doubts, and to keep her goal placed in the forefront of her mind. She grinned and told me she had never run in this kind of heat or this far, but she wasn’t giving up. So, off we went, filing behind Kallup again. We kept running in the blistering heat, stopping only briefly after three-mile circuits to rehydrate and rest our legs for a few minutes. We started seeing signs letting us know we were only 5 miles away from Tahlequah. I witnessed an enormous smile spread across Kallup’s face. “We’re almost there!” Kallup had racked up right at an estimated 770 miles by then, so I could see the pure joy pouring out from him.

A local Cherokee Nation marshal had come out to escort us the rest of the way, because of the congested traffic and narrow road we still had to finish running. We were delighted to see the flashing blue lights, and we seemed to be supernaturally energized. For forty days, we had been talking about this very day. What emotions we were going to feel, what kind of welcoming we were going to receive, and how worn and beat our bodies would be. It was all shifting from a dream we had been talking about to reality.

Coming into Tahlequah, there was a group of runners waiting on us, waving big signs in the air cheering us on! They were part of a running group called Wings. We exclaimed our gratitude to them for venturing out to run with us the last five miles to our predetermined destination, the Cherokee Heritage Center. We exchanged hugs and formulated a game plan, which was to file in behind Kallup and I. Everyone expressed they didn’t want to steal our shine, and that we were to be the first to step foot on the grounds. Bless them, and their humbleness.

I was astonished to see that people were experiencing difficulty running with us. The exposure to the heat and trying to run in it had people dropping like flies around us. I thought to myself, Kallup and I are machines! Fifteen miles, and we were still going strong. Maybe not so fast, but still going strong. We were down to our last two miles, and people were sitting out on the sides of the road with their fold-out chairs, cheering us on. Clapping, and chanting our names! It exhilarated me to see so many proud faces cheering us on.

When we were down to the last quarter mile, Kallup draped the Keetoowah Band flag and the Cherokee Nation flag across his shoulders. The flags symbolized the unity of the Cherokee people. Brothers and sister of one nation. I could barely hold my phone in my hand trying to record this monumental moment we would remember for the rest of our lives. Tears were streaming down my face like a flood by this point. Tears of happiness. Tears of the proudest moment of my life.

People were running up to us hugging us as we made our way to the Heritage Center. I no longer could hear anything. The kids laughing and the people clapping was a distant whisper. I could only hear the thumping of our feet hitting the pavement. Left, Right. I felt like we were floating. Everything was a blur, and all I could see through my tears was Kallup. He had stopped. He had reached the finish line. 777 miles for Kallup, and 400 miles for me. Forty days of running through the rain, the heat, during the night, and down the sides of dangerous highways. Through all the times that got tough, we hit mental walls, and we wanted to give up on our mission to run the Trail of Tears Benge Route. We persevered and put foot to faith. We set in our minds and in our hearts to complete this goal and here we were. At the end. We smiled at each other and wrapped our arms around each other. At that moment, nothing else mattered. Everyone around us vanished, and It was just Kallup, me, and the finish line.

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