Three-Thousand Mile Lady


“I know exactly how a journey of a thousand miles feels,” says Mavis Hutchison. “It hurts.”

Actually, it was a journey of three thousand miles, not one; this fifty-three-year-old South African literally ran across America, from Los Angeles to New York, in 1978. And when she returned to Johannesburg, Mavis embarked on an eternal journey by being baptized into The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Both journeys have proven to be a challenge. And both have been infinitely rewarding.

“I began my career by running after the boys,” she quips. And it’s literally true. Her two younger sons (she has six children) had taken up running and, concerned at age thirty-seven about her own fitness, she began jogging with them. In 1963 “the Big Walk became the rage in the Transvaal,” and Mavis found herself becoming “one of the top lady walkers in the country.” She liked it—the competition, the continually increasing endurance and discipline, and the self-discovery.

Mavis had never thought of herself as athletic. Her father, George Vaughn, was a runner and rugby player in Kimberly, site of “the biggest manmade hole on earth,” where he worked for a diamond-mining company. Yet Mavis, a nervous child, suffered from bouts of chorea (St. Vitus’s dance) in her early teens that left her bedridden for three months on three separate occasions. Running was an unexpected development in the life of Mrs. Ernest Hutchison of Johannesburg, the mother of six children, and now the grandmother of seven.

From walking, she branched out into cross-country running and worked hard to get the Republic of South Africa to recognize women’s cross-country as a legitimate sport. She was rewarded in the usual more-work way: she was appointed to manage the first women’s team to represent South Africa abroad, touring the United Kingdom in 1969.

By then she was working seriously on her running and signed up for “one of the most gruelling marathons in the world,” the Comrades’ Marathon which starts 2,500 feet above sea level at Pietermaritzburg and runs through “fifty-four miles of breathtaking scenery to the coastal city of Durban.” This is “the down run.” The “up run,” held in alternate years, begins at Durban and climbs lung-burstingly to Pietermaritzburg.

By then, running had become a way of life. She challenged herself more, pushed herself harder, and then, in 1978, faced the two greatest challenges of her life. One challenge was to run completely across the United States. The other was to accept the message of the Mormon missionaries.

She met the missionaries just before she left for the United States and asked them to come back because “I was frantic with last-minute preparations.”

Standing on the steps of the Los Angeles City Hall on 12 March 1978 she knew she was facing “the greatest challenge of my life” both spiritually and physically. “It was my greatest ambition, but I felt so apprehensive. Would I really be able to do it? What lay ahead of me? Was I strong enough? Had I prepared properly? I wished I’d had enough sense to have stayed at home.”

Then the clock struck nine and she was off. Followed by two vans, Mavis ran fourteen hours a day, starting at 4 A.M. and stopping only for meals. She ran through thirteen states, through four times zones. She took six million footsteps, one at a time. She wore twenty-five pairs of shoes in rotation, and had repairs made forty times.

The weather, almost systematically, hit her with every variation. For four weeks she slogged through intense heat. For the next four weeks, she struggled through gale-force winds—that literally blew her off her feet more than once—and bitter cold, staggering along under the weight of two tracksuits, a beret, gloves, and a windbreaker. Then it poured without stopping for seven days. One raincoat would keep her dry for exactly one hour; she wore two. Together, they kept her dry for four hours.

The weather was not her only challenge. “The traffic was frightening,” she exclaimed. At one dangerous stretch, cars were whizzing past every seven seconds. She stopped running only one day—the thirty-third—when shin splints made it impossible to continue. The next day, teeth gritted and literally dragging her right foot, she was back on the road.

“I prayed often for courage to bear the pain,” she remembers. “I didn’t ask God to take it away, but just to help me bear it.” She prayed often throughout the journey: “‘Please God, give me the stamina to fight the wind, the endurance to stay the distance, the willpower to keep going.’ At no time did I ever doubt that I would finish the distance, but I can assure you that there were times when I didn’t know how I could finish the day or even the next hour. And then I prayed, in the words of John Henry Newman’s beautiful hymn, ‘Please, God, I do not ask to see the distant scene. One step enough for me.’”

Finally the weather relented, and “the last two days were the most beautiful imaginable.” She trotted into New York and landed at the city hall just before noon on May 20, the only woman in history to have run coast-to-coast. Exhilarated from the run, after sixty-nine days, two hours, and forty minutes, she was surprised that it was over. “It came too suddenly,” she said.

Was it worth it? “Yes! I grew beyond my wildest dreams. I learned that nothing is impossible if you’re prepared to work hard enough. Age is irrelevant. There are no barriers and no handicaps. And you must do it yourself. No one can run for you. I also learned that failure is important. From it we learn discipline, patience, perseverance, and the ability to accept disappointments.”

In some real though not yet understood ways, that grueling run had prepared her for the gospel. The open road “opened my mind and heart to the hidden reaches of a hidden existence. I was ready to discover myself.” Beyond the fear of failure and the pain of the hard work lay an unshakable sense of self, a self that honored the truth and despised sham. And the “purifying solitude” of long runs had given her an instinct for joy.

The chance to plunge into another layer of self-discovery came within a month of her return to Johannesburg. Two missionaries—different ones—called on her. She participated enthusiastically in the six discussions, “sure that they would keep coming indefinitely since I so greatly enjoyed their visits.” But when they asked her if she would be baptized on the next Saturday, “I was completely stunned. I made sure that I was busy the next Saturday—and the next, and the next.”

But she knew too much about herself now to avoid this second great challenge. “I knew I was just making excuses. I also knew that if I chose not to join the Church I would lose my way again, for I knew there was light in my life that hadn’t been there before.”

The clarity of the decision she must make did not make it any easier. Only one other member of her family—a daughter—would be joining the Church. She would be changing her life-style for a third time. These things would hurt. But she prayed and “felt the Spirit of Heavenly Father telling me that I must do the right thing.” The Spirit also whispered “that only I could make the choice.”

She made her decision. On 30 September 1978 at 4:30 P.M., she was waiting in Ramah Chapel for her turn to be baptized. It was emotionally a repeat of her experience in Los Angeles. “There were many people being baptized with me. They all looked so calm, so sure, and so radiantly happy. I was very nervous and very unsure and, at that moment, very unhappy. Had I prepared properly? Was I doing the right thing? It was an enormous commitment—would I be able to keep it?”

And was joining the Church worth it? Again, yes! “I know that I made the right decision. I know there will be many times when I will pray for strength merely to take the next step, but I knew, after I was baptized, that I could get to the end of the road. This is the most important journey of my life.”

Since her baptism she has served as Sunday School secretary, Relief Society social relations leader and visiting teacher, and—naturally—as athletic adviser to the Activities Committee.

[photo] South African Mavis Hutchinson literally ran across America, from Los Angeles to New York, in 1978. (Photography by Eldon K. Linschoten.)

E. Dale LeBaron, recently released as president of the South Africa Johannesburg Mission, is now director of the Institute of Religion at the University of Alberta, Canada.