Culture

Meet the veterans supporting Paul Johnson’s transcontinental run

Johnson knew conditions would be tough, and needed people he could rely on.
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Paul Johnson's transcontinental run crew.
"It takes a village," is a common saying of coming together for a common cause. For Paul Johnson, it's a mix of veterans and avid supporters supporting him throughout his world record attempt running from California to New York. (Photo courtesy of Brady Keegan)

Paul Johnson is an active duty lieutenant in the U.S. Navy currently running from California to New York, in a challenge to raise $1 million for Team Red White & Blue and raise mental health awareness. Almost a week into the journey, he’s already pushed his body beyond any normal person’s limits — but he’s not doing it alone. 

Johnson has a dedicated team supporting him every step of the way, and almost all of them are military veterans hailing from the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps. 

“It takes a village to make something like this happen. It’s not an ‘I’ or a ‘me’ game. It’s just as much our responsibility and our pride to get Paul to finish as it is for him,” said U.S. Army and Air Force Reserve veteran Brady Keegan. “He jokes around and says, ‘I have the easy job. All I have to do is run.’”

People are jumping in to run with Paul Johnson during his transcontinental run.
What more does a veteran need than a pair of rubber ducky short-shorts? Brady Keegan and a Marine Corps veteran accompany Paul Johnson early into his journey. (Photo courtesy of Brady Keegan)

Keegan is Johnson’s media lead, and part of the crew of five people directly supporting Johnson for the duration of his mission. As someone who has dealt with anxiety and panic attacks, being a part of the mission is a big deal for him, but seeing so many people coming out to support Johnson was even more motivation. 

“Team Red White & Blue showed up with their chapters, but there were a few civilians out there that just followed Paul and admired what he did,” Keegan said. “Because of how many veterans showed up, personally, for me, it was a very emotional moment.”  

Roberto “Rob” Sembiante is a former Navy diver and is Johnson’s crew chief. It’s a role common in the ultra-marathon community, whose races are more of a team sport than traditional road races. Sembiante is there to take as much stress and decision-making off the runner’s shoulders as possible. That means running with him, handling logistics, driving the chase RV, and more. 

Members of Team Red, White, and Blue with Paul Johnson before starting his transcontinental race.
Members of Team Red, White, and Blue and veterans came out to kick off Paul Johnson’s race. (Photo courtesy of Brady Keegan)

“A crew chief is there to take as much decision-making and stress off the plate of the runner as possible, especially when it comes to something that is a longer effort. Over two days, your cognitive function isn’t really going to be there anymore,” Sembiante said. “That’s why I’m his brain, his ears, and his eyes in regards to getting things done — logistically and physically — throughout the race.”

That’s where U.S. Marine Corps veteran and physical therapist Bekah Thorne comes in. She was responsible for keeping Johnson on his feet as his body took a beating while running hundreds of miles in the first five days and will keep him moving all the way to New York City. 

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The other two on the team are Johnson’s mother, who is the project manager, and Christopher Kim, Keegan’s right-hand man on the media side. The team dynamic is similar to a service environment — even the conditions are similar. 

The team has experienced sand storms with 66 mph winds, figured out last-minute reroutes, and helped Johnson through heat exhaustion. They’ve been able to bond quickly and problem-solve even faster. 

Paul Johnson running with a group at night during his transcontinental run.
Paul Johnson has been running day and night to stay on track for his mission to finish his transcontinental race in 40 days, though they currently believe it will take 50 days. (Photo courtesy of Brady Keegan)

“In boot camp — and the military in general — when you fuck up, it’s not you that gets punished. It’s the whole team, it’s the whole platoon,” Keegan said. “It builds that camaraderie and makes sure everybody is just as accountable for not only their own actions but everyone else’s too.”

The crew is functioning like a well-oiled machine, and it’s by Johson’s design: He was meticulous about selecting the right people for his team. He knew conditions would be tough, and needed people he could rely on.  

“It really takes a special group of individuals to make something like this happen,” Keegan said. “Luckily, veterans are key components to this because we’ve been in that mix for years and know that mission-focused mindset, so it’s pretty incredible what he’s built.”

At the time of this report, Johnson has crossed California and is now making his way through Arizona. He has raised more than $80,000 for Team Red White & Blue.

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