Christina Lee never got to meet U.S. Navy SEAL Dave Collins. He died on March 12. But over the past five months, she has run more than 3,000 miles in his honor, raising money for Collins’ family and others like him.
Pulling a “Forrest Gump” and trotting solo across the United States while pushing a jogging stroller is a daunting task. But to Lee, it has been a walk in the park because it’s for a good cause: Raising money for the Navy SEAL Foundation.
After departing New York City on July 7, the 23-year-old Lee is expected to arrive at House of Coffees in Lodi on Saturday, where she will join her parents, Lodi native Debbie Lehr-Lee and Harry Lee, at a public reception with family, friends and supporters at 3 p.m.
The celebration will be just a brief pit stop on an epic trek that began when Lee dipped her toes in the Atlantic Ocean in July. If she dips her toes in the Pacific Ocean as expected on Dec. 6, it will conclude her coast-to-coast goal to raise $100,000 for the NSF.
Barring accident or injury, Lee will become only the third woman to cross the United States alone on foot, unsupported by a traveling team vehicle. Not only did the San Jose resident push a stroller containing all of her belongings every inch of the way, she battled harsh weather conditions and insect bites while dealing with dangerous road traffic, the occasional fever and a bum ankle.
As if that was not enough, Lee purposefully chose the hardest route east-to-west in order to maximize her exposure to brutal conditions throughout her run. She wanted every step to be as difficult as possible, to imitate the rigorous conditions SEALs must endure.
“I set out to do this journey in the hardest way I knew how: the hottest time of year, one of the longest (northern) routes heading straight through every mountain range, facing into the westerlies instead of having the wind at my back,” Lee said. “(I knew) by going unsupported and setting a fantastically difficult fundraising goal, I would know without a doubt that I had laid every single ounce of effort out on the line when I reached the end and there was nothing left for me to do.”
A 49ers legend reaches out
Lee’s feat has attracted nationwide attention. She was selected for the magazine cover of the upcoming December edition of Runner’s World magazine. A photo of Lee wearing her San Francisco 49ers jersey — Jerry Rice’s 80 — caught the attention of Rice himself, who posted his approval on Twitter and arranged for Lee to run out the game ball to the officials in the Redskins-49ers game at Levi Stadium last Sunday.
After the game, Lee was driven back to the spot where she was picked up on Highway 88 in the Sierra Nevadas, where she promptly resumed the last legs of her California run. Subsisting solely on personal sponsors separate from the donations to NSF, Lee has run at least 10 hours a day, six days a week while racking up anywhere from 15 to 40 miles daily, depending on conditions.
She pitched a tent when she had to, stayed in hotels when she could afford it and often roomed with kind strangers and their families who took her in after hearing her story.
Lee grabbed food wherever she could, often consuming 6,000 calories a day. If there were ice cream parlors or fresh baked chocolate chip cookies along the route, she would find them and wolf down huge portions. Lunch and dinner at restaurants got the same treatment.
But just as often, Lee would find herself in remote areas, leaving her with no other option but to eat what she called “gas station food.”
She never complained, knowing somewhere there was a SEAL on a mission serving the U.S. with nothing more than a pre-packaged MRE — meal, ready-to-eat — and a canteen of water.
That was just the kind of daughter Debbie and Harry Lee raised, relentless and compassionate.
“Our nickname for her when she was a little girl was ‘INT’ — aka ‘I Not Tired.’ These were always the first words out of her mouth when it was nap time,” Harry Lee said. “She never faded or got tired. In grade school, she was getting people to donate shoes to send to the children in Guatemala who walked to school barefoot.
“I’m very proud of her doing something to bring awareness to a very wonderful foundation like the NSF,” he added. “This gives you some insight into her indomitable spirit. She is a real power tool. She never stops.”
A special little girl
Debbie Lehr-Lee is a 1974 graduate of Lodi High School who was also the Lodi Grape Festival Queen that year. She was raised by her parents, the late Herb and Mary Lehr, at their home in the Willow Glen area of Lodi, which she and Harry now keep as a second home.
The Lehrs were prominent members of the community, and owned General Sheet Metal on Lodi Avenue for 37 years. Herb Lehr’s big metal gate still guards the entrance to the beach and river on Edgewood Drive today.
Debbie met and eventually married Harry Lee in 1979. The couple moved to the San Jose area to work and raise two older sons. Their only daughter, Christina, was born in 1991, and it didn’t take long before her parents knew their little girl was something special.
Christina Lee attended Presentation High School and participated in soccer and cross-country. In college, Lee, a member of Phi Beta Kappa, graduated summa cum laude, earning three degrees simultaneously in mechanical engineering, computer science and math from New York University and Stevens Institute of Technology.
In her spare time, she managed to shoehorn in a stint as an intern at Google.
So when Christina Lee decided to put off her budding professional career and embark on her journey for Collins and his fellow SEALs, her parents were firmly in her corner despite some initial misgivings.
“Christina has always been very determined to live life on her own terms. We knew that strength would lead to great things in her adult life. We never expected it to manifest as a 3,100-mile run across America, but in retrospect, we are not surprised,” Debbie Lehr-Lee said.
“As her parents, we were deeply concerned about the risks of Christina running solo and did our best to redirect her desire,” she said. “Finally, her eldest brother said, ‘If you don’t support Christina’s run, she will do it twice just to show you she can, so it’s probably easier to jump on her bandwagon.’”
Wind gusts, rain and lightning
Eight days after Christina Lee began her run in the somber shadow of One World Trade Center in New York City, retired Navy SEAL Rudy Boesch, the oldest man to ever compete on the TV show “Survivor,” posted a photo of himself giving a big thumb up on Lee’s Facebook page.
After passing through Grand Rapids, Mich., home of the Couch Potato Derby, Lee faced going through Gary, Ind., a city with one of the highest crime rates in the country. In a moment of rare vulnerability, Lee wondered if she might become a statistic, and decided to change her route to the outskirts of the city.
Lee reached the 1,000-mile mark on Aug. 24 in Iowa. In the middle of September, Debbie Lehr-Lee joined her daughter for a few days in Nebraska and marveled at her efforts.
“Christina’s daily grind is much more grueling that I ever imagined. By the end of the day, she is walking and looking like an old woman, worn out, limping and stiff,” Lehr-Lee said. “Mix that with a little warm water and she is barely able to make it to her bed. But the next morning, she is up, energetic and on the move. I wish you could see the strength and resolve in her eyes.”
Next, it was Harry Lee’s turn as Christina crossed over into Wyoming, which turned out to be the most difficult part of her trip. For Harry Lee, watching his “baby girl,” now all grown up and battling the elements, tugged at his heartstrings.
“I was overwhelmed with the magnitude of what she was attempting. On the day that I ran with her, she battled rain and lightning. That created mud which passing trucks kicked up — with a healthy dose of pebbles that pelted you,” Harry Lee said. “The next day, she battled 40 to 50 mph wind gusts head-on all the way into Laramie. That was gut-wrenching knowing that she still had four states to go.”
Christina Lee passed the Continental Divide on Oct. 17. Just over a month later, she reached California in time for the first snowfall of the season.
The reason she runs
Despite nearing the end of the trail, Lee has only raised a third of the $100,000 in donations she is seeking. Lee wants to help people like the family of Collins, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in battle that led to chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The disease caused him to take his own life as it progressed, leaving behind his wife and children with little support.
Lee chose to run for the SEALs because their classified missions are so top-secret, the public rarely has an opportunity to thank them, she said. As such, she wanted to give them credit while they were still at home, happy, healthy and able to appreciate it.
Still, Lee frets that she still has not done enough, especially with donations.
“Every time someone asks me about how much I have raised, my cheeks flush red with embarrassment that I couldn’t do more. I know $35,000 is more than the zero the NSF would have had if I had not run. But the fact I raised barely a third of my goal gnaws at me,” Lee said. “So right now I am working on being OK with the amount I raised. But it’s an uphill battle because I threw everything I had into this run, and it’s hard to accept defeat.”
The Navy SEALs’ motto is “Ready to Lead, Ready to Follow, Never Quit.”
Christina Lee fits it perfectly.