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Utah Couple Runs Mormon Historic Pioneer Trail To Bring Awareness To Mental Health

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah — People who have run marathons know it usually takes months and months of preparation, but how about running more than 50 marathons back to back to back? One Utah couple hit the road a couple months ago to do just that, and to spread awareness about mental health.

The Blackburn family finally made it home to Salt Lake City Saturday afternoon after being on the road for months.

In September, they packed up when Rex Blackburn couldn’t let go of an idea after his best friend tragically passed away last summer.

“He was kind of my hype man that always challenged me to pursue my dreams,” he said.

“I had this weird thought or feeling or whatever, like ‘You should run the Mormon trail.’ Just kind of came out of nowhere, and couldn’t stop thinking about it,” he described. “If not now, then when?”

The Mormon Pioneer National Historic Trail is the 1,300-mile stretch the Mormon pioneers first crossed in 1847 from Nauvoo, Illinois to the Great Salt Lake Valley. Members of the Willie and Martin Handcart companies also made the treacherous journey through unusually severe weather conditions in 1856.

“So initially, I thought, ‘Yeah, that’s cool!’ and then when he told me that he was basically quitting his job and we should do it right now, I was a little taken back and shocked!” his wife, Riley Blackburn, said.

Despite the shock and the fact that she is not a camper, Riley agreed!

When they first told people about their idea, they were also surprised.

“Oh, they think we’re absolutely crazy!” Riley said.

Rex put down the miles, while Riley and their 18-month-old son Park trailed behind in the truck with food and water.

“I run a marathon a day — Monday through Saturday, rest on Sundays,” he said. “I’m not a runner, so I didn’t train for this at all.”

Rex ran about six and a half hours every day and went through six pair of shoes. He ran nearly every day for two straight months, and in the end, ran about 1,430 miles.

Rex said the pain was relentless.

“Just every part — your legs, your hips, your knees. I’ve had hamstring, quad, calves, stress fractures,” he said. “Running a marathon a day is so overwhelming, like so daunting, your body has zero time to recover.”

Although the Blackburns didn’t follow the exact Mormon Historic Trail the pioneers trekked, they took the auto tour route across highways and country roads, and did it for a bigger purpose.

“With working from home and COVID… I was really depressed and realized this is a pattern — like it keeps happening and I think I need to seek help,” Rex said.

Although he hasn’t always open about his struggles, these feelings were not new.

“Throughout my adult life, [I] have dealt with depression and have never really faced that or admitted that or told anyone,” Rex said.

Although Rex loved his job, he said there is a lot of pressure to perform well in the tech industry. He believes the culture made it difficult for him to talk about what they were going through.

“It’s hard to go to your boss and say, ‘Hey, I’m struggling with my mental health.’ There’s just kind of that stigma that people think you’re weak,” he explained.

Finally, Rex confided in Riley.

“I told my wife like, ‘Hey, I think this is a bigger deal and I think I need to look for help and therapy,'” he said.

Riley has struggled with her own mental health challenges. When she was on her mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 2015, she began to experience feelings of anxiety for the first time.

“Ever since then, it’s been just a journey of trying to find ways to cope and to accept the fact that I have anxiety and there’s nothing wrong … I’m not broken,” he said.

It’s a topic that hits close to home for both of them.

“We think it’s not talked about enough, and we want to try and help break the stigma and encourage others to seek help if they need it,” Rex said.

That’s why the Blackburns dedicated their journey to mental health awareness.

Rex said the challenges in running a marathon resemble the struggles of also dealing with mental illness.

“The hardest mile is that first mile, like just getting going. So once you admit to yourself, ‘You know, I probably need to address this and seek some help… it does get better,’” he said.

They want people to know, they’re not alone.

“When you open up and share that part of your life, you find you’re part of a much bigger club and there’s so many people that are out there struggling, and I think you find a lot of strength,” she said.

They’ve also found strength from the pioneers’ stories and have had paralleled experiences, like when they made it to Martin’s Cove where the pioneers sought refuge.

“We arrived there the day that they woke up to like 18 inches of snow,” Rex said.

Rather than listening to any form of audio while Rex ran, he often pondered on the pioneer’s experiences and struggles. He said it gave him greater strength and power in doing so.

Like the pioneers, they’ve sought help from friends and family who brought them a trailer. Some of Rex’s best friends also met up to run a marathon with him

“They showed up at the perfect time,” Rex said.

While their journey has benefited from modern conveniences, they hope to pioneer the way for others who struggle with mental illness.

“Even though they might be different than mine, we can still find strength and support in the same aspects of life,” Riley said.

The Blackburns urged others to seek help through professional therapy, medication, eating healthy, meditation, exercising, or talking to a loved one.

“Tell people that you trust and love and promise they won’t judge you like you think they will,” he said.

“If at first, like the things you’re trying don’t work, it’s okay. Just keep trying, and you’ll find something,” Riley added.

Because of the COVID-19 restrictions, Riley arranged for family and friends to cheer on Rex at various aid stations on his final 47-mile run on Saturday.

“I get really emotional when I think about finishing,” Rex said earlier this week.

He and Riley embraced after crossing through a balloon arch at the ‘This Is The Place Monument’.

“She’s everything to me. She’s my rock. She’s my support,” Rex said of his wife Riley.

Riley expressed deep pride in her husband for accomplishing his goal. “So proud!” she said. He is so bound and determined when he sets his mind to something!”

Rex now plans to look for a new job, but won’t stop paving the way for those with mental illness.

The Blackburns will continue to document their journey on Instagram at Latter-day Success.

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