It’s said that in New York City, nobody turns their head for anything. But on March 8 this year, the crowds at Central Park couldn’t keep their eyes off Summer Willis, running 42.2 kilometers with a 45-pound twin mattress on her back.

Willis, a Texan who calls Lexington, Virginia home, completed the run on International Women’s Day, following the route of the original New York City Marathon in 1970.The mattress was eye-catching. Fashioned into a backpack, it featured a large, hand-painted phoenix of bright orange and red. Overtop of the mythical creature were the words “carrying weight for s[exual] a[ssault] survivors.” Willis herself was dressed in black, symbolic of the phoenix’s ashes, her skin painted in gold glitter.

During her four loops around Central Park, runners fell into step to hear her message; walkers sped up to learn how they could contribute to the cause; bikers slowed to keep pace, listening to her story and sharing their own.

Dialogue was what Willis sought when planning the feat; the mattress was the conversation starter.

Ten years ago, at age 19, Willis was sexually assaulted while she was a student of English at the University of Texas at Austin. Her mattress run—one of 29 marathons she will complete in her 29th year—was designed to get people talking.

“No one likes to talk about sexual assault, but one in six women in the United States are assaulted,” says Willis. “I wanted to bear the weight of sexual assault… I want everything I’m doing to focus on the strength of women…Even though we carry that weight, we’re still capable of doing amazing, extraordinary things.”

Through her 29 runs, Willis is raising funds for the non-profit she founded, Strength Through Strides. The organization will help survivors of sexual assault recover and thrive by providing free coaching with licensed clinicians. Initially, support services will be offered in California, Texas and Virginia.

“I wanted the marathons to have a mission,” she explains. “[Sexual assault] took years away from my life… I don’t want other women to have to go through that.”

Willis’s runs are inspired by Julie Weiss, another fundraising marathoner. In 2012–13, Weiss, the “marathon goddess,” ran 52 marathons in 52 weeks to raise funds for pancreatic cancer.

Last summer, Willis struggled through a difficult time. She was experiencing symptoms of post-partum depression after the birth of her second son; then, she and her husband had six family members pass away in six months. She had an epiphany the morning after reading about Weiss: “My first thought when I woke up was, when I turn 29, I’m going to run 29 marathons,” she recalls.

Willis was not a runner when she set her ambitious goal.

“It took me quite a while to get to one mile and then three,” she laughs. “I really didn’t know how I would get past three, but eventually the miles started adding up.”

She kicked off her 29 marathons in October, a month after her birthday, and ran three marathons in three days.

“It was really hard,” she confesses. “But at the end of it, I thought, what else am I capable of?”

The mattress marathon isn’t the only memorable run on her list. In February, she ran the Austin Marathon, returning to the city in which she was assaulted. A week after her Central Park run, she ran the LA Marathon wearing a series of Barbie-inspired costumes and finishing the last mile in heels and a pink sequin gown. For her grand finale in the fall, she’s joining a group running seven marathons in seven days on seven continents, starting in Novo, Antarctica and concluding in Miami.

She has no plans to quit running when the year is up; she’s set her sights on the stars: Irish extreme runner Richard Donovan is planning a race in space in 2026, and Willis wants to join him.

“I want to raise hope,” she says. “Ordinary people can do extraordinary things.” 

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