KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Snow, wind, injuries, stifling humidity, ticks. Sandra Billinger experienced all those preparing for or during the 600-mile trek across Kansas that she completed here Friday.
Billinger is an assistant professor in the Department of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Science at the University of Kansas Medical Center. She made the long walk in 23 days with her son, Michael Thomas, to raise money and awareness of research into the benefits of exercise for stroke victims.
Some stroke survivors were among the welcoming party, and 71-year-old Willie Hillmon was with the group.
“I think she did a wonderful thing — very humanitarian,” he said. “She is a wonderful person for doing that.”
Billinger and Thomas accomplished what they had set out to do: walk the entire length of Kansas, west to east, in about three weeks.
Given the quirky spring weather, Billinger said she had done some of her final training for the hike in the snow. But on the first day of the walk, the pair battled stiff headwinds, stifling humidity and near triple-digit temperatures.
A few days in, with swirling wind, she turned her right ankle while navigating a rocky levee. As she limped along with a strained Achilles tendon, her altered stride led to blisters on her left foot.
The worst was yet to come, though, Billinger said.
“We were walking through the Flint Hills and we had been knocking ticks off of us and I did a quick tick check and the inside of my pants had numerous ticks in them. They were on my socks and I just had a major meltdown,” Billinger said. “I do not like ticks and I was covered in them.”
The final, 18-mile leg ended along 39th Street on the east end of the KU Med campus. The pair crossed State Line Road just far enough to make it into Missouri.
“I feel great,” she said. “We had a great adventure.”
Billinger’s research interests include the cardiovascular and pulmonary changes that occur following stroke. She has also examined the role exercise can play in improving cardiovascular function and blood flow in people with chronic disease.
She scheduled the walk to coincide with two national campaigns that run in May: National Stroke Awareness Month and Exercise is Medicine Month.
President George H.W. Bush issued a 1989 proclamation designating May as National Stroke Awareness Month, according to the National Stroke Association.
Exercise is Medicine is an initiative of the American College of Sports Medicine.
According to the stroke association, stroke is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States, killing about 137,000 people each year. The association said there are roughly 7 million stroke survivors in the United States over age 20.
The association also said that regular exercise is a way to reduce the risk of stroke.
Billinger said she hoped that her fundraising through the walk could total about $50,000, which she would put towards two pieces of lab equipment to help measure brain blood flow.
Billinger grew up in Hays. She did a community talk there on stroke during the walk.
But her main avenue of informing the public about stroke during the trek, she said, came through the incidental meetings with strangers along the way.
Their route roughly followed the Santa Fe Trail. They camped mostly, but stayed in motels a few nights, she said.
In some of the less populated areas, where it’s uncommon to see people hiking through, Billinger said locals would stop when they encountered the duo.
“So they would get out of their cars and stop and ask if we needed a ride or anything,” Billinger said, “and we would tell them what we were doing. Some people would donate right there, some people would say, ‘I had a family member who had a stroke,’ you know, they would share their story with us. So we got to talk to a lot of people. It was really great.”
While resting outside a convenience store in Herington, when Thomas was not feeling well, she said a customer handed them a couple Gatorades on his way out of the shop.
Thomas said he got some blisters along the way, but that his feet fared much better than his mother’s.
He just finished a couple years at junior college and said he plans to pursue a degree in sports rehabilitation therapy at Fort Hays State University.