Rae Heim’s sister Kendall (left), 20, of Las Vegas, joins her at the finish of her cross-country run.
Rae Heim’s sister Kendall (left), 20, of Las Vegas, joins her at the finish of her cross-country run.
For somebody who has a modest collection of footwear herself - she even opts for barefoot when she goes out running - acquiring shoes certainly was the driving force in Rae Heim's life this past year.

In fact, it drove her to maintain nearly a marathon-a-day pace for about 7 1/2 months, running from Boston down the Eastern United States before turning west and eventually crossing 21 states and covering 3,437 1/2 miles.

Heim finished her cross-country run on Nov. 14, just a six-mile day from Gardenia to Manhattan Beach, Calif., located in southwestern Los Angeles.

Family members, friends and well-wishers - about 200 altogether - cheered her at the finish.

"It was definitely an overwhelming experience," Heim, in a recent telephone interview, said of conquering the challenge. "It was shocking that I had actually made it from one side of the United States to the other. It was crazy."

Running alongside Heim in the final stretch were two of her sisters - Kendall and Eden Heim - as well as others, including the chief executive of Soles4Souls, a Nashville, Tenn.-based charity that provides shoes for people in need throughout the world.

Heim, a January 2012 Carroll High School graduate and daughter of Mike Heim of Carroll and Lesleh Heim of Des Moines, made collection of shoes and fundraisings for Soles4Souls the purpose of her run.

Her efforts generated 20,000 pairs of shoes for Souls4Soles. She achieved her $10,000 fundraising goal and also generated the donation of 10,000 pairs of shoes.

About half the pairs will go to people in the U.S. and the rest will go to people in more than 100 countries served by Souls4Soles, according to Heim. Many shoes will go to children in such highly impoverished countries as Haiti.

"That's 20,000 people whose lives have been changed," Heim said.

"A pair of shoes, you don't think about it much," she added, "but in countries such as Haiti, kids can't go to school unless they have a pair of shoes. And you need to go to school in order to change your life. So shoes can be totally life-changing to kids. Shoes are where it all begins."

Shoes can also prevent children from contracting diseases, she notes.

The focus on shoes seems out-of-step with a standout feature of Heim's historic run.

A story from Runner's World magazine says Heim "was recognized as the youngest person to run solo across the U.S. She is also the first to tackle the country's terrain barefoot."

A couple of years ago, Heim shed her shoes for barefoot running after suffering a toenail injury while training for a marathon in San Francisco.

She said, "It's hard to explain. Running barefoot is just more comfortable."

Various websites report barefoot running has seen an increase in popularity. Proponents say barefoot running uses natural gait and foot strike to the surface and is more comfortable and efficient, while repeated impact when wearing shoes raises incidents of injury.

Heim resorted to wearing shoes only occasionally in her cross-country run - to protect herself from debris in highway construction areas or during summer in the Midwest when pavement became too hot.

Barefoot runners, of course, are careful about inspecting their next steps ahead.

Heim said with a laugh, "So you don't have the challenge of having to pick glass out of your feet."

Heim also pushed a jogging stroller that carried her clothes, food, water and other supplies.

Remarkably, Heim hit the road across the U.S. only a few years after taking up long-distance running, which began spur-of-the-moment the summer after her freshman year at Carroll High when she entered a seven-mile run with her mom.

"I said, 'That could be fun,' " she recalled.

"I had previously hated running," she said. "But it was really fun. I loved it because all the runners were so uplifting, saying, 'Yeah, you can do it.' It was something I'd never been a part of before and knew from that moment I wanted to be a part of it, just because everybody was so awesome. Ever since that day I've been running."

She graduated to half marathons and full marathons of 26.2 miles. At Carroll High, she competed in cross country just her junior season.

Last October at a Des Moines marathon she met a competitor who'd run across country a few years earlier and became intrigued.

While sitting in a history class at Carroll High where she was an honor-roll student, she said, she began thinking about making her historic run.

"I just thought, 'That could be fun,'" she said. "I was going to graduate from high school early. I had plenty of time on my hands and thought, 'Why not do it now? I'm young, and it could be fun.' "

Heim didn't do extraordinary training for her run. After she'd moved to Las Vegas and was managing an Anytime Fitness workout center, she ran six to 12 miles a day.

"I didn't think there was any way to do training for something in which the whole journey would be training," she explained. "There was no way I could have got accustomed to running a marathon a day."

Once she hit the road across the States, she averaged 20 to 30 miles a day.

She said, "The biggest challenge was just the fact I would wake up every morning and think, 'Oh, I've go to go running 20 miles.'

"My body got used to the mileage after the first two or three weeks, so it was the mind aspect, getting up and actually running the miles. I got used to it. It was kind of like a job. If I didn't do it that day, I'd still have to do it sometime, or I wouldn't finish."

She said on her blog that chronicled the run, "But then I started running, and my perspective changed. I started to look at my run as a day-to-day thing rather than a trip of 3,000-plus miles. I started to realize I was running for all of these people that needed a pair of shoes. And I started to see that people truly believed in me, so I kept running."

Heim received a lot of attention along the way from newspapers, magazines and TV.

The hospitality and support she enjoyed along the way has bolstered her outlook on the country. With help of family and friends arranging host families, who in turn contacted more prospective hosts, Heim had a home to go to almost every night. The only camping she did was in Utah where a family friend accompanied her with a recreational vehicle because of the desolation.

"There are a lot of good people in the country," Heim said. "I wouldn't have been able to finish my journey without all these kind people, because perfect strangers who I never knew until a week or so before allowed me to stay in their homes."

She said on her blog, "Thank you for caring about me, and worrying about me, and loving me, and making sure I was safe every night. Thank you to those who have supported me from the first day I told them I was going to go."

A victory celebration the evening of Nov. 13 preceded Heim's final day of the run. Family members who hosted the event were her parents, Mike and Lesleh; sisters Kendall, 21, of Las Vegas, Eden, 20, of Des Moines, and Delaney, 16, of Des Moines; and brother, Eric Rocconi of Washington state.

Lesleh Heim said Rae's finish drew a number of Rae's hosts from her run, a few other runners who have crossed the country - they're called USA crossers - and many barefoot runners from all over California.

Since the finish, Rae said, she's been "relaxing and getting back into the groove of real life," adding, "it's weird being in the same place for an extended period of time."

Does she see herself tackling any more dramatic challenges in the future?

"I'm not sure," she said. "Give me a few more months, and I'll decide if I want to do something else."

She would like to take a long-distance trip - to Haiti or another country to see delivery of shoes from Souls4Soles.

"I'd like to see the impact of how my run helped those people," she said.