After 4,000 miles and 42 days of running across the country to raise money to fight cancer, Kelsi Ludwigsen, of Havre de Grace, returned Saturday to cheers, hugs and even a marriage proposal from her boyfriend.
"It was an awesome welcome home experience," Ludwigsen, 22, said Wednesday of meeting her family and friends on Federal Hill in Baltimore after she and her 25 teammates completed the 4K for Cancer.
The run, which began June 15 in San Francisco, was designed to raise money for The Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults, which supports young people fighting cancer and young people who have lost a loved one to cancer.
"It was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience," she said. "I loved every second of it."
Ludwigsen said she raised about $8,000 herself before and during the run, and the combined efforts of her running team and four cross-country biking teams raised about $1 million for The Ulman Cancer Fund.
She said the majority of the money raised goes to scholarships or direct patient funding.
"Which is one reason why I love The Ulman Cancer Fund so much, you're seeing the money put right back into the community," Ludwigsen said.
Ludwigsen said she and her fellow runners dipped the heels of their shoes in San Francisco Bay before they left, and they dipped their toes in the Inner Harbor when they arrived in Baltimore Saturday to signify the "coast-to-coast" nature of the run.
She said the friends and family members could see them arrive in the harbor from Federal Hill.
"They all started cheering, and then we just ran straight there," she said. "It was amazing just to be able to see everyone."
Ludwigsen and her teammates dedicated each day of their run to people who are fighting cancer or have succumbed to it. The runners wrote the names of the people on their calves for inspiration.
Ludwigsen ran some days for two people, other days for four or six, but she primarily ran for a 21-year-old family friend, whom she learned during the trek had beaten his cancer – he completed his chemotherapy earlier this year as Ludwigsen worked to raise money for her run.
She said learning he beat cancer was "definitely one of the better moments" of the trip, which she got to share with her teammates.
"We all cheered and embraced the fact that he had beaten it," Ludwigsen said.
Her friend welcomed her at Federal Hill, as well as another man she knows who is fighting prostate cancer.
"I just told him to keep fighting, because that's the whole reason why we run, to motivate our family and friends to keep fighting and pushing through it," Ludwigsen said.
Her teammates hail from across the country, from Alaska, California, Georgia and New Jersey.
Each person ran an average of 10 miles a day, and they had about seven to eight rest days, during which they could do laundry, perform a community service project or see the sights.
She also delivered two scholarships during the run; one went to a cancer survivor, and the other went to a young woman who lost her mother to cancer.
"It was just amazing hearing their stories and how strong they are and to see how they persevered through the hard times, and it just kind of fueled the fire and gave us more inspiration to keep going," Ludwigsen recalled.
The runners stayed with host families, and they started each day by doing chores for the family, followed by a dedication circle, during which they gathered and said the names of people they were running for, including any friends or relatives of the host families affected by cancer.
They ran from Northern to Southern California, then back north through Las Vegas to Idaho, Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, Missouri and then east to Baltimore.
Ludwigsen said her favorite places were Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Boulder, Colo.
"They were just beautiful places, unexpectedly beautiful," she said. "I got a completely new view of the United States."
Ludwigsen is a 2010 graduate of Harford Technical High School, where she ran winter track, and a 2014 graduate of Felician College in New Jersey, where she played softball.
She studied biology in college, and she plans to begin pursuing what she called an "accelerated second degree" in nursing this fall at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
She said she plans to pursue nursing and hopes to work at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center.
"It's more of a hobby," she said of running. "It's not really competitive; I love just being able to get up and go run and have fun with it."
Also, she said yes to her boyfriend.