Jill Dintaman Robinson and her family followed the call of adventure on a year-long expedition.
Jill Dintaman Robinson and her husband had a dream: To take their three children, ages 15, 13, and 11, and sail their 44-foot catamaran around the world. First, they needed to get their bosses on board. Then the school system. Last but not least, competitive trail runner Robinson wanted to figure out if she could realistically keep up her running over the course of the year she anticipated the trip would take. The answer, as it turns out, was yes.
Robinson, 41, of Severna Park, Maryland, had long been an endurance athlete when the family set sail in 2015. Experienced at both ultras and Ironman distance triathlons, she knew she wouldn’t survive the trip without some sort of movement in her life. “My husband understood I needed to stay in shape if we were going to make the trip,” she says, “so we figured out ways for that to happen.”
While she knew keeping up that kind of mileage would be impossible, she also knew that the opportunity to run all over the world was about more than staying fit. By building a strong base prior to setting sail, Robinson was able to pound dirt from the Channel Islands to Finland. Happy and injury-free. Here’s how she pulled it off.
Robinson and her husband both work for Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab (APL). “APL allows its staff to take sabbaticals for research, so when we approached them about our trip, it wasn’t hard to get approval,” she explains.
Step one complete, the next part was figuring out how to take the children out of school. “It really wasn’t hard,” she says. “We just picked a homeschool curriculum that is approved by Maryland and is designed for students without internet access. When we returned, our kids hadn’t skipped a beat.”
Next up was planning out the route to follow on the trip. “We originally wanted to go completely around the world, but realized that would take three to five years,” Robinson explains. “We have friends in Finland, so we decided that might be a good starting point.”
“I loved running in Scandinavia. All of the land there has public access, so if you are on a trail that crosses someone’s land, that’s OK.”
Weather and time of year came into play as well. They needed to head back across the Atlantic by the end of January so that they could take advantage of steadier winds.
The family set out in the summer to reach Finland and the Baltic Sea as a starting point. After exploring Scandinavia, Europe, and Africa, the final legs of the trip involved crossing back over the Atlantic to the Caribbean, before ultimately returning to the States. Throughout it all, Robinson explored on foot, often on scenic trails.
Knowing she would have a few long stretches at sea that prevented her from running, Robinson decided to bring a bike and bike trainer on board to keep her cardiovascular fitness on par. She also found time for strength work. “My husband and I split four- to five-hour pilot shifts when we were at sea,” she explains. “We’d get short breaks during the shifts and I’d use these to do core or strength work.”
The longest period of time at sea totaled about two weeks. Once on land, however, she made the most of it, and her training brought her to trails in a wide variety of locations with varying sights and terrain.
One thing that fell by the wayside for the most part, says Robinson, was her long run. But she estimates she still regularly managed between 6 and 10 miles per outing. “Other than the ocean crossings, I never went more than a couple of days without a run,” she says.
“You can also eat anything you find along the way and we were there in blueberry and blackberry season.”
If she had to, Robinson would have a hard time choosing her favorites. “I loved running in Scandinavia,” she says. “All of the land there has public access, so if you are on a trail that crosses someone’s land, that’s OK. You can also eat anything you find along the way and we were there in blueberry and blackberry season—this was a treat in the middle of my runs.”
Robinson also found herself immersed in history during some of her runs. “I noticed signs along a trail in Sweden, telling the story of some nearby ruins,” she explains. “The Nazis occupied the country in World War II and they had the Swedes make signs in those buildings. I took my kids back to see it all later.”
Another spot that rose to the top of her list was the Isle of Wight, off the coast of England, where the family spent a week. “This was really one of the most beautiful places for running,” she says, “with miles of well-marked trails along the coast.”
When Robinson reached Morocco, she tried to mimic what other women wore. “I was nervous about how to dress as a female out running,” she says. “I saw Moroccan women running in groups and they always wore pants with shorts over them, a long-sleeved tunic, and headdress. I did my best to imitate that style.”
Robinson’s experiences even included some racing along the way. “When we were in Estonia, I jumped into an Ironman relay with a friend—she did the swim and bike and I did the run,” she says. “I also did an ultra in the Canary Islands that I learned about in advance and registered for ahead of time.”
During her mountainous ultra in the Canaries, she learned the value of running poles the hard way. “The locals all had them at the start and I didn’t know how much I’d want them myself by the end of the race,” she laughs.
Most places, Robinson flew “by the seat of my pants” with regards to running, but always found someone or something that made it interesting. “Many times, when we docked somewhere, I would go on ahead of the family and check out the lay of the land through a run,” she says. “Then we’d know where the markets were and what we might want to visit while there.”
Robinson also made friends while training. “I usually found people out running, too, and we’d get to know each other that way,” she says.
In all, Robinson visited some 25 countries and ran in them all. When she returned to trails on her home turf, her traveling fitness routine was put to the test. “I wasn’t sure how it would feel,” she says, “but I managed to stay pretty fit. My first couple of races back were maybe a bit slower, but that’s fine.”
Now back in the groove on land, Robinson wouldn’t trade her experiences for anything. Through it all, running served as the universal thread of the trip. “Running is such a great way to explore new places,” she says. “I met other runners or talked running with people in every location, and everyone welcomed me in.”