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Q&A: Tom Kline

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Tom Kline, a Scarsdale resident, is a Vietnam vet. He’s been a White House fellow and assistant to the US secretary of agriculture. He’s a former longtime Pfizer executive. And he’s also a walker. He’s walked across the Sahara desert. He’s walked from China to Burma. He’s trekked through the jungles of Panama. And, over the last decade, he’s been covering the distance from Point Barrow, Alaska, to the Florida Keys. It’s a trip that has taken him across 12 states and has spanned more than 6,000 miles, past grizzlies and gators alike. Earlier this year, the 70-year-old completed 70 miles across the frozen tundra of Alaska. The entire trip—which he’s dubbed “my dream walk”—is all to raise awareness for the preventable disease malaria.

We recently caught up with Kline (who was crossing state lines as we spoke) to talk about his dream trek. 

 

Q:  How’d you get into race walking? 

A:  I’ve been walking my whole adult life. I started when I was in the Army way back in 1968. And my first New York Marathon was back in 1976. I’ve now done 38 marathons and about the same number of ultra races. I also wanted to see if I could walk from Point Barrow to Key West. 

 

Q:  And why do it to raise awareness for malaria?

A:  I worked for Pfizer for 34 years, so I was very aware of infectious diseases. I chose malaria because that’s the one we can do something about—we know what causes it. We wiped it out in the United States, and we wiped it out in Europe. And it just bugged me that we are letting, literally, a million people die a year in Sub-Saharan Africa because we’re not doing the same thing there that we did here. I understand the terrain and the tropical climate makes a big challenge, but I think we can do much more to deal with the mosquito. Someone said to me, ‘Americans don’t really care about malaria.’ And maybe that’s precisely the point: If in some small way I can bring attention to it, that’s what we should be doing.

 

Q:  What has been your favorite experience during your trip?

A:  What I’ve taken away, really, is the goodness of people. On my very first day walking, I had to drive 500 miles north from Fairbanks. I had a camper van and an ATV on a trailer because my plan was to, every day, unload the ATV; and then drive the camper van three miles; and then walk back to the ATV; and then drive the ATV to the camper van and keep moving that way. Unfortunately, the trailer tires went flat, and I never knew how to fix a tire with a tire kit. Someone came and said, ‘Hey, do you want me to help you fix it?” 

 

 

Q:  How did you prepare to walk across Alaska?

A: Well, everything in this entire trip is logistics. Alaska was particularly complicated—there’s just a lot of tundra. This last time I got help from a couple who lived in Fairbanks. They were recommended to me, and after I contacted them, they actually put their dogs in the back of their truck and drove 500 miles from Fairbanks with the dogs and their dog sled, and then they met me in Point Barrow. And I followed the dog team. So, that’s how it worked out. 

 

Q:  Because of the terrain and conditions in Alaska, did you have to train in any way? 

A:  I like to say that I walk all year long. I do between 2,000 and 2,400 miles a year. I’m always in shape for what I’m doing. And, of course, I do marathons. So, with the marathon training, I was averaging about 17.5 to 18 miles per day.

 

Q:  What’s been the payoff for you doing this?

A: It’s been the walk of a lifetime. And I have had the chance to adventure. I’m not sure if I would’ve ever been to Idaho, but to cross a mountain and enter the Rocky Mountains, and to cross into Montana, that’s pretty exciting. With regard to malaria specifically, I think that it will have impact. What type of impact? Do I think it’s going to be extremely dramatic? Not likely. Will it have impact? It already has. It certainly has had impact with all the people who I’ve met. I feel I’m making my contribution as we speak. How significant is it? Let’s be realistic: It may have its limitations, but it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t count and that it’s not important. Certainly for me it’s important, because I’m speaking about this stuff every single day. 

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