By Jimmy Robertson
A chance meeting with a famous Italian blogger ended up leading Sebastien Jacques ’11 to attempt a long-range feat with his feet.
In 2017, Jacques, a former Virginia Tech men’s tennis player from Magog, Quebec, walked across the United States from Virginia Beach to Santa Monica, Calif., to raise awareness on the power of persistence and taking each day one step at a time, two lessons he learned while recovering from a risky surgery performed by a Santa Monica doctor who removed a pineal cystic tumor from his brain.
On an Arizona highway during his walk, Jacques met Giulia Valentina, an Italian model who shared his story to her social media following of nearly 950,000. As a result, the Italians started urging him to walk across their country.
So, in mid-November, he did.
“In my mind, I was doing the States and that was it,” Jacques said. “I said then that it was a one-time thing. It’s hard enough physically and mentally. I just wanted to do it once and try to make a difference in people’s lives, and that’s it.
“But years went by, and I guess you kind of forget the pain and the suffering of those adventures, and I kept receiving messages from the Italians,” Jacques said. “So yeah, I just decided to say, ‘Why not?’”
Jacques graduated from Virginia Tech’s Pamplin College of Business with a marketing management degree. He decided to use the walk across Italy to spotlight the great work being done by the CHU Sainte-Justine Foundation, a nonprofit organization in Montreal dedicated to providing the highest level of health care to children and mothers. He simply asked his followers on social media to donate to this foundation.
On Nov. 16, Jacques began his journey, leaving Turbigo, Italy, near the country’s border with Switzerland. He walked 47 “marathons” each day, saying he averaged 26 miles per day with his longest walk being 30 miles. He built in three rest days during his journey.
Fifty days and nearly 1,200 miles later, Jacques arrived in Santa Maria di Leuca, a small town on the southern Italian coast. For a better perspective, the town represents the geographical “heel” of Italy.
Jacques arrived tired, sore, and ecstatic. He said the Italians treated him wonderfully, and at last count, he said he had raised approximately $40,000 for the CHU Sainte-Justine Foundation.
“I decided to run the last two to three kilometers just to make sure I arrived before the sunset,” Jacques said. “I just wanted that moment by myself, and I wanted to really touch the Adriatic Sea at the southernmost tip. I stayed on the rocks for about an hour admiring the sunset.
“Your initial thoughts are the injuries you suffered, the rain, the hard times, the people you met, the lives you tried to touch, and it’s just such a mixed bundle of emotions all at once that comes out,” Jacques said. “I was grateful to be there. You’re sad at the same time because it’s over, but you just realize how it was all worth it. You’re sitting there, and you’re like, ‘Wow, we did it.’”
Jacques works as the general manager of a private tennis club in Montreal, and an incredibly busy summer schedule affords him free time to travel during the winter. He trained for the Italy trip by walking every day in different terrains with a backpack. He used his backpack to carry his essentials because the terrain prohibited the use of a stroller.
He decided to stay with friends or in hotels instead of camping and used friends or ride services to get back and forth from the trail. He originally allotted 30 days to complete the walk. But his Italian friends warned him not to walk in Italy’s city streets because of their narrowness. Thus, he decided to take the Via Francigena, a former pilgrimage trail route that runs from Canterbury England, to Apulia, Italy, a region on the country’s southeast coast.
“You had it going from north to south finishing exactly where I wanted to, so I said, ‘Okay, perfect. I’ll take that route,’” Jacques said. “Then when I started calculating all the mileage, instead of 30 days, that’s where the 47 days came about. I was like, ‘Oh boy, it gets a lot longer.’ But then I had already announced that I was doing it [the walk], so I couldn’t really go back on that one.”
He nearly elected to terminate the journey following day No. 6 after suffering tendonitis in one of his ankles. A combination of rain and the hilly terrain left him swollen and in pain. Rather than back out, though, he treated the tendonitis as best he could, dulling the pain with a steady intake of ibuprofen. As he traveled farther south, the trail became easier and the weather nicer, and his body adapted to the repetition of getting up and walking each day.
His daily routine during the journey reflected his philosophy on life: put one foot in front of the other and live each day for itself.
“Whatever I’m going through, if it’s hard times, I just want to accomplish something,” Jacques said. “I’m like, ‘OK, let’s do it. Let’s just do it today. Just do it today, and we’ll think about tomorrow, tomorrow.’ And that’s how I do those walks.
“A lot of people feel like I have a secret behind these walks, but it’s as simple as trying to have a very short memory and not thinking about tomorrow,” Jacques said. “It’s pretty impressive what we’re able to overcome or accomplish when we look at life that way.”
Jacques said he drew inspiration from the messages he received on Instagram during his walk across the United States and recently through Italy. He said people left him messages about being depressed or being suicidal or dealing with serious health issues, and his journey motivated them to keep moving forward.
Therein lay the primary purpose of Jacques’s walks. Media accounts often focused on the miles walked, the days on the trails, or the money raised for CHU Sainte-Justine Foundation. But Jacques wanted to influence, embolden, and inspire.
“To me, I find it a humbling thing,” he said. “I consider myself the most average, normal human being ever, and to be able to receive messages where you don’t necessarily feel like you’re saving their lives, but you do find that you’re able to help another human being, to me, that’s the most beautiful thing or gift that we can do as humans.
“To me, the walk is as if we’re all holding hands together and moving forward together,” Jacques said.
Jacques returned to Canada following the conclusion of his Italy adventure. Despite the pain, he said he wouldn’t rule out another challenge and mentioned perhaps walking across Chile’s Atacama Desert, one of the driest places in the world. He said he would need to put together a team to accomplish this, given the conditions and the remoteness.
“We’ll see,” Jacques said. “If not, I’m happy. I could just finish my adventures now. I don’t consider myself an adventurer. It’s just something that I feel deep in my heart that I want to do to help people.
“But to me, we’re able to do that every single day also with the way you treat people or listen to someone. So, whether I keep pursuing these walks or not, I’m still going to try to help people.”
–Jimmy Robertson, VT Athletics