I cannot begin to describe how grateful I am to all of you. I was touched by your support and your emails. Most of all, your support of TASH has been more than I could ask.
I was also humbled by how many of you expressed interest in the Marathon Des Sables itself. I saw it as a challenge for sure, but I have always held that there are challenges such as this that we all face and that any of us can complete.
This was a rare opportunity and it afforded me a chance to rethink a few of the lessons my life is teaching me. For whatever they’re worth to you, I’ll share them here.
When I arrived at my pre-race hotel in Morocco, I took a look around at what others had packed. The most efficient runners’ packs were around the 15-20 pound mark while mine was 30 pounds. I had to reassess my strategy. I carefully counted and weighed my gear and I removed anything in excess of what I’d need for a week. Then I eliminated things that were there “just in case.” I even counted sheets of toilet paper and removed excess there as well. I got my pack down another 5 pounds until I dug into my food rations, cutting down calories to just above the 2000 cal per day requirement. Throughout my entire time in the desert, I survived on what I carried in that pack. Upon reflection, anything more would have been an unnecessary burden. I even threw my dirty socks away when I changed into my only spare pair. I wondered. “Why do we need so much in life when we can’t take it with us?”. It is hard to know what we need vs. what we think we need. However, if we can refine this sense, we may feel greater freedom. I had no phone, no computer, no TV, no modern forms of entertainment. It felt good to live simply.
In the 18 months leading up to this event, I had plenty of time to discuss my goal with others. There are two common reactions. First — most popular from other men — is to immediately dismiss the person as crazy and criticize him for being irresponsible or ridiculous. These people would prefer to see you fail. The next most common is the “That’s great, but crazy!” response. These people want to support you, but cannot relate to your drive in any way. Taken together, the 18 months of training were very isolating from a social standpoint. Then, when 1000+ runners from all over the world converged in the desert, something amazing happened. Through the different flags on display and the many different languages, an immediate bond emerged. We all deeply understood each other and finally felt at home among fellow “crazy” people. We were brothers and sisters.
Nevermind the race. Just getting to the start line was an almost two-year saga. Without the support of my wife, who allowed me to train hours upon hours on the trails, there is no way I could have even made it that far.
If there is one thing I have learned in running long distances, it is that at some point in your run, you will feel so much pain and discomfort that everything will seem hopeless and pointless. You will want to quit. I know to expect this and that all one can do is to accept it and wait it out. It will pass. I passed this on to a fellow runner on the third day, who was experiencing some major stomach issues. Amazingly, the MDS was his first race and I suspect he’d not experienced this surprising level of consistent pain and discomfort in running before. I asked how he was, and he slumped down at the checkpoint and said he was considering pulling out of the race. The words stunned me and I stopped, turned to him and said, “You are having a dark moment. It will pass.” A few hours later, refreshed, he actually caught up to me and thanked me. He later told me these words helped keep him in the race.
When a dark moment hits, it’s best to force a smile. It lifts the spirits and it is a defense of your dignity. I will never forget how the Japanese contingent expressed this. Rather than eating their meals on the go, they would stop at a check point, take off their packs, unfurl a small picnic blanket, lay out their modest foods, kneel, meditate for a moment, toast to something, and eat. It was a moment of clarity and culture amidst a backdrop of dead earth and runners trying to survive.
This is the ultra-running motto and was elegantly exemplified in one French woman’s reaction to being punctured by inch-long thorns. While descending a rocky mountain, I heard a sudden and sharp scream. When I turned, I saw behind me a French woman with thorny vines wrapped around her lower leg. The thorns were so long, they penetrated the flesh by more than half an inch. I watched as she pulled them out, the skin stretching and then relaxing as the thorns let go. Each thorn left an open hole where fresh blood quickly carved a path through the dust on her legs and into her shoe. I asked if she needed anything and she just looked up and gestured to keep moving. Whether struggling with stubborn flora, or the agony of perpetual movement, just…keep…moving…forward.
I have even developed a new mantra, quite by accident. I find myself thinking, “just over the next dune…keep going until the next dune.”
In the desert, you can scan 360 degrees and see a landscape devoid of life rise up to meet an empty sky in all directions. It is silent. At night, when the sky is black and filled with stars, you feel as if you are standing on top of an asteroid flying through outer space. It is easy in these moments to imagine the universe as oblivion and to realize that our time here is limited. It’s no wonder that most major religions were invented in the desert. If there is something you want to do for yourself, now is the time. But it’s equally important to leave something behind. Somewhere in Morocco, a Berber is wearing a pair of Blue Altra Olympus shoes with just 200 miles on them.
As of this email, Remove the Limits has raised more than $5000.00 for TASH. In fact, I have been advised that these funds have helped make the August 2014 TASH Regional Conference in St. Louis a reality. My goal was to support the work TASH does to promote equity, opportunity and inclusion for people with disabilities, and since TASH values so closely match my values of removing limits, I’m excited to see the Education Equity Matters conference organized right here in St. Louis. Your contributions will benefit our community and the new Missouri chapter of TASH. For over thirty five years, TASH has been a leader in advocating for the rights of people with disabilities. Now, TASH will help us continue to build communities that are willing and equipped to support and include all of us.
Remove the Limits has only just started. I plan to create a charitable foundation to serve as a framework for many exciting activities and adventures to come. Many of them are secret for the time being, but events will grow ever larger and be self-sustaining as well. The next big event will be a Remove the Limits race event hosted somewhere in St. Louis. So stay tuned and start training!