We often aspire to the things that inspire us and take us out of our comfort zones just enough to evoke fear in us. Some wish to climb Mount Everest or bike across America; others want to build a corporate empire. I am a believer that we achieve the spiritual by way of the physical. I didn’t fully comprehend that until I started to run long distance some twenty years back, and soon after became immersed in yoga practice. It was those two physical activities that made my mind work better, sharper, and heightened my compassion, empathy, and gratitude for the simple things in life: a sunrise, the air rushing past me, a solid and deep breath. The most amazing concept about life is that you never know at the beginning what the end will bring – or for that matter, what you will discover en route.
Four years back I commenced on a journey that was grounded in survival and transcendence. My mother was in the final stage of what was to be a five-year battle with Acute Mylogenous Leukemia (AML). My brother, who resides in Paris, was paralyzed and on a respirator, in the grips of GBS. I knew that in order to survive the bleakness, something in my life had to change. I couldn’t work any harder at my writing, couldn’t push myself any further in my corporate gig, couldn’t pray or grieve any harder, and so I chose to test my physical limits. I craved life. Pursuits of the healthy, the living. Somewhat reckless – the way of all adventures – but with my disciplined and responsible self in check, I signed up for, trained, and ran my first 50-mile trail race in WI. It was a stormy, thunder-struck, morning and at 5 am when the race started, I panicked. Why were they letting us run in this torrential downpour? What was I doing? How was I going to survive the trails, the climbs? But I did. And surviving that first ultra marathon, in the rain, alone on the Ice Age trail, was the start of a journey that changed my life in immeasurable ways. I learned that I won’t break, no matter how much it may feel that way. I learned that in the pain and suffering, there is a profound joy and freedom, too. I learned that if you face- plant in mud, someone may be there to wipe your face clean. And I learned about believing in myself, in trusting the forward motion of life, in accepting, arriving, and celebrating the journey, while not getting caught up in the finish.
Whether I am in my writing life, or in the classroom; in the midst of an ultra-marathon, or in my corporate career, I have learned and witnessed that motivated people are motivators. They work hard. They put in the endless hours to get things done, and make time to support others, too. They aspire way beyond their means and then find a way to achieve their goals. And then, from the mountain top of their aspirations, they are already setting new goals. I would describe and define my ultra-running buddies as heroes with aspiration addictions. When I am amidst these folks, the possibility of what’s next is always within reach, like a wish flower. For this crowd, what’s next is synonymous with how can I be a better, stronger version of myself. I am continuously inspired, amazed, humbled, and overjoyed at humanity and what people are capable of when they devote the proper time and energy.
The evolution of a dream
We all have our dreams – those we hold close to our heart and tuck away, and those we find the faith to put out there for the universe to grant. Career dreams, personal dreams, and if you are so inclined, athletic dreams – perhaps you want to set a personal best in the marathon or complete an Ironman. Two years back, an ultra-newbie, I applied to run Badwater 135, which is touted as “the world’s toughest foot race,” covering 135 miles (217km) non-stop from Death Valley to Mt. Whitney, CA in the heat of mid-July. In retrospect, I wasn’t ready for it physically or emotionally, so when I didn’t get in, it was okay. This year, I sent in my long and comprehensive Badwater 135 application, complete with the details of my fifteen 100 mile finishes, and with fear and dread and room for some hope, I prayed that I would be one of the roughly 100 applicants that got in. Because the journey has become about so much more for me than running – it is a celebration of my relationship with my dad, who has traveled with me to each race since we lost my mom; a celebration of my brother’s recovery. The ultra-running community has helped me to grow as a person in immeasurable ways, and it is about my continual desire to challenge myself – the knowledge that the physical pain and suffering leads to deeper spiritual growth and acceptance and love – not just of myself, but of the situations I encounter and the people I do life with.
I believe that experiences – challenging ones – change our lives. They mold us, shape us, shift us into new versions of ourselves. They teach us who we are and what we are all about. They are the substance that doesn’t find its way into our resumes, but are the aura that pervades when we walk into a room. The haphazard, magnificent, crazy tangle of our experiences are what define us and in turn, help us to define the world through our own eyes. For me, digging deep is the ability to change your mind set when your whole world is collapsing. Agility at the next level. This much I know is true: there is no short cut to the long run – both figuratively, and literally. Hard work, faith, determination, and dedication are the key ingredients as we carve our paths.
Why Badwater 135?
When I received the email that I got into Badwater 135, I cried. A mix of joy, fear, and perhaps a chance to evolve into a better version of myself. I have aspired to BW because I aspire to all things which frighten me. I aspired to BW because I am alive and healthy – a reminder that this is a gift versus a given.
There’s all that, and the fact that I like going the distance. I love the long and winding road and all the roots and rocks and climbs that make me stumble and gasp. I like getting lost en route and finding myself along the way. I like talking myself out of the ruts I fall into and taking in the views – the kaleidoscope of life. I love relying on strangers and friends alike – a reminder to me that there are always hands reaching out ready to pull me to safety. I like the journey and the eventual cross of the finish line, which truly symbolizes the beginning of the next journey. I love how it is all one big circle of movement – we start and stop. We lose and find. We believe and grow disillusioned. We cross finish lines only to acknowledge the truth: that our journeys in life never end, that we are all always on the road to somewhere, something above and beyond, greater than ourselves – greater than anything in our wildest dreams.
And so my journey begins. This year amidst some other ultra-distance races, I will attempt the Badwater Ultra cup, which consists of Badwater Cape Fear, Badwater Salton Sea and Badwater 135. Upward and onward – and may we all keep dreaming and finding ways to live out our dreams, transcend, and hopefully, inspire others along the way.