Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Breaking Ground: An Interview with Humanitarian and Endurance Athlete Jason Lester

Jason Lester, 37, is the 2009 ESPY Winner for Best Male Athlete with a Disability. At the age of twelve, he was in a car accident which left his right arm paralyzed. Since then, Jason has excelled in the realms of triathlon and biathlon, competing in Iron distance triathlons and Ultraman competitions around the globe. He is a firm believer in using his athletic abilities to raise money for worthy causes. His book, "Running on Faith: The Principles, Passion, and Pursuit of a Winning Life," has been hailed by The Christian Critic as "truly remarkable, proof of what dedication, heart, and a never-say-quit attitude can create.” I had the opportunity to interview Jason about his upcoming charity run in August, entitled H2OPE 2011: Badwater for Clean Water. The 306 mile course will start in Las Vegas, make its way to Badwater in Death Valley, and then wind up to the top of Mount Whitney. Jason will be the second person to ever run the course. Lisa Smith-Batchen made the grueling journey in 2008. All donations Jason receives will go towards building clean water wells and cisterns in rural areas and villages in the Philippines, China, Africa, and India. Jason lives and trains in Hawaii.

Jason, what got you into ultrarunning?

I did the whole Iron distance triathlon circuit a few years ago when I started doing long distance triathlons. Living in Kona, Hawaii, I kept thinking to myself, “There’s got to be something longer than the Iron distance,” and sure enough, right in my backyard was the Ultraman. I dove into that in 2008. I did the Ultraman Canada and then I did the Ultraman Hawaii, which is the World Championship race. I ended up doing about five of those. Then, I just started trying to step it up with stuff that was a little longer, a little more challenging mentally and physically. Last year in May, I did five Iron distance triathlons on five of the Hawaiian Islands in five days: the EPIC5. We are actually getting ready to do it again this May. I did the HURT 100K in January. I don’t call myself an ultrarunner. I call myself an ultra endurance athlete because, for me, it is all about the challenge as opposed to any set distance.

How did you do at the HURT 100K?

It was, mentally, one of the most challenging events that I’ve ever done. And this is coming from someone who has done several Ultramans and back-to-back Iron distance triathlons. With 20,000 feet of elevation gain and loss, it was absolutely grueling. I think 120 people toed the start line and something like 30 people finished. I had some knee problems in the beginning. I think it was just the ups and downs on the trail that did it. It had rained for like three days straight. The trails were really muddy, so I was just slipping and sliding all over the place. They even had ropes hanging off the side of the mountain so you could pull yourself up. It was like the world’s toughest trail hike. It wasn’t really a run. But, I wanted to see what it’s like to be on your feet for 24 hours, to get a feel for some of the pain I will be going through doing the Badwater course. It was a test run. Mental preparation. I definitely got a feel for what it is like to be out there all day and all night.

Were you athletic as a kid?

I grew up playing baseball and football, starting at five or six years old. I didn’t get into running until I was 15 years old. I had lost my father to a major heart attack. He was 39. I really freaked out. I remember thinking to myself, “That’s probably the route I am going to go down if I don’t change my lifestyle.” When I got into high school, I played baseball and football, and every time we got in trouble, our coach would make us run. But, I hated running so much. I just hated it. I hated being out there. Little did I know, I had a gift for it. In my sophomore year, my baseball coach told me, “You should probably go try out for cross country.” In my junior year, I tried out for the team and I carried it on into college. I ran my freshman year of college. I wasn’t the best runner. I wasn’t the fastest. But, I stuck with it. That’s when I found the sports of biathlon and triathlon. I shifted over from running into the tri world.

How old were you when your arm was paralyzed?

I was twelve years old. It was 1986, Halloween night. We had just finished trick-or-treating and a lady ran a red light. I suffered 21 broken bones, a collapsed lung, and my right arm was paralyzed. The very next year was when I lost my father. It was a very trying time in my life. Running was actually my savior. As a runner, you have a lot of time to think. A lot of time to be by yourself. Running afforded me time to try and solve this puzzle, this life puzzle.

Talk about what it was like being the ESPY Winner for Best Male Athlete with a Disability.

Every year, ESPN selects the top athletes in a given category. Then, it’s up to the fans to go online and vote for them. It’s sort of like the Grammy Awards or the Oscars for sports. When I saw my picture on the website, I kind of freaked out a little. What got me nominated was doing the Ultraman World Championship the year before. I couldn't believe I was nominated. Here I was, just doing something I had a passion for. I had no idea that the whole world was watching this accomplishment and had voted me in. It was such an honor to be selected and to get to go to Los Angeles and be among the top athletes. On top of that, to not only be nominated, but to win, was a very humbling experience.

The title of your book is “Running on Faith.” Faith and God obviously play a big role in your life and in your athletic endeavors. How does running play a role in your spiritual life?

I always say that I feel connected to God the most when I am running. A lot of people think that the title of my book means that it is a running book. It really isn’t. All my life, ever since I was a young child, my fuel, my desire, my energy has been my faith; it comes from my personal relationship with God. I have faith that I was put on this earth for a purpose. I have faith that when I get to the start line, I will make it to the finish line. We all have the opportunity to pull from whatever sources we want to pull from. A lot of times when I am out there running, I honestly don’t understand how the human body is able to accomplish what it does. But, it’s my faith that God is using me as a vessel when I am running to accomplish good things for good causes. That’s what gets me up every single morning, gets me out there to train for four or five hours a day: knowing that I have been called as an athlete to share the love that God has for us, knowing that I am doing this to help other people.

Do you profess a particular religion?

My belief is the Christian belief system. I believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. But, I try not to structure my life around organized religion. I am very open-minded to all beliefs and to all religions. I love everybody. Whether you are Mormon, Jewish, Buddhist, or whatever, I want to learn about you, I want to love you, I want to meet you to eye to eye; I want you to accept my belief system just as I accept your belief system. I honestly believe that we are all searching for the same thing. I believe that we are all trying to find peace and understanding of why things like Japan happen and where we go when we die, things like that. That is something we all have in common, regardless of the differences in belief systems.

You’ve stated before in interviews that you didn’t create your own testimony, that it was something that was given to you. What do you mean when you say you don’t create your own testimony?

I am a firm believer that we have complete control over our destiny. That is by choice. The choices we make in life. But, if you look back at my childhood and my teenage years, whether it’s losing my mom and dad or suffering through the accident, a lot of people look at that and say, “You got dealt a really hard deck.” But, I wouldn’t have it any other way. All that made me the man I am today. I didn’t create my testimony. It was something that God gave me, so that I could go back out into the world and give back to others. That is why we have a testimony: so that we can share with others what we’ve been through and how we’ve been able to persevere.

How did you come up with the idea of running 306 miles, from Las Vegas, through Death Valley, and on to Mount Whitney?

My coordinator for my Never Stop Foundation, Amanda, and I had been brainstorming for ideas for my next run. We decided I would do Badwater in July to raise awareness of the water crisis. Amanda reached out to Lisa [Smith-Batchen] as a crew leader. Lisa told her, “I know all about Jason; he is amazing.” I told Amanda to get us on the phone together so we could talk. Within the first five minutes of that conversation, you could just feel God’s presence. She said, “You know, a lot of people do Badwater. I don't want to take anything away from their accomplishment; I am going for my tenth Badwater. But, why don’t you do something that is amazing, something most people don't do. That’s who you are, Jason. Everything you do is epic. You don’t do what others do. You’re a leader. You’re not doing things for yourself. You have no ego attached to these things you do.” She was taking the words right out of my mouth. I don’t have any ego attached to anything that I do, whether it is writing books, finishing races, or making public appearances. My ego is totally detached from everything that I do. My goal is to give back. If I can do something amazing in order to bring awareness to a worthy cause, I will run a 1000 miles if I have to. I don’t care how far I have to go. That is when Lisa told me, “Let me tell you about something that I did, I am the only person in the world to have accomplished it.” That’s when she told me about the 306. She said, “If my ego were attached, I wouldn’t want you to do this because I am the only person to ever do it. Why would I want another athlete to do it? But I really believe in who you are and what your cause is. I really believe this will bring a lot more attention to your cause than just doing Badwater.” It was just clear as day for me. I didn’t even question it. I was set.

Lisa’s work with charity seems to fit very nicely with your own charity initiatives.

One of the great things about teaming up with Lisa is that her charitable commitment involves helping orphans by building schools and houses. This allows us to go back into the areas where she’s built these schools and bring clean water to those locations. It really excites me. We are doing this work for something she has already laid the groundwork for. All this effort is really for something Lisa has already started. I am helping Lisa, my fellow sister and athlete, on something she has already started. We are actually continuing her mission. We are finding more ways to help her help these kids. I am not doing this by myself. We’re a team and we’re going to do an amazing job together.

306 miles is a long way to go. How do you conceptualize the distance prior to starting a run? Do you think about stuff like that?

In my head, it’s never been about the distance. You can say, “You have to go out and run 100 miles,” and I wouldn’t look at it as 100 miles. I would look at it as Point A and Point B. As far as I am concerned, I have to get from Las Vegas to the top of Mount Whitney. It doesn’t matter if it is 306 miles or 806 miles. I never focus on the distance. I never go to the starting line and think to myself, “This is going to take me 12 hours or 24 hours.” I don’t do that in any event. I think that is one of my strengths, mentally.

How did you become involved with Operation Blessing International?

I did an interview for the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) for The 700 Club. They came out to the Ultraman I was competing in. I had already been thinking about doing Badwater for my next run. CBN is partners with Operation Blessing International. One of the guys with CBN was telling me all about what they do and the water wells they are drilling. It really spoke to my heart, how much we take for granted to be able to bathe and drink clean water. I remember looking down at my water bottle and thinking, “I am so blessed.” I immediately started thinking, “I’ve got to help these people who don’t have what I have.” Then, I got introduced to Operation Blessing International. We started developing that relationship.

How long have you been planning this project?

We’ve been working on this project since September of last year. It’s been a long road. And we still have a long way to go. We’re going to get getting a lot of attention for what we’re doing. We need to spread the word and educate people about these issues.

Tell me a little about the clean water crisis and why it is important that people be aware of the issues surrounding the lack of potable water in rural areas in places like India, Africa, China, and the Philippines.

When we started putting this project together, I had been invited to the Philippines to do an appearance for an organization. I was really excited about going over there. One of the things that kept coming up in our discussions before leaving was problems with their water systems. My heart is with the youth in these situations. I think it goes back to my childhood. I think to myself, “Here I am. All the struggles and challenges I went through are nothing compared to the challenges that these kids go through.” Anybody who looks at my life says, “Man, you really had it rough.” But, when I think about what is going on in the Philippines and other places, I realize these kids really have it rough. When I asked Operation Blessing International where they need the most attention, they told me they need help everywhere. The problem is that big.

Your goal is to raise $1 million. How will this money be used by Operation Blessing International?

All the money that goes to Operation Blessing International is used to bring clean water to these areas of the world. They build wells in these villages and the money goes directly to these places that need it most. If everyone does their part and gives just a little, we can all come together and build an $1,800 well for these people. That can take care of a whole village.

How are you training for the run?

I’ve been training whole life, since I was 15 years old. I just did an Ultraman in November. I built a running base doing HURT. I am up to about 30 hours a week training for EPIC5 that’s in May. I am not concerned about the distance that I have to cover. Not at all. What I am concerned about is the conditions, the weather I will be facing in Death Valley. We are going to go back to Hawaii and do some high altitude training there. We’re going to go out on the Badwater course at least a couple of times between now and August to do some training out in the heat. I’m going to crew for Lisa this year at her Badwater run. That’s going to give me a feel for the course as well. I picture myself very soon in the future on a treadmill with the heat cranked up.

Anything else specifically in terms of heat training?

I’ve been doing sauna training for years. I try to do 10 to 15 minutes to get my body ready for heat conditions. I grew up in Arizona, where running in 120 degree weather was norm. I am not saying I know exactly what it feels like running at Badwater, but I definitely know what it feels like running in an oven with the dry heat. I am sure Lisa is going to be able to give me more ideas on what I can do to get my body ready.

How has your family supported your athletic endeavors, particularly this upcoming run?

I never had a relationship with my mom. I got taken away from her when I was two years old. And I lost my dad at twelve. I don’t have any parents. I have a grandmother that lives back in Arizona. My cousins, aunts, and uncles have all been really supportive throughout my career. I don’t really invite anybody to my races. I am the kind of person that just likes to show up and get it done. I don’t need pom-poms and cheerleaders on the sidelines. I am an actions-speak-louder-than-words kind of guy. I really like to try and stay out of the limelight as much as possible. But, I do have a small-knit, close group of friends, my support system, and they are going to be at my run.

What do you think the most challenging aspect of this project will be?

Sleep deprivation. That will probably be the most challenging aspect of it. I am not too concerned about it, though. But, I do think it will be challenging. I will train to meet that challenge. It’s all about preparing and staying healthy. I have to stay healthy between now and August. Not just physically healthy, but spiritually and mentally healthy, too.

Do you have any doubts or fears?

Well, fear drives us all. Fear is good. Of course, there are question marks, but my heart is so set on this. I feel so honored and blessed that I have been chosen to do something like this. I really feel that Lisa and I are being called to do this, and when you are called to do a mission, there is no failure. There is absolutely no failure. There is nothing that can get in our way to stop us from accomplishing this. So, when you ask me if there is fear, I say, yes. Of course. Fear drives the mind. But, am I worried or concerned? No. Absolutely not. I feel very much at peace. I am happy. I am excited. I am smiling.

When you get to the finish at the top of Mount Whitney, how do you think your life is going to be changed? What will be different?

Nothing is going to change. The only thing that will change is that we will have accomplished what we set out to accomplish. But, that finish line is actually the starting line. Nike has a great motto: “there is no finish line in life.” I’m going to take finishing the 306 as a chance to start another 306 and then another 306. We have a lot of work to do. I am very passionate and my heart is filled with so much joy at the chance to help people. We aren’t just cutting a check to Operation Blessing International. We are actually going over to these countries and we are going to get hands-on experience at building some of these wells. We are actually going to build a well. That is what is going to be the pinnacle. The pinnacle is not going to be the top of Mount Whitney. The pinnacle is going be able to go over to Haiti, or to be able to go over to the Philippines and grab that shovel and break ground with those engineers and help them to drill wells. That’s where we actually get to see the money put to use. And even that will be just a start. We have an opportunity to build hundreds of wells.

Jason, thank you so much for talking with me today. Best of luck as you train for the run. I look forward to hearing about your epic journey as you fight for this worthy cause.

If you would like to learn more about Jason Lester or make a donation to his run, visit his website at www.jasonplester.com, or click here.

If you would like to purchase Jason's book, "Running on Faith," click here.

The H2OPE Project is managed by Jason's Never Stop Foundation. They are currently seeking sponsors. If you are interested in sponsoring Project H2OPE, please visit www.neverstopfoundation.org or click here.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Family Matters: The Incomparable Joy of Togetherness

When I was eleven years-old, I nearly lost my left hand in a lawnmower accident. I can close my eyes now and remember it all so vividly. The doctors told my parents that they would try to reattach the fingers, but that they may have to go back and remove them if they did not reattach properly of if an infection took hold.

“Even if the procedure does work,” they warned, “she may never have full use of her hand again.”

I was conscious during the surgery. I remember screaming as loud as I could. I was terrified they were going to cut off my hand.

“Don’t cut it!” I yelled. “Please! Don’t!”

The doctors did an amazing job repairing my hand. I remember the faces of my family as they gathered around my hospital bed, kissing me, consoling me, telling me how much they loved me. I can see the face of my brother, Stephen. His blue eyes radiated love. What would I have done without that love? Where would I be today had my family not been there for me?

Last year, I was sitting in a hotel room in New York City with Sister Marybeth, right across from where we were going to be on the Today Show the next morning. It was three days before the start of Run Hope. Traffic was humming away outside. My heart was buzzing. I told Sister Marybeth I was going to call my brother, Stephen, who now lives in New York and works as a writer and artist. It had been over eleven years since I last talked to him.

When we were kids, Stephen and I were very close. We played and hung out together. He was incredibly smart. In high school, he was always bored with classes, finishing books long before the rest of the class. He loved sports and was very good at ice hockey.

We were similar in many ways and so different in others. But, our bond was incredibly strong. When I ran my first marathon, I was so afraid that I wouldn’t make it to the finish line. One week before the race, without any training, Stephen announced he was going to sign up and run it with me, just to support me to the end.

Eleven years is a long time to live without your brother. It broke my heart that he was not a part of my life. In all those years, I called and left messages, sent cards and letters, but never got a response from him. I desperately wanted to hear from brother.

“Let’s pray about it,” Sister Marybeth said as I moved to pick up the phone.

The line rang and rang. I waited nervously. Then, his voice message came on. I recorded my message:

“Stephen, it’s me, Lisa. Please return my call. I’m in New York and I’d love to see you or talk to you.”

The line clicked out and it was over. I can't discuss it all right now, but in the book I am writing, I will go into detail about why Stephen left our family life for so long. All I can say is that when my brother showed up in Central Park for Run Hope on his roller blades and then ran three miles with, I was overjoyed. I felt like we were kids again. My heart was filled to the brim with love, just like it was that day in the hospital, when I was just a scared child looking up to my family for comfort.

While in New York, Stephen and I talked and laughed and shared in the joy of being together. Eleven years of waiting just dissipated. It was no longer important. I didn’t care about the whys. With my brother back in my life, all I could feel was happy.

Stephen and I understand each other. Our connection is deep. I can share absolutely anything and everything with him. Our reunion was cleansing in many ways. Forgiveness healed our hearts. New York marked the start of a new beginning, a new chapter for both of us and for our whole family.

Run Hope was a family project. It wasn’t just about running. It was about gathering together as a singular, powerful force to make a difference in the world. My mother and father came out to see me. My husband and my children. My sister and my brothers. Old friends whom I hadn’t seen in years. Aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, my in-laws, students. All came out to support me. They guided me through the most challenging project of my athletic career. They believed in me. With them by my side, the impossible became possible.

George Eliot once wrote, “What greater thing is there for human souls than to feel that they are joined for life - to be with each other in silent unspeakable memories.” She may well have been talking about family, because there is no deeper, more meaningful connection than the one we have with those closest to us.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Flexible Persistence: Finding New Ways to Reach Your Goal

I recently received a letter from one of my coaching students who dealt with an injury in an optimistic way. He explains in his letter how I inspired him to view his situation in a positive light, providing him with the opportunity to maintain his fitness in other ways than running:

I'm not sure if I ever thanked you for your patience and expertise in dealing with my injury a few months back but thank you. I can appreciate that what I dealt with wasn't serious as far as injuries go but typically in the past, if I encountered an injury (i.e. muscle strain or pull), I would rest (i.e. do almost nothing except rehab exercises), do some rehab (probably not as much as I should) and slowly work my way back to doing what I was doing when the injury occurred (months later I'm only getting back to where I started). However, in working with you it has changed my perception on how to deal with injuries (i.e. I may not be able to do "X" but I can still do "y") and I was able to maintain fitness and not waste months due to inactivity that normally accompanied them. I can honestly say I my fitness would be no where near what it is now if not for you. I realize that an injury while certainly an inconvenience to my goal(s) doesn't need to be an abandonment of those goals it just means I may need to change the path I take to get there. Your current situation (yet another perk of your situation – teaching others by leading from example) was also inspiring as it made me realize things could be much worse and despite your struggles with you foot you still spend each day finding ways to improve yourself and those around you and there's no reason I can't do the same.

I love that line: “I may not be able to do “X” but I can still do “Y.” It is something I have been telling myself since I broke my foot in Texas during Run Hope. We can always do something. We are never absolutely stuck. No impasse is insurmountable. There is always hope.

When I decided to run my tenth and final Badwater Ultramarathon over a year ago, I had no idea that my injury would slow me down to this degree. But, I try to make the best of my circumstances. I can’t run, so I walk. Today I did 2.5 miles and have done 1.5 hours of weights and core work. Progress is slow and steady. I may not be able to run just yet, but I am gaining strength in my foot and legs. I am working on other aspects of fitness, confident that I will be ready for Badwater when race day arrives.

Think about what obstacles are holding you back from achieving your goals? What can you do to overcome those obstacles? What alternative routes can you take to get to where you want to be? Sometimes, all it takes is a little creative thinking. Be persistent, but also learn to be flexible with your plans. Soon, you will reach the gold!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Challenge of Lifetime: Continuing the Selfless Journey of Run Hope

"Give, give, give and when it hurts keep on giving." -Mother Teresa

"Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much." - Helen Keller

Almost one year ago, on April, 19, 2010, I stood in a little park in Morristown, New Jersey, ready to run the first 50 miles of my 2,500 mile journey through America. Many people showed up that day. Old friends. Runners I had coached years ago. The media. A beautiful circus of people! It seemed no matter which way I turned, someone was calling my name or pointing a camera at me or at Sister Marybeth. I was a racehorse ready to run!

"Why are you doing this," an interviewer asked me. For a moment, I was at a loss for words. I couldn't process fast enough all the things I was feeling. I glanced over at Sister Marybeth, dressed in her full black habit. Part of the order of the Religious Teachers Filipini, Sister Marybeth had to wear a black wool tunic and headpiece at all times, even while running. I noted my friend's blue Pearl Izumi running shoes. The Running Nun. I smiled to myself: it felt so good to know that Sister Marybeth was with me, supporting my wholeheartedly. She would be embarking on her own journey, running 20 miles a day. It filled me with resolve and a sense of peace.

"I'm running for orphans all over the world," I told the interviewer. "There are over 64,000 orphans right here in America."

Sister Marybeth taught me the incomparable joy of running for a purpose, running for a reason other than personal gratification. Helping others became the motivating force behind my athletic endeavors; indeed, it became the driving philosophy of my daily life. People run for many different reasons. Some people run to lose weight. Others run for peace of mind. I was running to help the less fortunate. All the money raised during this project would go to two charities: AIDS Orphans Rising and the Dreamchaser Foundation, which also helps orphans all over the world. My focus was on helping children. Everyone, especially children, deserves a life of dignity and grace. A fighting chance.

Immediately, I thought of my own two daughters. Little Annabella and Gabriella. When I envisioned their beautiful faces, I couldn't help but think of the thousands of children out there with no home and no one to look after them, no one to hold them when they got scared, no one to tell them how wonderful they are and how much they are loved. No one who cared. But, I did care. I aimed to provide these children with food, clothing, shelter and educational opportunities. To give hope. That was my mission, pure and simple, deep and true.

One million dollars. That's how much money I wanted to raise. It was an ambitious goal. Several people told me it couldn't be done. But, I had faith. I had thought about it long and hard. I kept turning the number over and over in my mind, feeling its contours like a stone in hand. One million dollars. It seemed so possible. My logic was this: if I got the word out about my project to a million people, and each of those people gave just one dollar, I would reach my goal. Pretty simple. One dollar didn't seem like such an impossible thing to expect of people.

Even today, a full ten months and 22 days later, it seems so possible.

During Run Hope, I learned so much about suffering. My definition of an “orphan” expanded as I educated myself on the socio-political issues surrounding human misery. War. Genocide. Torture. Disease. Poverty. All were of direct concern to our mission. Even beyond those issues, our mission grew to include extending love and kindness to any person in need of help; I wanted to reach out to every man, woman, and child, who is without family or loved ones to care for them; the poor and the homeless, the abused and oppressed, the sick and the dying.

Please do not make the mistake of thinking that these problems are far removed from our own environments. We don’t have to look very far beyond our own hometowns to witness the tragic circumstances so many people endure on a daily basis. If we simply open our eyes, we will see the suffering around us.

On January 18, 2011, my friend and hero, Balei Chinski, passed away after being in a coma for five days following a burst brain aneurysm. She was just sixteen years-old. Balei spent 47 days in ICU and 5 brain operations. In her final days, she was so weak that it was difficult for her to even talk. She would scream out in pain because her head hurt so much.

Her mother, Cheryl, watched her little girl go through operation after operation, hoping things would change for the better. She watched her baby endure so much pain. "I am tired of fighting, but you know I will," Balei assured her mom.

Cheryl lost her job. As a single mother, this was a devastating blow. She spent all her time by her child's hospital bedside. Soon, her and her three other daughters became in danger of losing their home. They had hardly a dollar to their name. Without the help of the community, their situation would have been hopeless. So many people reached out to help, and they provided Cheryl and her daughters with the light of hope in the darkest of times.

My friends, this is the power of love. It is the mission of Run Hope. What I did last year - running 2,500 miles through America - was just the tip of the iceberg. A drop in the bucket. There is so much more to be done. But, I can’t do it alone. I need your help. Together, we can truly affect and make a difference in someone else’s life.

This doesn’t necessarily mean giving money. If we all would just allow compassion to enter our hearts and learn to view the world in a different way, then we can be an example of good will to others. Learning to live selflessly is a lifelong process. We have to start somewhere.

As of today, Sister Marybeth has reported that we have raised close to $700,000 from Run Hope. Everyday, money is coming in. Our hope is that by April 19, 2011 - one year since the start of the run - we will reach one million dollars. We are so close. People all over are doing their part to help. On September 1, 2011, my friend Sandra Powell will continue the Run Hope mission by setting across America to break the women's transcontinental crossing record.

I want to challenge you with something, a project. I will do it, too. Over the next week, you and I will reach out to someone less fortunate. It doesn’t have to be anything huge. One small gesture can mean the world, whether it’s volunteering an hour at a local charity, giving a dollar to a worthy cause, or just making someone’s day a little brighter with a smile and a few kind words. There are a million different ways we can make the world a better place. Let’s start now!

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Road to Recovery: The Journey of Run Hope Continues

On March 3, I went into the hospital to have my cast removed. Tears welled up in my eyes when Dr. Mo Brown got it off my leg. He sawed at the rock-hard fiberglass material until the length of it was split in two. Crack. Instant relief! The cool air rushed in, and I was free. With a loud clank, the molding fell away and onto the table. For the first time in months, I was unrestrained. All at once, my depression seemed to melt away. This was the day I had been waiting for. I wanted to run, jump, skip and play. I had even brought a pair of running shoes with me to leave the hospital in.

“Not so fast,” Dr. Moe said. “We need to keep your foot in a walking boot.”

“For how long,” I choked out.

“Six weeks.”

If I closed my eyes, I could relive the moment as if it were yesterday: the baking heat of a Texas summer, the road beneath my feet. I could hear the friendly chatter of the crowd as they ran with me towards the camper. I could see their smiling faces. I was smiling, too. Then, my foot rolled from under me. The pothole was so tiny. Hard to believe something so small could be so pivotal, so absolutely critical in my journey through America. I ran the rest of the states with a broken foot.

For six months after my run, the doctor had me wear a boot or a cast. I thought my foot would heal with time. I never expected what would come next: on Dec. 27, I had to undergo major surgery. They removed the broken bone and repaired the torn tendons. Without my family and friends by my side, I could not have made it to where I am, right here and now.

After the surgery, the foot had to remain completely non-weight bearing. Life continued. Days trickled by. I sat around feeling sorry for myself. A deep depression overtook me. I watched the world go by and I grew somber. I wanted to run but I couldn’t. The bitter despondency of inactivity took hold of my mind. I went from being in the best shape of my life to being in the worst shape. I felt isolated in my sadness. On top of that, the pain from the surgery was so intense. For about five days afterwards, it took all the strength I could muster to simply get out of bed and face a new day.

For those of you who know me personally, this is very unlike me. I remember when I turned 47 years old and got very depressed, some kind of mid-life crisis. What did I do about it? I gave myself a week. One week to get over it and get going. Being still is just not a habit of mine. Neither is feeling sorry for myself. The moment you stop living is the moment you start dying. I choose to live a vibrant, passionate life full of zeal for taking on new adventures and helping others. However, I do believe that sitting still for those few days was absolutely necessary; it gave me time to listen to God. How often do you take the time to just sit still and listen?

Suddenly, I had a revelation. As I sat there in the hospital, staring at the pieces of my split-open cast and the sutures on my foot, I realized I’d had it all wrong. Ever since I finished the run, I had thought of the journey as being finished. In my mind, the mission was over; Running Hope to America was complete. How wrong I was! It hit me that the journey was not yet done. This – this very moment – was part of it. Everything. The surgery. The cast. The boot. It was all part of a life-changing odyssey, something I had taken on willingly in the service of God and his children.

What was I waiting for? My foot might have been useless, but the rest of me was good to go! Over the days, I got really good with my crutches. My upper-body strength improved every week. I worked out on the arm machine to get my muscles strong and toned. I set little goals for myself: first, I wanted to cover 200 yards on my crutches. Then, I increased the distance by 200 yards every other day until, before I knew it, I was up to 2.8 miles. I remember that day, too. It took me an hour and a half to complete the distance. By the end, I was so exhausted. But, I was also very proud. Having goals is so very important for all of us.

Since then, I have made enormous progress. Badwater is in my future. You heard right: this summer I will be attempting my tenth and final crossing of Death Valley in what has been called “the toughest footrace on the planet.” My excitement knows no bounds. The purpose of this venture will be to raise money for AIDS Orphans Rising and orphans all around the world, big and small, young and old. There are so many orphans right here in America alone!

In the end, it’s all about raising money for children. Every person can make a difference. It’s the reason, I can push on. It’s my strength, my guiding star. It’s what Run Hope was all about. There is no greater joy in life than giving selflessly to others. Right now, I am in a boot, but, soon, the boot will come off and I will continue to run for the cause.

My first walk with the my boot took me a full hour to complete. On the road, I spotted 70 cents. Pennies from Heaven, my friends! Do you know how much joy this seemingly insignificant amount of money brings to my heart? Did you know that just six cents can feed a child in many countries. Think about that. It’s a wonderful cause that I am a part of.

You can be a part of it, too. Together, we can make a difference. This year, my wonderful friend Sandra Powell is going to attempt to break the women’s record for the transcontinental run. Sandra wants to carry the torch and continue to raise money for the children. I ask you to open up your heart to the true joy of giving. Donate today by visiting www.runhope.com.