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.


Anonymous said...

Great interview! Jason has a lot of wisdom and grace. It's refreshing to hear what he has to say.

Anonymous said...

One of my biggest inspirations! Thank you Jason for not being shy on who is your true source of purpose. Keep rockin it sir!

michele said...

His true words are spoken & very well lived through His great purpose! "Never Stop" beliving in all what God has for His people! Keep it going Jason!