Thoughts from the Killing Fields

Imagine having your throat slashed by the razor sharp leaves of a tree so you can’t scream as you die.  Imagine that right before you are shot in the head and thrown into a ditch, you look to your left and see your one year old baby girl’s head slammed into a tree, her head exploding with blood and pieces of her brain flying in a million different directions.  And then imagine that your enemies aren’t infidels from another land, but your neighbors, your own people that are doing this to you.

I wish I exaggerated the above paragraph to bring shock value to this story.  Unfortunately, I didn’t.  All of these things happened during the brutal Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, from 1975 until the country was “liberated” by the Vietnamese in 1979.  The infamous leader of the Khmer Rouge was a man who went by the name Pol Pot.  His vision was to create a completely self sufficient agrarian society, one in which the country did not rely on outside influences at all.  Even in the late 1970’s, the world was becoming more intertwined through political struggles and trade agreements.  Needless to say, his ideas weren’t the brightest.  Pol Pot felt that the best way to implement his vision was to eliminate anyone that may oppose it, which meant any person that was involved with a different political party, and even more broadly, anyone who was educated.  You’re a doctor?  See ya.  You used to work for the previous government?  Bye bye.  You wear glasses?!  You must be smart.  See you in the afterlife.  It is estimated that close to 2 million people perished under the rule of the Khmer Rouge.  During this period, Cambodia had a population of approximately 8 million people… that is 25% of the population.  To put this in perspective proportionately, it would be the equivalent of approximately 75 million Americans being brutally murdered by their own people.  Just picture the states of New York, Texas and California being completely empty.

How does a culture come back from such a travesty, you may ask?  The first way is to understand what happened and to make sure it never happens again.  I recently had the chance to spend some time in this fascinating country.  Besides eating fried crickets and snakes and seeing Ankgor Wat and some of the most beautiful deserted beaches in the world, I had the opportunity to visit The Killing Fields and S-21 prison, both of which are located in the country’s capital, Phnom Penh.

S-21 was a school building that was transformed into a prison when the Khmer Rouge took control of the city.  At the height of its activity, about 100 prisoners were killed daily.  The guards would blast loud music throughout the day so people passing by the school wouldn’t hear the screams of those being brutally murdered.   As I roamed the halls of this horrific place, I learned that the people who were in charge of the murders are still on trial and are fighting for their freedom, over 30 years later… a sickening thought.

The Halls of S-21

Upon leaving S-21, I headed over to the “Killing Fields” which are about 9 miles from the city center.  Scanning over this peaceful place, it is hard to imagine that thousands of people died on these hallowed grounds, until you look down and see bones from mass graves that have come to the surface after the most recent rainy season.  In the middle of the fields is a large memorial stupa which holds the skulls of over 8,000 people that perished here.

A sign in the Killing Fields exhibit

After seeing the photos of the victims and hearing the terrible stories, it makes any warm blooded human want to do something to make things better.  The Khmer Rouge reign in Cambodia is over… we can’t change the past.  But what we can do is impact the present and the future.  Unfortunately, there are terrible atrocities happening throughout the world that we, and our government , can help to eliminate.   It is our responsibility first and foremost to be educated about the world around us.  In this ever globalizing world, it is unacceptable and downright irresponsible for Americans to have their standard U.S. centric view.  The economic and political moves that our government makes affect the entire world (See the recent financial crisis), and it is up to us common folk to try to understand the implications of these decisions and use our collective influence to make the world a better place for us, but also for our brothers and sisters throughout the world.

Below are a list of web resources that document current issues and how we can learn more about them:

World without Genocide –  http://worldwithoutgenocide.org/current-conflicts

Half the Sky by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn – http://www.halftheskymovement.org/

SprWord.comhttp://sprword.com/

The CNN Freedom Projecthttp://thecnnfreedomproject.blogs.cnn.com/

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A few hours in Bago, Myanmar

After taking a four hour bus ride from Kinpun to Bago, I linked up with a local guide to see the sights for a few hours before my next bus later that day, 12 hours north to Kalaw.  After agreeing on a price, my guide and I set off on his motorbike to see some unusual sights.  Our first stop was to a reclining Buddha which was 182 feet long… a pretty impressive piece of work.  Throughout our time at the reclining Buddha, my trustworthy guide spoke mostly about either Buddhism or penile enlargement injections that many Burmese men went to Thailand to get, which was an odd combination.  When referring to the male genitalia, he would use the term “banana,” which I found quite amusing.

My trustworthy guide

From the reclining Buddha, he then took me to a monastery which was bombed during WWII… there were still bullet holes through the building!  We then continued on to another monastery, where the Burmese Buddhists worship a 108 year old snake that was the reincarnation of a very holy woman that had lived in the region years ago.  The snake, which was enormous, looked pretty lazy as I barely saw it move while I was there.  But then again, I probably wouldn’t be moving much if I was 108 either.

On our way out of the monastery, my guide turned to me and inquired “Would you like some penis?”  I was a bit taken aback.  “Ummm, excuse me?” I replied.  “Penis, would you like some penis,” he asked again.  Quite an aggressive question to be asking a stranger, I thought to myself.  And in front of a monastery no less!  And why would he change from using the word banana to the more formal vernacular?  “I like women, so no.  But thanks for asking, I guess?”  I don’t think he understood my reply, but when he pulled a bag of peanuts from his bag, I felt quite relieved.  While I was pretty sure what his intentions were at this point, I declined from eating the peanuts, just to be safe.  When I explained to him what he was actually saying, we had quite the chuckle.

From there, we visited a cigarette factory where women from 16 – 60 years of age worked 11 hour days rolling smokes.  It made me realize how good we have it back home, but it also again made me see how hard women work in these “3rd world” countries.  Not to say that men don’t do much, but I consistently notice women working in the fields while men chat and sip tea in coffee shops…just an observation.

After the cigarette factory, we headed on back to his house to meet his family and have some snacks.  While he did this to give me a more “real” idea of how people live in Myanmar, I have the inkling that he really just wanted to show me how poor he was so I would pay him more for the tour.  If he only knew how poor I actually was!  His cunning tactics didn’t work on yours truly, but it was fun getting to meet his beautiful wife and child.

Yours truly and the little guy. Don't think he liked me very much.

Upon finishing lunch, we jumped back on his bike and headed back to the station for my overnight bus.  I advised him again how to offer future clients peanuts and bid him adieu as I jumped on my connecting transportation.  I settled in for the long haul and reflected on the past few hours.  Just another typical Burmese day of seeing gigantic Buddhas, praying to century old snakes and having conversations with the locals about penile enlargement surgery.  Gotta love it.

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Monks, Matchmaking and Manual Labor in Myanmar

Standing in front of Il Ni Malaa, the head monk of a monastery on the outskirts of Yangon, the former capital of Myanmar[1], I felt like I was in a movie.  As our translator controlled the dips and flows of our conversation, we sipped tea and ate bananas and it began to sink in that my chance meeting with a monastery worker had led me to this most unique position.

Il Ni Malaa, his student and I

About 24 hours earlier I had arrived in Myanmar very tired from a long layover in Bangkok.  I found a $5 room in the downtown area, got myself together, and headed out to explore this mysterious country.  What causes this mystery is the relative lack of tourism based on the government’s oppressive regime.  The U.S. and other countries have imposed numerous economic sanctions on Myanmar, and this, along with the government’s tactics, has led to few ways for the Burmese people to interact and learn about the rest of the world.  Besides not knowing anyone personally who has been here, I had not done much research on the country myself so I really had no idea what to expect.

I spent the first day walking around seeing the main sights and pagodas of the city, and the true spirit of the Burmese people came out immediately.  As it got dark, I asked a boy of about 19 for directions to the area in which I was staying.  He pointed in the correct direction and offered to walk me there.  I resisted the offer as I knew it was pretty far but he insisted.  We walked for about ten minutes and as he started to get a better sense of how far it was, he asked a cab driver who was standing idle to give us a lift.  While I would have preferred to walk, he convinced me to get in the cab.  In the cab we chatted and I had the cab driver tell me in broken English that I look like Wayne Rooney (I really can’t shake this association… it’s getting upsetting).  As we approached my hotel, I went to hand the driver money but my companion adamantly refused to let me pay.  After escorting me all the way back to my hotel, he was now paying for the cab and then had to walk another 20 minutes to his home.  I was flabbergasted at his kindness.  He explained to me that while he was traveling in Japan, so many people had gone out of their way to help him that he had to somehow pay the kindness back, and what better way than to help foreign travelers visiting his hometown of Yangon.  I understood him completely, and I will always remember this experience and hope to be able to “pay it forward” to some traveler in my home country one day in the near future.

I started the following day by walking for an hour to see some famous Buddhist shrines.  I hopped into my third and final one for the day and was approached by a kind looking older man who explained the history of the building and the belief system of his religion.  As we continued to converse, he explained to me that he lived in a nearby monastery and would love to show me the grounds.  While I was a little reluctant to follow him through narrow alleyways and unchartered territory, I accepted his offer.  He gave me a quick tour of the area of the monastery, which houses 600 monks.  We eventually entered the main building where I was greeted by a number of monks who smiled and talked to me in a language that I had no chance of deciphering.  I drank some tea and chatted with them through my guide, who spoke English pretty well.  They explained that they were building an addition to the monastery and showed me the blueprints as I took a look out the window to see many people hard at work on the construction.  As I didn’t have plans for the following day, I offered to come help them build, which they happily agreed to.

I hopped on the public bus in the morning with my gameface on, ready to get down and dirty to build the new monastery.  But when I arrived, I realized that my new friends did not have much intention of letting me help them.  I was met by my guide from the previous day, who on the orders of the high monk Il Ni Malaa, immediately whisked me off to see another famous temple.  This took a considerable amount of time, and as we got back to the monastery in the late afternoon, I knew my chances of helping out with the construction were pretty slim.  As soon as I entered, I was notified that Il Ni Malaa wanted to speak with me.  As I headed upstairs and walked towards him, I didn’t know whether to bow, kneel at his feet, or give him a handshake, so I think I did some weird little dance that was a mix of all three.  I sat in front of him as his helpers, all young women in their late teens and early twenties brought me tea, golden bananas (which are slightly different than regular bananas), and peanuts.  We spoke about my experiences in Myanmar, my family life, where he had traveled and the basic tenets of Buddhism.  While we conversed, he mentioned that one of his helpers was single and thought I was handsome, and that maybe I could stay around Yangon for a few extra days to spend time with her.  He said this while she was five feet away from me, which made the both of us blush.  Never in my life did I think I would have a high monk trying to set me up with one of his Burmese helpers!  While she was a very pretty girl, I didn’t really see a future for us, so I explained that I needed to head off to see the rest of Myanmar the following day.  Il Ni Malaa implored me to stay at the monastery on my return to Yangon prior to my flight.  He offered to make me a ring for me to protect me on my travels.  When I return to Yangon I hope to receive it, but have absolutely no idea what to give in return.  Luckily, I have some time to think about it.

My first two days in Myanmar were not what I expected… they were so much more.  The sights have been great, but it’s the people that have made these first two days some of my most memorable out of all of my travels.  I only hope to one day be able to pay back both my friend who escorted me home, and all of the monks and helpers at the monastery who treated me with so much love.


[1] For those who aren’t familiar with the country, Myanmar used to be called Burma, but in 1989 the government changed the name along with the names of many cities that were inspired by the British, as England ruled the country in the early 20th century.

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If You Only Read One of My Blog Posts, Make this the One

Saprinu: 

1) to flourish, thrive

2) to prosper

About a month ago, I headed to a small Nepali village about 5 hours north of Kathmandu to work with a nonprofit called Saprinu.  I was put in touch with the Maryland born founder, Brooke Laura, through the magic of mutual friends on Facebook and was excited when she invited me to come to her village to help plan the school’s end of term picnic and brainstorm ideas on how to grow the organization’s fundraising efforts.

The story of Saprinu started late in 2009, as Brooke had vacation from volunteering in a children’s home in Kathmandu and went trekking to the Langtang region. She became friends with her trekking guide Sudan Bhattarai, who invited her to his home village of Archale.  Their discussions of the importance of quality education for children and the evident lack of it in many rural areas of Nepal inspired the two to take initiative. They decided to establish an English primary school at Sudan’s home village. He donated his own home building to start the school, and Brooke started raising funds for renovation and start-up of the school.  Following the start-up of the school, it was evident that an organization was needed to run the school in a professional way and to raise funding. That is why the NGO Saprinu was first established in the USA. One year later, Saprinu Nepal was established in order to bridge work in the USA and Nepal and to become a legitimate entity in Nepal.

The Masterminds of Saprinu (Brooke and Tiina)

One of the most unique things about the Shining Star School, which is the school that Saprinu runs, is its progressive curriculum.  While most of the government schools, which are poorly funded and rarely attended by students, have a very basic curriculum when the teachers actually show up, Saprinu offers workshops in computers, art and music.  They also plan on implementing vocational training, which is of immense importance to villages like Archale.  One of the problems that small villages like Archale face is what is called “brain drain”.  This is the systematic migration of rural men to the city to look for work.  Not only does this separate families and take hands away from the farms, it also creates an overabundance of workers for a small amount of jobs in Kathmandu.  By teaching vocations that can be applied in their home village, Saprinu plans to keep families together and raise the income of villagers without them leaving for the big city.

A typical home in Archale

Throughout the week, I worked with Saprinu and Sudan to brainstorm ideas on how to create consistent revenue streams that would help support the school on an ongoing basis.  The major project currently on the Saprinu agenda is raising funds, approximately $60,000, to construct a new and proper school building.  Since the current school is also Sudan’s home, it is becoming too small as an additional grade of students is added each year.  The costs are mostly for the land, labor and raw materials.  Raising this amount of money is a difficult task, so it’s really important for the organization to build relationships with local companies and other NGO’s to raise the funds.

Test Day

I set off for the week feeling that I would somehow make a difference in these kid’s lives.  But as the case always seems, I ended up getting a lot more out of the experience than what I gave.  Besides making lifelong friends and spending a week in a rural village in Nepal, which is a life enriching experience on its own, I learned so much from Brooke and her business partner Tiina.  What I admire so much about Brooke is her selflessness… I have never seen anything like it.  From watching her work with the children to creating game plans to raise money, it was always about the organization, and never about her.  She has dedicated herself to the organization and plans to spend the rest of her life living in Nepal and building schools for those in need.  She is the female version of Greg Mortensen (without the scandals).  I feel blessed that I was able to spend a week working with Saprinu, as it definitely gave me a new perspective on what it means to have a life calling, and seeing someone with the fortitude to follow those passions was truly inspiring.

“Ryan, this is such a great story and organization!  How can I help?”  Well, my dear readers, that is a great question and I am glad you asked.  Please visit their website at www.Saprinu.org to learn more about the organization, and if you have the financial means to do so, please donate generously to this most important cause.  And if you don’t have the money but still want to get involved, you can email Brooke at saprinu@gmail.com.  She is always looking for bright people with good ideas.

Writing this blog makes me think I should try to do one selfless act tomorrow, even if it’s small.  Because in the end, they all add up.

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E, Mikey and RB Tackle the Himalayas

Sometime around May, 2011:

Erik: Ry, I have been reading up on this unreal trek in Nepal called the Annapurna circuit.  Supposed to be one of the best in the world.  We can do the majority of it in 12 days.  I’ll take off as much time from work as possible… let’s make this happen!

Me:  Sounds awesome!  I felt fine after the Sahara race last year so doing the 12 day long trek up to almost 18,000 feet shouldn’t be a problem for me after running 150 miles.

Erik: Great!  I’ll speak to my boss and get the time off.  I think Mike may be interested also.  At least that’s what he says.

 Me: Rock and roll, I’m pumped.  You know Mike… he’ll probably book his flight three months from now.

Sometime around August, 2011: Mike books his ticket.  The adventure for the three of us is a go.  Though the fact he didn’t bring his fanny pack was a bit disappointing.

Now to understand the camping and hiking experience of us as a group is to go to a crappy cabin with some other friends two hours north of NYC, get as drunk as possible off of microbrews, and then do a relatively easy 4 hour hike the day afterwards.   Hiking through the Himalayas at altitude was a tad bit more than we were used to.  For me personally, I don’t know what the hell I was thinking when I committed.  How I didn’t think the previous seven days of running would affect me was an example of poor planning and not realizing how much the race would take out of me, both physically and mentally.  When Erik and Mike arrived to meet me in Pokhara, I was extremely weak, gaunt, and looked like hell.  Between losing a ton of weight from the race and the subsequent stomach bug that I caught, I had nothing in the tank.  But if there is anything that gets you back in the mood to trek for 12 days, it’s having two of your best friends show up with that awesome energy that always abounds before a long journey.

The unique thing about this hike is that it’s a “teahouse trek”.  What this means is that it wasn’t necessary to carry food or a tent with us, because the trail was lined with picturesque Nepali villages with plenty of small guesthouses that we could eat and sleep at each night.  This was great because it lowered the weight of our packs a great deal and made the trek a bit easier than it would’ve been had we needed to carry these items.  It also added a cultural aspect to the trek as we came in contact with Nepali’s each day as we traveled through their villages and stayed at their hostels.  The other circumstance that was beneficial to us was the time of year that we did the trek.  The peak season for the Annapurna Circuit is September thru November, but the weather in early December is, while a bit colder, still beautiful, so we figured the trail would be packed with trekkers decked out in all of their North Face gear like we were.  Not the case.  The trails were empty, which made it fun as we hiked for hours on end without seeing anyone else.  It was truly just us, nature, and the indigenous people of the region.

The area we trekked through was called the Annapurna Conservation Area, which has a population of around 100,000 people, spread throughout towns along the trail.  The trail started at an altitude of 2,700 feet and topped out over the summit of Thorung La, which climbs to a gasp inducing 17,886 feet.  What this meant was that we would need to climb over 15,000 feet during the trek, which led to us ascending steep climbs almost every day.  Along with the climbs came some awe inspiring views of 26,000 foot mountains, waterfalls that dropped from the sky, black face monkeys, and flora and fauna that made me take photos of the same thing over and over again.

To start, Erik and Mike kindly gave me an extra day to rest and get my strength back, and took it easy on me the first two days, as I struggled to ascend hills with two trekking poles that SG saved my life by lending me.  The first few days were rough but once we got into a groove, our days had a similar schedule:

7:00 -Wake up in an ice cold hostel.

7:45 – Finally get out of our sleeping bags to brave the cold

8:00 – 8:30 – Get some breakfast, which consisted of bread, jam and toast, eggs or oatmeal.  And then when I got really poor towards the end of the trip, ordering bread with peanut butter and basically eating half of the jar to get energy for the day… highly cost effective!

8:30 – 11:00 – Trek through the Himalayas.  The steep ascents were usually planned for the morning so this is when we labored.

11:00 – 11:30 – A quick tea break to enjoy the scenery and each other’s company

11:30 – 2:00 – Finishing up the rest of our trek for the day as we wandered through old, medieval villages, each with a distinct Buddhist culture of prayer wheels, stupas, and monasteries.

2:00 – Bedtime (Around 8:30) – Find things to do.  Lots of reading, walking around the towns we stayed in, conversing with other travelers, and playing 500 rummy which Erik usually won to Mike’s and my chagrin.  Dinner was always one of the best parts of the day.  Since about 80,000 people do this trek annually, the guesthouses offer a pretty good selection of fried noodles, mo mos (Tibetan style dumplings), potato pancakes, pizzas and fried rice.  There isn’t much meat on the menu so after a few days we started craving chicken and anything else we could get our hands on, including yak meat.

As we started to ascend to higher and higher levels of elevation, the altitude started playing games with our sleep patterns and our pace on the trail.  Walking up a steep ascent at 15,000 feet is a lot different than at 9,000 feet.  We would wake up not feeling very rested and would randomly get headaches, but for the most part, we all handled the altitude extremely well.

We crawled to the top of Thorung La, on one of our last days, a blustery one without a cloud in the sky, and made it to that 17,886 foot mark, exhilarating in the feeling of standing on top of the world (though compared to real mountaineers, we were on a foothill).  We stopped for about 15 minutes and stood there in the cold, looking around and taking in all of the sights of the mountain skyline around us.  I snapped a photo of the three of us, looking cold, tired, but happy as hell.

The Crew at the top of Thorung La

From the top, the rest was a lot of downhill hiking, hot showers, whiskey drinking and countless hours on cramped buses as we tried to make our way back to Pokhara after our flight was canceled due to strong winds.

After getting some big steaks in Pokhara and having a few too many cocktails (and me almost getting violently ill again), we headed back to Kathmandu and I saw them off at the airport.  As I left the airport, I realized that my next few months would be spent on my own or with new people I met on the road while traveling through Southeast Asia.  And it made me realize that what the three of us just experienced was even better than I originally thought.  The epic adventure we had just completed was a once in a lifetime experience.  Trekking through Nepal is something I will never forget.  And in the famous words of Christopher McCandless from “Into the Wild”, “Happiness is only real when shared”.  And when you get to share happiness with two of your best buds from childhood, nothing is better than that.

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The Rollercoaster of Racing the Planet: Nepal

To read my blogs throughout the week of the race, please go to http://www.4deserts.com/blogs/np_comptetior_blog.php?pid=MTQzNw==&blog=116

I’ve had a few weeks since the 155 mile Nepal  race ended to attempt to put some weight back on (I currently weigh 165 pounds and couldn’t beat up a 5th grader), and to analyze the entire experience, from the people I met, to how I performed.  And all I can keep thinking about was how intense the entire experience was and how the Buddhist culture and the race itself taught me another lesson about perseverance and how to handle adversity.

To briefly summarize the race, it traversed the foothills of the Annapurna mountains, which are a part of the Himalaya mountain range, the highest in the world.  Over six days the competitors and I ascended 30,000 feet and descended approximately the same vertical distance.  As you would have guessed, it is difficult to train for this in Rockland County, New York, which is where I spent most of my time before heading to Nepal in early November.   The little bumps that I went over while trail running 25 minutes from the George Washington Bridge were no match for what I encountered in Nepal.  I had a tough Day 1 as I got lost with a few other competitors at the front of the pack, which dearly cost me time behind the leaders.  I had finally mentally recovered from the mishap by the beginning of Day 2 but my body had other ideas.  Within the first ten minutes of the race, I threw up every ounce of nutrition I had consumed over the previous 12 hours.  Apparently, Day 2 would not be my day either.  But to be honest, it’s the day I am most proud of.  I had never struggled in a race like I did on this day.  Ascending a mountain in the first part of the race, I was mentally willing my way forward, but my body had nothing to give.  I felt like I was dancing the robot in slow motion rather than running like an athlete.  After pushing ideas of quitting out of my mind, thoughts I had never experienced in any run, I continually pushed on and had a very strong second half of the race.  Buddha stressed that one’s internal mindset is what determines a person’s satisfaction rather than the external.  Though I felt like death, the only thing that kept me going was my inner resolve and positive attitude.  Crossing the finish line this day and seeing my friends waiting there for me was probably the most emotional I was the entire race.

From there, the race went pretty smoothly for me.  I finished in 3rd on Day 3, 10th on Day 4 and 4th on the Long March, which was 47 miles and 10 hours of pushing through beautiful Nepali villages.  My overall time put me in 6th place for the week, which I was proud of, especially since I was sitting in 22nd place after Day 2.  But as running-centric as these races are, most of the observations and lessons you take from them have little to do with the sport.  Here are some that I took away:

  1.  Always be prepared.  It’s so fun to sit in front of a computer, look at beautiful pictures of Nepal, and glorify what you are getting yourself into.  I did the best training I could with my weird work and travel schedule, but I was in nowhere near the shape I was when I did the Sahara Race a year prior.  With the race being 10 times as hard as that one, my body took a serious toll.  Besides losing 15 pounds of muscle and dropping down to a weight that I hadn’t been since I was 15 years old, the extra emotional energy I had to expend to put out a similar level of performance left me completely mentally and physically drained for at least 7 days after the race, with the first 48 hours being bedridden with a serious ailment, that, while definitely attributable to some sketchy food, was aided by my non-existent immune system at that point.  It was one of the first races I have done where I didn’t feel like I had given it my best shot in training.  When I do another race, I won’t make this same mistake, because I know my health depends on it.
  2. Nepali people are some of the most authentic I have met.  I have now been in Nepal for about 6 weeks and will be posting a few more blogs on the epic experiences I have had here, but it’s important to recognize the kindness and compassion of the Nepali people in this post as well.  From the minute I got off of the plane, almost everyone I encountered was a pleasure to deal with.  While I truly enjoyed my time in India, the people there, most of whom were great, were pretty aggressive to deal with.  I couldn’t believe that a country with such a close proximity to India could have such a distinctly different culture, especially since the religious backgrounds are almost identical.  Running through the villages we were fortunate enough to see was an experience I will never forget.  The serenity one feels while being in such a magical place is unmatched.  Many of the villages are 10,000 feet up, and besides the abundance of cell phones, the daily way of life is the same as it has been for the past 50 years.  Most families cook over a wood fire and are self sufficient with their food.  The families spend their days tending to the fields to grow their crops and feed their families, and that’s it.  Putting food on the table at night is the main task of the day, and the simplicity of a lifestyle like this, one where you sit with your entire family each night to a meal that you created from start to finish with your hands in the dirt, from cultivation to ingestion, is one that is so foreign to most Westerners.  But the practicality of it is so attractive that it’s sometimes hard to think that we have a more fulfilling life in the “wealthy west”.
  3. Come for the people, stay for the running.  In some weird way, running the Sahara Race in October, 2010 changed my life to a certain degree.  Before heading to Egypt, I had moved to Jersey City the previous January and was living with two amazing roommates while I saved up money as thoughts of traveling the world occupied my dream waves.  But as the months rolled on, I continually questioned whether it was the right decision to resign from a job that I truly enjoyed, in a terrible global economy, to go travel like Peter Pan.  I was 28 years old… this was the time to take on more responsibility!  Then I did the race.  And I met the most interesting people who all had their own unique stories and who were all successful.  And I don’t mean successful in the financial sense.  I have no idea how much money any of them make.  But they all seemed to have the common thread of following what they were passionate about.  And that’s success in my eyes. Another common thread that I realized was that, just from signing up to complete the race, which is never guaranteed, many of these people were not afraid to take chances and fail.  And that is usually when good things happen, and when people personally grow the most.   As I continued to meet these people, the one thing I realized was that I didn’t feel like I was that different than them.  That if they could take some chances and pursue their passions, why couldn’t I?  In some weird, indirect way, these people made me expect more of myself… made me believe that I was capable of more.  And this race was no different.  So many different nationalities, stories and personalities, and so much compassion and love for each other. 

After standing on this soapbox bullet point of raising my own expectations of myself, it’s time to jump off.  Since Sahara I haven’t done anything to live up to these newfound personal expectations besides travel around like a nomad.  I can write about increased expectations all I want but until I back it up its all talk.  But in some roundabout way, I have never been so excited about finding the unique way I will contribute to this world.  And to a certain degree, I have these races and the people to thank.

So will I ever do another race?  As I crossed the finish line on the long day after ten hours of running, I swore to never run again.  That was an obvious lie.  I’ll probably end up at another race somewhere down the road.  And when I do, I plan to use the lessons I learned from this one to make the most of it, and to find inspiration in the amazing people lined up on each side of me when the starting gun goes off.

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Hoping the Mystical Magic of Nepal Rubs off on My Legs

After a whirlwind year of traveling around the world, getting sick on numerous continents and meeting some odd, unique, and adventurous people in between, I find myself in Pokhara, Nepal, getting ready to attempt my most difficult physical challenge to date: a 155 mile ultramarathon through the foothills of the Himalaya mountain range.

One of the first questions people ask when my friends Samantha Gash, Jim Serpless and I tell them about the race is why we are doing such an endeavor.  And while most of our answers are based around the physical and mental challenge of the race, and the unique culture it affords us to see, inside I think we are all interested in meeting the other “crazy” people that do these races.  From my experience in the Sahara Desert in 2010, I have so many unique friends from all over the world, some who now play an integral part of my daily life.  And to think what my life would still be like if I didn’t take that chance and do the Sahara Race! I would probably still be employed and much wealthier than I am now, but for some reason the future seems brighter now than it ever has before, and I have races like these to thank for changing my thoughts on the power we all have to control our own destinies and accomplish what we are truly passionate about.

What makes this race so difficult is the elevation gain, and even more so, the elevation drops.  Going down a steep staircase for 2 hours straight can do some serious damage to my legs, so I am hoping that I don’t fall apart halfway through the race.  Besides that, my awkward training schedule throughout the year has left me a bit anxious, especially since I did well in my first race placing second.  But I can’t wait until that countdown begins to the first gun and I can look over at my friends, each with our big smiles on, and be excited for the adventure that lay ahead.

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