Final Thoughts on the Sahara

It has been a week since the Racing the Planet Sahara Race ended and it feels good to be back on U.S. soil with my friends and family.

I have received so many questions over the past week about the race that I wanted to address the most popular:

Question 1: How does running 155 miles across the desert compare to a marathon?

Of course running across the desert was longer and harder but the difference is not as much as you would think.

One of the things that really helps you in the desert is the softness of the terrain you are running on. Almost any runner will tell you that what hurts them the most after a big race is their knees. Running a marathon like NYC is a real beating on them. Mile after mile of broken pavement and rock hard surfaces really takes a toll on your body, especially your joints. The ability to run on softer terrain really helped to minimize damage to my knees throughout the race. Without that pounding, it was much easier to recover from day to day, which helped me to continue on at a similar pace the next day. With my legs in good shape, the only other thing I had to worry about was my cardiovascular fitness which was in pretty good shape thanks to extensive training. But a person who takes a marathon seriously is also going to be in great shape, so the biggest difference was staying mentally engaged for a much longer time period.

Question 2: Were you worried about other runners out there or was it just you vs. the desert?

bennett-3.JPGRacingThePlanet Ltd./ Zandy Mangold

Going into the race, I was ready for a showdown with myself because that’s really what running is about… exceeding your own expectations. But when I finished the first day with a second place finish, it definitely changed my mind set.

From Days 2 thru 4, I found myself not paying much attention to the amazing scenery and vast landscapes around me as I tried to keep up with the leader while simultaneously looking over my shoulder to see where the third place runner was. After making a move to pass the leader on Day 4 and ending up even further behind, I actually was a bit depressed about not being able to pass him.

The night before the long 60 mile run was a tough one. I had given every ounce I had that day to try to push past the leader and I couldn’t pass him, much to his credit. I was bummed out and I knew that if I took that negative attitude into a 60 mile run the next day, it could end up as a disaster. My tentmates must have seen it on my face because they were probably the most supportive group of international comrades I had ever met.

I began to realize that “Holy crap, I am in second place going into the last day of my first ultramarathon… no way am I going to let someone else steal this moment from me.”

From that point on, I changed my mindset completely.

“Screw the standings, I’m going to run tomorrow for myself and for everyone who supported me through this venture. I ‘m going to run my pace, keep my eyes open, enjoy the landscapes around me, enjoy being in the Sahara Desert, and let the chips fall where they may. If I finish in first, great… if I crash and burn halfway through the race and finish last, so be it.”

bennett-2.JPGRacingThePlanet Ltd./ Zandy Mangold

I had my best and most memorable run that day, finishing in 2nd place after 60 miles, 3 minutes off the winner, while sprinting across the finish line and throwing my water bottle as far into the air as I could, circa Jesse Orosco when the Mets won the World Series in 1986.

The experience taught me a lot about life. You can’t worry about what those around you are doing. All you can do is run your own race and give it all you have each day. If you win, great, and if you don’t then so be it. But at least you’ll appreciate the ride and feel content knowing you put in all you had.

Question 3. What in the world do you think about while running 27 hours over 5 days?

A very fair question. To be honest, I was too caught up in the competition of the race to think about much the first few days.

The only thoughts going through my brain were things like, “Crap, the leader is pulling away, should I stay with him or conserve energy? Is that the third place guy right behind me?! Oh, it’s just a large rock that looks like a person.”

Very deep thoughts, I know. But the last day when I truly took everything in, I thought about my amazing family and all of the people that had sent me emails throughout the race, the people who I hadn’t seen in years who had chosen to reach out to me and donate to Sloan-Kettering, and how interesting it was that some bum like me running straight for a long time was inspiring to people.

I think this was one of the reasons that the 60-mile day was so personally satisfying.

It was one of those days where you just say to yourself “Damn, I am one lucky son of a gun… I am running across the Sahara Desert!”

I guess what they say about a “runner’s high” is true because I was in the clouds.

Question 4: Will you ever do something like this again?

Any athlete probably already knows the answer to this.

Throughout the whole race, all I could think about was how crazy the whole damn thing was.

“What the hell am I doing out here? This is so damn hard! I will NEVER do something like this again… EVER.”

And then the race ends, and you feel that sense of accomplishment, that sense of achievement. It runs through your veins like a drug. And you say to yourself, “Wow, I can’t believe how awesome all of that just was.” Then you start looking at websites and realize there is a similar race in Nepal next year, and you start thinking of ways to save money to get in. And then you and six of your tentmates throw seven adventures from all over the world into a hat and the one that wins is a 430-mile Yukon Arctic Ultra across Western Canada, scheduled for 2013.

And then you start getting emails from them about how to train for it. This all happened right after the race. I’m not sure if I am ready for that, or any other ultra for that matter, but I wouldn’t be surprised if I found myself out there competing again in the future.

Since the Sahara Race has ended, I have been asking myself the question why.

Why would I, along with 160 other people, choose to pay a large sum of money to run across the sun-drenched Sahara Desert, where there is no shade to escape to, no shower and toilet to enjoy after, and no solid food to make you feel whole again?

What is it about we crazy humans that make the endurance of pain and suffering and the feeling of accomplishment after such an adrenaline rush?

I was reading an article in the newspaper today that posed a question to ultra-runner Pam Reed, who is a past winner of the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon across Death Valley.

The question was: “Why are people going further and harder and stronger than ever before?”

Her answer really rang true to the question I was posing to myself:

“It makes other things in life seem much more doable. We have so many challenges in our lives with the economy and people losing their jobs and their homes. This is a way of defeating them and breaking the monotony of life,” she said.

And from that it all made sense.

So much of long distance running has absolutely nothing to do with running and has everything to do with breaking down invisible barriers for yourself.

bennett-1.JPGRacingThePlanet Ltd./ Zandy Mangold

If I can run 10 miles, or 20, or 155 miles across a desert, why can’t I do all of those other things I have always dreamed but never felt confident about achieving? You start to realize that there really are no limits to what we each can do. As I get older, the age old adage “Where there’s a will, there’s a way” has never rang truer. There are a number of self realizations that hopefully we all reach at some point in our lives, and one of the most important is the day we realize we can do ANYTHING.

Want to go travel the world? It’s your oyster so make it happen.

Want to go teach chimpanzees English in the forest? Better work on your grammar so you teach them correctly.

Want to dedicate the rest of your life to taking care of your spouse and children? To have both spouse and children is a gift some would die for.

Once we come to this realization, opportunities abound for all of us.

I haven’t made it to this point of realization yet, but I’m trying to challenge myself each day to get closer to that moment where no personal or professional risk is too big. There are so many people that do unbelievable things on a daily basis so reading about the stories of those people is another great way to push your own limits out a little bit further.

Whenever I feel like I am drifting off track, I try to think of life as a movie.

If Hollywood came to me when I was 90 years old and wanted to make a movie of my life, what would I want it to be about? Would I have someone cool like Brad Pitt play me or would the actor look more like ugly soccer star Wayne Rooney, who I have unfortunately been told I look like?

Would the story be something I was proud of?

Each day we add a new page to our own movie and our own life story.

Whenever you feel like you are drifting off track a bit, ask yourself, like I do: “What Will My Story Be?”

— Ryan

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