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Posts tagged “Racing the Planet

Joys of a Journey that Never Ends

“We should all do what, in the long run, gives us joy, even if it is only picking grapes or sorting the laundry.”

E.B. White

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Me, greeting and embracing my wife, Edna, at the finish line of Racing the Planet’s 2016 250k Sahara Race (Namibia)

You won’t be able to do that forever, you know.

You’ll ruin your knees.

You’re too skinny.

I’ve heard it all before. Keep running like you do and you’ll be sorry.

WRONG.

I’ll be ecstatic! And guess what… I am!

Before I found running I was an overweight, depressed young man with little to look forward to. I was wandering the earth (from my couch) lost, disconnected socially, struggling to define myself.

Getting off my ass saved my life and sent me on a journey that has taken me all over the globe. It led me to start my own successful business. It’s how I found my wife.

You won’t be able to do that forever, you know.

You’ll ruin your knees.

You’re too skinny.

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Um… no.

I started this blog 5 years ago knowing on I was on the cusp of something special. The changes that were taking place in my body and in my mind were beyond positive. I was excited to wake up every morning, to see what great things I could do in my community, to see where the boundaries of limitations might be on any given day, only to push them back a bit further and transform into a better version of myself. I wanted to share my journey. I wanted to inspire others.

Though my posting frequency has dropped off a bit this year, I am happy to report that the journey is alive and well. In May, I accompanied my (now) wife, Edna Jackeline Vazquez, to Namibia as she raced another 250k across the desert. I tagged along as a race volunteer, much like I did last year in China, and once again, I was extremely impressed with the amount of love, strength and fortitude the ultrarunning community provides. The amount of individual accomplishments witnessed in just one of these 7-day stage races is enough to fill a lifetime. I have now been lucky enough to volunteer at two of them; and I must say I am now eager (and mentally prepared) to compete myself, someday soon. Meanwhile, my wife only has one more race to go, The Last Desert: Antarctica, before she becomes a member of the ultrarunning elite 4 Deserts club.

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In June, with just one hour and two minutes to spare before the 32-hour cutoff, I crossed the finish line of the Mohican Trail 100, arms raised, legs shot, brain fried. It was a grueling, soul crushing challenge that I never gave up on, despite not being in the best mental space. A full report is certainly in order, but the short version is that I had to adapt from the original race plan and dig deep to finish all on my own, without a pacer, fighting an overwhelming desire to sleep and the urge to quit entirely.

I also sat in a hot tub in my hotel after the race which deserves a report of its own. I highly recommend.

Jeff Lung Mohican 100 2016

In July, I got married! I married my ultimate pacer for life, Edna, whom I met through… yep, RUNNING… thus completing (and also starting anew) the continued life-as-an-ultramarathon metaphor. It was a glorious day filled with love, joy and Michael Jackson dance moves. Te amo, mi amor!

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My business continues to make a difference in the lives of those looking for change. I am thankful to be witness every day to life altering hard work and dedication. Losing weight, getting stronger, being the best versions of themselves possible — my students continue to impress with their willingness to explore their limits on the paths of their own journeys. A young boxer I work with, Alex “The Bull” Garcia, is the epitome of such hard work and dedication. He comes to work hard every day, striving to be the best he can be, knowing that sport can be the door to an open mind and a brighter future.

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In Alex Garcia’s corner of his most recent match which he dominated and won.

My own boxing career continues as well as I prepare for an October 1 bout in Libertyville (more details to come). Meanwhile, Edna and I are planning to make a reappearance at the Evergreen Lake Ultra (51 Miles), a race we thoroughly enjoyed back in 2014, as well as run the 2016 Chicago Marathon, together. The latter will be the ultimate combination of my favorite race meets my favorite person. We plan to run side by side the whole way.

I look forward to celebrating in the streets!

So to my fellow run crazies, the next time someone says to you:

You won’t be able to do that forever, you know.

You’ll ruin your knees.

You’re too skinny.

Just remember:

It saved my life.

It brought me my wife.

It gave me a reason to get up and be the best version of myself possible, each and every day.

jeff and edna wedding selfie

 

 

 

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I’m Still Ruuuunnnniiiing!

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I never stopped running. I never will. It’s who I am.

Since my last adventure recall back in September, life jumped down my throat, taking wild swings and unforeseen chops — testing me in every way like an ultra eats at you, mile by mile, aid station by aid station, poisoning you with thoughts of quitting, thoughts of defeat. It was tough. No question. But I didn’t give up. I put my head down and kept pounding pavement. I laughed. I cried. I fought.

Considering the severity of issues I faced, I found great difficulty in committing my thoughts to a public realm. The time wasn’t right. I needed separation. I needed solace.

I needed space.

But I never stopped running.

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(Edna, Melvin and I, minutes before the bell rings)

I never will. It’s who I am.

November was a “rest” month. I took it easy, but shook my legs out regularly.

December was much the same, though I admit, these days I much fancy an hour long treadmill slog over a slick 20 degree bone chiller.

Like last year, January began my boxing training in earnest. I ran regularly (4-5 days a week) to stay conditioned, but much of my training focused on sport specific drills, including sparring. At the same time, my business, Iron Lung Fitness, doubled in size, leading to a heavier teaching load, including four aerobics classes each week that I led like Richard Simmons on Red Bull (still do! check them out!).

February introduced me to Alex Garcia, a local talent with big boxing ambitions. I took him under my wing and we went to war and had a great showing in March. I am very proud of him and look forward to his bright future.

(Alex "The Bull" Garcia)

(Alex “The Bull” Garcia)

And just last night, I followed up my 2015 Chicago Golden Gloves Championship with a trip to the 2016 Semi-Finals. The decision didn’t go my way, but I gave it my all and learned a whole lot about myself along the way, including the fact that I will be back in the ring sooner than later.

BOOM!

Self discovery = Putting myself in extreme situations that measure the size of my heart, mental strength and ability to adapt.

Getting in the ring and committing to combat… running a balls-out-marathon… covering 100 miles on my own two tired feet.

This is not the life everyone would choose. But it’s the only one I know.

I’ll never stop running.

It’s who I am.

(Working the mitts with the best partner one could ask for)

(Working the mitts with the best partner one could ask for)

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(Part of the Iron Lung team)

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(Me, Edna and Papá Arturo)

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***

NEXT UP…

My lovely fiancee, Edna Jackeline Vazquez, is training for Racing the Planet’s 250k race across the Namibian Desert and I’m going with her! Like I did in the Gobi last year, I am tagging along to work as a race volunteer and assure she doesn’t get homesick after 7 days of sand-trekking without a shower. It begins May 1st and I can hardly wait for all the adventure to come!

When we return, we will have just enough time to rest before running the Mohican 100, June 18-19. This is Edna’s birthday weekend and I promised her two belt buckles as a gift, even though it will most certainly require a bit of crying, pain and suffering. HAPPY MUTHAFUCKIN BIRTHDAY!!!

Mohican is a beast and we both know it.

Oh well. Bring it on, Mohican!

And after that? Who knows… maybe the Chicago Marathon if I can get in. Maybe some more local trail races. A real non-working vacation would be nice. And I imagine another fight or two or three will be on the schedule.

One thing is for sure in the Lung-Vazquez household: we don’t take no easy roads.

Hands up.

Chin down.

Go to work.


“Chicago Athlete Conquers the Gobi Desert in China” by Alejandro Yanún

This article, by Alejandro Yanún, was originally published on June 12, 2015 in the Spanish language publication “Vívelo Hoy”.

Translation by Jeffery Lung

Atleta-Edna Jackeline VazquezEdna Jackeline Vazquez is used to adapting to circumstances and meeting new challenges. For this reason, when she was informed back in March that the ultramarathon of the Sahara Desert in Jordan was going to be canceled due to political problems, she quickly changed her chip to focus on a new goal: a 250 kilometer, 7 day race in the stunning Gobi Desert of northern China.

“The ISIS guerillas entered Jordan and the race organizers sent us an email informing us that the race would be canceled over concerns of terrorism, just a week before flying there. I had to totally retrain because in Jordan I would have been facing pure sand dunes while the Gobi Desert, in China, is the windiest desert with more rocky terrain, which would be faster but painful for the feet,” says Vazquez, who has been based in Chicago for several years.

The change worked to perfection because Vazquez, 34 years old with a degree in human resources and a masters in business, won her category for women aged 30 to 39, finishing fourth overall female in the competition and 26th among the entire field of 164 athletes.

To get an idea of the dimensions of the race, running 250 kilometers in the Gobi would be equivalent to running from Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico (Vazquez’s hometown) to McAllen, Texas, after crossing the border into the United States.

It should also be added, that among the difficulties presented by the actual competition itself, there is also the immediate change to the ‘biological clock’ for the athletes with a 14 hour time difference from China, as well as confronting an inflexible natural climate.

During the competition Vazquez also had to face extreme conditions, from temperatures as low as 5 degrees Celsius and snow storms that began the race up to temperatures of 47 Celsius (120 Farenheit). “The hardest moment was crossing the canyons,” she remembers. “You already get there tired and anything you touch on the ground causes you to lose your balance; in this moment the only thing you want is to leave that place.”

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Edna Vazquez among many male competitors of the race.

There, in those subhuman conditions, is when the blood of a champion surges. For Vazquez, this quality is the result of a constant daily practice. “All of us desire to come here to America for the American dream,” says Vazquez, who believes that society forgets their ultimate goals while being entertained by momentary gratification. “The main thing is to let go of the economic issues and things that give instant pleasure in favor of developing other skills. The final goal is to have passion and be persistent. The thing that has helped me most is being dedicated, working hard and being persistent.

Vazquez’s consecration in China was not coincidental, but rather the result of a great team. The Monterrey native had a base strength program developed by Jeff Lung of Iron Lung Fitness, with a desert ultramarathon training plan developed by Nahila Hernandez. It also included a swimming program for muscular recovery, a yoga practice taught by the instructors at Tejas Yoga which also helped complement her concentration with muscle and mental relaxation, and the medical advice of Dr. Victor Garza Hernandez.

A stop along the way to share experiences with athletes from 40 nations.

A stop along the way to share experiences with athletes from 40 nations.

Elite Group

The China competition is part of the Racing the Planet series, a circuit of elite ultramarathons for a limited group of athletes who could very well be considered some of the best prepared in the world. “We are an elite group and we can say that we are involved in one of the Top 10 most demanding competitions in the world,” explains Vazquez.

For the Gobi race, Vazquez flew to Beijing, the capital of China, then went on to Urumuqi and finally arrived at the small town of Hami, in northwest China, close to Mongolia, where Genghis Khan ran with his wild hordes 800 years ago.

In these arid and indomitable lands Vazquez arrived at the end of May to compete with ultramarathoners from 40 countries and all continents.

Vazquez ran with a backpack full of food that weighed 11 kilograms at the start but dwindled down to just 5 kilos at the end. In her backpack the Monterrey native carried dehydrated foods like precooked and compact lasagna and chicken with rice and noodles, to cover the necessary 1900 daily calories.

After completing ultramarathons of 100k in Spain, Belgium and Taiwan, as well as 250k in the Atacama Desert of Chile, considered the driest place on the planet, Vazquez focuses her attention on the next goal, the ultras of Namibia (Africa) in May of next year and Antarctica in November of 2016.

And facing new goals is her specialty. “When you think you have arrived at one goal, another is going to come, and later another. The the extent that you discover your abilities, you are going to discover more,” says Vazquez.

“I believe that we all have the capacity to develop our abilities and sport is one element that helps us face life and believe in ourselves,” she argues safely. “The important thing is to have passion for what you do and focus on your dreams.”

Edna competed with both the USA and Mexican flags on her uniform.

Edna competed with both the USA and Mexican flags on her uniform.

Edna Jackeline Vázquez

Mexican Ultramarathoner Living in Chicago

Website: www.ednajackeline.com

International Circuit: www.racingtheplanet.com and www.4deserts.com

 

 


In the Wake of Heroes: Volunteering at Racing the Planet’s 2015 Gobi March

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When Edna and I boarded a Beijing-bound plane from Chicago, neither one of us really knew what I should expect. For her part, Edna was pretty clear: run 250k over 7 days across the Gobi Desert, carrying all her own gear and supplies for the journey. Having successfully completed the Atacama Crossing in 2013, she knew exactly what type of pain and suffering lie ahead. The only question mark was the terrain.

For me, as a volunteer making his first Racing the Planet appearance, I didn’t really have any idea what I would be doing. I speak Chinese, so I figured I might be doing some of that. I know my way around an aid-station, so I assumed I would be handing out lots of water. Somehow climbing a sand dune in a snowstorm didn’t make it onto my pre-race assumption list. Nor did fraternizing with a precocious camel, busting balls with the Xinjiang locals over fruit and tea or making instant friends the world over. Had I known about any of the above, I would have joined the Racing the Planet ranks a long time ago.

Getting There

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It was a long journey. A very, very, long journey. We left our Chicago apartment around noon on May 24th; 38 hours and 50 minutes later we were finally collapsing on our hotel bed in Hami, Xinjiang, China. The trip included a 14-hour direct flight to Beijing, a 4-hour+ flight to Urumuqi, a not-so-welcoming stay in the Urumuqi airport (we arrived around 1am and were kicked out onto the street where we slept in our sleeping bags), an adventurous death-ride to the Urumuqi train station where we eventually endured three separate yet equally vigorous shouting matches with Chinese security officials about our possession of multi-tools before waiting in line for 90 minutes to buy train tickets for a train we just barely boarded in time, for yet another 3-hour trip to our final destination: Hami.

 

Hami, China (in red), part of the province of Xinjiang (in peach).

Hami, China (in red), part of the northwest province of Xinjiang (in peach).

Sleeping outside the Urumuqi airport to the tune of round-the-clock Chinese construction will always be a fond memory.

Sleeping outside the Urumuqi airport to the tune of round-the-clock Chinese construction will always be a fond memory.

Rest

We arrived on Tuesday the 26th in the afternoon sometime. We checked in our hotel, ate and then went right to sleep. We woke up on Wednesday, went to eat and came back to our hotel, to sleep. Again. We woke up around 5 o’clock on Wednesday evening, went to eat, went for a walk, then went to sleep. AGAIN.

Our bodies were confused. So we slept a lot. And it paid off, because we woke up on Thursday and everything was back to normal.

Training

I spent the entirety of that Friday learning the ins and outs of volunteer protocol for the 4 Deserts race series. Always the nerdy student, I sat right up front and soaked up all the information given (there was a lot). Feeling confident that I’d retained at least 75% of the training, I also enjoyed getting to know my fellow volunteers. We were from the US, China, Singapore, New Zealand, Norway, Hong Kong, India, the UK, Australia, South Africa and Canada. Our dear leader, Tony, was a lighthearted yet focused Englishman from Manchester who peppered his instruction with well timed humor.

At the end of the training, I realized that volunteering would be more work than competing. At least as a competitor one would be able to rest after doing his job. For the volunteers, our days would begin around 4:30 am and end around 10:30 pm, though I imagined we would have less blisters and skin maceration, so that was a plus. Knowing just how much time we would be spending together seemed to motivate us to get to know and befriend one another rather quickly.

Want instant friends? Gallivant in the remote desert for a week without bathing!

Makes sense.

Checking In… And We’re Off!

On Saturday morning and afternoon, I spent most of my time checking competitors’ mandatory equipment. This would be my first major duty of the contest, one that would also give me the opportunity to meet many individuals with whom I would come to call my friends after the event. Among them were a host of Chinese, a trio of Belgians, a pair of Spaniards and an American from my own Chicagoland backyard. What a small world!

This early post also helped me prepare my language palate for the days to come. In a matter of a few hours I found myself comfortably switching between English, Mandarin Chinese and Spanish, something that I would be doing non-stop the rest of the week.

The buzz around the check-in was global in nature. Surrounding me were people from 40 different countries and various cultural backgrounds. I was in my element. Soaking it in.

Of course, I took my checking mandatory equipment job very seriously. Race officials require each competitor to carry a list of essential survival items. In the middle of nowhere, anything is possible, so making sure each individual was prepared to deal with whatever might come her way was paramount. I didn’t have any major issues. Everyone I checked-in was well prepared. I marveled at how small some competitors’ items came, while others’ did not. The difference between an 11 kilogram pack and a 9 kilogram pack might not seem that much at first glance, but when you consider hauling that pack for 250k through a dastardly rugged landscape, a 2 kilo difference suddenly takes on greater significance.

Edna’s pack was around 11 kilos. I tried not to worry about her small frame handling the weight across the desert. After all, I thought, she is coming in to this extremely well trained (I helped train her!).

After everyone’s equipment was checked and okayed, the 163 competitors gathered themselves onto an army of buses while I and a few other Chinese speaking volunteers tattooed 4×4 jeeps with sponsor decals alongside our new friends, a fleet of Chinese local drivers.

I carefully chose car #8 to be my transport vehicle as all cars and buses, full of staff, volunteers and competitors made their way out of Hami and into the middle of nowhere, bound for camp before Stage 1.

When we arrived at camp, located in a lush, green valley at 2400 meters of altitude, the air was as chilly as the wind was brisk. We were greeted by a lovely sight of local foods, music and dress while the buzz of pre-race jitters filled multilingual conversations in every direction.

After a volunteer meeting where I found out I would be working Checkpoint 3 the next day, I found Edna, wrapped her up in my arms and gave her a long hug before wishing her good luck and good night.

Stage 1 – 34.4k

Sleep? I didn’t get much. The winds whipped through our tent all night. It was cold. And it rained.

Weather is fickle in the mountains, especially here. One minute the winds spear rain sideways, the next minute it’s clear and sunny.

We would have a little bit of both, and everything in between the rest of the day.

After a 6:00 am briefing, the volunteers and staff scattered off by 4×4 to our respective posts. Checkpoint 3 was located beside the sand dune of Barkhol — a seemingly displaced sand dune that towered above and alongside a happy little mountain valley.

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Dr. Ethan is coooooooold.

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The sand dune of Barkhol.

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Entrance to Checkpoint 3.

We arrived and set up our checkpoint in good time. The air was a bit chilled and there was a steady wind zipping through, but all seemed tolerable… until, of course, it was not. Out of nowhere came violent, sand whipping winds that uplifted our tents, forcing all hands on deck to scurry towards anchoring our infrastructure. The temperature soon dropped, and with it came a torrent of icy, chilled rain.

It rained.

And it rained.

And it rained.

Then it snowed.

SNOW!!!

You haven’t seen the truly bizarre until you’ve seen a sand dune covered in snow. I saw most of it from inside the jeep, where I had the heat cranked so I could feel my fingers as I reigned over the most important part of any checkpoint: keeping the book.

My duty was to record every competitor’s name, number and time as they came through our checkpoint. The difference between being accurate and being lackadaisical is a full-fledged wilderness search team and lots of heartburn, so I put my anal retentiveness to work, making sure to get everything right.

It was quite the chaotic day to test such retentiveness. With visibility poor and extremities constantly numb and/or frozen, our entire team was challenged to match the toughness of the competitors, most of whom probably did not expect to traipse through snow and freezing rain on their first day in the Gobi Desert. Hypothermia effected several. Pure insanity effected others.

But at the end of Stage 1, everyone found him/herself back at camp in one piece.

Our camp before Stage 2 was a quaint Yurt Village, surrounded in every direction by green. Upon arrival, my body throbbed with exhaustion. The extreme weather of the first day combined with little sleep zapped by body of any energy it might have had left. All I wanted to do was sleep.

But I couldn’t do so without finding Edna.

I went looking for her, and when I finally found her, we both couldn’t wait to tell one another about our day’s adventure.

Stage 2 – 40k

For the second stage, I was assigned as “sweeper”, which meant I got to wear a sweet pink kit over my gear while going along for a 40k hike at the back of the race.

And oh yeah, I got to carry a 12 kilogram pack and dress for a temperature range between very cold and I-have-way-too-many-layers-on. Still, like Edna, I was all smiles.

Ready to SWEEP!

Ready to SWEEP!

This was my first chance to see the entire course of a Racing the Planet stage and wow, did I have a good view! I made the trek alongside fellow American volunteer, Liz, whose husband was also competing in the race. Together with a Kazakh, a camel and a horse, the five of us would start off in the mountains, up a steep, snow-covered 574 meter climb, then descend over 1000 meters through a rocky mountain valley, into the barren desert towards Camp 3.

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A Kazakh, a camel and a horse, making the ascent… in snow.

Liz, holding a baby sheep that a local shepherd handed us (and tried to sell us).

Liz, holding a baby sheep that a local shepherd handed us (and tried to sell us).

Having to stay just behind and in sight of the last competitors in the race, while also picking up all the course markings throughout, it was a very long yet uniquely gorgeous 12ish hour day.

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Just before hitting the top of the climb.

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View from the top.

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Buddhist-temple-on-top-of-a-mountain-selfie

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What kind of a desert is this?

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Making the descent, with some competitors in tow.

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The camel and I bonded. Believe that.

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Rocky landscape.

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A herd of mountain goats. I asked our Kazakh guide what they taste like and he replied “Wonderful!”

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Now THIS is the desert we’ve been looking for.

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After a day of extremes, Liz and I posed, sunburned, just outside of camp.

At the end of a hard day, Azaki the Kazakh-Chinese guide rests to take some water with me. He was a stud, hiking and climbing a marathon a day just like the competitors. He never complained.

At the end of a hard day, Azaki, the Kazakh-Chinese guide, rests to take some water with me. He was a stud, hiking and climbing a marathon a day just like the competitors. He never complained.

When we arrived at camp, a small village in the foothills of Tian Shan, I found Edna and caught up with her about her day. She was tired yet full of elation. She was in her element, pushing her body to the limit in a picturesque surrounding, and I was there to see her. Our love was growing, even though we spent most of the day apart.

That night, in the village where we stayed, the locals made a deliciously spicy noodle dish that I devoured; I even went back for seconds! Later, we volunteers gathered for our nightly briefing and there I learned I would have what seemed like an easier post for Stage 3 (yeah, right!). My job would be to stay at camp and do whatever odd jobs might be necessary in maintaining the finish line and overall well-being of the competitors as they came in.

Little did I know it would be yet another day of extremes.

Stage 3 – 42.7k

We volunteers were up again at 4:30 am, adding water to our dehydrated meal bags while sipping instant coffee from plastic bottles. Since my day would be a little less labor intensive, I was able to take my time getting myself together. Once the checkpoint crews left around 6:00, I had some time to wander around the village, chatting with locals, competitors and of course, Edna.

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Start line for Stage 3.

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Pre-race selfie with Racing the Planet founder, Mary Gadams.

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One of the locals, taking it all in.

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A camel’s gotta rest too.

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Edna and I on the morning of Stage 3.

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Edna prepping her gaiters and her pack.

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“Yee! I love running all day, every day!”

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A little pre-race breakfast in the common area.

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And they’re off! Edna, as always, is all smiles, despite already having 117k in her legs.

After all the competitors left the village, the remaining volunteers and staff hurried about tidying up the village before departing for Camp 4.

When we got to Camp 4, a small plateau at the foot of a mountain, it was quite chilly, and the chilliness was only exacerbated by… THE RAIN.

It rained. And rained.

And rained.

A lot.

UGGGGGGGH!

But we had to get the camp together so we bustled about, the best we could, frozen digits and all.

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Getting Camp 4 and the finish line in order before the first competitors arrive. Brrr!

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This grunting man here is Mark. He’s a nice chap. English. He has a funny accent, but is a really swell guy. And he could move cases of water like a boss.

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Camp 4, soaked to the bone.

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Despite operating through a frozen tundra all afternoon, I managed to get my hands to work long enough to snap this awesome picture of Edna coming through the finish line with her trademark smile.

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Good company was all it took to keep my mind off the physical discomforts of roughing it in the mountains and deserts of Gobi. Mr. Wang seemed to agree.

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Everyone got up on their feet to cheer in the very last competitor of the day. This was a special sight. All who participate — men and women of all ages, sizes and backgrounds lugging 20-some pounds across 250k of rugged terrain for a week — are heroes to me.

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The end of Stage 3 was tough for Edna. She came across the finish line smiling, but because of the long day of cold rain, she was struck with hypothermia when she got back to her tent. It took a good hour for her to stop shaking. Her tent-mates encouraged her to strip down and snuggle up in her sleeping bag with bottles full of hot water. Eventually she was able to regulate her body temperature, calm down and eat a good, hot meal.

She then burned her socks over a camp fire, trying to dry them.

Seems like those are the types of breaks that are common in events like these. But it would take a whole lot more than some burned socks to erase Edna’s smile.

Despite the cold and the rain, I went to sleep a little better than the previous nights. I imagine this had something to do with being exhausted. Volunteering was a lot of hard work, with a lot of time on my feet, having to be actively engaged with my surroundings. I couldn’t wait to rest my eyes.

Besides, they told us we were going to the desert the next day — the real, HOT desert.

Stage 4 -42k

Another 4:30 am wake-up call and finally, the pre-dawn rising didn’t seem so abnormal. I quickly fell into my regular routine of coffee, breakfast and preparing my mind for another long day.

My post was Checkpoint 1, and once we had it set up next to a remote camel watering hole, I was assigned the task of roving back and forth along the course to check up on competitors coming from the start line.

It was only a 9.5k jaunt from the start to Checkpoint 1, but it included a steady bout of numbing cold, misty rain and whipping wind as the competitors made their way out of the mountains and into the more traditional, black Gobi desert. With the snow capped range at their backs, each competitor approached Checkpoint 1 with the ability to see off in the distance for miles and miles.

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The cold, wet weather system clung to the mountain.

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Stage 4, Checkpoint 1.

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That moment when angels sing…

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Edna as she makes her way out of the mountain and onto the black Gobi.

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Would you take a look at that! All that pain and suffering the competitors were going through seemed worth it for that view.

All of the competitors were through the first checkpoint by late morning, so we tore down the station and headed off towards Camp 5. Along the way we had to make a stop to check on a roving vehicle that had a competitor sequestered due to health reasons. As we stood along the silence of the road, overlooking vast desert where little found life, this medical stop was a humbling reminder of just how serious this event could be. Each competitor was taking a risk by stepping off into the distance; 250k through remote landscapes and weather extremes is no joke.

Eventually, the competitor was taken to the hospital (he made a full and healthy recovery) and the rest of us ventured to camp.

Camp 5 was an old clay village leftover from what looked like 50s era occupational China. Having never seen anything like it, I was marveling at the interesting architecture as I quickly stripped out of my cold weather clothes (it was now about 85 degrees and sunny) and in the combined excitement I totally missed Edna crossing the finish line.

Once I did catch up to her though, she was smiling her trademark grin. She couldn’t stop talking about how wonderful it was to be somewhere hot (words she would regret later).

She was right though. After several days of being cold and wet, the heat felt fantastic.

Adding to this wave of pleasure was the fact that Edna was right near the top of the competition among women. Having been in the top three since day one, she was still there going into the next day’s Long March (80.4k), her signature distance. I encouraged her to eat, get some rest and put her feet up before the long day.

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Edna and I enjoying the sun after completing Stage 4.

Meanwhile, I got a chance to eat before being sent back out on the course in a roving vehicle. The temperature was rising and the competitors who were still out there were suffering considerably. My Chinese driver and I parked a couple of kilometers from the stage finish line, in a tiny village. There we hung out with two local policeman and four PLA soldiers curious about the goings on.

They fed me fresh fruit, bread and tea over introspective conversation (“why are they running this far again?” seemed to be a recurring question) while simultaneously topping off water bottles for the competitors, encouraging them to finish strong to the end.

After a couple of hours, I too, could feel the restlessness settle in. We were called back to camp where I banged on the drum at the finish line for a couple of hours before eating a hot meal and attending the nightly volunteer meeting.

The next day was the Long March and I would be all over the place. I did my best to get to bed early; unfortunately, that meant drifting off around midnight…

Stage 5 – The Long March – 80.4k

…and a wake-up at 4:30 am. It would have been easy to complain, but considering the barrage of blistery feet and dehydration zombie’ing around camp, I managed to keep my mouth shut.

My duties for the day would be to set up Checkpoint 2, work it until close, then sweep with Liz again through Checkpoint 4 (a total hike of 18.6k) before seeing what would happen next. I was told to be ready for anything. I was, including baking in the 120 degree sun for hours on end.

Since this day would cover over 80 kilometers of terrain, the checkpoint teams were a little spread out. Liz and I were assigned to help Dr. Avi at Checkpoint 2 and once we arrived at our location — a desolate wasteland where one could see for miles — we wasted no time getting set up.

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Dr. Avi and Liz, baked by the sun, ready to serve.

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Stage 5, Checkpoint 2.

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We posted this flag on a high outcropping so the competitors could see us from a distance. It was reported to us that it could be seen for an uncomfortably long time before being reached. This probably had something to do with the 120 degree heat and zero shade.

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No one here but us.

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After posting up on the rock with some binoculars for quite a while, I was excited to see Edna emerge from the inferno (front of the pack with white gaiters).

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SMILE!!! You love the heat!!!

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It wasn’t long before Checkpoint 2 became a shaded haven, full of tired, pain inflicted competitors. We volunteers did our best to make everyone as comfortable as possible.

By 3 o’clock in the afternoon, everyone had made it through our checkpoint. It was time for Liz and I to suit up and take to the deserts ourselves, keeping a close eye on those at the back of the pack.

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20150604_034233 Following close behind the final competitors, we were happy to be reunited with Azaki and his horse, though sad to be without the camel on this day. Turns out its stomach wasn’t quite agreeing with it.

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I… am… thirs…..ty

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I kept making Tatooine references to Liz. She must’ve thought “who is this nerd?”

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If only you could see me sweltering under all this gear.

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How does ANYTHING live here?

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I couldn’t stop taking pictures. Everything looked so dramatic.

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See, it IS possible to smile under all this stress!

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After being fooled by many a mirage, I could’ve sworn I saw a figure up there on that rock…

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I did! I did see a figure up there on that rock… it was Dr. Nick at Checkpoint 3.

This is exactly where my phone died. From here to the end, I would have no more camera to capture the mesmerizing images around me. I guess that’s what memories were made for.

We toiled. We sweat. We plugged away.

By the time Liz and I finished our sweeping duties, the sun was going down and the familiar chill of night was beginning to set in. By 10 pm, we had hitched a ride to Checkpoint 5 (60.4k), the overnight checkpoint where many competitors were taking advantage of the campfire and tents to eat a warm meal and catch a quick nap before soldiering on through the night. Liz and I ate a little something and chatted with the busy volunteer staff before heading back to camp to get a little rest ourselves.

We arrived at camp around 11 pm and I found Edna, who had finished about an hour beforehand. She was nearly in tears during her retelling of her day — a battle that took as much mental strength and courage as it did physical. She had coasted along until she hit the burning canyon section, enduring searing heat that forced her to scream out loud at no one in particular. But like she always does, she battled through and brought it home, pain and all.

I hugged her and let her know I loved her. I told her she inspired me, and that I was proud to be alongside during her big moment. It was an emotional 10 minute exchange.

But then I had to get back to work, and she had to rest. We parted ways and I reported back to the finish line. Luckily, I was told to take a nap. Unfortunately, I was told to report back at 2 am. Yikes!

I got in my sleeping bag, by now completely immune to the stench of my own being (six days in the wilderness without a shower will do that), and just as I was drifting off…

My alarm went off. 2 am. Oh boy.

I went to the finish line area and if I was feeling sorry for myself for not sleeping much the last several days, that sentiment changed immediately upon seeing the competitors coming into the finish after suffering along the lonely, Gobi Desert for 80 kilometers.

How inspiring it was to see them! Oh the smiles on their faces! And the tears springing from their eyes! How could one not be moved to do something epic himself upon seeing such a feat!

Inspired as I was, I was asked to go out on the course in a roving vehicle from 2 to 4 am, checking on competitors to make sure they were doing okay. Sarcasm and delirium aside, everybody was moving forward, which at this point, was all one could really ask.

After my two hour shift, I got to take another nap. This time I was out before I even zipped up the bag.

Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.

Rest Day

I woke up drowning in a pool of my own sweat.

Wow! It got hot quick! And it was only 9 am.

The only thing that made the scorching heat tolerable was the steady breeze accompanying it. When the wind blew, all was well. When it didn’t, things got uncomfortable.

This was very telling later that afternoon as Edna and I lounged in a shaded area in the middle of Camp 6. With all of the competitors finished with the Long March, we had the day off to recuperate before making the last 12k jaunt to the ultimate finish line. All around us was carnage — competitors dehydrated, windburn and covered in sand — but the jovial stories and upbeat smiles countered any physical deterioration. With the breeze, things felt even better than they were.

Until they weren’t.

The breeze became stronger. And stronger. And stronger.

Eventually no longer a breeze, but rather a violent whipping wind powerful enough to uproot tents and send anything not anchored to the ground flying through desolation, this seemingly angry force of nature started to make things very uncomfortable. The only way for me to combat it was to simply lie on the ground, near Edna, going back and forth between chatting with her and catnapping. This is how we spent most of the day.

But later in the evening, as I was making my way to my tent to get some dinner, I overheard one of the local Chinese staff members yell: “EVERYBODY TAKE COVER! IT’S COMING AND IT’S COMING QUICK!”

Baffled, I followed his pointed finger towards the sky and what I saw was right out of a Jerry Bruckheimer film, dropping my jaw to the ground: A SANDSTORM. A real, ominous, terrifying sandstorm.

“Edna!” I screamed heading back to the center of camp. “Edna! Come with me!” I shouted. I grabbed her hand and pulled her, limping legs and all, as fast as I could towards a large rock formation at the height of our camp. I had never been in a sandstorm before and I did not know what to expect, but the panic I heard in the voices of the locals was enough to make me take it very seriously.

With our mouths, noses and eyes covered as much as possible, I hovered over Edna, faces toward the wall of rock standing between us and the brunt of the storm. For the next three hours, the sand whipped and screamed, pelting us from every direction. By 10 pm the worst of it had passed and I was discovering sand in every part of my body, something I never imagined possible.

The storm destroyed our camp. It knocked down all the tents. It sent much of our gear and supplies off into the unknown. Everything was a mess. Still, the weather forecast looked better on the horizon, and due to the late hour, race officials decided it was safest to stay at camp and do our best to continue on with Stage 6 the next day.

Unfortunately, in the middle of the night, the wind picked up again. It was very violent, again pummeling us with sand from every direction. There was even rain! With this sudden change in weather, having to think quick on their feet, race officials decided it was the best and safest decision to immediately evacuate camp, cancel Stage 6 and head back to our final destination in the town of Hami.

Post Race

Let me tell ya, that first shower after a week without was NICE! Better yet was the beer (or three) that I had while waiting to actually get in a room to take a shower. Of course, the latter only intensified the former.

After cleaning up, Edna and I passed out. SLEEP! It never felt so good.

That evening we attended the awards banquet where we chummed with over 200 new friends, all of us drawn closer after a week full of adversity. Competitors, volunteers and staff all joined in reminiscing over the week’s dramatic achievements. It was evident to me that the heroes in the spotlight were the competitors, no doubt. After all, they did have the hardest job of all, covering over 100 miles on tired legs over unforgiving terrain. Yet, I couldn’t help but marvel at what we as volunteers and staff had accomplished as well. We put on a full fledged marathon a day in hostile natural environments — environments that changed dramatically each day, from snowy mountain tops to searing desert canyons to full fledged sandstorms. Each stage of the race was so robust and detail dependent that it could have very well stood on its own.

For being a part of this, I was immensely proud.

I was also IMMENSELY proud of my girl! Edna WON her age group while also finishing as the fourth overall female. Woo hoo! And of course, she did it ALL with a SMILE!

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We survived!

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Proudly representing two countries!

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Edna’s hard earned hardware: finisher medal and age group champion trophy.

THAT'S the look of a champion: tough, beautiful, confident and determined.

THAT’S the look of a champion: tough, beautiful, confident and determined.

The extent of memories we took away from this event could fill hundreds of pages, but one thing is definitely cemented in our minds: Edna and I, are very much a part of the Racing the Planet and 4 Deserts family. We look forward to being a part of another adventure very, very soon…

 


An All New Adventure: Volunteering at Racing the Planet’s 250k Gobi March

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Boxing, running hundos, back-to-back marathons

And now for something completely different, yet equally exhilarating:

I’m going to western China to serve as race volunteer for Racing the Planet’s 250k Gobi March stage race across the desert.

While my exact duties won’t be totally clear until I arrive in the middle of nowhere, approximately 10 days from now, I do know that I will be participating in one of the world’s premier ultrarunning events and that I’m in for one hell of an adventure. Luckily, I won’t be alone.

Gobi_OmnogoviLandscapeMy fiancée, Edna — (aka “La Diosa de la Ultramaratón”) (English version) — is competing in the event; and after hearing her vivid description of her successful Atacama Crossing in 2013, lending my services to a race that features human heroics from around the globe was an easy sell. This time I get a front row seat!

Over much of the last year I have been busy helping Edna train, and while we were both disappointed that the Sahara Crossing was cancelled due to civil unrest, the 2015 Gobi March offers an opportunity for us to experience this event together, even if on different sides. As most readers of mine know, I enjoy volunteering and giving back to the running community as pacer/crew/cheerleader just as much as I do competing. The stories I bring back are always as motivating as they are thrilling.

I can’t wait to share more with you!

 

When I get back, there will be a 24-Hour race to run… the Ringside World Championships to fight… and a 100 mile run… or two?

But first… 我们 到中国 去 啊!

***
Are YOU ready to train like a champion? Do you want lose weight? Get stronger? Do you want to build that dream body, improve your race times or qualify for Boston? Go to Iron Lung Fitness and start training with me today!

 

 

 

 


“The Goddess of the Ultramarathon” by Alejandro Yanún

This article, by Alejandro Yanún, was originally published on February 9, 2015 in the Spanish language publication “Vívelo Hoy”.

Since it features my lovely fiancé, I wanted to make it accessible to the English reading ultrarunning community. Way to go, mi amor lindo! I am so proud of you!

Translation by Jeffery Lung

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Edna Jackeline Vazquez‘s energy is so big and contagious that nobody was surprised when she announced her next challenge: in March she will attempt to run the ultramarathon of the Sahara Desert, a grueling seven-day competition across 250 kilometers.

Here it should be clarified. Those who think a marathon requires supreme effort may not know the special requirements of the ultramarathon. While the marathon is a race of “only” 26.2 miles (42 kilometers), an ultramarathon may be a competition of several days, usually falling within 50 to 250 kilometers. In other words, there can be multiple marathons in one single competition.

Vazquez, a Mexican ultramarathoner based in Romeoville, IL, is part of the highest global level of ultramarathons and competes in a circuit of races organized by Racing the Planet, where participants include, among others, some of the sports biggest icons like Dean Karnazes.

“I’ve been running for 17 years and half of my life has been lived as a runner,” says Vazquez, a 33 year-old from Monterrey, NL, Mexico, who besides being an athlete, also holds a degree in Human Resources with a post-grad MBA, and presently works in an American company that produces candies.

Edna Jackeline Vazquez 2Vazquez already conquered the Atacama Desert in Chile, the most arid place on the planet where total annual rainfall comes in at 15 millimeters, and over the next two years she intends to complete the feat of running all four of the world’s major deserts: in March she will run the Sahara, in June the Gobi Desert in China and in 2016, she expects to compete in Antarctica no less.

Throughout her career, Edna has overcome all sorts of obstacles. At Atacama, where she finished third in her category (women over 30 years of age), she ran 250 kilometers in seven days, living through extreme situations, like overcoming the elements while also suffering through that time of the month women must endure, five days into the competition, just as her energy began to disappear.

“I had to sit down, I could not get up. The pain and fatigue were so great… with blisters and all I could do was ask God, ‘give me strength’,” recalls Edna. “You take strength from anywhere, you realize the focus is mental. It’s more than physical. It’s mental.”

The Sahara competition will take place this year in Petra, a historical and archaeological city in Jordan, near Israel. The conditions will be extreme and Edna knows it: “They put in you in the desert and there begins the journey. You can’t forget anything. You don’t bathe for seven days, you bring all of your own food and supplies, weighing about 30 kilos,” says Edna. “There are cold nights and hot days. I’m afraid, but that doesn’t stop me.”

The training for competition is exhausting. There are days when the Monterrey native runs a marathon, or a half marathon. Her training sessions regularly take her to the Palos Hills trails near Bull Frog Lake, and she trains with Iron Lung Fitness in the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago.

Others days she trains on the Indiana dunes to acclimate herself to the sands of the Sahara. All of this comes alongside a system of methodical and precise nutrition habits, with swimming and yoga sessions included to keep the body together during the rigors of high competition.

Edna, who has a job just like anyone else, pays for her exotic, international athletic adventures all by herself, but says the economic factor is not a barrier.

“I work a lot. I save a lot. For me, money is not a limitation. When you have a clear dream in life, you go for it,” says Vazquez, who was once married but says now she is in love, more every day, with the ultramarathon. “I’m from an average, working class family. All my studies (University of Monterrey, Mexico; University of Sevilla, Spain) were done on scholarships.”

Edna says she runs for two nations. “I am very proud to represent the Hispanic community, I run for both Mexico and the United States,” says the Mexican athlete, who believes it’s time to take down the stereotypes and stop with the ‘Latinos only come here to take jobs in America’. On the contrary, for Edna, “We are here to transcend.”

To end, she has a message: “The important thing is to be yourself. It’s important to show society that there are people who follow their dreams and aspirations,” says the ultramarathoner from Monterrey. “I know that someday someone will say, ‘If Edna can, so can I.”

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Who Is Edna Jackeline Vazquez?

Born: Monterrey, Nuevo León, México

Resides: Romeoville, Illinois

Age: 33 years old

Notable Achievements: Atacama (Chile) 250 km, Torhout (Belgium) 100 km, Taipei (Taiwan) 100 Km, Pedestres Villa Madrid (Spain) 100 km, Mérida (Spain) 100 km, Madrid-Segovia (Spain) 101 km, among many other ultradistance finishes in Mexico and the United States

Upcoming Competitions: The Sahara Desert (Jordan) and the Gobi Desert (China) in 2015; Antarctica in 2016. (All three 250 km in length)