"Lessons from the desert"

The severe market crash in October 2008 changed my life. I started running to regain my health, both emotional and physical. Shortly after I took my first steps, I ran the Gobi March in China in June '09, followed by the Atacama Crossing in Chile in '10, and the Sahara Race in Egypt in '11. In this post, I share a lesson about life, learned from the desert.

Gauche Droite Gauche

A leader's reign coming to an end brings about change and some anxiety in the corporate world; in politics, the drama is amplified, one's ouster starts history and legacy books, while the new leader brings hope to a nation. As France's presidential election was unfolding, a celebration party had been planned for Nicholas Sarkozy on Place de la Concorde. When early polls suggested a defeat, it was cancelled; good thing, this is the site where Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette were guillotined in 1793, along with an estimated 25,000 others by the revolutionists. While Sarko, as he is referred to, will return to be a "normal citizen", and Francois Hollande will now be President, garnering 51.8% of the vote. Hollande is the first socialist to be elected since Mitterand in 1981, and the 9th European leader to be voted in since the 2009 crisis.

The leftist tide was so strong that Hollande was elected when it was to be Dominique Strauss-Kahn's job. But a problem in a New York hotel and more recently in a prostitution ring ended his leadership bid. The street here is saying that Hollande is a "rassembleur", a unifier. His inner party has a large contingent of visible minorities, and numerous women. "He is a nice man" said my favorite baker Ali; "you can tell by his eyes". I immediately thought of a wandering eye; on stage last night, he addressed revelers at midnight, first kissing Segolene Royal, his life partner of 30 years and mother of his 4 kids, who ran and lost against Sarkozy in the 2007 presidential election (the Sarko-Sego election); and then his new concubine, Valerie Trierweiler; the woman with whom he had an affair while with Royal (Trierweiler's two ex-husbands were not on stage). The story is that Royal forced him out of the house in 2007, and blamed him and his other activities for her defeat. I guess she has a more Anglo Saxon mindset about these sort of French habits.

He addressed the chanting crowd at La Bastille which occupies a critical place in the French's psyche. First built as a fortress to defend against the British, it became a prison used by the king detain individuals who opposed him, and it later morphed into an enforcement site for those who opposed government censorship of the printed media. It was seen as a site of tyranny, used autocratically by the king with many tales of horror. As tensions rose in France over feudalism, it was stormed July 14th 1789 by 8000 revolutionaries successfully, possibly the last time the French were to invade anything, and later demolished. The Bastille's remains were used symbolically to carry the message of revolution to various locations in France; and France later declared July 14th National Day. One hundred years later, Victor Hugo's wrote world famous Les Miserables, which is staged at La Bastille; the traditional resistance place where political protests take place today. And of course, last night, as the left prevailed over the right, a new hope for France was in full form at La Bastille. My wife Leslie was on site with some girlfriends as it was gathering momentum.

The next day, Leslie and I ran our daily 10K starting in the new city of Sciences and Technology, a new French modern museum on steroids, our kids first choice thus far in the city of museums. We ran South following the beautiful canal St-Martin, running by tourist boats as we descended towards Paris Centre. Our run culminated on La Place des Vosges where Victor Hugo lived, the grand-father of gated high end living, possibly the most famous "bourgeois" square in the world, and then to La Bastille where the cleanup team was picking up the fireworks, bottles, and berets from the previous night's celebration where an estimated 50,000 were celebrating in the hope of a new socialistic direction for France.

It is a new era in France, starting today. As Francois Hollande's advertising "Le changement c'est maintenant." Change is now; meaning softening the plan and opening up spending their way out of their challenges. Hollande's goal will be to redistribute wealth from the super-rich to those in need; starting with a 75% tax rate for those earning over 1 million euros annually. "Sarkozy raised his salary 3-fold on his first day in office; meanwhile we have 12% unemployment, women are giving birth to children on the street, and if you step out of Paris, you will see a visible crisis of inequality" said Ali. "We have to restore France's dignity! The spread between rich and poor will culminate in another revolution." We all know that the disparity between the have/have-not's is broadening everywhere, but last night in France, at one of the most famous revolutionary sites in the world, hope was palpable to narrow the gap (Another factor helping will be an exodus of rich French citizens towards Belgium).

Sarkozy now defeated; Hollande was with his two ladies on stage. When I asked my favorite baker, still tired from being up until 4AM celebrating at La Bastille what he thought of the ex- and the one the new president cheated the ex- for both on stage at the same time. "C'est tout cool. C'est normal." He is a "rassembleur." A "rassembleur" with many balls in the air who may need his most affluent citizens to stay put in order to be successful!

Stefan Danis has published Gobi Runner, a book about overcoming adversity, available on amazon.

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27-Oct-2011 10:34:19 AM [(GMT-05:00) Eastern Time(US & Canada)]

Now back in the comfort of my home and family, I can reflect on the transformative events of my week in the desert and the abutting travel in Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Jordan, and the UAE. The common feeling all participants to a desert race experience is an intense sense of gratitude and humility.

Feelings of gratitude and humility start on the first night, occillate as the roller coaster of struggle takes you to unprecedented levels of pain, followed by fleeting euphoric moments of success, and return permanently at the finish or shortly after the event when able to have some distance from the race. And it soars when re-entering your forever altered life, along with confusing bouts of "what now" The desert always leaves you marked; but aren't all of life's triumphs filled with scars?
Why gratitude and humility?

The desert is over-bearing. I guess being at sea or in the mountains may yield similar feelings; the expanse is so vast, beyond imagination. Devoid of obvious life, further than the eye can see, majestic in its size, beauty, solitude, and danger. It is reshaped every day; perfect giant waves of sand with a tapestry of colors and sand veins left by the ever present wind. That is the visual feast afforded to those who get dropped in the desert, a 4 hour bus ride outside of Cairo, in the middle of nowhere. I think the beauty is amplified by how fearful most competitors are of what awaits them.

Until that drop off moment, there was an escape valve. Now committed; there is no going back, the bus is ... gone! Having trained for 6 to 12 months, and made a large number of personal and family sacrifices along the preparation journey, we had now achieved the starting line. In fact, we saw the starting line as we exited the bus and knew at 7am the next day that the race would start. There are 25-40 countries with athlete representation, and their flags adorn the start line. Our group located the Canadian flag for a hug or a kiss. Some first timers likely didn't think it was likely they would make it this far when they had signed up, in itself, just showing up is an achievement to be grateful for although some would not finish.

On the night before the race, most take in their first desert sky; there shining are the brightest stars ever seen. My friend Mehmet Danis had shared that the stars go down lower on the horizon line that he had ever seen. Stars shining, seemingly below you; it feels you can pick them. You are off balance, humbled by it all.

Shortly after 7am the next day, immense suffering will confront each of us in a way never previously experienced. You could map out in your mind what having blisters, locked hips, shin splints, knee or Achilles tendinitis, chafing, gastro problems, or dehydration could feel like, but until you live it, you are blind to how you will respond while running; going home to rest is no longer an option. A combination of the above is coming at you. Which emotion will you choose?Anger, fear, upset, annoyance, acceptance, denial, joy?Invariably, most emotions will pass through you at a point in time, changing every 15 minutes, based on your level of discomfort, and your perceived level progress towards your own objective. Your mind will trick you, continuously testing your will, self-esteem. Will the voice encouraging you to stay the course and go faster when all other signs say slower be loud enough to be heard, or will it be dismissed?

Until crossing the finish line of the day's marathon, 50% of competitors will have self-doubt that this could be repeated 6 times in 5 successive days. Experienced desert runners will know that their body will re-generate overnight. The second morning, as most realize they healed faster than they expected, most will think "yes I think I can do this again", a runner's gift to be grateful for. For example, my toes were completely vandalized and I wondered what type of doctor I would need to see in order to care for them upon my return. The day of my flight back to Canada, while in Dubai, I posted a picture on facebook of the blisters and all. I wondered when I might run again. 6 hours later, after swimming in the Gulf of Aqaba, the magical effect of salt water had done the trick. I pried and cut loose the skin and the attached toe nails of 4 toes and went for a modest 3km beach run, barefoot. All my toes now lack a nail, and the new skin is tomato red. But they work, I can run again and no doctors needed.

Post race, having the experience of re-entry into one's life is a true form of renewal. First, for most people, it was the first time ever they were disconnected. They were almost completely focused on the task at hand of finishing the race. Most didn't think about their work or even their families. They were possibly "present" to putting one foot in front of the other for hours. Clearing the brain is what meditation clinics offer as their promise and that's mostly what happens in the desert; after a while, you get out of your thoughts and the brain gets to that quiet place.

I would describe re-entering family or work this way. It is a bit like having a major accident, a close call of sorts, and then realizing everything is in fact going to be OK. All participants are likely to connect with a heightened sense of appreciation for the people they missed, the life too often taken for granted, the job we hold, and the comforts we have built around ourselves. Most of us learned lessons in humility and the power of community; It is very difficult to finish the race without being touched at the core by the communal support of tent mates, competitors, and the emails we would read every night from well-wishers. You get reminded that you are in this together. Of course you get beaten up by the desert, see others around us suffer even more, most pushing through pain that is even beyond what you think you could handle. Other runners will profoundly affect your experience positively. For example, my running colleague Alison Simpson was severely dehydrated and needed two large bags of IV to return from her desert induced hallucinations. It was scary when we walked her back to her tent. Then the next morning, she showed up to run 85km. Her fighting spirit reminded me of what I am capable of and gave me wings to push harder.

In the end, everyone is left knowing they pushed themselves to their limits, gave it their best. It would naturally evolve that since most of us choose comfort over giving our best, that the question for many is this: I have one life to live. Am I giving my life my best?Am I giving my family, my work, myself my best?It is a great question.

The desert races locations provide more than the race itself; they open the curtain on parts of the world one would not see. I ran in the Gobi desert while parts of Kashgar, our finishing line, was being demolished and 300,000 people were being expropriated from their ancestral homes; days later almost 200 would die in protest, brutalized by the Chinese army.

I ran in the Atacama 10 days after the devastating 2010 earthquake in Concepcion which killed more than 500, and experienced 5 other earthquakes while there, seeing the casualties first hand in Santiago. We exited the plane on the tarmac as the brand new Santiago terminal was too damaged to be operational.

This time, I got to a slice of what goes on in the Middle East and Northern Africa. While in Jerusalem, demonstrations were taking place to pressure the government to trade prisoners to liberate Sarjeant Gilad Shalit. A few days after the race ended, a pact was made (6 years later), to return Shalit, an Israeli prisoner captured by Hamas in Israeli territory. In typical lopsided fashion, Israel showed its citizens how much they valued those who fight for her; they exchanged 1021 prisoners, many of them terrorist, to save ONE soldier. It brought another level to leaving no man behind.

The day prior to flying to Cairo to run, Leslie and I entered Palestine and our Jewish guide was of course barred. He will likely never be able to go back to this part of Israel for the rest of his life. Then, post-race in Cairo, while we enjoyed an exquisite well deserved dinner at Sequoia on the Nile, with fellow Canadian Ernie, Anne-Marie, and Colin, another page was added to Egypt's path towards democracy. Or was it?Shots were fired and we could see the blue sparks just across the river, 500m away. Fireworks I thought. Some shouting; a celebration possibly?It lasted 2 minutes.

An email came from fellow Nabs runner Pat Sullivan who was at another restaurant in Cairo and watching TV live; "Leave where you are and return to your hotel immediately". Hundreds of Coptic Christians were demonstrating to gain attention to the oppressive interim army-led government's decision stating Christians can't practice their faith freely and build churches while no such restrictions are put on the much larger Muslim majority. Christians and Muslims have co-existed happily for 1500 years in Egypt, and now that democracy is possibly near, it seems that path isn't exactly democracy for all. 26 Christians were shot dead 500m from us, the army using undue force to quell petitioners and demonstrators. Who knows what the Arab Spring will truly result in?Will I ever go back to this explosive region?A couple of days later, due to a diplomatic issue between Canada and the UAE, one of us, Ernie, was barred from boarding a flight to Dubai. It was completely avoidable but the Air Jordanian Airline representative decided otherwise. It was the end of his trip.

All this to share that there is so much to be grateful to have been born Canadian and have the privilege to live here or in the Western world.
As our 8 Nabs running colleagues all ease back to work, family, and community, I wish them well and congratulate them from the bottom of my heart. We raised in excess of $100,000 for Nabs, a bold number seemingly impossible, all returned safely, and we all had a memorable personal and communal experience at the same time. We discovered things about ourselves we were blind to. And new revelations offer other avenues to explore, be it for work, family, or personal experiences.

I will be observing how they re-enter. Will they be more patient with people around them?Will they react differently to a missed deadline on a key project?Will they re-commit themselves more profoundly to what they do or will they want to change the direction of their lives. Will it be subtle or plain obvious for all to see?Will they remain grateful and humbled for the lessons the desert taught them?Will I?
Personally, I am just happy to be back. I feel re-invigorated and very grateful to just to be able to write about it.

Carpe diem


Stefan is an executive recruiter by day and author by night and has published Gobi Runner which can be found on Amazon

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