When I hear the word “adventure,” I reflect on one of many memorable life experiences: completing a marathon on all seven continents. Notice the word “completing.” I’m not fast. Some of them were more like hiking/walking/jogging than running. The only time I ever won my age/gender category, I was the only person in my category. But I crossed the finish line each time.
People often ask me which race was my favorite. While I can’t pick one all-time favorite, each stands out in its own way. Together they create a tapestry of adventure, wonder, and humanity that has shaped me in deep ways.
My favorite for breathtaking beauty was Antarctica. The race itself in the Antarctic peninsula was muddy, rocky, rainy, windy. Harsh conditions certainly worthy of your mental picture of Antarctica. Once we survived that part, the places we visited after the race were spectacular. Penguins dotted the landscape, snow and ice abounded, seals rested on ice floes, whales fluked nearby. I’ll never forget the sound of icebergs cracking in the clear air as we sailed by. I’ve never been somewhere so untouched by man. Even with a few human bases and outposts, the overall feel was pristine, wild, awe-inspiring.
My favorite for historical significance was Athens, Greece. The race started on the plain of Marathon itself, site of the historic battle famed for the victory of a small force over a much larger force, famed for the first victory of democracy, and famed for the Greek runner Phidippides, who — according to legend — carried the message of victory across the 25 miles from Marathon to Athens and then died on the spot. (To be fair, he had already run to Sparta and back that week, about 150 miles each way; it wasn’t a single marathon that killed him.) We get the word “Nike” and the first iteration of the modern marathon from this battle. It was amazing to start in this place, to see the burial mound still rising above the remains of ancient Greeks, and to trace the messenger’s steps back into Athens, finishing in the modern Olympic Stadium. Wow!
My favorite for mystery and going au natural? Easter Island, or “Rapa Nui” as it’s referred to by the native population. Rapa Nui is home to multiple historic civilizations and famous for the giant human statues, or moai, scattered about its landscape. I couldn’t help but join the many generations of travelers who’ve come to this island, looked about, and wondered, What happened here? So many island mysteries are still unknown. How did they build and move the moai? What was this totally different bird-man culture? How is this tiny island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean home to both a backup space shuttle landing site and the best pizza I’ve ever had? (Seriously delicious pizza!)
This was the race where I won my age/gender category, by the way. There were only about 35 people in the race overall. I’d also been improving my barefoot running skills, and where better to use them than this unique place of remote and natural beauty? Though I wasn’t up to 26.2 barefoot miles, about every five miles I’d kick off my shoes for a mile or so. I also made sure I crossed the finish line in bare feet, an adventure in itself for my own natural running shoes.
My favorite for remarkable wildlife: the Safaricom Marathon, run in the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya. My fellow runners and I joked that this was truly the marathon for anyone who’s ever said they wouldn’t run unless something was chasing them. Thankfully we didn’t have any animals chasing us, but in training runs earlier in the week I ran by giraffes and zebras, and in mini-safaris I captured photos of lions, rhino, elephants, water buffalo, and many others.
I also had to chuckle along the way. This was definitely a race I didn’t expect to win, and I was right. In the two-lap course, the native Kenyan winner lapped me when I was on mile 10 — he was already on mile 23!
My favorite for astronomical uniqueness was the Solar Eclipse Marathon in Cairns, Australia. In conjunction with a total solar eclipse, the “starting gun” was the moment the sun’s rays first came back out from behind the dark moon. While the eclipse totality was mostly covered with clouds, the instantaneous darkness was unmistakable. After a brief two minutes, I was awed by how small a sliver of the sun it took peeking back out to light up the world again. I confess that for the first few miles of that race, I kept stopping to put my safety glasses back on and watch the sun emerge more and more. I’m happy so many in North America got to experience a total solar eclipse last summer – it’s truly a special event!
My favorite for personal best and high-quality training was the Big Sur Marathon on the gorgeous coastal edge of California. I ran this one twice, two years in a row. The second year, I improved my time by over an hour and set my personal marathon record: four hours and 44 minutes. I told you I’m not fast, but I was proud of this one.
At the time of my first Big Sur Marathon, I was living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. By the time I got up to 18 miles in training, I could run from my apartment to work, 18 miles away. For my weekly long run, I’d drive to work, ask a friend to bring me home that evening, and then I’d run back to work the next morning. My friends got a kick out of honking at me as they passed me in their cars. Training was a team effort.
The next year I was living in Monterey, California, so I had the good fortune to be able to train on the actual course on the Pacific Coast Highway. While this probably wasn’t the safest option with some narrow shoulders and winding roads, my training buddies and I loved it, motivated each other throughout, had crazy adventures, and by the time the race arrived I’d run on the course several times and completed it end-to-end at least once. I was ready. It was a beautiful day in a part of the world I hold dear. It was a fantastic course, complete with the race’s iconic grand piano and tuxedo-clad pianist playing on a bridge at the half-way point. I felt strong and ran well.
Which takes me from my personal best to my record for longest finish time.
My favorite for teamwork and camaraderie was the Great Wall Marathon in China. The race included several sections on the Great Wall, over rough and varied terrain with many steps, some passages incredibly steep. The heat and humidity didn’t make it any easier. This one was tough for me for many reasons, most notably that I hadn’t run in six weeks due to a perceived injury and that my GPS watch arrived dead as a doornail and I hadn’t brought my charger. My injury magically went away when we hiked the Wall sections earlier in the trip, but then I was left with weeks of no training and without a watch to pace myself. The course had time limits to get to mile 21 and to finish.
Human compassion came to my aid. An impressive athlete in my tour group who had completed a full Ironman triathlon generously volunteered to run with me and pace me. She ran with me for 21 miles through villages, up and down the Wall, up and down hills, running far more slowly than she could have done on her own. We made the 21-mile mark in time, thanks to her. She was feeling great, and she took off to finish the race at her own pace. I continued more slowly, simply relieved that I’d made it past the first deadline. The time limit for the entire race was eight hours.
By this time, the Wall looked like a war zone. People were littered about, some resting briefly, some exhausted and sitting or lying down, some using both arms and legs to climb up particularly steep sections. Then I came upon another member of my tour group, a gentleman about 20 years my senior. He was in great shape overall, but the race had worn him down. Sitting motionless on the steps, he was mentally and physically exhausted, and he’d thrown in the towel. “They can come pick me up tomorrow,” he said.
I found myself unable to move forward. How could I leave him there?
I sat with him for a while and had an idea. “What if we walk up just 10 steps?” I asked. He considered. “I could do that.” We plodded up the 10 steps and sat down. Then we climbed 10 more and sat. And 10 more. And 10 more. Eventually we made it off the Wall and onto the last couple miles of road. We alternated walking and slow jogging. As we neared the homestretch we could hear the announcer and the crowd cheering. We picked up the pace a little.
Just as we rounded the corner to approach the finish line, my new buddy held out his hand. I put mine in his and we crossed that finish line together, hand in hand, at seven hours and 57 minutes.
Three minutes to spare.
Though that was my longest and arguably most difficult marathon experience, it was the most rewarding and memorable for me because of the human touch. Crossing that finish line took teamwork, compassion, caring, and leadership. I wouldn’t have made it the first 21 miles without my triathlete, and I was blessed with the opportunity to bring someone else through the finish.
Running the seven continents was a multi-year adventure I’ll never forget. I continue to draw lessons from my experiences even today, several years after I completed that particular quest. They were so much more than marathons; they were connections to people and places, stories and landscapes, rich journeys inside and out.
What’s my next “big goal,” people ask me?
I’m still on the incredible journey of life itself. What greater adventure could there be?
Melissa Corley Carter, PhD, is a Certified Professional Coach who creates teambuilding experiences that help organizations improve cohesion, joy, performance, and ultimately profit through self and team awareness. She also helps motivated high achievers fulfill their greatest potential. She's a native Texan living in Virginia, and she enjoys barefoot running, hot yoga, reading, writing, and being present with family and friends. She loves to inspire and be inspired, and she’s writing a book about sustainable teambuilding. Find out more about Melissa and mcSquared Energy Coaching at her website.
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