Commentary

Run 155 miles in 5 days? In the desert?

What sounds like a death wish is just the opposite for George Chmiel Jr.

Updated: November 18, 2009, 4:16 PM ET
By Jack McCluskey | ESPN.com

George Chmiel JrRacing The Planet George Chmiel Jr., right, competed in the 150-mile Sahara Race 2009.

It sounds like a nightmare.

You've been dropped off in the middle of the Sahara Desert. Over the next six days you will have to run, jog, walk or crawl 155 miles through the incredible, incessant heat -- temperatures routinely reach 120 degrees Fahrenheit -- across soft sand and hard-parked gravel, over sand dunes multiple stories high and down rocky hills. You must do this carrying everything you need to survive -- clothes, food, sunscreen, emergency medical supplies, sleeping bag -- in a pack on your back.

This is a nightmare that 120 people paid $3,100 each to endure. They've signed checks, filled out medical forms, bought equipment and supplies, packed bags and flown in from all over the globe. Oh, and they've trained, too.

After all, this is the Sahara Race 2009, one-fourth of RacingThePlanet's 4 Deserts Series, and the people living this nightmare are world-class athletes. They're here to compete, to push themselves to the limit and beyond, to run roughly a marathon a day for four days and a double marathon on the fifth day, all through one of the hottest, least hospitable landscapes on Earth.

In a society conditioned to believe that to the victor go the spoils, one would expect a competition like the Sahara Race to have quite a payoff at the end. There must be quite a carrot dangling from the end of this stick, because in this case the ass has to go through a place that seems a lot like hell to get it. So what does the first across the finish line stand to win?

A shiny, new trophy.

[+] EnlargeSahara Runner
RacingThePlanetThe Sahara Race 2009 is one of four parts of the 4 Deserts Series.

Forget fame and fortune. Chances are you've never heard of Paolo Barghini, a 49-year-old doctor from Italy, who won the 2009 race. And Barghini crushed the backbreaking fifth stage, a 54.31-mile killer, in 9 hours, 52 minutes, 30 seconds -- nearly an hour better than the next-best contestant.

The rewards of a race like this are not material. They are mental. Which is fitting, because to run a race like this, through a place like this, for no tangible thing, you seemingly have to be a bit mental.

At least that's what people thought when George Chmiel Jr. told them he wanted to run the Sahara.

"Initially they thought I was certifiably insane," he said. "I'd either lost my mind or had a death wish."

It was a reasonable reaction, considering Chmiel, a 28-year-old Annapolis, Md., native and Charlestown, Mass., resident, had started running seriously only two years before. Sure, he'd run eight marathons since then, but to his friends, family and colleagues this seemed like too much way too soon.

Not to Chmiel. To Chmiel, it seemed perfect.

He was going to run across the Sahara carrying his life on his back. He would do it for himself, and he would do it for a girl.

For a girl, for MAGIC

Luciana Horvath is 3 years old.

There's a picture of her on the Web site built for the cause. She's beautiful, as happy children are. Her light brown hair is pulled back in pigtails. Her eyes are shining, her smile bright and wide. From looking at the picture, you can't tell anything is wrong.

Looking at it, you realize what it means to be picture-perfect.

Reality is far from perfect. Luciana -- Luci to friends and family -- has congenital panhypopituitarism, a condition that affects roughly one in every million people. There are only 350 known cases in the U.S. It means Luci was born with an underdeveloped pituitary gland, so her body can't produce all the hormones it needs, hormones that regulate growth, that deal with physical and mental stress, that help the body cope with sickness.

Luci's parents, Mike and Jolie Horvath, give her medications and injections every day. They give her hydrocortisone as an adrenal hormone replacement and Synthroid to boost her low thyroid hormone level. Every night they inject her with human growth hormone. The HGH injections are unpleasant, to say the least. When the time comes, Luci fights, cries, flees, screams and then, maybe worst of all, apologizes.

"You hear HGH all the time, and the first thing you do is think negative thoughts," Mike Horvath said. "My daughter takes HGH every day because if she doesn't, she'll die."

If Luci doesn't get all her medications, if she gets a common cold or a flu virus, if she's overtired or stressed, her life is in danger because her body can't cope on its own. Instead of fighting, Luci's body shuts down.

"She turns blue, her eyes roll up in the back of her head and she throws up her other medications," Horvath said. "When that happens, we have to give her an emergency injection and go to the emergency room."

Horvath estimates that has happened 10 or 11 times in Luci's three years of life. Because her condition is rare, when they're forced to rush Luci to the ER, the Horvaths often know more about the affliction and its treatment than the doctors and nurses at the hospital. And so the beleaguered parents have to move past their obvious concerns for their daughter and explain to the medical professionals how to save her life.

The quest for knowledge about panhypopituitarism led the Horvaths to The MAGIC Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports families with children afflicted with diseases, disorders or syndromes that affect growth. Through MAGIC, the Horvaths met other families with children who had Luci's condition, were able to learn from their experiences and to lean on those who knew just what they were going through.

The support structure provided by The MAGIC Foundation is invaluable, but there is still a real need to raise money for research and awareness of Luci's condition.

Enter Chmiel.

Mike Horvath and Chmiel met when both worked for Merrill Lynch. They were colleagues, then partners -- Horvath working from Houston, Chmiel from New York City, then Boston -- and then friends. Chmiel learned all about Luci's condition, as it would frequently force Horvath to drop work and rush to her side.

But he didn't really understand the impact it had on the Horvaths' lives until he spent a weekend with the family last year. Chmiel had persuaded Horvath to run the Houston marathon with him and stayed with the family while in town for the race.

The experience that weekend opened Chmiel's eyes to just how serious the Horvaths' situation was and convinced him that if there were anything he could do to help, he would. So when he decided he would run the Sahara Race, it seemed running it for Luci and The MAGIC Foundation was "a great fit."

"It was kind of hand in hand, I don't think I would've done one without the other," Chmiel said. "You can't run a race like this just for yourself, you have to do it for someone else, too."

Running through hell

The Sahara Race is an endurance competition in the strictest sense of the term. The intense heat and long distance combine to put even the best-conditioned athlete to the test. Not only does a competitor have to run 155 miles through the desert, he or she has to do so carrying a roughly 20-pound pack.

Mismanage this race, and you don't just risk losing. You risk your life.

To mitigate the risk to competitors, the Sahara Race organizers implemented basic safety guidelines. Competitors are required to carry certain things -- emergency medical supplies, a minimum of 14,000 calories (2,000 per day) in food and a supply of electrolytes, among other things -- and to enter and exit several checkpoints on each leg of the race. At each checkpoint, competitors have access to a ration of water (which is supplied for them throughout the race) and medical attention (which they decide to use or ignore).

After each stage, organizers supply competitors with tents in which to sleep, water with which to cook and access to the world outside the Sahara, via an Internet tent, with which to maintain touch with reality.

The race runs through the Sahara in Egypt on a rough northeast track from the Farafra Oasis in the White Desert to the Bahariya Oasis in the Western Desert. (Competitors are then bused to the final stage, a victory lap by the pyramids of Giza.) The course is marked off with small pink flags. At night, the course is marked off with glow sticks. This may seem simple, but in a race in which conserving every possible resource is paramount, the slightest unexpected expenditure can be incredibly costly.

So when Chmiel got lost toward the end of the first stage, he admitted in his official race blog, it was "pretty scary."

After completing the first 20 or so miles with no problems, Chmiel lost the trail. He'd long lost sight of the other competitors, and all of a sudden he realized he couldn't see the next flag. He didn't know where he was, which was bad, and he was just about out of water, which was worse.

Discussing it after the fact, Chmiel cited his frustration at the lost time and energy first.

Then, almost as an afterthought, he mentioned being, you know, afraid for his life: "You have an emergency whistle that you blow if something bad happens, and other competitors hear it and blow theirs and someone comes to help. I was almost at that point. For about six or seven minutes, I got scared."

Chmiel saw another competitor running in another direction, so he decided to try to catch him. Maybe he knew where the course was. After a while, though, Chmiel saw two more competitors in the distance, running in yet another direction.

"I was totally lost, and out of water," Chmiel said. "You die out there if you run out of water for two or three hours."

Luckily for Chmiel and the other lost runners, a support truck appeared on the course and inadvertently showed them the way. They lost valuable time -- Chmiel said he'd been on pace to finish the stage in less than three and a half hours -- and energy, but as Chmiel admitted, "It could've been a lot worse."

If luck got Chmiel through to the end of the first stage, sheer strength -- of body and, perhaps more importantly, of mind -- would get him through the rest of the race. And Chmiel had great stores of strength, built through the blunt-force trauma that was his training for the Sahara.

Training for the unimaginable

A self-described "fireball," Chmiel is not a man of half-measures. He's either all in or all out. Most of the time, he's all in.

"At first when you meet him it can be annoying," Mike Horvath said of Chmiel. "He's a little arrogant, but he's not cocky. He's the type of person that when he sets his mind to something, he's going to do it."

Chmiel started running seriously just more than two years ago, after a wrist injury suffered in a pickup football game -- "Your typical post-poultry bowl," Chmiel called it -- required reconstructive surgery. After the surgery he couldn't play football, couldn't golf, but he said his competitive juices were still flowing and he figured, "My legs still work, why don't I take up running?"

He started running, promptly got addicted to it and eventually ran a marathon. Then he ran another. And another. And then another after that. In the past two years, Chmiel has run eight marathons -- Boston, San Diego, Houston, Nashville, Park City, Hartford, Philadelphia and Providence.

Although he first trained for marathons in 2007, it wasn't the first time he ran one. His first marathon was Boston, which he said he ran when he was a senior at Boston College in 2003.

"Even though I wasn't a runner and wasn't in great shape, I did it for charity and went out and ran it without really training," Chmiel said. "Just wanted to experience what it was like. It was such a high for me, but I didn't like running, and I thought, 'I'll never do another marathon.'"

Fast-forward to 2009, and Chmiel has moved on from simple 26.2-mile races and set his sights on the Sahara Race.

"Most people go from a marathon to a triathlon to an ultramarathon and then maybe attempt this," Horvath said. "He skipped all that. He went from one extreme to another. He said, 'I'm going to run a marathon' and then went right to 'I'm going to run this 4 Deserts race.'"

Like most people, Horvath was skeptical when Chmiel first mentioned his goal.

"In all honesty, I said, 'You're nuts,'" Horvath said. "He sent me a competitor's blog from a prior year and said, 'This is awesome, I want to do it.'"

When Horvath asked Chmiel whether he was sure, Chmiel's reaction was to say, "What, you don't think I can do it?"

To ensure that he could do it, Chmiel trained. Hard. For four months, he spent nearly every spare moment running -- doing speed work during the week and distance work on the weekends. He bought equipment and tested out different dehydrated foods, nutritional supplements and electrolyte tablets. As you might expect, the food didn't taste great.

"Some are better than others," Chmiel said of his breakfasts and dinners. "You're mixing boiled water with dehydrated food -- it's almost like soup. Chicken and rice soup, lasagna soup. The spicier ones tasted better -- the chicken tikka. In the end, you didn't care what it tasted like, you had to get as much energy as you could or you're done."

All that training added up in money -- he estimates he spent more than $7,000 to run the Sahara Race, including the $3,100 entry fee, travel costs to Cairo, equipment and supplies. It also added up to a lot of time.

And Chmiel didn't exactly have an abundance of spare time to begin with, because he regularly works 12-hour days in his job as a vice president at Bank of America/Merrill Lynch Wealth Management, where he manages the Structured Investments group's northeast region.

"You don't have a lot of free time, and you don't sleep a lot," he said.

"I don't sit around on the couch very much," Chmiel said. But that doesn't mean he and his roommates don't use their couch: "When I get home I'm usually so tired I fall asleep on it for 30 minutes before I make it to bed."

He pushed through the fatigue of training by envisioning himself out on the course, by envisioning himself making a difference for Luci, who calls him Uncle George, for the Horvaths and for The MAGIC Foundation.

To attempt to approximate the conditions he'd be running in, Chmiel and a friend flew to Death Valley, Calif., for a training run. They spent three days there in the middle of August, Chmiel running and the friend driving behind him in a pickup truck, urging him on from the safety of the air-conditioned cab.

"I was going out there looking for a confidence builder, trying to get adjusted to the heat," Chmiel said. "I thought, 'If I can have a few good days there running, maybe it won't be so bad.' It was my first time trying to eat while running in those conditions. I got nauseous and couldn't keep anything down."

After the Death Valley training sessions, Chmiel said he thought, "Well, I know it's not going to get much worse than this."

Experience the local culture ... as you run by it

Ask Chmiel what attracted him to the Sahara Race, and he'll say everything you'd expect -- the cliché, he really wanted to push himself; the altruistic, he wanted to make a difference -- and something you wouldn't: "Heard about RacingThePlanet, thought it would be a great way to experience local culture, see the sights and landmarks."

True enough, the 4 Deserts races do advertise themselves as cultural experiences. According to the series' Web site, "Each of these deserts is completely unique and in every race you find yourself immersed in ancient cultures surrounded by stunning scenery and indigenous wildlife."

But make sure you keep a respectful distance from the surroundings. As the "4 Deserts Rules and Regulations" clearly state, under the title "Tread Lightly," racers are not to get too involved in this experience: "If you see plant foliage, do not step on it. If there are unique rock formations, do not touch or disturb the rocks. If you see ancient ruins or fossils, do not remove them from their location."

Although he makes repeated references to the beauty of the landscapes, Chmiel had only a brief brush with "ancient cultures" and saw very little "indigenous wildlife." During the fifth stage, a 54-mile torture chamber called "The Black Desert March," competitors ran through an oasis and the Bedouin village of El Ris.

"That was definitely one of the highlights of the week and the trip and a memory I'll never forget," Chmiel said. "That first 20 to 24 miles, it was almost like running on the surface of the moon. So rocky, so barren. A little undulating, but so flat. You could see for miles and miles, and there was just nothing.

"It was heating up and getting really difficult, and then you start seeing this green, like the tips of trees out in the distance."

Running on, Chmiel came to the edge of a cliff overlooking the oasis. The sight of lush, green vegetation with a village in its midst gave him a push, and he said he flew down the slope. At the bottom, villagers stood, cheering the racers on.

"I don't even know if they understood what was going on," Chmiel said. "Maybe because [4 Deserts] run this race every year they're used to it."

Chmiel said he took a little boy and girl by the hand and ran a few hundred yards with them. When they stopped running, Chmiel noticed the boy was pointing to his left ear.

"I thought he wanted to listen to the music, that he'd never seen an iPod," Chmiel said. "Then I realized he was pointing to my sunglasses -- I wear these ridiculous red glasses, I'd had 'em for three years and I love 'em -- so I took them off and gave them to him."

It was after that emotional high, after that cultural cross-pollination, when Chmiel hit rock bottom. The oasis checkpoint was the fourth stop of the fifth leg, but it was only halfway to the finish line. Chmiel had never run a race this distance before, let alone run a race this distance after running four consecutive marathons in the stifling heat of the desert. He was just about spent, and the soft sand was sucking away his strength with every step.

"It was very, very difficult," Chmiel said. "I started getting dejected, I was out of breath, I started walking." And as he walked, other competitors passed him.

It seemed as though he'd reached the end, as though he'd pushed his body to its limit, to where it could go no farther … and then he went farther.

Chmiel reached the fifth checkpoint and rested for five minutes. He forced down a dehydrated meal and made a push for the finish line.

Then, he said, a few factors collided, and he found a zone. The terrain changed back from soft sand to a flat, rocky stretch; the temperature cooled a few degrees; and one of Chmiel's favorite country songs, "Remember When" by Alan Jackson, played on his iPod. The song made him think of where he was and what he'd accomplished so far and gave him resolve to fight through the fatigue, the lactic acid buildup and the pain.

"I just started running really fast," he said simply. "I didn't walk a step from that point until the finish."

After passing the finish line

When Chmiel crossed the finish line, he'd been running flat-out for close to four hours. The fatigue caught up to him in a hurry. The normally fiery Chmiel -- whose favorite running music is the "Rocky" soundtrack -- had a different reaction to this finish.

"I usually let out a big war cry or a scream and throw my pack down, but that time my head just went straight down into the sand," Chmiel said. He spent the next few hours shivering and shaking, being tended to by the medical staff. "That was a tough few hours there, but that's to be expected."

The next day, the competitors were bused to Cairo for the last stage -- an untimed jaunt past the Sphinx and ending before the Great Pyramid of Giza. The competitors crossed a camel-lined finish line, then posed in front of the pyramids holding their country's flag.

After the awards ceremony, Chmiel took a red-eye flight from Cairo back to Boston. His roommates picked him up from the airport; they were all wearing T-shirts they had made with pictures of Chmiel from the race. That was on Sunday, Nov. 1. When Chmiel went to get ready for work the next day, he had trouble fitting his swollen, blistered feet into his dress shoes.

In addition to the swelling, Chmiel lost toenails, suffered shin splints and had a gash on his neck from the straps of his pack. He lost 15 pounds.

But Chmiel's final push was good enough to earn him fifth place overall and first in his age group and made him the first American finisher. And to his great surprise, people flocked to his story. Race organizers offered competitors the chance to write personal blogs for the event, and people could leave comments on them. Each night, organizers would collect the comments in a shared spreadsheet for the competitors to read.

"The number of blog comments received by George definitely set a record for the races," said Mary K. Gadams, CEO and founder of RacingThePlanet.

[+] EnlargeSahara Runner
RacingThePlanet George Chmiel Jr. waves an American flag in front of the pyramids of Giza after finishing fifth in the Sahara Race 2009.

They were from friends, family, colleagues, MAGIC Foundation supporters and complete strangers. They were messages of inspiration, of gratitude, of amazement.

What started as a modest goal -- run a race to compete and to raise money for charity -- one repeated all across the country, all over the world, all the time, turned into something bigger.

"It wasn't just about me, it was about what we could all do together united behind this common cause," Chmiel said.

The support added up, on and off the course. On the course, it was motivational -- "It was just a driving force for me out there. Clung to those stories, clung to those emotions, and it fueled me." Off the course, it was monetary -- Chmiel raised more than $60,000 for The MAGIC Foundation.

For the Horvaths, it all added up to limitless possibilities.

"I can tell Luci that she can do everything other kids can do," Mike Horvath said. "If George can do this, run four marathons back to back and then a double marathon on the fifth day in 120-degree heat, then she can live as normal a life as possible given her condition and then some."

Not bad for anyone, let alone a first-time ultramarathoner.

Dean Karnazes, an elite ultramarathoner, author of "Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner" and a member of the 4 Deserts Club -- reserved for those who have completed all four races -- was impressed by Chmiel's showing.

"It is surprising, and a true testament to his grit and talent," Karnazes said by e-mail, adding that most elite ultramarathoners are "too skinny and lack the strength to carry all of that weight on their back for six days. George has the right balance of strength and endurance and he used this combination to his advantage."

Thinking back on that performance, Chmiel focused on the finish line. He remembered falling flat on his face and how he thought to himself, "There's no way in hell I'm ever doing this again."

Gadams said she'll be surprised if she doesn't see Chmiel in another 4 Deserts race.

And although he might've disagreed as he was lying in the sand in the Sahara, Chmiel said it didn't take long for that to change.

"Twelve hours later, I was thinking about the next one I'm going to do."

After all, when you're a fireball, you're either all in, or you're all out.

Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jack.C.McCluskey@espn3.com.

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