"The purpose of life is to live it, to taste experience to the utmost, to reach out eagerly and without fear for newer and richer experience"
This is the story of what we experienced during our fantastic expedition through that desolate corner of the world called the Mojave Desert. Accompanied by three extraordinary travel companions (Riccardo Marvaldi, Simone Gandolfo and Andrea Languasco) without whom this experience not only would not have been possible but perhaps it would not even have had the same meaning.
There are some experiences so unique, so special, that for their great meaning leave an indelible mark in our lives. I'm talking about moments so extraordinary, so intense that inevitably carve memories in our mind, the good ones, those that when you think back you cannot help it but break into a smile.
This, "in brief", is what happened:
Tuesday, December 10th - 4:45 am - the alarm sounds relentlessly. During the night the temperature outside reached 25 degrees and, still wrapped in blankets inside the RV, we notice the ice solidified on the windows and between the cracks of the door. It's very cold inside as well but, between a joke and a laugh, Riccardo and I get up to prepare some breakfast. 2 slices of wheat toast with peanut butter and jam + 2 slices of sliced honey turkey and why not, a piece of dark chocolate. In a blink of an eye Riccardo is ready. The excitement is tangible and the anxiety of the wait begins to grow stronger. In the meantime Simone and Andrea are waking up as I prefer to distract myself pretty much with anything I can in order to keep my mind off of what lays ahead of me for the next few days.
My job will only be to Run. Simple. Direct.
Shortly before dawn, we leave the service station where we camped for the night and we near the famous sign at the entrance of Las Vegas. That is, in fact, the start of our event.
At 6:30am - Riccardo bid me farewell with a hug and a heartfelt "good luck". Simone and Andrea are in position... I take the first steps. We're off!!! I still cannot believe it but we are actually on our way...
The cold is still pungent. It takes only a few moments before the first rays of the sun begin to warm up the valley though. The sight is breathtaking and opens up a show of majestic jagged shadows, lights and warm colors between
the gorges of the surrounding canyons, leaving
us all speechless. Before the start I gave specific information to the crew regarding my necessities of eating, drinking, breaks, etc... with a routine that must be repeated every day from start to finish. Since this is not a competition I opted for a different approach on the calorie intake plan. Instead of many liquid calories, gels and/or sports drinks I decided to eat mostly "real" food. Pasta, bread, turkey, backlava (delicious greek pastry), cereal bars, snickers bars, dried fruit, cola, etc... alternating it all every 15/20 minutes. Regardless of the mileage. Every 6 miles the RV comes to a stop and awaits my arrival where, like in a NASCAR pit-stop, the refueling takes place. Riding the initial wave of excitement I close the first marathon in 3hr45mins. Perhaps a bit too fast considering the adverse initial uphill out of the sin city.
At this point we are close to Jean and, immediately after passing the small airport, we run into the first true obstacle of the expedition. The Las Vegas Boulevard, the road that brought us up to this point, enters an underpass of highway I-15 and pretty much ends there... on a very bumpy gravel service road. After months of logistic research I am bummed with anxiety as we call the Las Vegas Highway Patrol to ask for clarifications and a potential solution to our problem. Only 3 weeks ago they confirmed the fact that Las Vegas Blvd would take us smoothly till Barstow, CA and just now they point out that only an equipped vehicle/ Jeep can enter those sections. We thank them and hang up.
It is said that adventures are never such until something goes wrong...
So, the RV cannot take those service roads and I cannot run on the highway.
After a brief research with maps at hand we decide to split up. Our plan is simple: the RV will "leap-frog" me and await at each exit to establish a checkpoint upon my arrival. So, I put on my camel-back (water reservoir), take a handful of bars and dried fruit and set out again. After 8 hours we find ourselves in Nipton Road which also marks the 2nd marathon of the day.
The day is still long, the timing is great, legs hurt a bit but overall I feel extraordinarily well. I decide to take a short lunch break, get some calories in and rest up for a few.
The beauty of the landscapes and the seemingly endless road ahead often distract the mind, always opening new doors to thoughts so profound that for a few moments it feels like flying...
The first day ends at 2am after about 20 hours of running and over 100 miles behind us. At this point we are near Zzyzx Road where we decide to close the doors and rest for a few hours.
Wednesday, December 11th - The sun has not come up yet when I feel Riccardo's hand shaking me. I do not connect right away. For a moment the mind is light but then reality kicks in.
It's 5:30am and it's time to start moving again. My usual breakfast is fast eaten and my legs are hard as rocks. I'm not sure how to handle it as I try to move the first steps. From now on it's all uncharted territory. Confronting new situations inevitably turns into pure motivation to push even further. The day goes by slowly and with many difficulties. It's a slow forward progression with usually 3 miles of running paused by a minute walking to reload on calories, reset the pain in the legs and basically trying to get by. At 1:15pm we reach the exit of Harvard Road, Newberry Springs. Approximately 215km of road is under our belt. At each checkpoint (highway exit approx. every 5 to 12 miles) the camper continues to pass me by and at times I glimpse my crew dashing on the highway overtaking me and heading to our next meeting point. Somehow this also becomes a motivating stimulus to push on and try to cover the gaps between the outposts as fast as possible.
Since the temperatures are very low sweating is not a problem and I can maintain a good electrolyte balance simply by eating salty foods without the aid of caps or sports drinks. It's just after 8pm in the evening when we reach Barstow. After 37 hours and 30 minutes, it's finally time to leave the abandoned desert road and jump on the iconic "Historic Route 66" that will accompany us all the way to the ocean!
We decide to camp there, in a parking lot, for dinner and a short rest. The stress of being on the road for so many hours and the overall fatigue are starting to get heavy. Very heavy.
The desire to move forward is strong but the need for a break is overpowering and shatters my will. So we lock up and hit the bed for a few hours.
It has just turned past 2am when we open up the doors again. The roads are still covered with ice and the feeling in my legs matches the uncomfortable environment that hosts us. With my face completely covered up I take on the road ahead leaving town well before dawn as we slowly move towards Victorville.
Thursday, December 12th - The RV overtakes me and in an instant it disappears over the dunes in front of me. The dark strip of asphalt rolls out of sight among the dunes of a desert that evokes the great myth of the West and much of that California Dreaming theme.
The images that follow are simply breathtaking. This is what I was looking for all along.
Perhaps just finding yourself in the middle of nowhere is where you can listen to yourself at best.
Miles pass and I see Simone and Andrea who are constantly busy documenting our expedition. Riccardo on the other hand continues to manage my food routine and at the same time publishes updates on our position/ developments on the website. Everyone knows their job very well and we all know our roles. Thanks to their support I can always find the strength to continue during the most critical moments.
After several hours we come across the Mojave River and shortly after we enters the first settlements. After about 50 hours of traveling we reach Victorville, which coincides with 200 miles completed. The pain is there, and it's obvious, but the real battle now is against the tiredness/ lack of sleep. I'm not the only one to have had very little sleep over the past few days and now we all begin to suffer. We pass Hesperia and, after a brief stop at the famous "Summit Inn Café", we are on Mariposa Rd where a problem reoccurs. Route 66 ends in a very bumpy service dirt road. A ranger who sees us approaching confirms the inability to continue with our means. The problems is a bit more serious now. The fact is that we are on the Sierra Nevada mountain range that separates Victorville from San Bernardino and the trails may be too demanding to be taken in complete solitude.
We have no time to waste, and a decision needs to be made: we have no alternative but to split up (again) and meet up about 6 miles down the hill side at the intersection between I-15 and 138 (Abiel Barron Memorial Highway) at Cajon Junction. It's time to pull back out my camel-back (water supply), put some bars in my pockets and hit the wide trail. Fortunately, in a few moments, thanks to the change of pace and scenery, I am able to regain a somewhat good pace and actually enjoy the dreaded section. The valley opens up in front of my eyes like a beautiful postcard and for a short distance I also come to crisscross the famous PCT (Pacific Coast Trail) before taking the 138 road downhill. Pain is still there but it's unnoticeable. To enhance the positive mood I receive a call from a friend, Top class Ultra Runner, Andrei Nana from Florida. His straightforward approach and inspirational words are exactly what I needed to hear... a great motivation to keep charging on!
As I near the gas station where my crew was parked, I break into an uncontrollable laugh.
I guess the endorphins like to play tricks like that sometimes. My "happy moment" is short lived though as I see Riccardo walking towards me with a "not so happy" grin on his face. In fact we find ourselves in the most critical point of our adventure. Route 66 (in this next short section) joins I-15 (for about 2km/ 1.3miles) and becomes pretty much the same roadway.
Another logistical problem bound to become the biggest setback of our journey. Riccardo explains this to me and together we try to look for a different way out...
To reach Cajon Canyon Rd there is no other road or driveway beside highway I-15.
The only alternative is to take a trail from Lone Pine Canyon Rd (that connects to Wrightwood -the start of the Angeles Crest 100-).
From there the single trail goes up very steeply until crossing the ridge.
The fast descent is very technical and drops to the valley bottom to connect with Cajon Canyon Rd. Total distance: 7miles.
Here's the big dilemma: 7 miles of very technical trails (in the dark, with already 200+miles in the legs) or 1.3 miles on the highway (on the RV)?
This decision, however trivial it may seem, is not an easy one to take. The fact that it's getting dark influences my choice and so I opt to get on the RV to cover those 2 km on the highway.
First exit: Cajon Canyon Rd! And now begins the descent to the valley!
We get to run through the suburbs northwest of San Bernardino and by 9pm we arrive in Rancho Cucamonga. The road now is very different and marks the beginning of a new landscape. After the desert and the mountains the next big hurdle will be the 'city traffic'. We have traveled about 240miles at this point and the body says enough. This day was by far the toughest of all. The ups and downs follow ever so frequently and at this point I find myself in a big pit. We need to stop. I need food, massages, stretching, ice...and especially sleep!
Friday, December 13th - The alarm goes off early, very early and along with it a thought resonates loudly in my head: today could be the last day of our trip. The temperature is warmer. That helps but the shooting pain is a constant companion. The agony is there, clearly, and after so many days on the grind all that's left is a persisting general feeling of "uncomfortable being" that crosses over into mere soreness determined by a weariness that pervades all around.
Everything hurts. Head, rib cage, stomach, back and of course legs... the idea is not to focus on it though. It's with screaming legs and joints that I start a slow walk on the seemingly never ending Baseline Rd, which leads us westward.
As the miles slowly go by things seem to get better. The city is getting closer at each step and so does the ocean. At each break I had the chance to read all the messages sent from friends, close and far, and thanks to their support I can find the strength to make the last effort and overcome the difficulties.
Time goes by and more miles are put behind us. Along the way we pass right through some very characteristic little towns like Covina and, shortly after, El Monte. At this point there are less than 50km to the end of the journey and the thought that we might be able to reach the ocean before dark is getting more vivid as we move along.
This is motivating but I cannot, maybe I simply do not want to, focus on this right now. I try to be present in the immediate moment not thinking at what lies ahead. After 75 hours the highs are like a quick squirt of adrenaline and the lows are too foggy to even be able to describe them. A very emotional state of mind that I never experienced before, where thoughts fly untamed, rising and dropping as fast as a rollercoaster ride.Then, suddenly, something happens. The body (or perhaps just the mind) reacts to this river of emotions channeling the energy into a more positive attitude. It might just be the thought this ordeal is about to come to an end but after a second day completely off I am starting to regain focus and kind of feel in control of this routine. Thanks to the many breaks and slower pace (compared to a competition) I am able to digest and assimilate all foods properly. Even proteins. In 3 days I have eaten over 4 pounds of sliced honey turkey and I think this has contributed greatly to limit muscle damage. I am convinced that with this approach our bodies could get to cover much greater distances...
It's about lunchtime when we arrive in Los Angeles. The skyscrapers of downtown LA dominate the landscape and suddenly appear almost like a mirage from the busy streets of the suburb.The RV is buzzing through the traffic and just past Union Station we hop on 3rd St. where we meet my fiancé Lauren. She was not able to take part from the beginning due to some other work commitments but I sure am happy to be able to share the last miles with her! We go right through Hollywood and Beverly Hills. We find ourselves on Wilshire Blvd and, right after Rodeo Drive, we turn left on Santa Monica Blvd, which not only represents the last part of the famous Route 66 but also the end of our adventure. My spirit soars as I see Lauren hopping off the RV joining me on a bike for the last 5 miles. She starts to ride along side me. It's a great feeling. Simple but true. Almost transcendental. Right then, as if on cue, the cell phone rings in my pocket and to my great surprise it's Dave Krupski. A good friend and another Top class Ultra Runner living in Miami, which I had the honor to pace at Badwater last summer. His words are like a shot of energy and his cheering me on, right at that moment, have the same effect of an high school coach giving a motivation pep talk right at the last quarter of the final game of the season!
While I'm writing this, for some reason, I still remember telling him how much my rib cage hurt! But not the legs. For another weird reason I feel my legs hurt pretty much the same from the end of day 1 till that moment. After the first 80/100 miles I felt there was a sort of plateau, almost like a pain threshold which, once entered, stays the same and barely increases. Not sure if this makes sense to anyone as it still doesn't to me either.
Just a few miles to go. The road is straight. At the end, far in the distance, we can see the ocean as the sun is dropping inexorably. Time flies and my legs become extraordinarily light.
Lighter than when I started over 3 days ago. I run and smile. Finally I see Simone and Andrea placed in front of the Santa Monica Pier anticipating our arrival.
As I turn on the main street, Pacific Blvd, which takes us to the last few yards of this run, I inhale a deep breath and let the cool evening air enters my lungs. I take a second (in my mind) to contemplate and ponder all that happened in the previous 3 days that have characterized a unique journey and that, in a way or another, has changed my life.
It wasn't an easy task, far from it, but right then it makes me feel majestically alive, full of joy!
The sense of accomplishment is worth every moment spent laying on the side of the road in pain, every time I threw up, every time the shooting pain creeped up my sciatic from the bottom of my feet to my back and every time I simply wished I was somewhere else.
Right then an overwhelming feeling of wander takes over and along with it there's a deep sense of purpose, a pure taste of adventure impossible to find in any other demeanor in life. I am living in that moment. It's glorious and, although the promenade is packed with people, I'm the only one to know.
My head is still spinning more and more as we near the finish line, stunned by the fire red and warm colors lighting up the gorgeous sky... unique, sought after, desired and with all my effort finally met!
The last steps collect in them a myriad of emotions that are impossible to describe. We have arrived! Lauren kisses me. She asks me how I feel...I still do not know. I'm confused, "is this really over?".
Meanwhile, Riccardo, who struggled to find parking for the RV, joins us...we hug.
We stare at the sign that says Santa Monica Pier and take a few pictures. Everything else around us is a just a blur.
Thoughts fly high but one in particular persists: Our limitations are simply dictated by our fears. If each of us tried to overcome this illusion with the desire to find out what our bodies are really capable of I'm sure we could, in fact, overcome any perceived barrier. Always surprising ourselves of our true potential...
The moment is so intense that can only be appreciated by those who have lived it with me.
Between the looks of curious tourists we get back to the RV, as if nothing had happened, and we head home full of emotions and with a lot of gratitude for having had the opportunity to live a dream and overall an extraordinary experience.
I wanted to write this report to thank the people involved in the project: Riccardo Marvaldi, Simone Gangolfo, Andrea Languasco, Luca Ammirati, Riccardo Pizzi, Manuel Stefanolo, Albertina Borgatti and the Telethon Foundation.
Without their support this would not have been possible. There are stories to tell for days but I tried to make this report the simplest and relatively short as possible to leave to our director, Simone Gandolfo, the task of telling this story with his images.
To Riccardo, Simone and Andrea that from "simple" fellow travelers have turned out to be just like brothers. With respect and affection ... See you at the next adventure!
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