By James White, VP Experience and Member Engagement
How often do you test your mental and physical limits? What does that entail? As I grow older and my body and mind begin to age, I find myself asking myself these questions more often than not. Wondering how I’m growing as an individual, led me to embark on my greatest journey. Three years ago I tested my mental and physical limitations, and it changed me forever.
Marathon des Sables (MdS) is considered to be the toughest foot race in the world2. The race is a grueling multi-stage adventure equivalent of five and a half marathons in six days, a total distance of some 251 km, 176 miles, through a formidable landscape in one of the world’s most inhospitable climates – the Sahara Desert. Upon learning about this race, I couldn’t have imagined a better way to truly test my limits than by doing what most others wouldn’t – sign up. And I didn’t do it alone. Turns out, the need to understand and push past the limit ran in the family. My 4 brothers signed up with me.
In 30 years, this race has taken the lives of two competitors, while thousands more have been air-lifted during the race due to dehydration, fatigue and organ failure. On average, only 80% of the field finish2 each year. It was therefore a mathematical certainty that only four of the five of us would finish the race. Our near-impossible 36-month adventure was filmed and closely follows the trials and tribulations of myself and my four brothers while we lived on three different continents, training for and competing in what we all agreed was the hardest challenge we’ve ever experienced – apart from growing up together.
Each of us had our own mission; conquering consciences, managing mediocrity, fighting failure, dispelling demons, breaking boundaries; but the uniting motivation was to honor the then recent passing of our Grandma, a matriarch and maven of the 1920s, whilst raising money for charities around the globe. The five of us joining forces brought uncertainty, pain and the joy of pushing each other and our families to the edge. But ultimately, we believed we were stronger united and more likely to finish it together versus as individuals.
As the middle of five brothers, I’ve had to endure the push and pull of family dynamics, making me a mediator and facilitator, but not always the best communicator. Competitive at heart, I love to push my boundaries both mentally and physically. I’ve flown in the Royal Air Force, jumped out of planes and dived the depths of the ocean. I’ve played representative sport and captained teams to unexpected success – but previously there was always something missing.
Participating in MdS gave me a chance to assimilate my experiences over the last 30+ years and focus. Selfishly, I needed to embark on this journey for myself. Ironically, it became more about my brothers, my family and fundraising, than me. Yes, I was ready to push myself to the limit, but I didn’t realize its opportunity to inspire others and help drive positive change.
So, what was my limiting factor? Fear and failure? I kept (and keep) asking myself what does failure look like? Does it limit? Or does measured failure lead to successful adventure? Through this journey, I reached into the depths of my soul and found dark and ugly corners, but ultimately found belief in myself. Belief in my ability to make a difference, belief that new challenges can make you and others stronger.
As a team, we accomplished what we set out to achieve – understanding our mental and physical limits as individuals and unexpectedly, the power of a team with a unified vision. We truly resilience and strength through one another.
Three years later, I have had the privilege to apply my learnings to another “band of brothers” at LunaPBC, the public benefit corporation spearheading LunaDNA. As the VP of Experience and Member Engagement, I’m helping to build the first citizen-powered research community that’s putting people at the center, and as you can imagine, it’s no easy feat. I hope my experiences and efforts can empower you to begin to answer some of my questions. Consider sharing, contributing and owning what moves friends and family, community and culture, people and populations forward – health information. Alone we’re strong, together we’re powerful.