Sunday, May 29, 2011

"Walking the Gobi," A Fascinating Portrait of a Land, Its People, and the Power of Human Determination

Helen Thayer was 64 years-old when she and her husband Bill set out to walk 1,600 miles across the Mongolian Gobi Desert in the middle of summer. He was 74. They battled scorching 126-degree heat, ferocious sand storms, deadly scorpions, dehydration, and dangerous drug smugglers.

With no support team, sponsors, or radio contact, theirs is a story of pure adventure. Traversing the hostile Mongolia-China border, leading two charismatic camels named Tom and Jerry, the Thayers could not have imagine the magnitude of the beauty they would encounter on their epic journey.

Helen was no stranger to hostile natural environments. At the age of 50, she became the first woman to solo trek to the magnetic North Pole, pulling her own sled without resupply. Born in New Zealand, she has become a world-reknowned explorer and motivational speaker.

Twice she has kayaked 2,200 miles in the Amazon. She walked 4,000 miles along an ancient trade route in the Sahara. She has lived alogside and studied the Canadian wild wolves of the polar sea and has been named “One of the Great Explorers of the 20th Century” by National Geographic Society and NPR.

Despite her long list of accomplishments, there had always been one dream Helen never gave up on. When she was in grade school, her teacher fascinated her with stories of the Gobi. She imagined the rugged bueaty of the land and its people. Instantly, she knew she had to go there.

That she held on to that dream for so long speaks to her determination and indomitable spirit. Just a year before their scheduled trek, Helen was involved in a serious car accident. The doctors told her she might never walk again. But, this did not stop her. Still recovering from her injuries, she set out to realize her goal of crossing the desert on foot.

"Walking the Gobi" is an absorbing book. It works on a couple of different levels. On the one hand, it is a wonderful introduction to the cultures of the Gobi. In the fashion of all good travel writing, Helen's observations of the land and the people who inhabit it are insightful; they instill within the reader a deep sense of appreciation for the power of the natural elements.

She does not condescend or pretend to fully understand the ways of the desert or its nomadic peoples. Rather, she approaches her subject matter with a genuine sense of awe and interest. Her prose is clear and precise, but still infused with passion. Readers sense in her a great, wise old teacher.

The book also works as an example of human determination. Here is a woman who has defied preconcived limits of age and physical endurance. She also defied what is traditionally expected of her gender - border patrol authorities in Mongolia were frequently hesitant to deal with a woman and rape was a major concern if she was impriosned for crossing ilegally into China. But, Helen Thayer accomplished her lifelong dream and now we are givin a invaluable glimpse of a land and people we know little about.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Courage in the Face of Adversity: The Story of America's First Openly Gay High School Track Coach

Eric Anderson knows the meaning of the word courage. In 1993, at the age of 25, he came out to his high school track team and the community of Huntington Beach High School in Orange County, California. In doing so, he became the first openly gay high school coach in America. His book, "Trailblazing," chronicles the often painful and devastating ordeals he faced in coming out. It's a remarkable story about courage in the face of adversity.

Coming out is a affirmative act of self-proclamation. It's a conscious step towards living life on one's own terms. When someone come's out of the closet, they are saying to a heteronormative and homophobic society, "I am here and I am not ashamed of who I am." Gay and lesbian men and women need to come out if they hope to achieve a higher level of personal and spiritual fulfillment. This is important to remember when reading Anderson's story.

Before he came out, he was plagued with headaches. The stress of keeping his secret hidden caused him severe migraines and ulcers. He worried constantly that friends and family members might perceive him as gay. Some straight people might not understand this. Social norms allow them to express their sexuality freely without fear of backlash. Gay people don't always have this luxury.

Sometimes coming out can mean being socially ostracized, getting fired from your job, being teased and made fun of, and in some cases, even killed. Imagine for a moment the pain and anguish of having to conceal something so innate and fundamental as your own sexuality - having to be constantly aware of who you look at, how you look at them, what you say, and the way you say it.

Anderson knew he would face backlash. But, he came out for a couple of reasons: first, he couldn't continue to live a lie, and second, he wanted to help closeted students not feel so alone.

It is touching that those who supported and stood by him most were his track team members. They accepted the news of his homosexuality as a non-issue, and thus, they had the most mature reaction out of anyone in the community. Even the parents of his students stood by him.

But, in the homophobic world of high school athletics, Anderson's happiness was short-lived. People keyed his car. Students tagged the word "faggot" on his team's bus. They harassed and bullied his straight team members for being on the "gay team." On one occasion they even assaulted and broke the jaw of a team member. All the while, the school administrators turned a blind eye to these injustices. It's telling that before allowing a new member to join his team, Anderson had to make sure to warn the prospective runner and his parents that daily harassment was almost inevitable.

"Trailblazing" is a thrilling and inspiring book and one of the best running books ever written, not least because it's more about courage than it is about running. Eric Anderson led his team to victory on the track, but their real victory was off the track. They proved that courage, friendship, intelligence, and humor can overcome hatred.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Great Abs Competition

I just finished a late night chat with Abdullah Elgabrowny, my best friend Aleia's brother. He was telling me about his fitness goals this year and he mentioned he wanted abs. I perked up at the mention of abs because for the past few weeks, I have been working on my core. I want a six pack very badly - I always have!

We came up with a plan: for the next few months he and I will work towards building defined abs, separately, and then on October 30th, we will compare pictures of our finished products. This will be a friendly competition to see who can get the most dramatic results. In October, we will post photos on this blog and on Facebook and have people vote on who has the best abs. People will vote in two categories: best abs and most dramatic change.

We mean this to be a motivational tool. A little competition can bring out the best in us. We start today, Friday, May 30, 2011. Let the workouts begin!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Goodbye Lubbock, Hello World!

Three years ago, I was an entering first-year student at Texas Tech School of Law in Lubbock, Texas. I weighed over 300-lbs. I was introverted and unsure of myself.

Upon moving into my new apartment, I was disheartened to find that I was situated on the third floor of a run-down, smelly piece of property. The rent was only $260, all bills paid and fully-furnished, and let me tell you, you get what you pay for. When I walked in my efficiency studio, I was greeted with the smell of mothballs! I don't know who invented mothballs, but I for one would rather be infested with moths than have to endure such a foul stench!

Here I was 400 miles away from home, lonely and depressed. School hadn't even started and already my mind was plagued with doubts. Was moving a smart thing to do? Was law school meant for me? I must have spent that first week crying my eyes out! I called my friends back home nearly every day. "I made a big mistake," I lamented.

My time in Lubbock was tedious and difficult. Not that law school is difficult - the workload is actually not that bad. It's just that I didn't enjoy the material. I got no joy out of studying contract law or civil procedure.

I met some terrible people in Lubbock, too. If you've been to law school, you know that the classes are filled with liars, backstabbers, and the most heinous gossips you could ever encounter. I lost several would-be friends to their prejudices, racism, and spitefulness.

Fortunately, I also met some wonderful people who got me through the rough patches. Without them, I don't think I would have kept my sanity. In them, I found companionship. I found a confidant - someone who shared my interests in the arts and with whom I could share dreams and secrets.

Maybe law school really was a mistake. It's certainly possible that I will live to regret my decision to go. Now that I have finished my three years in Lubbock, I can't say for sure whether, if I could go back in time, I would do it again. A part of me wishes I had had the guts to drop out my first year. But, fear and pride kept me going.

But, in a way, I am glad I didn't quit. Because then I never would have met my friends. And I never would have discovered my love of running. I mentioned that when I moved to law school, I weighed about 300 lbs. Although I started losing weight the summer before I moved to Lubbock, I started running seriously while I was in Lubbock.

Every night after class, I would go for a run at the track around the Student Rec Center. As the stars twinkled in the night sky, I exorcised all that pain, confusion, and frustration. Before long, I was dropping weight and found myself signing up for my first marathon, and a week later, my first 50-mile ultramarathon.

Auguste Rodin wrote that "nothing is a waste of time if you use the experience wisely." Law school taught me that there is no difficult situation that I can't endure. I will endure it. And in the process, I will pull out from it any and every benefit I can. I have learned to have a sense of humor in all situations, especially the worst of the worst. I have learned to smile and make the best of a shitty set of circumstances. I have learned to make do with the bad and be grateful for the good. I have learned to be wary of bad people and to treasure an honest friend. And I have learned that I am stronger than I think.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Updates on the Melissa Villapando Memorial Scholarship

Just today I received an e-mail from the scholarship committee regarding the Melissa Villapando Memorial Scholarship, for which I raised over $1000 running Cactus Rose 100. Here is the letter I received:


Dear Gerard,

I just wanted to thank you again for all your help in raising the money for my mother's scholarship. This scholarship means so much to me and my family and is the best way we know to keep my mother's memory alive in the catholic community. I do apologize for not providing information on the candidates who applied. There were only two and the names were Jose Castillas and Maria Fernandez. Both were very good candidates but the winner was obvious due to presentation of application, grades, and amount of service and involvement.

I have been in contact with St. Gerard since the scheduled ring mass. The ring mass was canceled and I was given another date to present the award. Then I was given another date for tomorrow, May 11 at 9:30 am. It would be great if you could make it but I do understand it is really short notice. If you have any questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to ask.

Thank you again,

Kimberly Villapando


Unfortunately, I cannot make the mass since I am stuck in Lubbock taking law school final exams. So I won't be able to meet the recipient. However, I asked Kimberly if she could tell the kids something for me. Here was my response to Kimberly's note:



I'm so glad you found some awesome student to receive the scholarship! It was my pleasure to give back to the community. Unfortunately, I cannot make it to the mass. I am in Lubbock right now taking law school finals. But, if you can, would you make an announcement for me? Please tell the kids to hold on to their dreams and to work hard towards their goals - whatever those goals may be. Tell them to dream big and to never give up on those dreams!

I ran 100 miles at Rocky Raccoon 100 on February 5. I am currently training for a 200 mile run in Yellowstone on October 15. Tell them that the sky is the limit and to never forget to give back to their community.



So there it is. Thank you to those of you who donated to my run. You have helped one special student and their family! I asked Kimberly to update me on who receives the scholarship. I will post updates as I receive them.