Sometimes you take a leap of faith and you fall. Other times the leap sets your spirit to soar.
Until I was drawn in by the face of a mountain gorilla in an email from FATMAP. They were looking for two people to join That Gorilla Brand founder Leo Gripari to run a 50K. I figured it was probably out of my reach or maybe even a scam to get big donors but I figured “Why not? How much harm could be done by simply clicking a button?” That click launched a journey that I would have never expected, one of invigorating my faith in humanity, strangers and myself.
When Leo told me in late November that he wanted me to join him along with Jan from the Netherlands and the rest of his team, I was ecstatic. And also slightly dubious (“Was this; Was he for real?”) and a bit terrified. I love to run but hadn’t been running since the snow started falling in October and hadn’t run anywhere close to that far before. I knew I would have to train to pull it off and the notion of training for a running event during a Montana winter was daunting. We had already had record early subzero temperatures and were moving toward the coldest and darkest months of December and January. And the wicked ice season that we get here as a result of the interplay between of the warm wet Pacific and bitter cold arctic weather systems.
Leo’s excitement for the work he had been cultivating of connecting people with gorillas and communities with solutions was contagious and carried me through and quickly squashed any skepticism about whether he was legit. So I got to work building up my miles, donning snow goggles and full facemask on the coldest days (-18f) and after a scare of getting a little bit disoriented after sunset on a super cold night I went out for each run carrying a headlamp and emergency fire starter in my pack for the long runs in this remote area.
And I loved every minute of it. I loved having a reason to get up pre-sunrise during the winter and running through the thoughts of things I had read the night before. I had lots of miles to think about the podcasts I eagerly consumed and diving deeper into understanding the world of mountain gorilla conservation. When I would hit mile 15 and my legs would start to revolt, I would think about people who had to walk sometimes half that far just for clean drinking water. I learned as much as I could about the challenging politics underscoring it all of a president that has changed the constitution so he can remain in place for life. I loved bringing my community of friends and family, and the strangers that they spread the word to, during my efforts to fund raise and raise awareness about this cause. Engaging the people I care about in the effort made me feel so much more invested and a part of it. It can feel fairly selfish sometimes to put so much time into these physical exercise pursuits and this changed that.
It would be a stretch to say I loved the ankle pain that crept up from so much extra work stabilizing myself on the slippery ice during runs. But I did love working through knowing I needed to rely on this 47-year old body to experience what lies on the other side of our big planet. Leo made it clear that we could run as long as we could and take breaks in the vehicle if needed but I knew I am too stubborn to take that option…
When I arrived in Rwanda after three days of travel including a 28 hour flight to Johannesburg and a middle of the night departure to Kigali, I was haggard but immediately revived by the bright bustling scene there- thousands of mototaxis riding 8 abreast, birds of all colors flitting about, colorfully clad people filling the streets. It was both soul shattering and moving to see a country so dedicated to the process of healing after a genocide that pitted neighbors against one another. Upon meeting Jan we immediately connected, easy to do after traveling so far to somewhere where we planned to run so far…. We swapped stories of moving from the random click through incredulousness, to research to assure our families (and ourselves) that this was legit, and then running our asses off to feel ready.
The next day we met up with Harry, a genuinely radiant being whose love for people is immediately evident. We piled into the land rover at the skillful hands of Peter and rumbled across the Rwanda border, switching from at the border from driving on the right to the left side of the road. I think we all gasped when we caught our first glimpse of the volcanoes and majestic Lake Mutanda!
Later that evening we finally met the fabled Leo (He was real!) and his father Stephane. It’s amazing how quickly you can feel so connected to perfect strangers from across the world.
Jan and I headed out for a practice run to stretch our legs and get a feel for the terrain- just a few kilometers. We were quickly joined by one, then two, then about 20 kids laughing and high-fiving us as they ran alongside of us. It was hard to want to turn around with that much energy surrounding us!
As a biologist and a bird lover I was thrilled to be in a country with some of the highest biodiversity of birds in Africa and eagerly got up the next morning to drink in their sights and sounds. The sounds of the village were just as beautiful with roosters crowing, drums, people singing, kids playing and shouting “Mzungu” to get my attention.
The kids, the joy of those kids, is infectious. I was excited to have the opportunity the next day to go meet more of them as we drove to three schools to check out some of the water projects that had already been implemented. Seeing the water catchment tanks and hearing from the lead teachers the difference that having water for sanitation, cooking and drinking meant lit a fire inside of me. Each school group shared several dances and songs with us to say thank you. It made me so grateful to be part of it.
I knew I had to share those moments with the students at the local schools that I planned to talk to when I came back to the US – students who, even in families living below the poverty line, do not know what it’s like to not have water at their school. Very few know what it’s like to not have water, endless amounts of hot water even, coming out of the taps in their own homes. I feel fortunate that my kids got a chance to experience this lifestyle while we lived off the grid in a yurt and had to haul water from a nearby stream. They may have been too young to really recognize what a gift water is as a result of that but I hope that somewhere deep in the recesses of their mind they always have gratitude for the miracle that is clean drinking water at your fingertips. The most basic intensity of life.
My nerves intensified as we got closer to the day of the run. I kept telling myself that I knew I could do whatever I set my mind to do, but did my ankles believe this?. Would it get hot and make us all delirious and heat exhausted? What if I got swept up into the competitive spirit of wanting to run as fast as Sam’s Ugandan running club members? As the sole woman running the whole 50 K would I be able to keep up? How would I survive running without binoculars to see all of the beautiful birds up close?
We started before daybreak on a near full moon and I think everybody was having variations of those same nerves and questions. And then we started and the thrill of running with new friends, being joined by swarms of contagiously happy kids, and the glory of the scenery continued to roll out in front of me all of those worries dissolved.
All I had to do was continue to put one foot after the other for as many hours as it would take. It turns out, that is not very hard when you’re surrounded by so much joy. I was especially enlivened by the opportunity to run the last 7K with two girls and a woman who held hands with me for a large part of that final push. They had doubts that they could run as far as they did and feeling their sense of confidence grow as they neared the finish line was all the motivation I needed to finish those last miles. And to cross the finish line with everyone was a magical experience of feeling a communal sense of victory and triumph of over our own doubts and fears.
Trekking into the jungle to see the gorillas and getting to meet some more of the gorillas.org team were also major highlights. It’s almost unfathomable to see a creature so similar to us and look into their eyes and know that there are only fewer than 1200 of them left. Such a tenous number. I wanted to hug each of the gorillas.org staff and Leo for their dedication to the mission of keeping those creatures that are kin on this planet.
It is crazy to think that all of these transformational thoughts came from a single click of a button. My wheels have been turning at a heightened pace since I returned, trying to figure out what I can do to build off of the inspiration Leo gave me to keep finding ways to wrap together my love of wildlife in wild places, running, children, and raising the quality of life for people. Stay tuned!