Dan Berlin made history as the first blind runner to cross the Grand Canyon from the South Rim to the North Rim and back in one go. I served as one of Dan’s four guides and I am forever changed by the experience.
Running rim to rim to rim is not easy. It is a 46-mile route over rocky terrain including 25,000+ feet of elevation change, and in certain sections, dangerous switchbacks on narrow trails beside thousand-foot drop offs. I took turns guiding Dan with my fellow guides Charles Scott, Brad Graff and Pete Kardasis, usually two at a time—one in front and one behind to keep him safe. We took only short breaks to refuel, refill water supplies, repair damaged feet and other body parts, wrap sore joints, and encourage one another not to give up. Perhaps the most amazing part of this for me was that we were completely self-supported, and at one point with no water stops in sight for miles, had to refill our bottles from the Bright Angel Creek.
In order to guide Dan across the Grand Canyon, I needed to train. A lot. As a working mother of three, I share the daily struggle of thousands of woman trying to achieve an elusive work-life balance. I constantly toil between wanting to be involved in my kids’ school and never missing one of their activities, with managing apple seeds, an all-in-one children’s play space my husband Bobby and I founded. We’re in the midst of launching a national franchise program, and I felt as if I never had enough time to train adequately for this intimidating endurance challenge. I had difficulty squeezing in an hour-long exercise class, let alone the hours and hours of trail running I needed to do to get my body ready to take on 46 rugged miles in the Grand Canyon.
But I did it. I simply made the time. Yes, I often felt torn about missing work. And yes, I sometimes felt guilty about not being with my kids. But I also realized that I was a better mother and a better business owner when I made time to run outside on trails or practice my beloved yoga. At first, I felt selfish forcing in time to train, but I had no choice. Dan was counting on me to be in shape and to guide him. And over time, I realized that it wasn’t healthy always to put myself last. As I made time to train, I began to feel happier and healthier.
When the time came to guide Dan across the Grand Canyon, I was ready. I learned a lot about myself on this run.
1. I learned that I need more confidence in myself. In the months leading up to this adventure, I relied on my friend and training partner Charles to remind me (on a daily basis) that I could do this crazy thing. Looking back, I think I knew I could do it all along, but fear and lack of confidence stopped me from fully believing it.
2. I learned that I enjoy setting goals. When I turned 40, I promised myself “one adventure a year,” preferring something outdoors and athletic to not only feel strong, but also allow me to try the many things I’ve wanted to do in the limited time I have on this planet. Running the width of the Grand Canyon and back in one day exceeded my expectations, and as I reached the final few steps, I felt a deep sense of accomplishment. That feeling won’t leave my mind or heart too soon, and I would never know that feeling if I had not tried.
3. I learned that my kids want a lot of things from me as a mother, but ultimately, they simply want me to be happy. What they need is my unconditional love and my unfettered support in their schooling, activities, hopes and dreams. Through this past year of training, I grew even closer to my children, as I began to realize some of my own dreams. I’ve watched as they’ve absorbed my journey into their little minds, and I hear them setting their own goals, believing they can do anything…if they put their mind to it. I think they already realize that trying something is more important than thinking about something, and they understand that a working mother is also a woman with her own hopes and dreams. This is a powerful message.
4. I learned that I deeply need the loving friendship and support I have around me. My husband Bobby, my business partner and closest friend Allison, the many women I am so fortunate to call my friends, and my friend and training partner Charles. Without each of them, quietly reminding me to keep going, never judging me when I broke down after spinning my feet in the hamster wheel, and devotedly holding my hand along the way…I learned that love and friendship are the guideposts in my survival guide, the most fundamental part of my ability to be resilient and keep going.
5. Finally, I learned how lucky I am to be able to do this crazy run. Throughout the sometimes hilarious, sometimes grueling 28 hours, I felt, above all else, gratitude. I was overwhelmed with gratitude that I could fly to the Grand Canyon, bring my family with me and complete such an athletic feat. But I was even more overwhelmed with gratitude simply for having my eyesight. Guiding Dan was a way for me to help another person, sharing something extraordinarily powerful with someone who needed me. But it was also somewhat selfish. Guiding Dan enabled me to shift my mind from my own fear of possibly taking a wrong step to certain death, or transfer any pain I may have felt from swollen, blistered feet. As I’d run or hike, I would sometimes close my eyes for a few seconds and try to feel what it was like for Dan. As we ran through the night, and I could see a only a few feet of light in front of me, shining from my headlamp. But looking up at Dan, I did not feel frustrated but rather grateful for those few feet of comfort. I knew that the sun would rise, the trails would become clear again and I would once again see the beauty of the canyon. Dan would never be able to see its glorious paths, its varied ecosystems and the magnificent colors reflecting off its walls.
Deep down, we all knew that Dan’s completion would inspire hundreds of athletes and children affected by blindness. With that as our unspoken guiding light, in 28 hours, we never broke down. Each of us had different moments of frustration and despair, but Dan’s fortitude to keep going, I believe, carried all of us. Dan describes his blindness as “an inconvenience rather than a disability.” Instead of focusing on what he cannot do, he explores what he can do. And so we did too.
That philosophy is really a lesson for all of us, isn’t it? We all face some degree of adversity and it’s easy to let perceived impediments keep us from pursuing our dreams. Each of us took a different path to enable us to take on the Grand Canyon, and stumbling through life’s hurdles was simply part of the process. Dan stumbled many times while crossing the canyon, but he didn’t give up. He lives a life focusing on what is possible and then makes it happen. That is, perhaps, my greatest lesson of all.
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