Dallas resident Jarrett Kovics ran through hell and won.
As Kovics stiffly trekked up and down the sand dunes of the 130-degree Chilean desert in early March, he constantly saw the heat rising from the sand as if it were smoke off a barbeque grill on a Texas Fourth of July.
Constantly spreading sunscreen on his face and arms gave little opportunity to wipe the sweat continually flowing into his eyes.
He was running … well, moving as close to running as one can with a frayed right Achilles tendon and he could not stop.
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More than 100 miles into the 155-mile Atacama Crossing race, the fear of being timed out by not reaching the next checkpoint in the prescribed time would turn the experience of a lifetime into a great disappointment for Kovics and those he was running for in Texas and in Costa Rica.
More than a year earlier, Kovics returned from a mission trip to the Methodist Children’s Home in Costa Rica with a call to support that mission under construction. A return trip to erect a few more walls wasn’t enough, though; he wanted to supply financial support that would build plenty of walls for the charity.
“I said, what could I do to justify asking for money?” said Kovics, director of the Texas market for R.W. Baird & Co., a wealth-management company.
It took just a small bit of research to come up with a plan. If Kovics — who wasn’t a runner — was crazy enough to take on the Atacama Crossing race, a 250-kilometer run over seven days in the extreme heat with elevation changes through the Chilean desert, people would be crazy enough to pull out their checkbooks for his chosen cause.
The first email spread to a few hundred people and brought in close to $15,000.
The first challenge for Kovics was to find a coach. The first several he asked turned down his offer because they didn’t feel they had the expertise to prepare a man for such a grueling endeavor and, frankly, didn’t want what could happen to him during the race on their conscience or résumé. A year before the race, Kovics met up with Sam Nix, a CrossFit trainer in Dallas, and Nix took the challenge.
Nix put a heavy focus on strength training to build up endurance levels in Kovics’ muscles and tendons. He reinforced good running posture, rather than just keeping the focus on the aerobic side.
Beyond the work done in the gym, Nix and Kovics game-planed the entire race, going through all scenarios Kovics might encounter on the course.
For instance, to give the start-up runner the experience of the intense temperatures he would face, Kovics put on up to five layers of clothing and sat in his car with the heater on during the Texas summer before making a long-distance training run, Nix said.
The training kept away the fear of the race as Kovics made his trip to Chile and up to the starting line. But nothing could fully prepare any runner for what he would experience over the next seven days.
Another challenge of the race is its self-supporting nature, meaning every runner must provide and carry his own food and necessities. All that is provided by race organizers is water and sleeping shelter. Sharing provisions among runners is against the rules.
What he would learn is that strength and encouragement are commodities openly traded among all the competitors of the race.
Day 3, Kovics wrote in a blog he updated after each stage, was the toughest day of his life. He awoke to ankles so swollen they wouldn’t fit into his shoes. His right Achilles tendon had begun to fray.
“My Achilles tendons were in such pain that I had to go to the medical tent in flip-flops with a borrowed trekking pole to talk to the doctors about what I could do,” he said.
The backs of his shoes were cut and his ankle was taped and he headed out on a journey that saw him almost give up three times, crying throughout the day with the thought of disappointing those back in Dallas.
The 39-year-old runner had only been able to ingest around 800 calories per day since he began but he was burning around 10,000. His pack was too heavy, forcing him to dump even more of his food to continue the trip through sharp salt flats and gigantic sand dunes.
“My muscles were cannibalizing themselves in place of food it wasn’t getting,” he said.
About 60 miles into the race, Kovics sat in the sand across from the third checkpoint of Stage 3, about to wave the white flag, looking and praying for some sign on why he should continue.
“I looked up and said, ‘God, anything would be good right about now,’” Kovics said.
At that moment the doctor came out of the tent and said a competitor he had met before the race was waiting in the tent to see him through the rest of the stage.
“He said, ‘Grab me by my shirt. I don’t care what’s hurting you. You’re getting in tonight. If you’re going to quit, it’s not on my watch. Let’s go,’” Kovics recounted.
He made it through the rest of that day and through the “long march” of stages 5 and 6, which were run together through the night, taking 20 hours to complete.
The final day was an “easy” 15 miles, in which he ran the last 500 yards at the challenge of a competitor running alongside him. That is, running as well as someone could flat-footed after traveling 155 miles.
When he crossed the finish line, awaiting him was the most delicious Coke he had ever chugged.
What he found when he returned to Dallas was even sweeter than that South American cane sugar. His life had been changed through the suffering he endured for the children of Costa Rica, who now have around $40,000 coming their way.
Kovics doesn’t foresee running a race like Atacama Crossing again, but the toll the race took on his body, which many rest up to six months after, isn’t keeping him down.
“Two days after he finished he asked me what are we doing for training?” Nix said in shock.