Tackling the Silk Road Ultramarathon One Step (& Smile!) at a Time

SilkRoad_Blog (1)

Over two thousand years ago Alexander the Great pioneered a trade route through Central Asia that became known as the Silk Road. Being of Greek descent, I had long dreamed of seeing the terrain and landscape he traveled through—and during the recent Silk Road Ultra Marathon, I was able to get an intimate glimpse of just how remarkable Alexander’s journeys must have been.

I started in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, and over the next ten days and 525 km, I made my way across Kyrgyzstan and eventually on to Kazakhstan. What I experienced along the way could fill a book. The diversity of people, geography, architecture, culture, food, and traditions was unprecedented in all my travels (and I have traveled extensively). It’s hard to imagine getting any further away from Western culture, and with 12 time zones separating myself from my hometown of San Francisco, I was exactly halfway around the world.

I crossed three borders on foot, and ran through cities and over countryside, tracking my steps and elevation (sometimes logging 7,500-foot elevation gains in a day) with my Fitbit Surge. In the country I ran mostly by myself. The land was unspoiled; untouched by human hands. The mountains were high, towering mightily into a cobalt sky, and not a trace of jet wash could be seen overhead. The scenery was awe-inspiring, with roaring streams filled with wild trout, sweeping panoramas, lush green valleys accented by  wildflowers and native berries… It would seem this land hasn’t changed since the birth of time.

When I ran through the cities, the energy was a bit more hectic. As with all cities, the traffic, congestion, exhaust, and anxiety increased. But still, it seemed more muted than in other parts of the world. People seemed happier. Even in the midst of rush hour road jams, I heard laughter.

I stopped at many schools along the way to speak to local students. Seeing hundreds of smiling faces peering at me lifted my spirits. Most of the people I met had never seen an American before. I was just as foreign to them as they were to me. One thing I learned, however, is that regardless of the language one speaks, or the orientation of one’s culture, we can all run together. And run we did!

I was greeted on the outskirts of the towns I ran through by hundreds of local runners. We couldn’t speak the same language, but that didn’t matter. Running for us had its own dialogue. Running together united us in a way that is uniquely human, and as far as achieving our goals, we succeeded wildly.

How do you come down from an experience like this? It’s not easy; it changes you. You view life through a different filter—one that is a little less narrow. Something I never saw during my journey was a McDonald’s, or a Starbucks. When I returned home these familiar sights seemed, well, a bit unfamiliar. I thought back to all the people I met along the way who didn’t know these things, didn’t miss them, and seemed perfectly content without a Big Mac or Venti Mochachino in their lives. And just as well.

Though I do imagine that seeing an American for the first time—a runner, no less—ambling down your cobblestoned street with an outstretched hand for a high-five, might alter your perception. Who knows, maybe I changed a few lives, or maybe not. One thing is for sure: All the people I met changed mine.

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