Rising College junior Jesús Pérez said he never really considered himself a “runner.” But that didn’t stop him from and five other students from running 136 miles — the equivalent of about six marathons — through the desert in six consecutive days.
Pérez — who is president of the Class of 2016 — completed the run with the nonprofit organization impossible2Possible, which strives to educate and inspire students of all ages through its extreme expeditions.
His group ran through the Atacama Desert in Chile, the driest place on Earth. Their mission was to educate youth on astronomy and the origin of the universe, with the clear skies of the desert as the perfect backdrop for on-site lessons.
“When we weren’t running, we were teaching,” Pérez said.
While the group ran, around 12,000 local students tracked their location. When the group took breaks, they treated those students to educational lessons.
Pérez heard about the i2P program through two friends who had previously completed the challenge. He first applied for the program as a senior in high school, but was not chosen to participate.
“I didn’t get it, but I was selected as an alternate,” Pérez said. He continued to follow the organization and learn more about its mission, ultimately deciding to reapply in fall of 2013.
“I feel like this time I was much more prepared...I wasn’t really afraid,” Pérez said. “Obviously, I was a little anxious...but I knew people who had done it in the past. I was ready to take on the challenge.”
Pérez did not receive news of his selection as a youth ambassador for the Atacama expedition until January 2014, but, in typical Penn student fashion, he started training in December, “just in case” he was chosen.
An athlete in high school, Pérez remained active in college, but like all but one of the five other members of his expedition group, had never run a marathon. Pérez admitted that while “nothing can prepare you for [running in] the desert,” the program did a great job of readying the group for the elements and exertion, providing him with multiple coaches and a nutritionist.”
“Once the youth ambassadors are announced, now its not just you,” Pérez said. “You have all the other young runners from all over the world who are going through the same thing you are.”
Pérez was the only U.S. ambassador on the Chile expedition, but he said that the teamwork was a key component of the challenge.
“I don’t think any single one of us could have made it by ourselves,” he said.
Pérez admitted that although he is the type who appreciates challenges, anyone — athlete or not — should “put [themselves] out there” if they are interesting in accomplishing a goal.
“I think we shouldn’t put limits on what we can do,” he said. “You have to... really experience the unknown to even know if you can do it.”
The team’s mantra from the expedition speaks volumes about accomplishing goals — and not only those that involve physical exertion and desert sand — “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”