After training for months and then running the equivalent of nearly six marathons in six consecutive days in the Atacama Desert in Chile, University of Pennsylvania student JesĂșs PĂ©rez now feels empowered to tackle any challenge he encounters.
The group, also known as âi2P,â gives participants a chance to explore socially and environmentally sensitive regions during two-week expeditions.
In January, PĂ©rez began training for the May event. A wrestler in high school, he had never run long distances. As president of his class at Penn, PĂ©rez had a full schedule already, but he took on the challenge and began preparing for the expedition.
âAs I went through the training, it became a passion for me,â says PĂ©rez. âIt was a good way to de-stress. Iâd run down by the Schuylkill River in the morning.â
PĂ©rez, a native of San Juan, Puerto Rico, whose family moved to New Orleans when he was in high school, is the only athlete from the United States selected to participate in the Atacama expedition. Two of the other participants are from Canada, along with one from Italy and one from New Zealand. Only one member of the group had run a marathon before. Now, they were going to run nearly 26 miles every day for six straight days.
âWe were all coming into it very nervous and very anxious,â says PĂ©rez, âbut also very excited because we all know other people have done it in the past. And we know that we had it within us to finish it.â
On his first day running in the desert, PĂ©rez suffered with cramps and dehydration. After replenishing with fluids, resting and getting approval from the groupâs medical professionals, he was running again the next day.
âWe ran through sand, we ran on asphalt,â he says. âWe ran along railroad tracks. We ran through sandy stones. At one point, we ran through salt flats, which was like running through glass.â
The educational component for i2P expedition was an astronomy program incorporating the origins of the universe, the galaxies and planets and life on other planets. Atacamaâs desert conditions, its high altitude and little cloud cover make it an ideal place for observing the sky.
âWhen the sky is very dark, you can see every tiny, little star,â says PĂ©rez. âYou can see the hazy part of the Milky Way, which was absolutely stunning.â
PĂ©rez and his group shared their experiences in live video conferencing sessions with grade school and high school students in classrooms around the world.
In response to questions, âweâd say we saw some fossils in the desert. We saw a sandstorm,â says PĂ©rez. âWeâd tell them all about this, and the point is to inspire them and that they can be empowered to do whatever they want to do.â
PĂ©rezâs feat not only helped inspire the young students, it also left him feeling more confident.
âI feel that Iâve run 136 miles in the middle of the desert, and nothing seems hard now,â he says. âThis experience applies to so many things in life in general about overcoming obstacles, being resilient and just pulling through and pushing yourself to the limit.â
PĂ©rez, who eventually aspires to work in public policy, plans to attend law school after he graduates from Penn in 2016.