On February 24th the first team of Americans will compete in the Libyan Challenge Master Trek, a 125-mile foot race along an ancient camel caravan in northern Africa's Sahara desert. Participants will be self-supported, carrying all of their food and medical supplies with only a GPS to navigate between waypoints where they can refill their water supplies. Runners have 75 hours to complete the grueling event. Along the way they will pass prehistoric rock paintings depicting Libya when it was a lush jungle teeming with wild life. Now one of the driest places on earth, the Tuareg's desert-dwelling people are one of the only inhabitants of the desert. Known for their hospitality, it is not uncommon for runners to be invited for a cup of tea beside a Tuareg campfire on an all night desert hike. Clambering over volcanic rock and towering rock formations, the American Team will not only be tested to their physical and mental limits, but they will also have the opportunity to be ambassadors to their country during a time when relations are being built between the US and Libya.
American runners include Bob Lashua 45, Howard Cohen 50, Isabella De La Houssaye 45, JB Benna 29, and Rebecca Byerly 25. Howard Cohen will compete as an individual while Bob, Isabella, and Rebecca will compete as a team. Filmmaker JB Benna and journalist Rebecca Byerly will video the race and cover the story for National Geographic, Al Jazeera, and other media outlets.
"Last September a Libyan friend told me about the race and put me in touch with the Libyan consul here in Washington, D.C.," Rebecca recalls. "Not only did the consul assure me that he could get visas for the team but we also began training for the race together. I thought this was a unique opportunity to learn about Libya while engaging in an extreme sport. Though I had no idea how everything was going to come together, I was determined to have an American team in this year's event."
This it the fourth year the Libyan Challenge has been held but it is the first time Americans have had the opportunity to participate. After three decades of sanctions, the first American Ambassador was recently appointed to Libya and the country was taken off the terrorist watch list. Relations between Libya and the West had deteriorated in the 1970's as a result of Libya's leader Muammar Al-Qaddafi's confrontational foreign policies. In 1986 Libya was allegedly involved in a terrorist bombing in a discotheque in Berlin frequented by American military personnel. As a result the US imposed economic sanctions and retaliated militarily against targets in Libya. In 1988 Libya was also allegedly involved in the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which killed 270 people. In 2003 relations improved dramatically after Libya fulfilled UNSCR requirements and publicly announced its intentions to give up its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction. Sanctions were lifted in 2004 and in 2006 an embassy was set up in Tripoli. In November of 2008 Libya settled its remaining financial debt to the families of Flight 103 and now the US and Libya are working together to bridge gaps and foster new relationships between the Libyan and American people and businesses.
"One of the most inspiring aspects of this race has been watching the mentality of the American team change," says Rebecca. "At first they were hesitant and worried about traveling to Libya, but through research and keeping an open mind their reservations about Libya have lightened." "The opportunity to break down fear and cultural barriers by approaching the country in a very humble way, on foot, outweighed any hesitations," JB says. Bob has similar sentiments, stating "I do not have any reservations about running in Libya, although if I were to listen to friends and family... maybe I should! I've traveled enough to feel comfortable wherever I find myself. I fully anticipate the Libyan people to be warm and welcoming."
Training for the race has been a challenge in its own right. Bob, a Massachusetts native, trained through one of the coldest winters on record. Howard and Rebecca battled injuries and Isabella, a mother of five, barely had time to get the mandatory gear required for the race. "Many of my training treks were done in sub freezing temperatures on roads that had been narrowed by snow and ice" recalls Bob. "It was not uncommon for my water and food to freeze during a training session." Rebecca was only able to begin training in mid January as she was coming off a knee injury and Howard took a bad fall on a training run and wound up in the emergency room. "This could have been a devastating neck injury and I was very worried as I sat in the emergency room waiting for the x-rays to come back," Howard said. "Thoughts of a permanent disability ran through my mind and how it would change my life. But in the end I was okay." Isabella had to juggle being a full time mom, working, and training for the run. One of the best team memories was when she took her 16-year-old son Cason to train with the team on a mountainous 27 mile trek.
"Some people wonder why we are doing this race," Rebecca said. "It definitely takes a special person to take on an event like this. But we take on these kinds of challenges because they offer an opportunity to not only grow as a person, but to make life long friends, and to take steps towards improved understanding between nations. When you are out in the desert it does not matter what country you are from, which God you worship, or how much money you have. We are all out there suffering together with one goal in mind - to cross the finish."