Ten years ago, I had the amazing opportunity to compete on Survivor: Pearl Islands with a cast comprised of some of the craziest people I have ever met. In spite of all the outlandish behavior that comes with a major TV production, induced starvation and cutthroat competition for a million dollar prize -- the experience was rife with an overwhelming sense of camaraderie that continues to this day. I attribute that bond to the fact that, in spite of our differences, we all share in common a particular thrill-seeking DNA that predisposes us to jump in and say yes where others would say no.
In the decade that followed, that family of Survivor alums grew, as did the opportunities to get involved and give back while teaming up with other "doers" from around the world. One such opportunity arose during a sidebar conversation I had with Survivor: Africa winner and Grassroot Soccer (GRS) co-founder, Ethan Zohn, at a birthday party in NYC a few years back. Though battling his first bout with Hodgkins Lymphoma at the time, Ethan emitted a tremendous energy while describing the recent work GRS had done to help eradicate the spread of HIV in Sub-Saharan Africa. I didn't identify it at that moment but realized later that this glow he had is customary of people who are actively engaged in giving back.
Ethan offered me a place on the GRS NYC Marathon team if I would commit to fundraising $5,000 for the cause. The only catch -- the race was just two weeks away. I said yes. Without hesitation, I was compelled to take on the challenge and thus my relationship with GRS began. Why wasn't I worried about running the 26.2 mile race or raising the money in just two weeks? It is hard to explain but had to do with the level of confidence he conveyed in the fact that it could be done. He was sure so I was sure and that was that. There was something very special about this person who, in spite of his own health challenges, was so willing to take on a cause much bigger than himself.
That first GRS race was a success as were the half-dozen or so that followed which I raced with a rapidly growing and enthusiastic team of GRS supporters. I pulled in friends, I pulled in family, co-workers and even CEOs of companies I'd worked at to get involved and each time, they thanked me. In more cases than not, those recruits brought recruits who gladly showed up to find out how they could get involved. In a recent conversation with Ethan, we discussed how it was very much like a game 'giving tag' in the sense that you just had to touch one person and they were then set in motion on their own course of doing and giving back. It's a wonderful phenomenon to see take hold.
Over the course of the last year, that momentum translated into the commitment to take on the ultimate challenge and race the Two Oceans Ultramarathon on behalf of GRS. In less than 30 days, myself and a team of seven others will take off for South Africa to race the grueling 35 mile course along the Ivory Coast to raise over $100k towards AIDS and HIV prevention. To add additional momentum to the fundraising, my teammate Josh Elkes and I decided we would also run the Boston Marathon for GRS (another 26.2 miles) just two weeks after South Africa. I have only four weeks left to raise $10,000 and I'm confident I can hit that goal. (It takes only $25 to pay for one child to complete the program and to permanently improve their chances at a quality life safe from HIV.)
The team includes a motivational line-up of 'doers' including long-time GRS racer and two-time cancer survivor Steven Brown, fellow Survivor: Pearl Islands alum Trish Dunn, my former co-worker Josh Elkes and his father Steven who selflessly conjured up the idea for the trip in the first place (and were integral in making it happen) and our friends Rusty Trump, Evelyn Gonzalez and Caroline Calloway. We've been training all winter long and enduring the often sub-freezing temperatures for runs lasting up to five hours in order to prep our bodies and our minds for what will prove to be the challenge of a lifetime. While there is no question that 35 steeply graded miles is a lot to take on, we are collectively stoked for the challenge and the opportunity to finally visit the GRS facilities in South Africa to see first-hand the good that comes of all this running and fundraising. To date, over 570,000 kids have graduated from GRS' HIV prevention programs and that number is expected to surpass one million by the 2014 World Cup. That's amazing.
It also helps to know that the race is survivable as was proven by Ethan when he ran it with a friend back in 2006 in an impressive 5:54:20 hours. He and the GRS team also have plenty of words of encouragement to help keep our goal in perspective. When I asked Ethan what it was that kept him so motivated throughout both his first and now second successful bout with Hodgkins, his response was this:
"Having been on both the giving and receiving end of charity, I'm inspired to see perfect strangers out there running to raise awareness for HIV or biking to find a cure for cancer. I know what it is like to be on the receiving end of a horrible diagnosis and want to do everything in my power to make sure that others do not have to be in that same position, whether it s HIV or cancer -- it is ultimately the same plight. To see others rally around the same cause and taking on great feats to help us get there is the ultimate inspiration."
One thing I've learned through my involvement in the Survivor community and the subsequent opportunities to give back to charity that came about as a result is that doing good feels good and getting others involved feels even better. Whether you or someone you know suffers as a result of the cause you are working for or you arrive at an opportunity to pitch in that is entirely random, take it and then do the ultimate favor and share it with someone else. Thanks for inspiring me, Ethan. I look forward to passing it on.