When exhaustion was beginning to take its toll, Bill Steinburg took inspiration from our God-given gifts to complete his leg of the Beat the Sun race on Mont Blanc in France. Photo courtesy of Bill Steinburg

Nature’s beauty, new friends, athletic gifts inspire Steinburg’s journey

By  Bill Steinburg
  • July 19, 2016

On the longest day of the year, I stood on a mountain trail in the middle of the French Alps a mile above sea level. I had every reason to count my blessings.

I was on an all-expenses paid week in the Mont Blanc region of France, sharing an incredible experience with fantastic people from around the world. But in that moment, instead of blessings, all I felt was desperation.

I had been selected from among 38,000 entrants to join the ASICS Beat the Sun 2016 international mountain race. The event, promoted as “Nature’s Toughest Challenge,” is a 140-km trail-running relay that circumnavigates Mont Blanc during daylight hours on June 21, the year’s longest day. There were eight teams of six runners. The objective was to circle the mountain between dawn and sunset. As an avid runner and outdoors enthusiast, it was a trip of a lifetime.

But I was stopped in my tracks. I had almost finished my second, and final, leg of the race as my team tried to beat the sun. In my first leg, I completed 14 km in some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.

Now on my second 14-km leg I was less than a kilometre from the transfer point, where a teammate was waiting. But I was unsure I could make it. I still had to climb another 300 metres of elevation. I was gassed. Out of juice. Cooked.

Perhaps I went out too fast in the first leg, or perhaps the reality of running at an altitude nearly 1,500m higher than at home was too much. Or both. I had already ascended almost 1.5 km of elevation over the course of the day. I stood motionless, pondering the slope, unsure if I had the strength to climb the steep path ahead.

Looking back now, of course I was going to make it, but I doubted myself at that moment. I have completed 15 marathons and a couple of 50-km trail races. I trained months for this day. Hundreds of people had voted me onto the team. I felt a responsibility to keep moving.

I had met more than 50 runners from around the world during the previous few days and they were on the course with me — we supported each other through the training runs and briefings of the previous days. They were all getting it done and I should, too.

In my dreams before the race, I conquered the trails with grace and determination. But the reality was a lot uglier. I was in a real mental fog.

As I paused to collect myself, I recognized the blessings of the moment — the new friends, the beauty of the mountain, my physical abilities. I was conscious of a call to excellence that I believe should be followed in all elements of our lives.

We are all called to nurture and celebrate our God-given gifts. At its basic level, Beat the Sun is a severe test of those physical abilities in an ominous environment in which nature sets the race course and controls the time keeper — the sun.

Faith and worship weren’t an open part of the daily routine on the mountain. But it was clear that several people were living out their faith in Chamonix. I have no doubt the beauty of the Alps and the incredible challenge of the race inspired prayer and contemplation among many of us.

Aware of all that, I began to walk up the trail, then, when the slope allowed, I ran. I got a bit of rhythm going. I was back on the move. Then a stag and doe ran alongside the trail ahead of me. The site of them steeled my resolve and pushed me over the crest.

I reached the transfer point a bit of a stumbling mess. But I made it.

As I walked down the mountain with other runners, we watched the sun disappear behind a peak. It was incredibly beautiful but bittersweet. Our team failed to meet the time requirements or beat the sun. Just two of the eight teams finished on time. But we did get safely around the mountain together.

Now, whenever I feel the sting of our failed attempt at Beat the Sun, I pause and count the blessings of the experience. It makes it easy to move on.

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