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From Impossible to Possible

Graduate Jess Suvak ’11 Runs Across the World’s Largest Salt Flat in Bolivia

By Christian Taske ’07

When her classmates walked across the stage in the Regina Auditorium to receive their diplomas this past May, graduate Jessica Suvak ’11 was more than 4,000 miles away, and 12,000 feet above sea level, running across the world’s largest salt flat, Salar de Uyuni, and the Andes mountains in Southwest Bolivia.

Suvak was missing her graduation day to participate in an extreme, long-distance running expedition with impossible2Possible, a non-profit organization that uses adventure as a medium to promote education. She had been chosen from thousands of applicants to be one of five youth ambassadors who would take on the daunting task of running 155 miles in six days, and conduct scientific experiments in the process, to promote the International Year of Chemistry.

Jess SuvakIn order to reach the finish line in time, the five ambassadors would have to run nearly a marathon a day – at an altitude at which the thin air caused headaches and nosebleeds, and on a terrain that included steep mountain climbs, rocky roads and the occasional encounter with a tarantula.

For most people running a marathon on paved roads in the U.S. is a challenge. To accomplish the same feat six days in a row in such adverse conditions is nearly inconceivable. That is no longer the case for Suvak, who says the adventure has changed her.

“Altogether it’s made me more open to ideas,” Suvak says. “It’s made me a stronger person. I now know if I train hard or study hard, I can accomplish the impossible.”

Before she signed up for the experience, Suvak, a three-sport athlete at Notre Dame, at most ran four miles at a time. But through an intense workout plan that included running about half a marathon every week she continuously built up her stamina in the months leading up to the expedition. She finished her first marathon ever on day two in Bolivia. Today, the 22-year-old runs 50Ks (31 miles), competes in triathlons, and plans to finish the Ironman competition before she turns 25.

“After that experience I just can’t relax anymore,” Suvak laughs. “I need to find that next step I guess.”

Jess SuvakSuvak says she used to be a timid person, but no longer is afraid to take on such challenges. Maybe that’s because the physical demands in Bolivia brought her close to her breaking point, but didn’t ultimately break her spirits.

Suvak’s days began at 6:30 a.m. when she woke up in her ice-covered tent from a night with temperatures below freezing. After a quick breakfast and demolishing the camp, the youth ambassadors embarked on eight hours of running, every step carefully monitored by a team of doctors, physical trainers and cameramen. 

 The ambassadors carried several layers of clothes, two liters of fluids to stay hydrated, microphones and cameras to film their adventure, and a GPS system to track their progress on impossible2Possible’s website. On average, they burned 3,000 to 5,000 calories and drank three gallons a day. All the while, medical staff continuously monitored their oxygen levels and blood pressures.

The AmbassadorsSince part of the salt flat was flooded, the group’s journey was cut short by 30 miles but re-routed through the Andes, where the runners reached up to 15,000 feet above sea level.

 “I was huffing and puffing just from walking,” Suvak says. “A lot of times we had to use a one-on, one-off technique, where we would run for a minute and then walk for a minute, because the air was so thin we couldn’t breathe.”

None of the runners had done any altitude training to prepare for such a climb. “We literally just went in there and hoped for the best,” Suvak says.

But the young adults, who included another runner from the U.S., two from Canada and one from Chile, kept each other’s spirits up and developed close friendships in the process. In addition, they were able to rely on the expertise of professional, long-distance runners who followed them closely.

Jess SuvakThese guides included Hannah McKeand, who has set a record for skiing 690 miles from the coast of Antarctica to the South Pole in under 40 days; Ferg Hawke, whose résumé includes a 9:27-hour Ironman and a third-place finish at the three-day Ultraman Triathlon World Championships in Kona, Hawaii; and Ray Zahab, who ran the entire width of the Sahara Desert (4,600 miles) in 111 days.

Despite their experiences, the guides at times found it difficult to keep up with the youth ambassadors. “We couldn’t be any more blown away and impressed by how well they are doing,” Zahab said in one of the many expedition videos posted on i2P’s website.

Despite the physical demands, the ambassadors found time to hold live webcasts with high school and grade school students and conducted experiments with the scientists on the expedition team. They extracted lithium from the salt flat (50 percent of the world’s lithium can be found in the Salar de Uyuni), for example, and explored why the Salar’s salt crystals don’t sink to the bottom of the lake. Some of the experiments were broadcast live to classrooms in the U.S. and Canada.

Getting some airFor Suvak, the combination of adventure and education is what made the expedition so special. “To tell kids our age or younger that they can do anything physically or mentally if they put their mind to it is so amazing,” says Suvak, who neither had a long-distance-running nor a science background when she applied for the expedition.

The Seven Hills, Ohio, native says Notre Dame College, where she ran track and played softball and volleyball, prepared her for the experience. “If it wasn’t for NDC I wouldn’t be running,” she says. “NDC really opened me up to thinking that I could do other things.”

Her personal goal for the adventure in Bolivia was simply to stay strong and finish the run. When Suvak and her four fellow runners reached their destination, they fell to the ground feeling elated and exhausted. “The best feeling was probably finishing,” she says. “But two seconds later you’re like, ‘What am I gonna do next?’”

Besides pushing her physical boundaries, Suvak plans to use her marketing degree with a minor in fine arts to find a job in sales or possibly go back to school for photography. She has developed a taste for traveling and plans to help promote future impossible2Possible expeditions as well (Gatorade plans to produce a Web series about the Bolivia expedition, for example).

Suvak isn’t quite sure yet what she wants to do with her life and plans to take it step by step, much like she approached the 155-mile run. If her performance in Bolivia is any indication, she will surely be successful.

“I believe that with training and hard work,” Suvak says, “you can push yourself to do whatever you want.”  

For videos and more information about Suvak’s adventure, visit http://impossible2possible.com/bolivia/

Christian Taske ’07 is the editor and writer at Notre Dame College.