Cappelloni Finds Reward In 156-mile Adventure
No one who possesses even the slightest of inquisitive natures is going to read very deep into this story without asking, “Why?”
Because as daunting as the “what” is, and as grueling as the “how” is, and as utterly intimidating as the “where” is, the aspect of what Corey Cappelloni accomplished last month that is most difficult to wrap any sane mind around is the “why.”
Why fight your way into arguably the most grueling foot race in the world? Why test the most extreme, harsh environments the world has to offer, with nothing but the freeze-dried pasta meals you could stuff in a backpack?
Great athletes elevate their games when they are forced to encounter their breaking point. But why open the door to the breaking point? Why invite it in?
The disclaimer that comes now is, Cappelloni didn’t have those answers. If the 43-year-old Scranton native does now, weeks after completing the 33rd Marathon des Sables — a six-day, 156-mile race that is the equivalent of running six marathons in seven days through the Sahara Desert where you carry all your own food and supplies — he can’t articulate it in words. The why, he knows now, is simply something you feel.
“I kind of live by this quote from Eleanor Roosevelt,” Cappelloni explained. “She said something like, in order to be fulfilled and happy in your life, you have to try things that you don’t think you can do. This definitely fit into that category. I think part of my personality is taking on challenges I personally am not sure whether or not I can accomplish.”
Corey Cappelloni grew up within a stone’s throw of Lake Scranton. He preferred playing baseball, football and basketball so much that going for a run for the sake of the exercise never much appealed to him.
He lived the type of life many Scranton kids who grew up around him did. He went to Scranton High School, enrolled at Bloomsburg University. Even then, though, he tended toward the atypical. Get an idea in his mind, he had a difficult time shaking it out. No excuses could be tolerated.
Then a 23-year-old who had never been much farther from Scranton than his family’s summer trips to the shore, Cappelloni boarded a plane for Moldova in 1998 as a member of the Peace Corps.
Electricity proved sporadic in the village where he worked and lived; hot water, a luxury. He taught English at a local school. He started a debate team and even wrote articles for an English newspaper. He secured funding from the United States Agency for International Development to complete construction of the town’s school gymnasium, a project abandoned after the fall of the Soviet Union seven years earlier.
Through it all, he didn’t sense the grief or despair one might expect from people living without the comforts he had become accustomed to back home.
“(Marathon des Sables) and the Peace Corps were similar in the sense that they were both life-changing experiences,” Cappelloni said. “You get a different perspective on things, and also on what you can accomplish. ... You kind of realize, even living in this really poor area, people are still happy. Even though I had less than I had ever had in my life, I still had this incredible experience. I think that taught me that life is more about the accumulation of experiences than it is about the accumulation of material things.”
Cappelloni went to law school at the University of Colorado, and he has spent his life searching for the most fulfilling work he could find. He later received a fellowship to study refugee and migration issues at Harvard, where he earned a master’s degree. For more than six years, he has worked in Washington, D.C., where he currently lives, working with the government on refugee issues.
Marathon des Sables’ official slogan is welcoming enough: An extraordinary race for extraordinary people in an extraordinary place. Brochures tell interested participants they’ll race through “a mythical landscape,” but really, they’re talking the unstable sand dunes, stony jebels and scorching salt plains of the Sahara.
Seven days. Six marathons. In the western Sahara, where in early April in Morocco it routinely pushes 120 degrees Farenheit. Runners carry backpacks crammed with all the food they’ll need for the week, and the anti-venom necessary to combat snakes and scorpions. They carry the goat-hair tents they’re provided for shelter overnight.
Discovery Channel called it “the toughest footrace on earth.” It costs around $5,000 to enter, part of which is set aside in case, as Cappelloni put it, “they have to send your remains back to your home country.”
Forget the feint of heart. This race isn’t even for most marathon runners. Three people have died trying to complete it. Rest assured, for a while after he first read about it in an alumni newsletter from Harvard, where he earned a masters in November of 2015, it wasn’t for Cappelloni either.
“My first thought was that is completely insane and there is no way I could ever do it,” he said.
He had been running competitively for about a year at that point. At Bloomsburg, a friend got him interested in running, and in 1997, he ran the Steamtown Marathon. But he only ran a marathon once every five years or so after that. In November of 2014, Cappelloni ran a 51-mile ultra-marathon. He became hooked on distance running, on challenging his limits.
That’s why the collector of experiences, the man who has never successfully gotten a crazy idea out of his head, never quite shook that article about the MdS. He asked his then-6-year-old daughter Emma if she thought he could do it. She said, “Papi, you can do it.”
Why do it? He can’t tell you. If he believed in signs, he admits they were all telling him not to do it.
He wanted to run the 2016 race. However, he went on a mission to help refugees near the Peruvian border and contracted Typhoid fever, a life-threatening disease caused by Salmonella Typhi bacteria and spread through contaminated food and water or close contact.
So he set his sites on 2017, but that didn’t work out, either. The race, he conceded, still intimidated him.
“My friends and family kind of fell into two camps about it,” Cappelloni said. “One was like, ‘you’re a determined guy, you should go for it.’ The other camp was like, ‘Are you crazy? Do you have a death wish?’ ”
Just before New Year’s as he started preparing for the 2018 race, he suffered the first major injury of his running career. The SI joint that connects the pelvis to the lower back became inflamed. For 40 days, he could barely walk. In early February, he said, he couldn’t run two blocks.
What he kept dreading about running the MdS, fate seemed to continually confirm. Don’t do it. Not worth the risk.
By mid-February, the inflammation in the joint subsided. Cappelloni called it “miraculous.” There were still seven weeks of intensive training for the race, which is hardly an ideal amount of time.
“The setback made me more determined,” he said. “I went in with the attitude that, at the very least, I wanted to get to the starting line. If I could only run one mile and my injury flared up, I could live with that because I gave it a shot. But even getting to the starting line this time, I still didn’t know if I could do it.”
For Cappelloni, even the aptly titled song that blared over the loudspeakers at the start of each stage — AC/DC’s Highway to Hell — served as an emotional experience.
His eyes watered as he prepared for the 18.8 mile first stage April 6 with 976 other competitors. He made it to that starting line. Then, he made it farther.
He completed all five stages in a time of 40:02.56.
Moroccan Rachid El Morabity won with a time of 19:35:49, his sixth win in this race.
Cappelloni walked the last 26.2 miles after suffering a stress fracture in his lower right leg during the race’s signature long stage, a more-than 50-mile jaunt that goes from day into night. He had to convince the French doctors monitoring the runners that he wouldn’t try to run the last 26.2 miles to the finish.
“I wanted to finish no matter what,” he said. “If I have to crawl, I will crawl. … You were going to have to carry me off this course.”
Cappelloni called his experience “almost surreal,” an “emotional” and “life-altering” experience.
“In a way,” he said, “it was almost a spiritual experience. ... There’s something incredible about it. It’s just a unique and magnificent feeling.”
His big toes blistered like they never had before. His right leg is still injured to the point where he can’t run, and even if it wasn’t, he couldn’t. The running fiend who once ran an ultramarathon one day, then entered a 13-mile race the next, couldn’t even consider putting on a pair of running shoes a week after he returned to his home in Washington D.C.
Recovery from the Marathon des Sables takes weeks. In those brochures, they don’t call this a race. They refer to it as an adventure. So does Cappelloni. He still feels it every day.
Would you do it again, he’s asked? And, Cappelloni laughs. Because completing the toughest foot race on earth was never about proving to himself that he could do it. It wasn’t about proving anything to others. It was about experiencing it. It was about fighting the heat and camping out with new friends after the stages and closing your eyes so tight when the wind blew that the sand couldn’t possibly fly in. He has nothing to prove athletically. He just has more to see.
“I tell my friends that I’m officially retired from these endurance races, and they all laugh at me. Nobody believes me,” Cappelloni said. “But if I came out of my self-imposed retirement, I’d want to do it differently. If I want to do a desert race again, I think I’d do a different one. It’s part of my personality. Once I experience one thing, I want the next thing to be something just a little bit different.”
When that medal went around his neck for completing the most challenging race the world can muster, none of the pain mattered to him. He remembered an experience hard earned. He thought of the dunes, the mountains. The night sky, unadulterated by electric light. Long days in the desert when he didn’t hear his phone ring or answer an email. Days when he pushed himself, every step, to the breaking point and beyond. He’d think. He’d dream. And he wouldn’t spend another moment worrying, contemplating whether to run the race or not, not another instant of wondering “What if?”
Why put yourself, your body, through that?
He had his answer.
DONNIE COLLINS is a Times-Shamrock sports columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @DonnieCollinsTT.