Seeing Pink

His coach always said, “You make your best strides in sand, not on the track.”

As often as possible, Ben’s training included runs at Pine Island. The area just off the ocean provided him the softest, whitest sun-bleached sand to run on; challenging him with steep, wind-carved dunes that beat any stadium steps. The sand wasn’t easy to run on — well, “in” — since it’s softened dryness swallowed every footstep. His feet sank deep, forcing his weary legs to burn lactic acid as he sought to yank them free for another step.

It wasn’t just the great workouts that Pine Island provided. The location gave him the solitude he needed ever since his mother had died. Breast cancer. Amy’s struggle to fight the disease for nearly a year had both tortured and inspired Ben. His mother had been his training partner and coach after he’d left college to take up ultra-distance racing. He watched her retch in agony as chemicals decimated her athletic body. Heard her softly crying at night, in her recliner, blanket wrapped tightly about a body that was crumbling under the weight of treatments, lost income, and ebbing hope.

That was the torture.

The inspiration was gleaned from those rare days when she pulled on her pink running shoes, refusing to allow cancer to steal every instance of good from her life, and ran beside him. They knew those short loops, at a pace microseconds faster than a walk, meant nothing to Ben’s training. But those runs filled him with a resolve, to be as good … no better … than what Amy dreamed for him. She never set outlandish goals for him, nor criticized race results, and not even once did a negative word emerge from her mouth. She filled him with positive reality.

So after Amy had died, Ben took her pink running shoes with him to every workout. If he set out from home, they sat neatly paired on his front steps. When his training took him from home, the brilliant pink shoes hung, or sat, in a spot he knew he would be passing, or returning to. Those months running the Blue Ridge Mountains, the shoes hung from a tree somewhere along his circuitous routes. And in the last two months, as he trained on the sands of Pine Island, the shoes hung on the weathered snow fence. In most cases, no matter where he was – the steep white dunes or sprinting the shoreline – he could see the shoes.

Those pink shoes were a beacon of strength and confidence for Ben. Every time he reached the pinnacle of another dune, he would turn to the shoes and raise his arms in triumph. If he felt his resolve waning, his body growing painfully weary, he would peek at the shoes and mutter in between gulps of sea air, “Okay Mom, I can do more.”

It wasn’t that he needed those shoes to go on, to feel motivation. His mother’s death had certainly hurt, and he thought of her often. But she had stressed, during numerous talks they’d had traveling to and from races, “Ben, I don’t have to be here, beside you, to be with you.”

At times, Ben just shook his head at the simplicity of her rationale. Yeah, I know, Mom,” he mumbled once.

“Ben!” his mother snapped. “When you are out there on the race course, miles from the start or finish line, am I beside you? Huh? Am I?”

“Well no,” he said, “but I know you’re back there, waiting for me to come back.”

“But I’m not there telling you to keep going, to dismiss the negativity, or even to get your butt moving,” she stated. “So if this cancer gets me – and it probably will – I won’t be there.

“But I’ll be here,” she said poking at his head and chest. “There’s nothing I haven’t told you or said to you that’ll need to be said the day after I die. Nothing!”

“You are you because of you,” she added. “You know all I’ve taught you, but you’re great because of you and your strength. Be you and you will succeed.”

The shoes reminded him of that conversation; of his mother’s will to live; her gift of confidence and inspiration. So they went with him; a subtle reminder.

As he stood atop that hill of sand, grinning, he looked toward the fence where brilliant pink flashed in the late-day sun. “Yeah Mom. I’m moving my butt.”

One-Way Trip. Would You Go?

It’s a one-way trip to death.

Well, death is not the true destination. The one-way ticket will have “Mars” stamped on it.

The Mars One project, a brainchild of exploration/entrepreneur Bas Lansdorp, of the Netherlands. A few years ago, he announced the Mars One project, and began taking applications from people around the world who’d be interested and willing to climb aboard a spaceship and take off for Mars. The idea of the project is to begin colonization of the “red planet.” Mars is our closest neighbor in the solar system, and it has always held a certain mystique regarding whether or not it could (or does) sustain life.

After getting over 202,000 applications from would-be space pioneers, Lansdorp and his Mars One team pared the list down. The group was quickly reduced to just over 1,000 in the first round of cuts, then to 660, and now the third round. The latest list of finalists includes 50 men and 50 women (39 from the Americas (including 33 from the US), plus 31 from Europe, 16 from Asia, 7 from Africa, and 7 from Oceania). One of the finalists is a 38-year-old Polish man who goes by the name “M1-K0.” He claims to be a Martian sent to Earth who says he would be happy to help us explore his home planet.

The 100 finalists are going to begin training and testing as Mars One officials trim those candidates down to the final 24; those who would actually go. The selected space adventurers will be broken into six crews of four. The first quartet will take off for Mars in 2024, and the remaining groups will be launched every two years until all 24 are on Mars, getting a colony going.

I first read about the Mars One project a few months ago in Popular Science magazine. In that article, a number of the 100 finalists were interviewed. The article pieced together a variety of statements made by the potential space explorers; answers from all kinds of questions, such as: “Why go?” “Won’t you miss life on Earth?” “Do you truly understand the risk?” The Mars One website (mars-one.com) has a large list of frequently asked questions, with answers. It’s interesting to peruse the site and learn about their plans.

Obviously every one of the finalists understand the risks involved in the trip. But from the statements made by the various members of the 100-finalists group, they are looking beyond the risk. They are focused on what the success of the project could mean for humankind. They appreciate the greater good over their mortality. But as one potential Mars explorer stated, “We are all going to die, but it’s important what you do before you die.”

Could you make that trip?

I couldn’t.

May as well be honest about it. Don’t misunderstand, I have always been adventurous. Growing up, my parents taught us there is something wonderful beyond the horizon. They took us places and allowed us to explore; to ask questions; to always wonder about this world we live in (not to mention the worlds that lie well beyond us, in the sky). While I know there were times our “adventures” filled my parents with fear for our safety, they rarely quelled our exploratory spirit.

And that part of me would let me go in a heartbeat. It sounds exciting! Yes, I know I would die sometime within the confines of the trip. The spaceship could explode during launch. It might not hold together through the journey (the Mars One website says it will take roughly seven to eight months to travel from Earth to Mars; precise lengths of time for each trek will vary depending on the positions of Mars and Earth in their orbits). The ship may crash on Mars. Once landed, the planet may not have an inkling of capacity to sustain life. Or if everything goes well, I would die from old age (unless the Mars atmosphere holds some life-lengthening chemistry). But no question about it, once aboard the spaceship, those explorers will definitely die at some point during the project.

A view of the Mars surface from then Curiosity rover.

A view of the Mars surface from then Curiosity rover.

My application to the Mars One project was never filled out (okay, I confess, I didn’t learn about the project until after the application time was well underway), simply because I love my family too much to leave them forever. It doesn’t embarrass me to confess this. I’d guess a whopping percentage of people on Earth would turn down the chance to participate for the same reason. I know, it’s a rather blasé reason for not going, but it’s honest. It’s truthful. It’s real.

I do think the idea of being a space traveler is exciting, and I hope I am not only alive by the time the first ship launches, but I hope technology has advanced so we can keep in constant contact with the explorers. It will be one of the most exciting times in the history of our world. I see myself, if technology were so advanced, following their progress daily.

It is purely hypothetical, but if you were given the opportunity to make such a trek, would you go? Of course, since it is a hypothetical question, people won’t take an honest, realistic look at it, so they’d give unrealistic answers. But think about it. Be honest with yourself.

Would you take that one-way trip?

mars-surface