The American School in SwitzerlandThe American School in Switzerland
Reflections from an Ultramarathon Finisher

TASIS is pleased to present a new tradition for the 2016–2017 Academic Year: the Faculty Lecture Series. Several times per year, a TASIS faculty member will address the entire High School about a topic of his or her choice. The inaugural speaker was High School Math Teacher, Service Learning Leader, and Dorm Head Danny Schiff, who on September 29 inspired the student body with tales from his remarkable summer.

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By Danny Schiff, high school Math Teacher

If I were delivering a speech on what I believe in and what I did during my summer vacation, it would probably start like this. This summer I ran…a lot. I woke up at 5:00 in Cambodia and ran through crazy heat to Angkor Wat. I ran the Inca Trail under Machu Picchu in Peru. I ran by sea lions in the Galapagos Islands, mountain passes in Switzerland, and beaches in Florida. I was bitten by dogs, ran through heat and thunderstorms, and saw more sunrises than I ever have in my life. You’re probably wondering, what would possess me to run 2750 kilometers since spring break last year? Why would I spend over 300 hours of my spring at TASIS and my precious summer running, when I could have been chilling, spending time with my family, and, well, just enjoying summer break? Good question.

During the first year of the Global Service Program, I was experiencing a particularly hard point of my life. In the midst of this dark period in 2014, I was lucky enough to return to Nepal for the second time, this time with a group of 15 TASIS students to trek and work with a group of refugees. I learned one of life’s biggest lessons: even in one’s darkest moments, you can always do for others. I had such a powerful experience that I began to seek out similar opportunities: additional service trips to Nepal, Cambodia, South America, Alaska, and Hawaii. I became passionate about raising money for men’s health (more to come this November) and began growing my hair to donate to Locks of Love.

Danny Schiff leads a Global Service Program trip to Nepal

All of these experiences definitely transformed my life. But I reached a moment last year when I thought, “What about you, Danny?” Friends were getting married, having children, and buying houses. I was cleaning up messes in Hadsall. What could I do that would be entirely selfish and purely about achieving my craziest dreams?” The poet Mary Oliver famously asks the question, “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” The answer came in an email I received on my flight back to Ski Week last year.

“Congratulations, you’re in,” I read in the email at the JFK airport, “for the 100-mile Leadville ultramarathon.” 100 miles. 166.66 kilometers. That’s four marathons in a row, at 4000 meters elevation, through the mountains. Yes, it’s insane. As I told friends that I was preparing for the race, I got responses like, “I don’t even like driving 100 miles.” (Neither do I.) Or. “Over how many days is this race? Do you sleep in the middle?” (One day, and no.)

But as I began running mountains all over Lugano, I knew that I was ready to commit to the race. COMMITMENT would become the key word of my life for the next half year. As I mentioned, I trained all summer. I ate healthy every day, made sure to sleep enough, stretched, went to yoga, did my squats in the gym, and oh yeah—ran literally every trail I could find.

After counting down for 225 days, I found myself in Leadville in the Rocky Mountains on August 20, a day I had been counting down to and preparing for for eight months. At 4 am alongside 650 other crazy human beings, the US National Anthem played and my dear family gave me thumbs ups and blew kisses my way from the crowd of spectators. After a gunshot, I was off running through the middle of the night.

I’ll spare you the details of every part of the race, but let me say that my day had a million highs—a sunrise as I ran along the lake after the first half marathon, running shirtless over 4000 foot mountain passes with LL Cool J playing on my ipod, eating peanut butter sandwiches and drinking coconut water along the trail, climbing peaks with my sister at 2:00 in the morning. But I don’t want to paint an untrue picture. Running 100 miles was a dream come true, but it was not easy. As night turned to day, which turned back to night again, I had blisters on all of my toes. I had shin splints from climbing over 6000 meters of elevation gain during the day. I was tired, my stomach was upset from too many cliff bars, and after an entire day of running and hiking I was in a horrible mood at 5 am with an hour left to go.

But I learned a lesson that is the essence of the Leadville 100 Ultramarathon. As I sat in a meeting the day before the race, the race director urged all of us runners to, “commit, don’t quit.” He told us to pay attention to the lessons of the local mining community that digs deep for minerals such as coal and iron, as we runners would be digging deep inside ourselves to reach that finish line. “You can do more than you think you can,” is the motto of the Leadville 100. I learned those lessons loud and clear.

And just before 6 am on Sunday morning—25 hours, 56 minutes, and 3 seconds after the gunshot—I crossed the finish line, hand in hand with my mom, dad, sister, and friend. 100 miles complete. 99th place out of 650. The tears came and they did not stop. It was hard to know whether it was the pride I felt at completing the race, or the pain or the exhaustion or the love.

How many days are we lucky enough to experience nearly every emotion possible so purely? Happiness, laughter, frustration, anger, exhaustion, pride, love? Not often enough in my experience. For 26 hours straight this summer I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to experience it all. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

I thought that the takeaway from my race would be all about the big day—about reaching the finish line and wearing my finisher’s belt buckle with pride. But the most memorable piece of my experience was the training—the hard work I put into the race preparation alongside friends for almost a year. Just as your graduation day, whether 9 months or 4 years from now, will be about the tests you took, the studying you put in to exams, the essays you wrote, and the commitment that you made each and every day to your studies and to doing the right thing. Only 52% of the 650 racers who started in Leadville with me crossed the finish line. I did so because of my commitment, and I wish the same for you in all aspects of your lives.

If there’s one thing I can leave you with, it’s that you can’t stand on the mountain top without starting from the valley. Life has ups and downs. The school year has highs and lows, much like my race, which had moments of unparalleled joy next to moments of unconditional suffering. Feel it all. Embrace it all. Get to the finish line. If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you. I promise you that.

And in the meantime, get outside as much as possible here at TASIS. Fresh air, exercise, mountains, friendship—there’s nothing more pure in life. We live in paradise. Take advantage of it all.

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