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Meet the Argentine Runner Aiming for the Impossible

Revista2Juan Pablo Savonitti (Photo via @onnismeeks)

Juan Pablo Savonitti is not crazy, although by the end of this piece you might be misled into thinking he is. A lot of people have thought so in the past, at least. From ex girlfriends to possible sponsors, from close friends to family members, his ideas are usually received with a mix of skepticism, awe and downright concern. But here’s the thing with people like Juan Pablo: they don’t really care about what you think, they’re still gonna go on with their plans, no matter how far fetched they may seem. High altitudes, freezing temperatures, overwhelming distances… Time and time again, against the greatest of obstacles, he has found a way to come up on top. And his next adventure might just find him amassing the biggest amount of skeptics and naysayers he has encountered to date, as he plans to run from Ushuaia to Alaska (close to 19 thousand kms) beginning next January, a feat that’s estimated to last 2 and a half years.

Juan Pablo began his career as a long distance runner not so long ago, in 2016, while he was living in Bulgaria. He had always been an athletic guy, having competed as a teenager in track and field, as well as playing basketball for a local club in Buenos Aires. But the most he had ever ran was a 21k race several years back. Regardless, he was intrigued when a coworker told him of an intense 100km race that would be taking place in the nearby mountain of Vitosha. “I told him that he may had misheard and that it was probably 10km but I found the website and it actually was 100km so I got excited”, he recalls. “That was two days before the race so sign up had been closed. Fortunately I told them I was a professional Italian runner and they bought it and accepted me”.

Juan Pablo training (Photo courtesy of Juan Pablo Savonitti

The experience was grueling, with Juan Pablo arriving at the finish line in a whopping 13 hours and 50 minutes. “You would begin at midnight and the first 6 or 7 km were just mountain asphalt trails before entering the mountain per se. I now laugh but I was not at all prepared, I hadn’t eaten properly, I didn’t have the necessary clothing, you could tell it was my first time”. Nonetheless, it was still quite an accomplishment for the Argentine, coming in 140th place in a 1000 runner field. One week later he ran another race in a nearby mountain range, an even longer and grueling one that lasted 141 km and, in his case, 33 hours and 40 minutes. “When I reached the 100 km mark my feet were full of blisters and my nails were black because of stepping on rocky terrain and dirty water. You feel the pain in every step you take, but I still gave it my all to finish the race. They had to take me to a hospital after I finished”. Most would’ve considered this experience a let down… But then again, Juan Pablo is not wired like most people. “Nobody in the race could understand the price I was willing to pay to finish and I was very happy with the result.”

After that second race he decided to go all in. He began to train harder, eat healthier and read all sorts of books in search of tips and experiences. He discovered, for example, that the sneakers that best suited his style were made by a brand from Utah called Altra that uses a technology called ZeroDrop, one that feels almost like running barefoot. He also discovered more about how his body worked: that he needed to ingest food every 45 minutes during a race to “keep the engine going”, that he prefers to run without earphones and have all his senses in tune with the environment, “to live and feel nature to the fullest.”

When 2017 arrived, Juan Pablo had an experience that would change the course of his life for good. A massive extreme sport conference took place in Bulgaria and among the speakers was Sean Conway, the man behind one of the greatest individual endurance feats in recent memory: swimming 900 miles around Great Britain, taking 130 days to accomplish, 90 of which were spent in the water. “That talk motivated me so much, it was so incredible. I began to talk to him by email and he just kept saying ‘find out in the Guiness Book of World Records what feats haven’t been accomplished in your field and aim towards that’. That’s how this idea of going from Ushuaia to Alaska started to take shape.”

But before putting his full attention into the adventure of his lifetime, Juan Pablo decided to hit the road and sign up to as many races as he could in 2017. In that year alone, he ran 24 races of over 100 km each, an unthinkable number by pretty much any standard. “At a physical level it’s almost suicidal. I weighed about 64kg and I’m about 1,90 in height. I tried to be very careful with my diet, ingesting the right amount of calories. Still, I don’t know how healthy that rhythm was back then.”

He ran in Italy, France, Switzerland, London, Turkey… His paycheck (he worked in remote tech support for a company in Bulgari) would go entirely into rent, food and races. Socially he became secluded, driven solely by his desire to test himself.  He knew runners whose marriages and relationships had ended because of their passion and he took the decision at an early stage to fulfill his potential, no matter the social cost. “My idea is to continue with this and I know it’s convenient for me to stay alone to achieve it”. Nevertheless he has managed to find comfort in the time he spends alone with himself, a necessary state of mind for those who wish to make a living out of this. “When I run it’s a kind of therapy, I think about everyday issues in my life, things I can change and improve. I like to analyze myself and fortunately I never feel alone.”

Juan Pablo in Austria (Photo courtesy of Juan Pablo)

He decided to mark the date for his big adventure to begin in January 2019 and use 2018 to work out the perks of the trip, including routes, sponsors and overall rules. After his hectic 2017, he signed up to run in only one race all year, but what a race it was. The Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra is considered one of the most extreme races in the world, over 500 kms in the Yukon province of Canada, through freezing, sometimes under 50 degrees weather. Just for reference, during the race that Juan Pablo took part of, an Italian man actually lost both his legs below the tibia and one hand from frostbite.

Juan Pablo lasted 35 hours, before failing to heat up his body on the second night of the grueling race and sensing his hands had began to freeze. “That was the most extreme situation I’ve ever been in. I had minutes to decide my life. I decided to go inside my sleeping bag that night and just wait until morning, because the rescuers didn’t really work at night. When morning came, a motor sled passed by and decided to check on me when he saw my tent was shaking”. Even though it now seems like a no brainer, the decision at the time was hard for Juan Pablo. “He asked if I was sure I wanted to quit, and I hesitated but then he convinced me that it was nuts to continue, and that was that.” Contrary to what many would believe (again, not crazy) Juan Pablo still wishes to this day to go back to the Yukon to finish the race at some point. “I don’t feel that I failed but I didn’t accomplish it. I’ll be back someday because I fell in love with that place.”

Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra (Photo via Sports Illustrated)

All this hardship has its inevitable conclusion in his next venture, the massive undertaking that will be taking him from Ushuaia, in his native Argentina, all the way to Alaska, a 19 thousand kms run that will only become longer because of his desire to also sightsee some of the breathtaking landscapes. “At the beginning, the plan was to do it all through the Pan American Highway that travels all through South, Central and North America, but then I decided to spread out because, for example, it goes through Buenos Aires and I don’t want to visit it again. At some point I also want to visit Machu Pichu and some places in the US that take me off the trail a bit. So it became a 35 thousand kms trip instead”. The idea is to run 45 to 50 km daily,which translates into a 2 and a half year time span that begins on January 1st. He’s also taken into account some days of rest and recovery if injuries may arise.

To say the odds are stacked against Juan Pablo in this trip is actually kind of an understatement. So far he has a few sponsors and a car that will accompany him side by side while he travels through Argentina, carrying food supplies and extra gear. But after that, there are a lot of obstacles and uncertainties on the horizon. Will he be forced to carry a trekking cart tied to his waste, packed with only the bare minimum of supplies? What risks will he run into in countries like Honduras, where violence and political turmoil are currently fierce? How will he fare during the US and Canada portion of his trip, considering he only has 90 days of legal residence in each country? Those are all valid points that bring into question whether this adventure really has any chance of being successful and what kind of mind it takes to stay positive through it all.

“I don’t know if it’s a defect or a virtue, but I’m extremely positive. Something will come up. The more I run, the more people are gonna trust what I’m trying to do and come on board, more sponsors will reach out”. To boost his chances of finding these sponsors and motivating others to donate, Juan Pablo has opened a Crowdfunding campaign, one that promises that 40% of the money received will go to support a special organization close to his heart: The World Federation of the Deaf. “Both my parents are deaf so this cause is directly connected to me. My mom is actually hard of hearing because my grandmother suffered from Rubella when she was pregnant with her. My dad had an accident when he was just a kid and got Meningitis as a result. The Federation can use this money to help pass legislation in certain countries, generating awareness about sign language at an institutional level and making it a required subject in schools.”

Juan Pablo Savonitti (Photo via juan Pablo Savonitti)

So, after reading all this, you have two options: you may conclude Juan Pablo Savonitti is crazy and he will fail miserably sooner rather than later, sure. But you may also find yourself rooting for him,  finding his story uplifting, a true testament to the amazing will power of the human spirit. It’s not to say Juan Pablo doesn’t care about what you think, but regardless of your opinion, you can guarantee you’ll find him running some dirt path along Pan American highway either way. Only time will tell how close that dirt path is to Alaska.

Juan Pablo’s race will begin on January 1st. For donations visit his Crowdfunding page. To keep up to date on the project visit his official Instagram account. 

Publicado en Bubble.ar el
2018-12-18 15:00:40

Pedro Camacho

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