On the opening day of London’s 2012 Summer Olympics, Brits David and Katharine Lowrie, both in their 30s, kicked off their own race in Patagonia. The challenge? To run the length of South America unsupported, some 5000 miles south to north, in a year. That is the equivalent of running over 200 marathons in 12 months. No one has ever traversed the continent like this. But the Lowries’ main goal was to raise funds and environmental awareness for South America’s wilds – rain forests, high plains, and jungles that they would pass through en route. They began in a Tierra Del Fuego snow storm, survived anti-British resentment as Argentina celebrated the Falkland War’s 30th anniversary, and have worn out eight pairs of shoes plus two self-made support carts that they take turns hauling while on the run. I caught up with the trail-tested couple in Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia for an extensive interview about their 5000 Mile Project.
Patrick Holian: According to my calculations, you appear to be at the halfway point of your 5,000-mile journey, correct?
Katharine:Well, it looks now like the run will be 6,500 miles. It was so difficult to judge the distance before we started. We’ve had to take detours due to bad weather. Some roads did not exist. So it’s going to take a bit longer.
David: But by every measure we are passed the halfway point. We are running more miles than we planned every day now. We have to keep the pressure up or this will last forever. It hurts like hell, but it’s going to be possible to get to the end, we hope.
It must be brutal. You are averaging 20 miles per running day. A marathon is 26 miles. How do you do that?
Katharine: Yeah, when we stop running at day’s end, we are just shattered. We have to set up camp. Cooking takes about an hour and we always do our data, our records for the wildlife that we’ve seen during the day. That takes about three quarters of an hour. By the end of it, we’re just nuked!
David: I get motivated by numbers. If we haven’t made a degree of latitude within 5 days, I’m upset. If we did it in four, I’m happy. You have to look at things like that because the landscape is fairly never ending. In Argentina, the land was so flat that there was nothing to really indicate that we moved anywhere after a day’s run. Look at the GPS and it proves that you’ve gone somewhere. But there are reasons we are doing this. It’s not just a fight.
I understand your goals are to raise environmental awareness and funding. How does the run help accomplish that?
Katharine: It’s important for us to make a record. For us to get interest in our project, we needed to do something that hadn’t been done before. And I’m really determined. I don’t give up. I especially won’t give up fighting for nature. The race allows us to speak about wildlife to the public.
Before running South America, you were doing seabird surveys in the Caribbean aboard your sailing boat, Lista Light. How do these two adventures compare?
Katharine: Yes, we spent 5 years on our boat, a 50-foot square space. But on this trip with all the room of a continent, we have argued more. I think it’s because we’re knackered. We’re tired. We’re stressed about whether our bodies can do it, whether we can do enough for the environment. It’s a lot of pressure.
David: It’s also a strange coincidence. We live our lives by the hundredth of a mile now because that’s the increment at which the GPS reads out. And the Lista Light, our boat, is hundredth of a mile long. So every day I run the deck of Lista mentally.
Your Caribbean work resulted in a book, Seabird Breeding Atlas of the Lesser Antilles, the first of its kind. What tangible successes have you had to date with the 5000 Mile Project?
David:We’ve got three goals. One is to raise money. The second is to connect with people – help them understand that their actions impact the environment, and the third is to inspire environmental action. Our biggest impact has been teaching in schools where we’ve stopped. The kids get fairly wound up and excited.
I understand you both started this trip with limited Spanish skills. How is that going?
David: We’ve gone from nothing to Spanglish to somewhere near Tarzan, but not quite Jane.
And beyond the classroom, how successful have you been to date?
David: We get hits on our articles and website, things like that. It’s impossible to know if you pushed the right buttons and people understand it. It would be good to know that we landed it.
And the fund raising aspect of the project?
Katharine: We found that most difficult from abroad. We didn’t have a base to drum up support beforehand, but the money we raise will go to two projects. One is for the orange-red fronted macaw. There are only 1000 left in Bolivia. The other is for Conservacion Pantagonica in Chile. They are creating a new national reserve, restoring the Patagonian prairie.
Have you had any close encounters with wildlife?
Katharine: Running with parrots and macaws is just incredible. And then there was the puma.
David: We finally saw one after 233 days. A female walked out across the road in front of us. We actually tried to chase her to get a closer view, but Katherine was strapped to our trailer so we didn’t put up a good chase.
Any last thoughts before you get back to running?
Katharine: I must confess when we get up in the morning, we are really stiff. It takes a while. We’re not trained athletes. We really need to oil our bones (laughs).
David: There is now less of the continent (ahead) than behind. It really feels like it can happen. I predict that in five to six months we reach our finish line, a white sand beach on Venezuela’s Caribbean coast.
Here are three easy ways you can help David and Katharine in their endeavor.