By Kate Helm
“When I planted my foot, I never knew whether it would strike solid ground or sink through a deceptively crusty surface, assuring a nasty fall or a broken ankle. Despite its difficulty, the terrain was visibly spectacular,” writes Jarrett Kovics ’96 in his blog during a seven-day trek across the Atacama Desert in Chile.
At an elevation of 10,500 feet, the desert’s daytime temperatures soar to 120 degrees and fall below 40 at night.
“I tested my physical and mental limits in countless ways. I tapped into my spiritual self far more than any other time in my life. While asking for God’s help and guidance daily, even hourly, there were too many awesome occurrences that happened to me and all around me, to be anything less than divine work. It was truly epic in that way.”
Kovics, of Dallas, Texas, took on this challenge as a result of traveling with a friend’s church group to Coronado, Costa Rica, in 2011 to help build a foundation for a second orphanage for the Methodist Children’s Home of Costa Rica. Father of three sons himself, he wanted to do more.
“The experience was life changing. It opened my eyes to the impact we can have on children’s lives by giving them a home, proper education, and love. While I am pretty good at swinging a hammer, I realized raising funds would be a more meaningful use of my time. It takes $100,000 per year to run a single home for 12 children.”
As director of the Texas market for wealth management company Robert W. Baird & Co., Kovics is good at raising money. He set a $25,000 goal and as of March had raised $40,000.
The Atacama Crossing is considered the most difficult of the four desert endurance series, which includes the Gobi March in China, Sahara Race in Egypt, and The Last Desert in Antarctica. Kovics completed the 250-kilometer (155-mile) in 56 hours and 39 minutes.
Participants carry their own equipment; Kovics’ pack weighed about 20 pounds. Race organizers provide drinking water and a place in a crowded tent to rest in the moveable base camp.
Kovics, a history graduate (and the brother of Justin Kovics ’98), credits experiences at Lafayette for inspiring him to take on new challenges. Unsure what he wanted to do with his life, Kovics explored various options, including acting in several College Theater productions and taking a study-abroad course in London led by Suzanne Westfall, professor of English.
Although Kovics trained and prepared for the race, it was impossible to adequately simulate the Atacama’s conditions on paved streets at sea level. While he managed to stay hydrated during the race, his daily caloric intake rarely topped 1,200 calories and sometimes was as low as 800 as the conditions left him unable to stomach the gels and freeze-dried meals he packed.
Compounding his nutritional obstacles, Kovics suffered serious Achilles tendinitis with micro tears after the second stage. The injury made the remaining stages excruciating and caused damage to the stabilizing ligaments in his calves, which were over compensating for his Achilles. During the latter stages, doctors had to drill his toenails to relieve pressure from blisters underneath the nails.
When doctors at the third checkpoint of stage three questioned how he could finish the second half of the race in such pain, Kovics got angry and then dug in.
“I left the checkpoint and got about 500 yards and was in so much pain that I returned. It was the longest 45 minutes of my life. The only thing that entered my mind was, ‘Get through today and see how you feel tomorrow.’ So, I took it checkpoint by checkpoint.”
There was no shortage of inspiration to keep him going. Frasier Brown, a tent mate and Brit from Singapore, stuck with Kovics through the long night march of stages five and six. A Korean competitor shared a bag of peanuts. An Iranian competitor doused him with sunscreen to help him through a 125-degree day. And most meaningful for Kovics, he ran for half a day with Jim Willett, a Canadian who was advised by his doctors to withdraw after being diagnosed with colon cancer at age 38 just prior to the race but was determined to finish. Kovics was regularly moved to tears.
Reflecting after the race, he says, “True kindness and compassion were all around me, and they knew no geographical boundaries. When people were feeling their worst, it was bringing out their best.”
But more than that, the Atacama Crossing, and being at the mercy of the elements, was cathartic.
“We live in a world where we are always seeking control, so it’s liberating. When you don’t have that control to worry about, it allows you to focus on other things, so [the race] was very meditative for me.”