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Living the Story

Runners in the Sahara Desert

Rebecca Byerly was alone in the Sahara with nothing but a GPS and her own resolve, yet there was no place on earth she would have rather been.

“The other runners were hours ahead of me, but I knew it was worth it,” the 26-year-old adventure journalist says. “I thought, ‘I could be totally terrified right now, but I have never felt a greater sense of peace.’”

Ever since leaving her small North Carolina hometown for American University, Byerly, SIS/BA ’06, has gravitated toward places many Americans fear. A peace and conflict resolution major, Byerly has transformed herself through sheer determination into a globe-trotting journalist living—not just telling—the stories she writes.

In March she assembled the first-ever U.S. team to compete in the Libyan Challenge Master Trek, a 200-kilometer foot race through the Sahara desert.

“There were hundreds of kilometers to cover, but for me, success in this race was not measured by distance,” she wrote on AlJazeera.net, for which she reported her experience. “It was measured by the human interactions I had, the culture I absorbed and shared, and each person I met.”

When Byerly crossed the finish line 58 hours after her odyssey began, she immediately started thinking about the next stop on the whirlwind race she calls her life. She’s now in Kashmir reporting on climate change for National Geographic.

“I have this incredible passion to tell stories about people from parts of the world you don’t hear from,” she says. “When I wake up in the morning, the first thing I think about is how I’m going to make that happen.”

Discovering the World

Growing up in tiny Pleasant Garden, North Carolina, Byerly was “detached from the world.” She rode horses, ran cross country and played two other sports, and was president of her class in high school, but didn’t travel much.

She applied to AU and knew she had found her school when she toured the campus.

“For the first time in my life I saw people who didn’t all look like me,” she says. “Just seeing the diversity, in everything from clothing to [skin] color, I knew it was where I wanted to be.”

A week into her college career Byerly was introduced to School of International Service assistant dean Joe Clapper, an ultra-marathoner who took her on a six-mile run through trails in northwest Washington.

“I thought I was going to have a heart attack,” says Byerly, who ran 3.2-mile courses in high school. It was the beginning of a relationship with running and SIS that would shape her life. “It was the most interesting first meeting I’ve ever had with an undergraduate,” Clapper says. “She’s incredibly personable and inquisitive. She cares about people who are underprivileged and not doing well. She’s got a big heart, but she’s tough as nails and pretty much fearless.”

Byerly spent her junior year studying in Egypt, and it was in northern Africa that her wanderlust really set in. “Every opportunity I had to travel, I traveled,” she says. “The first trip was hitchhiking through Lebanon. I was studying the Kurds, so I went to eastern Turkey for two weeks. I stayed with a family in a place where very few Americans ever venture. From there I went to the Sudan. I stayed with a Muslim family I’m still friends with. The most difficult part of this drive, this sense of adventure, was not having an outlet to tell my stories.”

After returning to Cairo, Byerly, seemingly out of the blue, decided to run three ultra-marathons in six weeks. She believes it was a coping mechanism to deal with the personal difficulties she was experiencing at the time.

“I hooked up with a running group and we would run to the pyramids and the Sphinx on Friday nights,” she says. “It was 20 miles along the Nile, through the desert. Absolutely mind-blowing stuff.”

Just a few weeks later Byerly completed the 36-mile Two Oceans Marathon, which winds from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean coasts in South Africa.

“It was really a need for exploration and to push myself into another place,” she says of the endurance races. “There is a high you get from running. I will remember being on top of this mountain looking at the beach in South Africa. You can see that scene a million times, but when you’re in the middle of a 36-mile race, all your senses are heightened.”

After backpacking alone through Jordan and visiting Palestine, Byerly returned to AU for her senior year. Her first job post-graduation was in Afghanistan, before a Rotary Scholarship took her to India. It was there, during a trip to Kashmir, that she decided journalism was her calling. “You’ve got the Indian army, you’ve got backpackers and snowboarders from all over the world, but there really isn’t as much tension as you would think,” she says. “I realized this was going to be my next story. I just decided whatever it takes, I’m going to be a journalist.”

‘Realistic Perspective’

It was a curious decision for a woman who’s “terrified” of writing. “I’d rather run 100 miles than write,” she says. “It’s overcoming my biggest fear.”

Perhaps it was that desire to prove her inner being wrong that drove Byerly to pitch a story about running the Great Wall of China Marathon to a half-dozen media outlets ranging from the Charlotte Observer to the Wall Street Journal. Only CNN.com bit.

“Mao Zedong once said, ‘He who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a true man,’” the lead to her 2008 story on CNN.com reads. “Mao likely never anticipated the scene on May 17, when more than 1,600 athletes from 49 countries not only climbed but ran the Great Wall of China Marathon.”

Byerly found fascinating characters, like 85-year-old Margaret Hagerty, the oldest woman to run a marathon on all seven continents, to highlight in her story.

“She has the knack of pulling information out of people, not in a confrontational way, but in a friendly way,” Clapper says. “In 15 minutes, she knows everything about you.” As usual, Byerly discovered much about herself during the writing and reporting process.

“I learned I could run a marathon, take pictures, and write a story all in the same day,” she says. “I can tell if a runner writes an article or if someone is just writing an article on running. I just feel like it’s a much more realistic perspective.”

Byerly went on to run 155 miles over six days in the Gobi Desert, report on the Mongolian Olympics, and uncover the downtrodden state of a Cambodian Olympic marathon runner for CNN.com. After returning to the United States, she worked as a waitress, saving up money to finance her trip to Kashmir.

“I’m the only one of my friends that’s not engaged or married,” she said in May. “That’s just not the path I’ve chosen. All I can think about right now is somehow getting myself to Kashmir. There’s a reason so few people make it in journalism—it’s easy to give up. There are other jobs that pay, that you get benefits with. I’m just not going to do that. A lot of sweat and tears go into these stories, but they’re really, really exciting.”

Byerly might not have health insurance or a 401(k), but how many people have experienced the euphoria of crossing the finish line of a 200-kilometer race in Libya?

“For me, this race was an opportunity to grow as a person,” Byerly wrote in her Al-Jazeera.com piece. “To explore a country I knew little about, and make lasting friendships.”