Marathon Miner: From Half a Mile Underground to 26 Miles Across Town

Posted on November 8, 2010

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by AnneLise Sorensen

It was his first time on an airplane. Imagine: To go from half a mile below the earth’s surface to above cloud cover within several weeks. From sweltering heat to crisp November in New York. From dark cave tunnels, where he ran his daily six miles while trapped underground, to loping across the Verrazano Bridge, with views of the most famous skyline in the world. After emerging to safety in the Atacama Desert in mid-October, Chilean miner Edison Peña successfully completed the 26-mile November 2010 New York City Marathon – and I was there to cheer him on.

I’m not usually this sentimental, but watching Peña run the last stretch along Central Park to the finish line (bandanged knee; Chilean flag flapping behind him; the crowd chanting “Chi. Chi. Chi. Le. Le. Le.”) was – how to put this? – life-affirming.

The story bears repeating: Peña, along with 32 fellow miners – “Los 33” – survived for 69 days, more than 2000ft underground. For the first 17 days, they had no contact with the outside world. Psychologists compare it to the sensation of being buried alive. It was blistering down there – 90 degrees of heat and humidity. (August in New York comes to mind.) “Los 33” survived those first couple of weeks on two spoonfuls of tuna, a swallow of milk, and half a cracker. Every other day.

The rescue played out on TV in mid-October and – I thought – it was mesmerizing. The earth had swallowed 33 men. In the middle of the Atacama Desert. “Live coverage” ensued of the most basic of battles: Man versus Nature. It helped, too, that the setting had sci-fi overtones: Capsules of astronaut food and command centers with blinking red lights in a desolate, dusty moonscape. Construction cranes loomed like elegant storks over the chalky flatness of the desert.

The famous rescue cage itself was both archaic and astounding: How could this battered, paint-peeling cylinder glide – on a single cable – through dense rock that extended miles in either direction? (The detail that stayed with me: For all that could have gone wrong, the only glitch was something that a squirt of WD-40 would take care of: After so much use, the door to the cage would occasionally stick.)

Then there was that first moment of re-entry into the living, when miners stepped out of the cage: Falling to their knees in prayer; fiercely hugging a wife, burying their face in her long hair; pumping a fist into the air, like a victorious boxer.

And, the sunglasses: What is it about dark sunglasses that lend a moviestar sheen to anyone who wears them? The miners, of course, were required to put them on to protect their eyes from the sun. (Every TV reporter seemed to use the same analogy: “It’s like when you come out of a movie theater into the bright sun – but a thousand times worse!”)  So, the necessity was obvious. But the aesthetics were surprisingly affecting, particularly as these glasses were of the wrap-around, designer variety (Oakley donated them). The miners emerged: Faces smudged, hair sweaty, openly crying, helmets toppling off – but also looking cool, debonair, rugged. Moviestars. Yes, the Hollywood film will eventually come out. But nothing will compare to the real moment.

As for the marathon: Under the number 33, what words did Peña choose to have printed across his shirt? Si Se Puede. Yes We Can.

Travel Transforms (or, Aha!) moment: We should all buy Oakley sunglasses.
No, not really. The transforming moment? Si Se Puede. Yes We Can.

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