SALT LAKE CITY — Five young adults are going to run about 26 miles each day for seven days through the last place in the continental United States that was mapped.
Along the way at the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, these youth ambassadors will study dinosaur footprints and learn the story of the earth's most massive extinction event that occurred some 250 million years ago.
In Expedition Utah, "Running Through Time," the young adults from Canada and the United States aren't racing against each other, but instead pushing themselves to never underestimate what they can do.
"When people first hear about it, it comes as a shock to them," said Emma Morley, a Brigham Young University neuroscience student selected as an ambassador. "It is a lot to take on every day. But it is not a race, it is not competitive. It is a challenge and we all run it as a group. The slowest runner is the fastest runner; that is how it works."
The expedition begins Sunday and ends May 19, when Morley, Zander Affleck, Holly Bull, Steve Drost and Colin Henderson will have finished up with the roughly 192-mile journey put on by i2P.
Those three symbols stand for "impossible2Possible," a non-profit organization founded by Ray Zahab in 2007 after and he and two other runners ran across the entire Sahara Desert, some 4,500 miles, to raise awareness for clean water initiatives. The event was documented in a film produced and narrated by Matt Damon.
Previous youth expeditions have been held in Botswana, India, and the Amazon, featuring young adults culled from applicants from all across North America.
The mission of i2P is what captured Morley's passion: encouraging youth to reach beyond their perceived limits and using adventure as a medium to educate, inspire and empower the global community to make positive change.
"It was very genuine," she said.
Morley admits she remains a bit intimidated about the physical challenges that lay before her, but she's letting the excitement of the journey — and the mission — blanket any fears.
"I thought the expeditions and all the running at i2P was outrageous. But as I started getting more and more wrapped up in the website and learning about this, I realized these youth ambassadors were just like me. They were people who did not have these incredible running experiences or a long list of accomplishments. They just wanted to fulfill the mission of i2P."
Zahab said that's what he wants — i2P to be a vehicle for transformation — much how he was transformed.
"When I was younger I was not very accomplished, not very academic; I don't have a degree of any kind," he said. "Running the Sahara was the catalyst for i2P because it taught me that we underestimate ourselves. We all do it every day."
Zahab said i2P is so named with a de-emphasis on the "impossible" and the emphasis on "Possible" to inspire youth to move beyond the acceptance of mediocrity.
"We want our ambassadors to consider themselves great role models for other youth," he said. "They are delivering a groundbreaking educational program and will also share what they learned about themselves."
The expedition is being followed by 88 schools across North America and other parts of the globe, with an estimated 7,000 students who have signed up for the educational packet for part of their science studies. The journey taps the expertise of 10 doctorate-level scientists from institutes that include the monument, the Utah Museum of Natural History, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and Simon Fraser University.
"The event is designed to emphasize the rise and fall of different ecosystems and their history," said Dr. Alan Titus, the paleontologist at Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.
He said the geology, fossils and bones of the monument visually depict the "mother of all mass extinctions" that wiped out 90 percent of all ecosystems, giving rise to the dinosaur age.
"The stage has been cleared and it is time for life to take over and it does. ... We want them to look at these big macro cycles that occur in life, these big extinctions and how things recover in the afterlife."
Titus said the monument, where more new species have been discovered in the past 13 years than anyplace else, serves as a perfect incubator of discovery and challenge for the i2P ambassadors.
"This is their real passion, to get kids out and challenge and inspire others to do the same. That is our mission too — so let's join forces. We want to get kids outside, inspire them with the great outdoors and give them greater appreciation for the resources and beauty around them."
Titus noted that one of the youth ambassadors is from eastern Canada — where there are few mountains — and has been overwhelmed with Utah's scenery and people.
The same sentiment overwhelmed Zahab when he wound up in Kanab volunteering, with him vowing that the natural beauty of the area would serve as a spectacular setting for a future expedition.
"I fell in love with the place and the people — what extraordinary people. It truly was an exceptional experience. ... And if you are going to study geology and paleontology, this is the place to do it. This is is how it happened."
After spending a day of rest Saturday, the youth ambassadors will begin Expedition Utah and will strike out on their own for the daily, demanding journey. They will be followed by a support team and there will be daily blogs, videos and other updates to provide anyone who is curious with a lens into the experience. The group has a Twitter feed, @GOi2P and a Facebook page, Impossible to Possible.
On Friday, the group's Utah-tailored website went live, providing free links to educational materials as well.
For Zahab, that is the foundation of i2P — that inspiration, possibility and passion are all free commodities and people shouldn't be willing to shortchange themselves out of opportunity.
"This is all free for the kids to go on these expeditions and the educational material is free. We decided for this to be real, this is the way we are going to do this."
The organization is supported through corporate sponsors and partners and Zahab said he donates any endorsements he gets to the foundation.
"I'm very passionate about this, about changing what is impossible to possible. We all discover what that passion is in our lives at various times. Life is not always about making as much money as you can."
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