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David Samson, who was the president of the Miami Marlins Major League Baseball team for 16 seasons, has an affinity for pushing his physical and mental limits. From his experiences as a Survivor contestant to those as an Ironman triathlete, when Samson sets a goal, there is nothing that will stop him from achieving it. This became apparent most recently in February, when Samson completed the World Marathon Challenge, running seven marathons in seven days on seven continents.
Samson set his sights on this challenge after watching the ESPN special Around the World in 7 Days. Immediately, he knew that he wanted to tackle the challenge, and that he wanted to bring others along for the journey. To do so, he created Team Hold the Plane, a group of 16 Americans all connected by a common desire to push themselves to extreme physical limits to raise money for charity. “I wanted to put a team together that would be able to handle what I thought this challenge was,” Samson said.
Initially, he believed that the challenge would be the ultimate test of his personal physical and mental limits. During the event, however, it evolved into much more. “It was life-changing in every way,” Samson said. “When you realize what your mind and body are capable of, it’s limitless. It was the most frightening and exhilarating feeling I have ever felt. Over the years, I’ve trained myself for many extreme challenges, and it’s scary to know that I haven’t even come close to using all of my potential. How many things am I not doing because I thought that they [were] out of reach?”
It took seven grueling marathons and a trip around the world for him to come to this realization. Each race was simultaneously uplifting and difficult. “No one went through a race perfectly, not even once. Not one of the seven marathons was perfect,” Samson said.
The challenge began on January 30, 2018 in Novo, Antarctica, as Samson and the 49 other competitors completed their first marathon. This race, which initially seemed the most daunting, ended up being the highlight of the challenge for Samson. “I got to cross the finish line with Dave McGillivray, who is a hero of mine on and off the track,” he explained. “I enjoyed every minute of that marathon because I was so present. I’m so thankful it was the first one, because further along it became really hard to fight to be present.”
Another highlight of that marathon was that Samson helped McGillivray, longtime Boston Marathon race director and fellow member of Team Hold the Plane, set a personal record. “The next day, Dave pulled me aside and told me, ‘David, I just want to tell you, I had a PR yesterday. I’ve done 145 marathons, and that was my slowest one ever!’ That quote quickly became the ‘line of the trip.'”
The fifth marathon in Lisbon, Portugal, was the most trying for Samson. “I walked 16 miles of it, and I couldn’t move my knee or leg,” he said. “Of the 6.5 hours, I probably cried for 1.5 hours.”
As Samson started to question whether he could make the cutoff time, much less his ability to run the two subsequent marathons, he leaned on his teammates for support. “People encouraged me the whole time and even stopped to walk with me,” Samson said. “It was incredible. For that week, we were living in a bubble of selflessness. Normally when running races, you are supposed to be selfish, since it’s an individual sport. But there was so much selfless action taken by everyone. Not one person went through it without help and without helping.”
In Cartagena, before marathon number six, things got ugly for Samson. While waiting in his hotel lobby prior to the marathon, Samson stepped backwards and slipped into a water feature, which was flush with the floor. “I felt myself falling, and I thought, Oh my god, I’m in water! I tried standing up and fell on my back.” Samson dried off and convinced himself that he was fine. He completed the last two marathons, but he did so feeling a bit off. When he returned home, he discovered why: during his tumble, he had fractured a rib.
Now that the challenge is complete and runners have returned “back to reality,” the profound impact of the experience is fully sinking in. Competitors are able to look back with perspective and distance to comprehend the magnitude of their accomplishments.
In the weeks following the challenge, Team Hold the Plane, which collectively raised more than $1 million, is still in contact. Preliminary plans for a reunion are underway, although the group is not yet certain if running will be involved. “The bonds formed with Team Hold the Plane were slowly formed over the entire year leading up to the challenge,” Samson said. “We wanted the training weekends and group calls to help get our bodies ready, but in actuality, we were creating the rebar that would frame lifelong relationships.”
When asked what his next challenge will be, Samson paused. “I’ve lost my ability to dream, because I feel like I’ve been to the mountain top. I am truly stumped. I had no idea that [the challenge] would be this. It will impact all of us every day for the rest of our lives.”