While many train for local 5Ks, marathons, triathlons and more, some prefer to take their fitness up a notch, or even to another part of the world. This month, learn how one group turned their single trip into a full-time job, what it was like to paddle for a cause in Iceland and even experience the Inca Trail from one of AFM’s very own, Monica Hand. By training, traveling and experiencing another area with others, these Austinites describe what it was like to experience fitness in an unfamiliar, exciting environment.
In 2012, Gabe Steger and Allison Macsas took a trip to Morocco as a getaway. While there, the couple had dinner with a local in the Sahara Desert. Drinking wine and talking under the stars, the topic of running was brought up. As the local shared how he would give water to French runners who would journey to the desert to run, the couple had a “lightbulb moment,” Steger says.
What if they could bring runners to Morocco? The couple began to imagine an expedition that allowed runners to experience the area as they ran in one of the most unique places in the world.
That night, Rogue Expeditions was born.
After they returned from their vacation, Macsas approached the owner of Rogue Running and asked if they could advertise a running trip to Morocco.
“We immediately had like 22 people sign up. We were like, ‘Okay, this is real,’” Steger says.
The following year, Steger and Macsas hosted the 10-day running adventure in Morocco — and it was a complete success. At the time, the couple had planned for the trip to be a one-time event, but after the trip, others began asking when and where the next expedition would be.
Through personal connections, they were able to plan another running trip to Lake Tahoe and then another to Kenya, and soon, both Steger and Mascas quit their jobs to pursue Rogue Expeditions full time.
“Our life has definitely changed,” Steger says. “I went from working long, decimal hours in a corporate career to basically traveling the world, living out of a suitcase for half of the year.”
Now, the couple has hosted more than 85 expeditions all over the world: Morocco, Kenya, Ireland, Patagonia, Slovenia, Croatia, South Africa, British Columbia, Lake Tahoe and Oregon.
On their trips, Steger says there is no mileage requirement, and they’ve had anywhere from 5Kers to marathoners come along. While they usually don’t know each other, Steger says that everyone always comes away from the experience with over a dozen new friends.
“After spending a week to 10 days on an international trip, you’re running together, you’re sweating together, you’re having your meals together. There’s these stories that develop — little nuances [and] things happen and become funny stories,” Steger says. “It just bonds that whole group together and creates this magical environment.”
Steger adds that in today’s world, more and more people are seeking experiences over material possessions, and experiences like these, in particular, can be significant and transformative. He says it’s because, with Rogue Expeditions, each person is not only pushing themselves physically, but also mentally, as they’re forced out of their comfort zones into a new country or destination, and then climbing a mountain or running a trail.
“When you step out of your boundaries, I think that’s really to stop to analyze what’s important in life,” Steger says. “You have these experiences and stick with them, and those are really impactful. We’ve seen a lot of people make some big life changes after our trips, which is really cool.”
Having moved away from Austin just before the pandemic, the couple had to put a few of their trips on hold until it was safe to resume. Now, the couple resides in Bend, Oregon, and has planned expeditions for the rest of 2021.
“Put yourself out there, make yourself vulnerable,” Steger says. “That’s when the best experiences will happen.”
Some may be apprehensive about traveling to an unfamiliar destination for fitness, however, this is exactly what the Flatwater Foundation is looking to achieve during their paddleboard series, the Flatwater Challenge.
Since 2015, Flatwater has journeyed both within the U.S. and overseas to raise money for its mission to provide mental health therapy for families coping with cancer diagnoses. These challenges also work to strengthen the relationship participants have with Flatwater.
The foundation’s founder and executive director, Mark Garza, says that for each challenge, they will initially scout for locations that will take participants outside of their comfort zones, test and increase their mental toughness and make the experience something that was achievable yet transformative and life-changing.
In 2019, a group of 15 paddlers journeyed to Iceland to take on one of these Flatwater Challenges.
Preparation for the event was more than just proper nutrition and physical training; it required mental training as well. In addition to paddling significant distances each day, the paddlers slept in vans, traveled (sometimes hours) to get to the next location and had to deal with the elements of the terrain — frigid temperatures, wind and paddling in 38-degree water.
One day of the trip, Garza recalls when the group was going to paddle in the Jökulsárlón Lagoon, which is filled with icebergs. When they got to the location, the wind was too strong for them to paddle, and nerves were increasing.
“We were all mentally sort of spinning and had to kind of dig pretty deep,” Garza says.
The group decided to move around the corner to Diamond Beach to wait out the weather, in hopes they could still accomplish the paddle before daylight was gone. Although it was still windy, Garza says that after the break on the beautiful and serene beach, the group then looked at the challenge with a whole new mindset.
“We were able to get on, follow each other in a line and push each other through, across the lagoon, out and back to where we started,” Garza says. “It was definitely the most incredible place I’ve ever paddled in my life.”
In total, the 15 paddlers raised $202,000 for the foundation and paddled 100km.
In this day and age, Garza says having the opportunity to get away from one’s day-to-day life can be rare, and getting to incorporate fitness into a getaway can often enhance the overall experience. Add in taking part in a new culture, and it can be a fulfilling experience, he says.
As so many people seek mental health, clarity and balance through exercising, combining those limited opportunities to get away with the element of exercise and fitness while also getting to experience a new culture and country can be a fulfilling experience, he adds.
“It’s the perfect mix and balance of just the ultimate trip,” Garza says.
My friend Erin had dreamed of hiking the Inca Trail since childhood. When she mentioned she was planning the trip to me, I was immediately on board. If you don’t know, the Inca Trail is the famous Peruvian trail leading to Machu Picchu. It’s 26 miles of rigorous, steep climbs and descents with the highest altitude being over 13,000 feet above sea level. It is by far the toughest and most awe-inspiring hike I have ever been on — but it’s still at the low end of the toughest hikes out there.
Throughout the four days on the trail (or seven days, depending on your level and pace), you’re immersed in rainforests, green meadows and peaks in the clouds. I think it’s safe to say that all three of us on the trip found parts of ourselves we didn’t know existed as we were forced to dig deep, power through long days of only going straight up and balance on the slippery, ancient paths. The views are stunning, the people you meet on the trail are inspired and the history you’re surrounded by makes the trek feel like going back in time.
Although the end goal is obviously seeing Machu Picchu, there are all sorts of ruins along the trail that are honestly just as breathtaking and provocative. With a guide, you learn the history of the Incan peoples, their fascinating ancient civilization and the country’s fervent preservation efforts.
The biggest challenge for anyone coming from Austin will be the altitude. If you arrive in Cusco a few days before you’re scheduled to take off, you should be able to allow your body to adjust to the increased altitude while you explore the historical city and even hike up and around the town.
I would recommend this trek to anyone and everyone, no matter your ability. There were people on the trail over 70 making their way through at their own pace. It is an accessible fitness destination because with your guide, you’re able to plan out how fast your group should be going and what your goals are. Just be prepared for grueling hours of hard, but rewarding, work.