ast November, I took an amazing trip organized by nonprofit Project Athena. Alongside seventeen women and two men, plus a group of super-fit volunteers (our “trail angels),” we biked and kayaked some 130 miles from Key Largo to Key West, Florida. (Lesson learned the hard way: never ignore a packing list that recommends padded bike shorts.) Four of the women on the trip were recovering from life-altering medical setbacks, including: breast, ovarian, and blood cancers, and a gnarly blood-clotting disorder. These “Athenas” were accompanied by “Gods” and “Goddesses” who had fundraised in order to send them for free. To say it was a powerful experience for all involved is a massive understatement.
The founder of this organization is a woman whose physical feats are legendary. Just to name a handful of Robyn Benincasa’s many accomplishments: she holds the record for farthest distance traveled by kayak on moving and on flat water in 24 hours, is 2 x Adventure Racing World Champion, and fights fires in San Diego. I’m half-surprised she wasn’t scaling a mountain while we conducted this phone interview.
Why did you start Project Athena?
It was really inspired by my friend Louise Cooper who is a breast cancer survivor. At the time she had breast cancer, she said: “All I kept thinking was that I needed a goal to get me through this. I just needed to know that after this I was going to climb the Seven Summits.” She kept envisioning herself on Everest one day. It made her feel like she’s not just going to be a survivor and that’s it. “I’m going to be a survivor AND I’m going to be someone who climbs the Seven Summits.” The cancer was simply an inconvenience in her training plan. So after my hip replacements. I thought: OK, I can’t run for a while but I can paddle, I can ride, I can put those adventures on my calendar.
What’s your background as an athlete?
I was doing expedition-like adventure racing since, gosh, our year of the lord 1994, and doing Ironman triathlons before that. I started endurance events in 1988 and went from triathlon to adventure racing, these nonstop ultra-endurance races where you stay together with three or four teammates for 6 to 10 days. The clock never stops. It’s all non-motorized transportation: kayaking, mountain biking, white water rafting, whatever it takes to get 600 to 1000 miles to the finish line. All 4 or 5 people have to remain within 50 yards of each other and you have to cross the finish line together. It was a very, very cool sport but also obviously takes a toll on your body. I had done about 40 of those expedition-length races over 15 years and then discovered I had stage 4 osteoarthritis in both of my hips. I thought I just pulled a hip flexor or something but it never got better. And at the front of the race at the World Championships, I literally ran out of my last tiny piece of cartilage. I just fell on the ground and I couldn’t get up. So, yada, yada, yada, I went home and had it ex-rayed and discovered I had stage 4 arthritis. That was 2007.
You had each hip replaced twice, right?
Yeah, the first time I had them replaced I had Birmingham hips, which was kind of a new style where they kept the ball of your hip and just put a steel head on top of your existing head. Both of them failed. Over the following two years I had them both made into total hip replacements.
What was the recovery like from those surgeries?
I thought I’d be on the couch for a couple of weeks but as long as long as you’re happy on crutches, you can zip around the next day. You’re not walking around but you’re mobile. Then it was probably about 2 ½ weeks to get on a cane and then another 10 days of a cane. And you just kind of start walking again.
Did you have resistance from your doctors to start training as intensely as before?
No, not really. A lot of people think there are all these restrictions with a hip replacement but the technology and the surgery has developed to the point where all my guys were just like: “do what you did before.” Okay! You don’t have to twist my arm.
Was your goal with Project Athena to get women back to where they were physically or is it more about embracing whatever physical state you’re in at the time of the trip?
Some people look at our model and say it’s getting athletes back into shape. That’s not what it is at all. It doesn’t matter if you were an athlete before or if you just had a dream of being one or being an adventurer or hiker or paddler. We’re not necessarily even looking for people who were athletes before because a lot of them are like me and Louise. They already know how to get their juju back through big endeavors. The people we really think we can help are maybe people who just dreamed of it or who want to do something to know that they are strong and they are capable. It’s about getting your spirit back. It’s not even about sports. It just happens that our expertise at Project Athena is getting your spirit back through challenging physical adventures. It’s not our goal to inspire you. It’s our goal to put you in a position where you amaze and inspire yourself. We just create the petri dish where that happens and make sure you’re trained and safe and around good people and have a good team behind you.
What are you looking for when you review applications for potential Athenas?
In general, we look for someone with a great attitude who has had a life-altering setback. We always think it’s cool when people are like: I just want to see if I can run a 10K. We can tell it’s not necessarily about asking us to send them on a cool vacation. There are times when someone has a very specific individual thing they want to do –their local marathon or a particular climb or bike race – but if they want to come on one of our group adventures there are varying levels of difficulty. We try to hook people up with something that’s just a little above what they are capable of so they have something to strive and train for. Some people come with some background and very often we’ll point them towards the Grand Canyon. That’s our most difficult adventure, that two-day hike across the Grand Canyon and back. Our mid-level adventure is the kayak and bike ride from Key Largo to Key West that you were on. We’ve found several survivors really just starting from zero and we don’t want to put them in a position where it’s too hard or they aren’t going to complete it so we now have a more entry-level urban hike we’re calling the Harbor to Harbor. It’s going to be in San Diego this spring. We’re going to hike from Ocean Side Harbor to San Diego Harbor. 45 miles in two days. Someone just new to sports or athletics – that’s a big freaking deal to walk that far. And maybe they’ll love it and come back and do one of the next ones as a Goddess.
Do you find a lot of people come back?
Yeah, where they were Athenas and they come back as a Goddess.
Project Athena has a woman founder and women in the organization’s major roles, plus women get sent on the trips as Athenas and comprise most of the fundraisers. Why did you decide on this female focus?
Funny you should ask about female focus, because the initial idea was breast cancer survivors, but the “survivor” definition has expanded so much since then to include any kind of medical or traumatic setback – which isn’t gender specific. So we’re definitely open to a Project Zeus as well! We love taking fundraising Gods on all of our adventures, too. They’re very popular and the ratios are awesome for them to get lots of attention!
What’s the most challenging trip you’ve had to plan?
Our Grand Canyon event. We really don’t want anyone to do anything more challenging on their own because the only reason you can accomplish the rim to rim to rim is your team. You have 20 to 30 people working together and sharing strengths and weaknesses. For us that’s part of the beauty. It’s not just the individual journey. It’s the camaraderie, teamwork, and the sharing. It goes back to people’s real lives in a lot of cases. People say: I went home and I was a better leader in my business and my family and I gave more and I accepted more help. People try to recreate what they felt in our adventures back in their lives and that’s pretty cool.
I was really struck by the emphasis on teamwork, even down to you saying: “When we stop for breaks, ask everyone around you if they want some of your food or water or sunscreen.” That intense focus on sharing resources is an environment I’m not used to.
As adults, you’re usually not! It’s a rare thing to have that.
Does that go back to your experiences with adventure racing?
Totally. I wish in a way that without the nutty physical side of it people really could experience that world. That’s not the case in a lot of our daily lives. A lot of it is just saying: “I don’t need help, I’m better than you.” In an adventure race, those people will never, ever, ever get to a finish line. It’s only when you leave your ego at the start line and realize we all have different strengths and weaknesses, and when I am weak it’s better for the team if I raise my hand and say so and when I am strong, I don’t just go faster and be a bigger badass and look for all the credit. When I’m strong, I help somebody else. If there was a parallel universe where things were like that in the real world, or if you could inspire that as a CEO for your company, it’s a very cool place. And there’s nothing behind it. There’s no: “Oh yeah, yeah, I’ll help you,” but then you get talked about for three weeks, about how weak you are. When you’re out there in the middle of nowhere with your team of four people all you care about is: Let’s get all four of us to the finish line. Nobody cares who carried more or did more because it changes constantly. The strongest guy one day is throwing up on all fours the next day.
My dream was not only to help survivors through this foundation but also to show them that what we all learned in adventure racing that can be applied to their lives. You’d never do this alone, you’d never ride and bike and paddle from Key Largo to Key West or hike the Grand Canyon but with a team of great people around you, a team that you lead and build and inspire, you’re capable of so much more. It doesn’t make your accomplishment any less. In my opinion, it makes it greater.
A former Athena on our trip told me she hadn’t gone to any traditional support groups or been interested in massive pink-ribbon events like the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure. It made me consider what make Project Athena unique.
I think one thing our survivors appreciate – and this was just an inkling I had and I didn’t know whether or not I was right because I don’t really count as a survivor with just hip replacements – but I thought to myself IF I was a cancer survivor, for example, I would be so done with people asking “Are you OK? What can I do for you?” I would be so tired of being the center of attention and focusing on cancer all day and cancer support groups. Our survivors wear an orange shirt to distinguish them but I think more than anything they just want to be a freakin’ normal person for a few days. They want to just be a paddler and a hiker and an adventurer. They don’t want to be the one who stands out or is seen as the weak one people have to help. If they want to talk about their setback, it’s the perfect place. If they don’t want to talk about it, it’s the perfect place. They are just one of the team.
It’s also great that the people who fundraise get to travel with those they’ve raised money for.
I do love that aspect of it. To a certain extent, on the three-day, you are walking with breast cancer survivors, but it’s neat when it’s actually THE person that your fundraising dollars have helped accomplish this. Their training and their airfare and their equipment – that’s all being paid for during the time when that group of people is fundraising. It really is almost a direct correlation between fundraiser and recipient.
You’re a small organization which seems to fit with your focus on individual women’s experiences. Do you want to grow?
I go back and forth because we’ve taken a whack at putting on some races but it doesn’t have the same feel as putting on the adventures. 85% of the people on the adventures have seen me speak or read my book so they know me and they know what it’s about and they are there to be on a team. So, yes, we want more survivors, yes, we want more fundraisers, but I don’t want it to get so big that I can’t lead them all. We’ve established a little group of trail angels who all totally understand the values and the vibe. I don’t want to lose that because it’s something very special. The depth of the experience is more important than necessarily the number of people.
And our survivors and our fundraisers have the exact same experience. A lot of fundraisers come thinking they are just there to help the survivors and then they have this incredible experience that changes their mind or changes their life. Some people go home and quit their jobs or start a company or start a nonprofit. You just see a whole different side of humanity. There is so much good in other human beings. If you don’t have that in your life, you immediately want to go home and change something to make it more of who you are and what you love and how you want to be and who you want to be.
How many trips are planned for 2015?
Five. We have two Grand Canyon treks and the Florida Keys, and Mount San Jacinto in Palm Springs – which is our September adventure this year – and we’re thinking the Harbor to Harbor will be in May. We take between 25 and 40 on each adventure although we’re not going to limit the Harbor to Harbor. Each person raises between $1000 and $3000 depending on the trip. We cover all your expenses aside from airfare.
Can you share one of your favorite moments from a trip?
There was a thyroid cancer survivor who was on the Grand Canyon trip with us and we were together a lot sharing stuff we saw or moments we experienced. In the van on the way home I asked: “What was the coolest part for you?” And I figured she would say something like: “When we came around the corner and saw that huge red rock face!” She thought about it for a minute and then she said: “I have to say, the coolest part for me was – and I don’t even know if you remember it because it was a totally off-handed comment – we were about a half a mile from the top. I was all teary because I knew I was going to finish. I knew I had done it. And you turned to me and said: Isn’t it cool you’re an endurance athlete now?” She told me: “I admired endurance athletes my whole life. I didn’t have the body type for it – I’m too tall, I’m too big – but I admired them so much. When you told me I was an endurance athlete. I just couldn’t believe it. I couldn’t believe that I was one of those people I admired so much and I knew I was. You were right!” I get goose bumps just thinking of it. The cool part is that she actually went home and started to train and completed her first marathon. She kept going because in her mind and in her heart she was an endurance athlete now.
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More information about Project Athena is at ProjectAthena.org. Or call 619-322-4846 to speak directly with the COO about upcoming adventures. There are three trips left in 2014: Mount San Jacinto Climb (September 19-21), the Grand Canyon trek (October 2-6), and the Keys to Recovery (November 20-24). There are three required hikes for the Grand Canyon all fundraisers need to complete, so get moving if you’re interested! There are only 4 spot left for the Florida Keys adventure, so hurry! (And don’t forget the padded bike shorts.)
All adventures for 2015 are open and applications for Athenas are accepted year round.
Rachel Friedman is the author of The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost: A Memoir of Three Continents, Two Friends, and One Unexpected Adventure. She’s a contributor to The McSweeney’s Book of Politics and Musicals and The Best Women’s Travel Writing, Volumes 9 and 10. Her essay “Discovery” is listed as a notable piece in The Best American Travel Writing 2013. www.rachel-friedman.com.