TRAPPED Chilean miner Edison Pena has prepared for Sunday’s New York City Marathon like no other competitor.
Pena ran each morning and afternoon in steel-tipped electrician’s boots that he cut down to ankle-high shoes, back and forth along a one kilometre path through the darkness and stifling heat and humidity inside the collapsed gold and copper mine where he and 32 other men were trapped for 69 days before last month’s dramatic rescue.
Pena ran to clear his head, to push away his anxiety.
And he ran, fellow miners said, because he wanted to be ready to represent them in a marathon, where he might be able to spread a message about what he hopes will be the legacies of their ordeal: safer workplaces, closer families and more trust in God.
“If I had to run barefoot, I would have done it,” Pena told Associated Press Television News after his rescue. “Life has given us a new challenge – to care more deeply, to be more present with the people we love.”
Pena, 34, has been among the more outspoken of the rescued miners, a man willing to show his emotions, even tears, as he talks of his intense desire that Chile’s mineral riches don’t come at the expense of working people ordered into mines known to be unsafe.
“I would like things to change,” he said. “It was for something that I ran inside the mine. I think that things can be done. I think we suffered too much, that this too has to be worth something.”
Marathon organisers who learned of Pena’s subterranean exercise routine had invited him to come to New York to watch the race. They were shocked when he asked to run instead.
“Edison Pena will be one of the stars of this year’s marathon as he will be among the 43,000 or more runners at the starting line on Sunday,” said New York Road Runners spokesman Richard Finn said.
Fellow miners weren’t surprised that Pena wanted to run in the marathon.
Pena ran twice a day, up to 10-12 kilometres at a time, back and forth along the rocky, muddy floor of the gallery where the men were trapped, fellow miner Omar Reygadas said.
Reygadas was a distance runner himself while younger. Now 56, he said he and the other miners couldn’t keep up.
“We would rest and he would keep running. And then in the afternoon, he would go out and run again,” Reygadas said. “He also would exercise and run with weight. He really did prepare.”
For the first 17 days after the mine collapsed above them, the men tried to contain their fears and save their energy, sharing tiny bits of food from an emergency supply meant to last just 48 hours and drinking contaminated water to survive.
The worst moment was when they could hear the rescue team’s drill come close – and then uselessly miss their refuge.
“We thought we were going to die,” said Pena, who nevertheless insisted that he never lost hope. “I always had faith to keep fighting, to stand up to things, to do what could be done. I never lost faith in my Lord Jehovah.”
When they were finally discovered alive – and it became clear that their rescue could take months or more – Pena got his perseverance back.
“During the first days, he didn’t have the strength or spirit to run. We didn’t have good food, we didn’t know what had happened. Our thoughts were on other things,” Reygadas recalled. “Once food was reaching us, he started to run.”
Pena has kept running since the rescue – including 10.5 kilometres as part of a triathlon team event in Chile on October 24.
The miners have been reluctant to give away too much of their survival stories while book and movie deals are pending, but Pena revealed some of his motivations after that race in a speech that drew applause from other runners and spectators.
“Maybe I ran because I was anxious, maybe to find a way out,” he said. “Running is a way of releasing tensions, clearing the head, freeing yourself from chaotic thoughts.”
Running, in turn, helped Pena help others.
A big Elvis Presley fan, Pena would perform for his fellow miners to keep their spirits up, Reygadas said.
“He imitated him, he sang and we all felt better when he did his shows,” Reygadas said.
When Elvis Presley Enterprises in Memphis, Tennessee, heard Pena was a fan, it sent him various gifts, including a picture, DVDs, CDs, a book and sunglasses. It said Pena has also accepted an invitation to visit Graceland, set for January 6-9, for a private tour of the mansion, grave and other sites. After that, Pena will be flown to Las Vegas to watch Viva Elvis, the Cirque du Soleil show based on his music.
Pena’s spouse, Angelica Alvarez, told AP that he was busy getting ready for the flight to New York, where marathon organisers planned a Thursday news conference and CBS announced he would be a guest on the Late Show with David Letterman later that night.
Judging from how Pena has handled the media so far, he’ll probably reject the hero label, insisting that the focus should be on worker safety, faith in God and the restorative power of sports.
“I’d like to address all the idiots who said this was like a reality show,” Pena said during the APTN interview as he returned home after his rescue.
“I challenge any television personality to go down with me (inside the collapsed mine) and train like I trained, like a mule, to train and handle things like I did, to train with me in the mud and not to cry over little things,” he said. “What saved us were the prayers of all the people.”