Three days into the 2009 Marathon Des Sables–a grueling, 156-mile footrace through the Sahara Desert–Alex Flynn realized he was lost.
Separated from his group, Flynn stopped, did a full 360-degree spin, and saw barren horizons in every direction. It was a blisteringly hot day. He had a liter of water in his canteen, 30 pounds of gear on his back, severe chest pains, and a fresh diagnosis of Young-Onset Parkinson's disease.
“I'm lost on my own in 9.75 million square miles of desert,” recalls Flynn, now 43. “It was one of the most sobering and scary things that ever happened to me. Forget the Parkinson's diagnosis. Getting lost in the desert when you've got absolutely nothing in sight, and no hope, really is a wake-up call. It was just me.”
After saying a few prayers, Flynn scanned his surroundings once more. In the distance, he spotted a Moroccan native riding a rusted, motorized scooter. “Come with me,” the man told him. Flynn ran beside his new guide and eventually reunited with his fellow marathoners.
Due to his chest pains, Flynn ultimately had to abandon the race. But this failure gave way to an idea that would change his life, and the lives of many others.
Flash back to Flynn's diagnosis in 2008. One morning, the U.K. native was working as an attorney when he picked up a coffee mug and noticed his hand tremoring. After a slew of tests spelled Parkinson's, Flynn found himself in the “blackest place I've ever been.”
But soon enough, Flynn's anger turned to defiance. He had already been preparing for the Saharan adventure before receiving his diagnosis, so he resolved to carry on training. After the race was cut short, Flynn returned home, licked his wounds, and decided to double down.
Not only would he continue to run long distances, he declared. He would hoof it 10 million meters while raising 1 British pound per meter in the name of Parkinson's research.
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In the last 6 years, Flynn has logged the distance–and then some. He has run 150 miles across the Bavarian Alps; trekked from Santa Monica to New York; hiked the Amazon jungle, the Dolomites, and the Rockies; completed the Des Sables in 2010; and roped in more than $ 500,000.
He has also managed to seriously slow the progress of his disease.
“Parkinson's is an inability to move,” Flynn says. “The more I move, the better off I am. Although [activity] slows down the rate of decline, it doesn't reverse it. But if I don't do it, and I sit down and I wait around, then I'm going to lose everything.
“I'm not going to let this disease do that to me. I'm going to fight, every single day and every second.”
Flynn's 10-million-meter accomplishment helped him secure a place among the 10 semifinalists in the 2015 Search for the Ultimate Men's Health Guy–an achievement he feels “bloody lucky” to have earned.
But even with half a million dollars raised for charity and many people hailing him as a symbol of strength and courage, Flynn still doesn't quite feel like such an inspirational figure. Not yet, at least.
“I know people have said I've given them hope, and that's important,” says Flynn. But I don't feel like an inspiration. I feel like anybody can do what I've done. If you they put their mind to it, they can achieve things that they never thought were possible.
“You've got to make life the life you want it to be.”
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