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Fit Nation: Around the World in Eight Races. Aired 2:30-3p ET

Aired November 11, 2017 - 14:30   ET



[14:30:28] DR. SANJAY GUPTA, CNN CHIEF MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Basic scientific principles tell us the human body has limits. We'll never run as fast as the speed of light or gain the strength to lift a tank over our heads. Still the urge to improve comes naturally to sue, to run longer, climb higher, swim faster. But how far can we realistically push ourselves? When happens to our bodies physically and mentally when we bump up against the limits of human performance? In subzero temperatures --

BRANDON WOOD, MARATHON RUNNER: It's physically exhausting pushing through all this snow.

GUPTA: -- as we get older.

KITTIE WESTON-KNAUER, BMX RACER: I am the oldest female BMX racer in the world.

GUPTA: -- Or when we lose one of the five senses.

JUSTIN SALAS, ROCK CLIMBER: Losing your vision is one of the hardest things I could have imagined.

GUPTA: We're about to take you around the world to meet extraordinary people competing in extraordinary races. They'll show us what we gain when we push our bodies and minds to the limits, and we'll show you some of the incredible science behind it all.

This is "Fit Nation, Around the World in Eight Races."

GUPTA: While the laws of science have put physical limitations on our bodies, in many ways science is also responsible for significantly improving athletic performance. Over the years research has led to better training and technology, giving way to huge leaps in athletic achievements and dozens of new world records as we continually find new challenges to tackle.

Take the Susitna 100, for example, a 100 mile ultra-marathon in the icy Alaskan wilderness pitting man against Mother Nature. If you've ever tried to tie a shoelace in the freezing cold, you know how much your body can be affected by frigid temperatures. Studies show as it gets colder we start to lose manual dexterity, sensitivity to touch, and below freezing we put ourselves at risk of frostbite, hypothermia, and even death. Combine subzero temperatures with the lack of sleep required to run 100 miles and you've got yourself an athletic test few can endure. For Brandon Wood facing this race was just another step in a long journey he'd set on years ago.

BRANDON WOOD: People comment all the time I don't like to drive 100 miles let alone run 100 miles. But it's the feeling you get afterwards, it's an amazing sense of accomplishment.

GUPTA: Brandon Wood wasn't always a runner. Growing up, he was inactive and weighed nearly 300 pounds, but then his daughter Violet was born.

WOOD: Made me realize that, OK, if I was going to be around to see my kids grow up not always be the dad that oh, no, I can't right now, I'm tired, or my back hurts, something needed to change.

GUPTA: He started running, first around the block, then down the street, and eventually, ultra-marathons. But the Susitna 100 is unlike anything he's attempted before.

WOOD: This is a much different race just because of the winter and difficulty. I am definitely nervous.

GUPTA: Racers have 48 hours to bike, ski, or run 100 miles through the icy Alaskan wilderness.

WOOD: Ten miles in, only 90 more to go.

GUPTA: Because the course is so remote, each racer must carry 15 pounds of survival gear in case of emergency.

WOOD: You need to wear enough clothes where you stay warm, but if you have too much on that's causing you to sweat even more and then potentially you've got a higher risk of problems like hyperthermia.

Two more hours of daylight, start getting dark here.

When my mind starts to wander about my kids, kind of remind myself what I'm out here doing.

The 1:45 is leaving. All right, thanks, guys.

GUPTA: Running through the night without sleep wasn't easy, not only physically but mentally.

WOOD: Multiple times, I've turned around to try and start talking to somebody, and there's nobody there.

After 90 miles, it starts to wear on you. All things considered feeling pretty good.

GUPTA: Out of 34 runners, only 13 finished. After running for over 33 hours, Brandon came in second.

WOOD: There's just something about this amazing challenge. You work hard and you can do amazing things.

GUPTA: With his family's inspiration, Brandon Wood overcame cold weather conditions many of us wouldn't attempt a short walk in with the possible exception of our next racer, who's no stranger to frigid temperatures. Arafat Gatabazi is an open water swimmer in Cape Town, South Africa.

[14:35:13] ATAFAT GATABAZI, SWIMMER: I feel free when I'm in the ocean. That's where I'm at peace most of the time. It takes you away from the outside world.

GUPTA: The outside world hasn't been easy for Arafat. He's a refugee from the Democratic Republican of Congo.

GATABAZI: I left my country in 2012 when they were broke up and I got separated from my mother.

GUPTA: Unsure if his mother was dead or alive he fled to Cape Town on foot, traveling over 2,800 miles.

GATABAZI: The journey was not easy. It took us a month and a few weeks.

GUPTA: He ended up living in this children's shelter which offered swimming classes.

GATABAZI: I remember the first time I went in the swimming pool, it was like you're in a new planet. I realized swimming was something I could use in the process of healing, and I kept doing it.

GUPTA: Swimming gave Arafat a new sense of purposes, and he began training for long distance swims. In 2016 he was named open water swimmer of the year by the Cape Town Long Distance Swimming Association.

GATABAZI: The moment I stopped, that's when I feel like life is becoming like a mess. My main focus is to try and give as much hope as I can through the challenges which I'm doing.

Guys, what's up? Finish this swim.

GUPTA: Arafat's next challenge is a two and a half kilometer swim called the Hi-Tec Walkerbay Xtreme. What makes this so challenging isn't the distance but the 55 degree water temperature. Water colder than 60 degrees can lead to a total loss of control, especially for swimmers without a wetsuit. Arafat doesn't wear one.

GATABAZI: I don't swim very well in a wetsuit. I do not explain, but there is something special about the cold. It's a very mental game, your body doesn't want to stay in, but your mind controls your body saying you can keep going.

GUPTA: The cold water proved too much for some swimmers, but Arafat was able to finish.

GATABAZI: I'm very proud of what I've achieved today. I don't want them to see me as a homeless boy. I want them to see me in a different way. So that's why I keep going. Swimming has changed everything which I do. GUPTA: Arafat Gatabazi's next goal -- to swim the English Channel.

And if his accomplishments thus far are any indication, he'll have no problem getting there.

To be young at heart is coming up.


[14:41:03] BJORN KAUPANG: You have 350 kites on a small starting line. Once we start it's an exhilarating feeling. When we started snow kiting, we never dreamed being as popular as this.

GUPTA: That's Bjorn Kaupang, who embraced the sport of snow kiting nearly two decades ago. The Red Bull Ragnarok is not only the biggest snow kite race in the world, it's also the toughest. Riders must be strong enough to harness wind gusts as high as 60 miles per hours over 80 miles of terrain. Conditions are so difficult, only about seven percent of the racers finish. Just goes to show just because you're using a child's toy doesn't make it child's play.

Take BMX biking. For many of us, BMX bicycles, like kites, remind us of our youth. BMX racing began in the 1970's when children rode their bicycles on dirt tracks to mimic motocross races. The letters BMX stand for bicycle motocross. Now BMX racing is an Olympic sport. If that doesn't convince you of the sport's significance, consider the pure physics. On an Olympic track riders can accelerate from zero to 35 miles an hour in just two seconds, a maneuverer that delivers five times the force of gravity, and that's just out of the starting gates. On a single gears, wheels can spin at rates of 280 rpms and produce up to 2,500 watts of power, enough to run about 40 laptop computers.

And there aren't any shock absorbers on BMX bikes so riders have to withstand the stress of landing jumps that reach as high as 40 feet, pushing the limits of the fittest of athletes. What might be more impressive is our next racer, who at the age of 69 is still BMX biking with the best of them.

KITTIE WESTON-KNAUER, BMX RACER: Folks told me, Kittie, you've got to be kidding me. You going to get out and ride with those guys. I love a challenge.

GUPTA: Kittie Weston-Knauer has been riding BMX bikes for nearly 30 years.

WESTON-KNAUER: At 69 I am the oldest female BMX racer in the world. You talk about fun, hitting a turn at 20 miles an hour, can you imagine that? That's where the exhilaration comes.

GUPTA: In the world of BMX biking Kittie has done more than just break down age barriers.

WESTON-KNAUER: When I started racing there were no women. Not that they didn't want to race. They were not encouraged. I said, ladies, we can make an impact on this sport.

GUPTA: Kittie worked with BMX sanctioning bodies to get adult women their own racing class.

WESTON-KNAUER: We went from two woman. Now there are over 1,000 adult women who are out there racing.

GUPTA: Still, racing at 69 doesn't come without challenges. Kittie has had both her hips and knees replaced and has severe arthritis in her hands.

WESTON-KNAUER: Age is nothing but a number to me. And as long as I can keep the two wheels where they belong, which is on the ground, I will be riding that bike.

GUPTA: Her next race is the Gold Cup regional championships in DeSoto, Texas. It's the first race back since breaking her ankle in June.

WESTON-KNAUER: I am just excited that I am back on the track. I'm too old to be nervous.

GUPTA: Kittie usually races in the 56 and older division, but since no one in her class is here, she raced against women nearly two decades younger than her.

WESTON-KNAUER: Am I competitive? You better believe I am. I'm going to give it my all.

GUPTA: Kittie finished the race in third place, and she still won her age group.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Miss Kittie Weston-Knauer, put your hands together.

WESTON-KNAUER: It's not about coming in first, second, or third. It's always about finishing. Every time I get on my bike, I win.

GUPTA: Injuries didn't stop Kittie Weston-Knauer from doing what she loves, showing us all that age is just a state of mind.

[14:45:00] For Jackie Solano, being in the right state of mind pushed her across the finish line of the "Star Wars" half marathon while battling stage three breast cancer.

JACKIE SOLANO: It was really emotional, like crossing that finish line.

KARLA SOLANO: That's just one finish line that we will be crossing. Once she is cancer-free, that's another finish line that she'll cross.

SOLANO: Cancer or no cancer, I finished the race.

GUPTA: After finishing chemo last march, Jackie Solano is currently cancer free. And she plans to run the Los Angeles Marathon in 2018.


GUPTA: That's Jonas Letieri from Brazil. After losing both of his arms in a tragic electrical accident he managed to reinvent himself carving out a career as a semiprofessional paddle boarder.

JONAS LETIERI: Being in the ocean, I just forgot that I don't have hands anymore. I feel like I'm complete again.

GUPTA: Our ability to adapt after suffering debilitating injuries is often proof of the resilient human spirit. But in h some cases, our ability to adapt comes from the amazing capacity of our brains to transform and evolve. For example, when we lose one of our five senses of perception, our remaining senses often improve. A blind person often reports a better sense of hearing. That's partly because we learn to use our other senses more efficiently. But studies have shown that when one sense is lost, over time the brain is actually rewire itself to strengthen other senses. Our next athlete experienced this firsthand after losing his eyesight.

[14:50:06] JUSTIN SALAS, ROCK CLIMBER: I get to kind of interact with rock on a way that I think very few people get to experience. Climbing has taught me how to navigate the world in a completely different way.

GUPTA: Justin Salas is a professional rock climber. He's also legally blind.

SALAS: Being a young teen boy and losing your vision is one of the hardest things I could have imagined. I was about to get my learner's permit, and that was just robbed of me.

GUPTA: Despite years of tests, doctors couldn't determine the cause of the vision loss.

SALAS: I spent probably two or three years just not the doing anything at all until a friend of mine that worked at the local gym told me that I didn't need to see the rock climb, and I was hooked.

GUPTA: Justin can't see anything straight ahead, so relies mainly on his peripheral vision.

SALAS: When I'm looking at a wall, I don't see holds most of the time. It's just out of feel or muscle memory or having a sight guide call for me.

GUPTA: That's where Matt Frederick comes in.

MATT FREDERICK: Your next foot is at your waist.

GUPTA: Add a sight guide he directs Justin up the wall.

FREDERICK: I've learned a lot about how he climbs, and I think what would he want to do now. Based on that I'll call holds in a specific order.

GUPTA: Together they're headed to the 2017 IFSC World Cup in Edinburgh where Justin will climb against other visually impaired competitors. On his first assent Justin suffered a major setback by mistakenly stepping on a pole that wasn't part of the course. His first climb was disqualified. But he regained ground on his second climb and qualified for the finals.

In the main event, Justin challenged for the top spot, coming in just short of finishing first.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Ladies and gentlemen, big round of applause for Justin Salas.

SALAS: I had no idea that I was going to do this well. All I wanted to do was make finals, and getting second place for my first World Cup is really, really cool.

GUPTA: Sports and salvation, that's next.


[14:56:06] GUPTA: Throughout these races we've seen how competition can drive us to push ourselves, challenging the laws of science, and even common sense. But when faced with life's more difficult questions athletics can have even deeper meaning. It's not about how far or high we can go but how to cope in a world that might not fully accept us. While struggling to fully understand her gender identity, our next racer took refuge in the one thing she knew best, cycling. And it may have saved her life.

JILLIAN BEARDEN, CYCLIST: Cycling has offered me a sense of stability in my life. I work through every life situation on my bike.

GUPTA: Jillian Bearden is an elite cyclist but her ride hasn't been easy.

BEARDEN: I was born male, as Jonathan Paul Bearden. Being a trans- woman, you struggle on a daily basis with this friction in your head that your outer appearance doesn't match what's inside. And sometimes that gets too much to take. That's when my cycling really picked up.

GUPTA: Studies have shown that exercise can help these symptoms of depression.

BEARDEN: The bike got me out of that downward spiral. And cycling, I will say, got me off the anti-depressants.

GUPTA: Jillian began competing in the male circuit, but her struggle with her identify persisted.

BEARDEN: I was contemplating suicide. To want to kill yourself when you have children, when you have a wife, that's a hard decision to make. But that's how dark it is.

GUPTA: Jillian decided to tell her family, and with their support, she began transitioning.

SARAH BEARDEN: That she had the courage to start talking to me, start talking to her family, I'm incredibly proud.

Cycling has saved my life at times. When I started to transition, I continued to cycle, continued to train. Losing power and letting go of being stronger, it's interesting. I was a certain level as a male athlete, and to go across to the women field, it was a process.

GUPTA: Jillian worked with officials at USA cycling and after months of talks and hormonal testing they granted her a license to race as a female.

BEARDEN: It was extremely emotional. I was finally on that woman's team that I've always longed for.

GUPTA: Now, she's about to compete in her first professional cycling race as a woman, the Colorado Classic.

BEARDEN: This race is important because I'll be the first trans-woman athlete in the United States to race in the pro field.

GUPTA: The Colorado Classic is a two day team cycling event that draws some of the top professional cyclists in the world. The first day riders must sprint two laps totaling 38 miles around Colorado Springs.

BEARDEN: When you have 83 other riders hitting speeds of 42 miles an hour it's a crazy thing. And I'm going to fight like held.

GUPTA: Jillian finished in time to qualify for the second race, a grueling 32 mile course in Breckenridge, Colorado. Racers test their lungs as well as their legs as they climb 3,600 feet uphill at an elevation already of almost 10,000 feet.

BEARDEN: It's going to be intense and it's going to be really hard, but I'm really blessed to be able to participate in this.

GUPTA: The steep hills proved tough and Jillian fell behind the pack. Still, she pushed through to the end. Out of 74 riders, Jillian came in 34th.

BEARDEN: It felt amazing. I've won the race already. I've alive. I am my true self. And that's the best race there is.

GUPTA: Eight races, eight inspiring stories showing us how the drive to push ourselves in the face of physical limits and life's challenges can help us go further than ever before. We hope we've inspired you to get out of your comfort zone and start a race of your own.