Last Sunday, approximately 36,000 runners took to the streets of the capital for the Tokyo Marathon. As Kenyan Dickson Chumba was beating his personal best, crossing the finish line first in 2 hours, 5 minutes and 42 seconds, Venezuelan Maickel Melamed had just passed the 5 km mark — in last place.
Cutting starkly different figures and moving at very different speeds, both were testing their body’s potential to their absolute limit. And both, according to their own definitions of the term, were winning.
Melamed, 38, arrived in Tokyo five days before the marathon. He wasn’t here just to run, but also to deliver a motivational lecture titled “Your Inspiration Inspires” to the employees of Japanese human-resources company Pasona. His presentation of his own life-affirming philosophy was very well-received, especially by those involved in the company’s program for workers with physical disabilities.
Melamed was born with his umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, and his parents were told he would not live long. The asphyxiation he suffered in the womb resulted in a motor disability and severely reduced muscle tone, a condition diagnosed as hypotonia.
His condition was rare, but that didn’t seem to phase Melamed much. Driven by a strong will even as an infant, he began to walk at 3, defying all the odds.
Almost four decades on, Melamed, an economist and Gestalt psychotherapist, has crossed marathon finishing lines in New York, Berlin and Chicago — and conquered Venezuela’s highest mountain, the 5,000-meter Pico Bolívar.
So how does he do it? “By believing in myself and in others,” he says.
A pivotal point on the road to his first marathon came on Dec. 15, 1999. On that day, the coastal state of Vargas, only an hour’s drive north of Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, was lashed with torrential rain — 90 cm in two days — causing flash floods and lethal mudslides. Known as the Vargas Tragedy, the disaster took the lives of tens of thousands of people. Nearly 100,000 others lost everything they had and were evacuated to the capital.
Melamed had just returned from living abroad in London, and the disaster in Vargas shook him to the core. “I felt impotent,” he remembers. “Most of the work that needed to be done was physical, and I couldn’t help in that way. That led me to look inside for other ways to help.”
From then on, little by little, he began building a community. Conversations with family and friends about his feelings started to bring people together. He went on to found a nonprofit group, Posible (“possible” in Spanish), with the aim of spreading a message of peace and inspiring people to accomplish their dreams in a sustainable manner.
“Interaction with people began to make things happen,” he recalls. “One person had an idea, then another, then another, and in this way we starting settling on a concrete vision.”
His family, too, was very supportive, he says. “I am a product of my family. I had a very overprotective mother, supportive siblings and a demanding father. I had a happy childhood”.
When it comes to achieving ambitious goals, Melamed says in his motivational talks, having the support of a community behind you can make all the difference. Practicing what he preaches, an entourage of approximately 20 people traveled with him to Tokyo, including his longtime friend and manager, Perla Sananes, his assistant of 15 years, Galo Bermeo, physiotherapist Carlos Flores and trainer Federico Pisani. His parents and a group of friends who have stuck by him through thick and thin also joined him on his journey.
Melamed has always had an adventurous streak. Before deciding to focus on long-distance running, he experimented with several extreme sports, including parachuting, parasailing, paragliding, mountain climbing and scuba diving.
It wasn’t until 2009, though, that he dreamed up Proyecto Vamos (Project Let’s Go), with the aim of running full marathons. His first was New York’s in 2011, which he finished in 15 hours and 22 minutes; next came Berlin in 2012, and Chicago in 2013. During this last feat, Melamed had to use the sidewalks, which slowed him down. He completed the marathon in 16 hours and 46 minutes. Considering his physical challenges, these were all amazing accomplishments.
“I like to get in the habit of surprising myself every day,” he says. “I have always surprised myself; we all need to. It’s one thing to know or think you can but it’s another to actually make it happen. There are no impossibles.”
Another of these surprises came in May 2012, when he was named United Nations Goodwill Ambassador in Venezuela for the U.N. Development Program, whose job is to push for the implementation of the 2015 Millennium Development Goals. In awarding him the post, the U.N. acknowledged his work toward building on an individual sense of peace, where each person becomes the change they want to see in the world. This position has led to his involvement in the International Day of Peace celebrations that take place across the world every Sept. 21. In a country currently wracked by political turmoil, Melamed’s message is timely.
Although he didn’t finish the Tokyo Marathon, Melamed found Japan to be an incredible place.
“People have a strong sense of solidarity and are extremely supportive here,” he says. “They compete with themselves and not with others. Tokyo is also shaping itself into a barrier-free city. Whole cities can participate in making it easier for everyone to reach their full potential.
“In Venezuela, although we are becoming more conscious” of those with physical limitations, “the infrastructure is not so great,” he continues. “That said, we have amazing human relations, so citizens can be very supportive of those who are physically challenged. But if we are serious about promoting freedom, we also need to create the infrastructure. However, when that doesn’t exist, we can count on human relations; we learn how to ask for help and accept it, and in so doing, establish a relationship.”
Melamed sees marathons as a form of meditation in action. This last one was particularly challenging because of the political situation that was was unfolding in Venezuela just as he was in Tokyo. Emotionally distracted, he dedicated his marathon attempt to those who had fallen.
On social media — his Twitter account has more than 420,000 followers — he expressed his condolences after several students were confirmed to have died in pro- and anti-government protests around the country.
“Pain can sometimes be so deep it cannot be described,” he wrote. “Each time a soul is snuffed out in Venezuela, something inside of me dies. We don’t have to destroy to construct, nor kill to live. It’s not sustainable.”
A few days before the marathon, he followed this up with the message: “My deep love for Venezuela . . . we are mourning. . . . Many Venezuelans have lost their lives because of criminal violence, but today there are young people that are dying so others won’t die in the future. This was their hope, and this hurts. The goal is for life to flourish for all.”
It had been a difficult week. Distraught about the situation back home, Melamed struggled to get himself together for the marathon. He got 31 km, just 2 km past the landmark Kaminarimon Gate at Sensoji Temple in Asakusa, when, as Melamed puts it, “That with which I have struggled all my life embraced me once again.”
His last kilometer was agonizing. He had been running for 14 hours and 20 minutes and his speed had dropped to just 0.6 km an hour. Barely able to move his legs, and with the temperature falling, he and his team made the decision to end the attempt.
“I decided to stop because my health was at risk. For me, a marathon doesn’t boil down to one day. It is a cumulative experience of a half-year training period,” Melamed explains.
At 21 km, his left leg had started to give out. “Mentally I had so much will, but my body didn’t respond,” he says. “I decided to forgive my body, say no to the marathon and say yes to life.”
For Melamed, every step is an effort, involving concentration, willpower and strength. He teaches us that each of these steps, however slow or small, counts, bringing us closer to who we want to be.
“My dream is for everyone’s dream to come true. I hope everyone will go there, toward that place, and above all cultivate that spark,” he says. “We have been put here to transcend — to utilize — our life”.
Melamed is passionate about the power of human potential. It’s the credo he lives by. Although it might sound like a cliché in an age awash with New Age beliefs and literature, his life and accomplishments are testaments to every word he speaks. This is a man who literally walks the talk — the real thing.
Asked what the three most important lessons are for those of us hoping to fulfill our dreams in life, Melamed doesn’t hesitate to answer, citing three words of support to push us that extra mile: “I. Love. You.”
Maickel Melamed’s website: www.maickelmelamed.com (in Spanish). His Tedx Talk (in English): www.youtube.com/watch?v=0_9ziLwb1j0. Irene Carolina Herrera is a documentary filmmaker and assistant professor in media and communications at Temple University Japan. Send your comments and story ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org.