“You haven’t come this far to stop.”

Over 50,000 runners took part in the New York Marathon in November 2018. And I was one of them. I had decided to participate the year before, selling myself the event as a sightseeing opportunity: “You’ll see parts of New York you haven’t yet seen!”  That was good enough motivation for me, because to me New York is the greatest city in our modern world and – well, I just have to see it.

The most intense months of training were September and October and I flew to New York in November determined to finish the race.  

Everyone says that running a marathon is physical and mental. It became apparent as I was running how important it was to manage and control the little voice in my head to keep it on my side and help me get the race done.

I began the event on an emotional high, jumping out of my friend’s car and walking to the check-in point. I ran into other marathoners who were walking there and I resonated with their buzz and excitement.

The starting gun went off and I started running down the bridge looking across the water at the city skyline. I saw the Empire State Building in the very, very far distance and thought: “Hm, I need to run all the way up there – and then some.”

The Brooklyn leg of the race was all novel and exciting. Still emotionally high, I ran at my usual pace and took in what was around me. People were lining up the streets and cheering the runners. I thought: “Wow, how nice of everyone to come out on a Sunday morning and support runners they don’t even know!”

I spent a good part of the race reading up the signs that they were holding up – some of the funniest reading that “Toenails are for losers!” and “If Britney made it through 2007, you can make it through 26.2 miles!”

And so I ran happily all the way up to Km 20 in the hipster part of Brooklyn. Past that point, I started to feel tired and my initial excitement turned into doubt. The voice in my head began muttering:  “What have you got yourself into?”, “Maybe you should go home”, “I think I would like to stop for brunch.”

I hit the notorious runner’s wall crossing the bridge from Queens into Manhattan. I had so much lactic acid in my legs that my calf muscles felt like exploding and I wondered whether or not I would be able to use my legs or keep any toenails post-event. I was pissed off for signing up and I wanted to throw a full-blown tantrum – in the middle of a bridge! – but I said to myself: “Keep going you idiot, you haven’t come this far to stop.”

I suffered all the way to the Bronx (roughly Km 32). Gatorade gels, frequent pit stops, several songs on my iPod and the signs that the crowd were holding up kept me through phase. The one that cracked me up the most was held by this guy who had a pint in one hand and the sign in the other – it read: “I’ve turned up because they said there would be beer.”

Finally, I got to the final 7 Km. I most likely ran the way Elaine in Seinfeld used to dance by this point, if you remember her moves. This lady on the sidewalk handed me a fist-full of salt, which I gulped and which saved my life. “God is a marathon runner”, I thought.  

The final 5 Km were the most emotional. No matter how much I ran, I still could not see the finish line and there was always another left or right to take. Finally, I saw the end stretch and dragged myself past the finish line.

I learned a lot from this experience. The most important thing being that if you prioritise your final goal and coach yourself through highs and lows, you can get there!

*Delivered as Speech 6 at Toastmasters London Business School, 13th March 2019.

The Slaves We Do Not See.

I am riding the bus to see my friend in Virginia on a Wednesday evening. I look outside the window, from the safety of my seat, and see towns, supermarkets, and houses disappear in the night. The bus keeps driving and will arrive at its destination in an hour and a half; my friend will be waiting to pick me up. We will drive to her apartment in a beautiful and rustic two-floor American country house, go to sleep, wake up and sip our coffee in the morning. On Sunday, I will get on the same bus and return to New York and to the coziness of a warm bed in a welcoming and very friendly apartment.

Other people who are in transport at this very moment are not as lucky. They travel against their will, beaten, drugged, afraid and shocked, to a destination that they don’t know. Their papers and all of their belongings will be taken away from them. They will be locked in a dark and small room; chained to their bed; drugged and beaten again, until all form of human opposition, resistance and self-esteem is destroyed.

What follows is abuse after abuse; rape after rape; day after day; sometimes year after year, until their body breaks down and they break down with it and die. The babies born into this world, because life still appears, are sold into the market for beggars, child labour, child sex or organ harvesting.

This is the world of human trafficking or human slavery, the third most lucrative trade in the world after arm dealing and drug trafficking, according to the organization Segura. Slavery generates $150 billion for traffickers each year; ranging between 21-36 million, the number of slaves in the world is today the highest it has ever been. Nearly 1 in 3 detected victims of slavery is a child. There are many branches to human slavery; most often these include prostitution, child sex, pornography, organ harvesting, forced labour and servitude.

The supply markets are typically in the East and range from India and Thailand, to the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Russia; the Western world is also a supplier to this trade. The demand is global.

It is confounding that human trafficking has a place in our world today. Our time is largely characterised by the freedom to pursue one’s dreams and goals, economic development, access to technology and connectivity. However, human trafficking paradoxically exists in the shadow, in an organized and coordinated way. As unthinkable as it sounds, people are being trafficked in New York this very moment, in places that are right under our nose.

I have tried to wrap my head around what drives human trafficking. Fundamentally, I think it is the perception that human beings are disposable and perishable goods; it is the belief that they may be objectified and commoditized for instant gratification and profit; it is the lack of understanding of the uniqueness, fragility and sacredness of the human soul.

It is very difficult to summarize human trafficking, find a solution for it, erase it off the face of the earth and in this case wrap up with a suitable call to action. However, this is what I believe we can individually do to make a collective difference and put a dent in it.

Awareness of human trafficking is the first and most important step, as many times we cannot see what happens in the shadow and do not know what goes on behind the shiny windows we innocently pass by every day; reflection on what drives human trafficking and the traumas that it creates is the second; given the gut-wrenching impact that it has when we reflect on it, the suitable course of action is perhaps best directed by the parts of us that are most stirred by it.

If the injustice stirs you, petition the local government to tighten up the legislation, prosecute traffickers and raid places known as trafficking hubs. If the fact that it destroys lives bothers you, seek out the NGOs that fight human trafficking and understand the type of help they need to fight it harder.

If this is the first time human trafficking has reached you, the CNN is currently running the Freedom Project. A source of awareness and information on human trafficking, its many facets, survivors and the people who fight it.

(Delivered as 3rd speech at Toastmasters, New York, February 2017)