He rode his bike through six continents, covering more than 46,000 miles. Along the way, he battled malaria and war zones in Africa, and suspicious customs agents practically everywhere else. But Reza Baluchi remained undeterred -- after all, he was on a mission to promote peace and nothing was going to stop him.
Ironically, however, his ride was abruptly cut short in the land of the free and the home of the brave. And it wasn't any mechanical failure or health calamity that ended Baluchi's ride -- it was his decision to camp along the U.S./Mexican border.
Sure, anyone attempting such a global odyssey should expect to encounter any number of visa and passport glitches. But Baluchi never thought that he'd actually be imprisoned -- in the United States, of all places -- for trying to ride his bike without the requisite paperwork. Baluchi, however, had entered a new, post-Sept. 11 America -- and being an Iranian certainly didn't help matters.
So in November of 2002, U.S. immigration officials locked him away for four months in a detention facility in Florence, Ariz. When he was arrested, his possessions consisted of his bike, a tent, some clothes and a scrapbook containing newspaper clips from around the world detailing his pilgrimage. He explained that he'd simply gotten lost and had thought he was properly camped on the Mexican side of the border, where he was awaiting his American visa. Turns out he was mistaken.
After cycling through more than 50 countries, it now looked as though Baluchi would be deported to Iran -- the very place he'd fled to escape religious and political persecution. While in detention, Baluchi told his remarkable tale to a New York Times reporter, laying the groundwork for what is fast becoming a modern-day American epic.
He told the Times that he'd left Iran in 1996 after having been imprisoned for 18 months for "associating with counterrevolutionaries," and that he'd been publicly flogged for eating in the daytime during Ramadan. Moreover, he wanted to tell the world about his brother, who'd returned from the Iran/Iraq war a shattered man. Baluchi was convinced that war was no good, and this the world needed to know. So Baluchi hopped on his bicycle -- his sole hope of escape -- and pedaled toward the border. Six years later, he was still riding for peace. After the events of Sept. 11, he decided he would end his ride at Ground Zero. In an interview with Xpress, Baluchi (who speaks broken English) was succinct about his mission: "War no good. Every Iranian is different. Every country has good guys and bad guys. My allegiance is peace. I like peace."
Tell it to the judge
In order to make it to Ground Zero, though, Baluchi would first have to persuade an Arizona judge to grant him asylum. According to the Times account, Baluchi refused bail, figuring he'd have a better chance of getting before the judge. During this time, other media outlets picked up on the story, and soon "thousands of letters come," Baluchi told Xpress.
While in detention, something else extraordinary occurred: Baluchi turned his detention camp into a training camp. "I run every day, four hours," he recalls. Around and around the fence's inside perimeter, Baluchi ran lap after lap. He informed Judge Lamonte Freeks that, if granted asylum, the first thing he would do is finish his trek to Ground Zero -- on foot. Between Baluchi's own words, the letters of support and his press clippings, Freeks was convinced that Baluchi merited asylum and granted him that status. And just as he'd promised, Baluchi made his way to Los Angeles and then -- on May 11, (Mother's Day) 2003 -- he set out to cross the United States in a run for peace.
Soon thereafter, a Californian named Dave Hyslop, inspired after reading a newspaper story about Baluchi, decided to leave his home in Marina del Rey and join the runner as a one-man support team. That support (along with a donated RV that Hyslop drives) was desperately needed. According to Hyslop, Baluchi set out in a pair of ill-fitting running shoes that gave him toe problems and blood blisters requiring minor surgery. "The next day," Hyslop told Xpress, "he ran eight miles." His voice was filled with awe.
Inspiring awe is nothing new to the Iranian. His running pace, after all, is best described as awesome. On July 31, with little fanfare, a lone runner ascended the hill that crests at the foot of the Vance Monument. After 81 consecutive days of running -- in which he averaged 25-30 miles per day -- Baluchi blazed a trail of peace through downtown Asheville.
"His run is letting people of Middle Eastern descent be proud once again; it's helping them show their faces again in this country," Hyslop told Xpress, adding, "After Sept. 11, Iranians in America couldn't celebrate their heritage; they had to keep a low profile. Reza lets them come out and be proud again. He's an inspiration to all of us." That pride is also translating into support, as Iranian-Americans and folks from all walks of life assist the run with donations of food and funds.
Baluchi's marathon pace has put him 20 days ahead of schedule (he still plans on arriving at Ground Zero on Sept. 11). Having time for a breather, Baluchi met with Xpress at the Vance Monument. Standing a little over 5 feet 6 inches, Baluchi shows the effects of his epic run: His bronze skin sheaths rippled muscles and bulging veins; his face is weathered and his legs look like tree stumps -- yet his collective expression is not one of exhaustion but of unbridled joy.
"Seven years, no see my mother," he noted, adding, "I run for my mother and all mothers of war." When asked if there was anything he needed while in Asheville, his only answer was "a bicycle magazine," explaining that he'd been interviewed by a cycling magazine and wanted to find the issue he was in. The problem was, he couldn't remember which cycling magazine. After walking to Downtown Books and News, Baluchi stood in rapt attention before the numerous periodicals dedicated to the pedaling sports. Watching him thumb through the pages, one realizes that after logging 81 days of running, a stop to browse at magazines could be relaxation supreme. The strange thing is, despite the availability of some comfy-looking chairs, Baluchi never sat down.
Coming across a photo spread of this year's Tour de France, Baluchi smiled broadly and tapped the page with his finger. "This I do next year. I will."
He then headed out into the blazing heat of midafternoon, asked for directions to Route 70 East, and broke into a run.
To learn more about Reza Baluchi's peace run, or to make a contribution, visit www.run4peace.com.