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Fitness: A grueling hike for a good cause

By PHIL TURNER

WASHINGTON, May 31 (UPI) -- It is difficult to imagine how the banter of two men in a pub might affect the lives of thousands of women in Afghanistan, but Brian Anderson and Clif Weins of National Geographic have a plan: The two have conjured up a grueling physical challenge that will see them and eight others hike 200 miles without food on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal starting May 31 in Maryland's Cumberland Mountains and ending 10 days later.

The goal is to raise money for the Afghan Women's Fund.

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"I have done two survival hikes before and I was going to do this alone, but when I mentioned it to Clif in the pub, he said 'I'm doing it with you,'" Anderson recalled. "I told him to talk to me when he sobered up."

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If all goes well, the 10 hikers will raise $50,000 for the Afghan Women's Fund. The fund was established by the National Geographic Society in 2002 after U.S. military and allied forces expelled the Taliban from the country. Since then, nearly $1,000,000 has been raised in Afghanistan to help girls and women seek an education.

"This is an extreme adventure for people in an extreme situation," said Weins. "We wanted to raise money, but do it in a way that would call attention to an issue that has been forgotten a little bit."

Literacy rates among women in Afghanistan remain low. Even though the Taliban is gone from power, Weins said most girls still do not attend school regularly. "I have a 13-year-old daughter who loves to read -- I can't imagine what it would be like if she couldn't go to school," he said.

Anderson was the U.S. field producer for National Geographic's Explorer show, "Searching for the Afghan Girl," about the young person with the piercing green eyes who had graced the magazine's cover in 1985.

"The charity kind of developed out of that story and now we want to keep it going," said Anderson. "It is important that Afghanistan is a success story, and we are doing this to make sure it gets some attention and keeps the issue in the forefront of people's minds."

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The dynamics of the hike should grab people's attention. Each participant likely will lose upwards of 20 pounds. There will be no picking berries from trees or fishing in the canal. Tea leaves will be available to stave off the panic of going hungry.

"The hardest thing is coming off whatever your poison is," said Anderson about people who are used to their morning cup of coffee or afternoon chocolate fix. "After a few days without food your stomach shrinks to the size of a small apple. At that point you think about food, talk about food and dream about food, but there are no great hunger pains." Anderson said the body could feasibly go for three or more weeks with no food in non-freezing weather conditions.

More challenging than the physical aspect of the journey could well be the mental, though. The hikers are not allowed a sleeping bag or pillow and the conveniences of everyday life will simply not exist.

"Psychologically, sleeping in the dirt and all the different kinds of weather we will see will be -- it will be a major challenge," Anderson said.

Members of the public are invited to join the sloggers for the final day's march in to Washington, D.C. They will start the day just north of Great Falls, Md., and finish sometime in the early afternoon in Georgetown. Weins's daughter will run a "slog blog" at e-angel.net/slogblog. This will update the hikers' progress daily and detail the exact time and location for the final day's proceedings.

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Weins hopes the Spartan efforts of the hikers can bring the issue of women's literacy into the limelight.

"I have always liked an extreme challenge and the fact that it can be done for a reason beyond myself is very exciting," he said.

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Phil Turner is an intern for UPI Science News. E-mail: [email protected]

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