Print and Go Back espnW.com: Journeys & Victories

Monday, May 14, 2012
Payge McMahon tackles her mother's bucket list

By Julia Savacool
(Video by Hannah Storm/Brainstormin Productions)

Payge McMahon will feed her wanderlust this summer by joining forces with a small group of extreme adventurers competing in the G2G Ultra, a 160-mile race across the Grand Canyon.

"I have always been a free spirit, wanting to travel the world," McMahon said of the race, which is the latest in a string adventures that has included dog sledding in Alaska, hiking the Inca trail and trekking in the Himalayas, to name a few.

As an adventure athlete and journalist, McMahon delights in the opportunity to share parts of the world most people only dream about visiting. She landed in the right job at the right time, she said, pointing out that adventure travel is finally coming into its own.

"So many people are chained to their desks or computers," she said. "But they don't want to lose the excitement of their youth, of trying new activities and seeing new places. More and more people think, 'I don't want to retire and go sit on a beach.' They want to get out there and do something!"

Despite her natural affinity for exploring new places, McMahon's current career is something of a second act. After graduating from college, she joined the corporate world: first in Los Angeles, followed by a stint on Wall Street.

Then, everything changed. Her mother, a retired paralegal, was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer 10 years ago. She'd never smoked a day of her life.

"I was shocked," McMahon said. "My mother had just retired and was finally going to have the time to do the things she'd always wanted for herself, after spending so many years raising her family. And suddenly she was out of time."

Nine months later, she died.

Following her death, McMahon was cleaning out her mother's belongings, when she came across a weathered notebook in the nightstand next to the bed. Flipping through the pages, names of distant places and events caught her eye. Mt. Fuji, the Seven Wonders of the World.

"I started to realize that my mom had made a bucket list," McMahon said. "She was keeping a record of all the things she wanted to do before she died."

McMahon resolved to finish her mother's dreams.

A new beginning

In many ways, McMahon's discovery couldn't have come at a better moment. She was at a career and personal crossroads, unsure if Wall Street was her true calling, and unhappy in her relationship. "I'd say finding this list was a pinnacle moment in my life," she said. "I'd been questioning the direction I was headed in for a while. I was taking the traditional path, but I wanted more. And suddenly, I had this idea."

Her vision was to complete the adventures on her mother's bucket list while carrying her mother's ashes with her to the most remote places on earth that her mother had dreamed of seeing. McMahon resigned from her job, sold all her possessions, and with her siblings' blessing, set out on her mother's adventures.

She launched her own website to keep her family and friends informed of her whereabouts. ("My family was a little worried about me stepping away from a more traditional path into something completely unknown," she admitted.) Little did she know, her site would begin attracting other adventurous souls, either seeking advice on planning their own trips, or enjoying the armchair experience of hearing Payge describe her own. Before she knew it, she had a legitimate following, and media outlets were enlisting her to report at various global events, such as the Iditarod Race in Alaska.

"How many people can say they love their job so much they'd do it for free?" McMahon remarked.

Overcoming hurdles

Her travels have taken her to Machu Picchu, the Egyptian pyramids, sailing on the Nile and camel trekking in the Sahara Desert. Each trip has required logistical legwork and a fitness build-up, which McMahon begins months in advance, doing exercises that mimic the activity she will be engaged in, be it hiking, sailing or camel riding.

All this would be impressive on its own, but McMahon had an additional challenge to overcome: At 16, she was in a car accident, which nearly left her paralyzed.

"I knew I was lucky to be alive," she said. "But to be put in a metal back brace for months, to have to re-learn so many simple movements, it was hard."

McMahon had been a star softball player at her high school, traveling all over the country for tournaments. It was her passion; after the accident, she knew she'd never play at that level again.

Months of strength and conditioning exercises helped her shed the brace, but the pain lingers. It has remained for more than 20 years -- something McMahon fights, ironically, with exercise. "Sitting is when it hurts the most," she said. "So I keep moving."

Though much of her adventuring to this point has involved hiking, McMahon keeps her fitness routine well-rounded. She practices and teaches Vinyasa yoga, has her scuba diving license and devotes serious time to strength training ("If you're hiking 200 miles in the Amazon with a heavy backpack on your back, you'd better be in shape to carry it!" she said.)

Preparing for her Grand Canyon race is requiring a new level of discipline, said McMahon, who has hiked equivalent distances but never run a marathon, let alone run more than 160 miles of rough terrain. She is planning to spend some time at altitude in Colorado and Wyoming this summer in preparation, since much of the G2G Ultra course is at a higher elevation.

"The race spreads out over seven days," she explained. "I think I'll be doing a hybrid of backpacking and running it."

As she works her way through her mom's bucket list, McMahon is confident she will not stop once the last item is checked off.

"I like to challenge myself and my expectations," she said. "It is so rewarding to have people tell me I've inspired them to make their own bucket list. I always say the biggest investment people should make is in their life experiences."