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Desert Warriors

What it takes to run a race that spans the world’s most desolate deserts

Imagine what it takes to run a marathon. Got it? Now picture running six marathons in six days. Across a desert. Now imagine running the same distance across three more deserts—including Antarctica.

Just writing that paragraph was exhausting, but for a new breed of ultra athlete, the annual event known as the 4 Deserts Race Series is simply another opportunity to test their limits by running across the Sahara, Atacama, Gobi and Antarctic deserts.

Race of A Lifetime
Take Singaporean hedge fund manager Kah Shin Leow, for example. Over the years, he has run across all four deserts. “My friends think I’m crazy to run a 250-kilometre race,” he says. “But I work in the finance industry, so I see each 4 Desert race as an island of peacefulness, a chance to recharge and maintain my sanity in the even crazier financial markets.”

These races certainly create unforgettable holiday memories. Leow, who set up his own company Quantedge Capital, speaks fondly of “loving the unearthly lunar landscape of the Atacama desert”; blisters the “size of a child’s fist” and the “awe of running across Antarctica in a mini-blizzard at sub-zero temperatures”, which can’t get more extreme for a guy who grew up in equatorial Singapore.

Antarctica also features heavily in the memories of Australian Matt Chapman, another Singapore resident and ultra runner who has completed the four deserts. “My favourite memory? Turning a corner in Antarctica and finding a colony of one-metre-high penguins trotting along the course in front of me.”

Jagdeep Kairon, an expatriate Indian businessman, who has also ticked off all four from his run list, says: “To sail through Drake Passage to Antarctica and then set foot on such a hallowed continent, following in the footsteps of the greatest, bravest adventurers and explorers in history is humbling and surreal.”

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Ultra Endurance
This year, 4 Deserts celebrates its 50th race that will take place in the Gobi. Since the event was founded in 2002, the organisers have seen more than 7,500 competitors from over 100 countries compete in the 4 Deserts, supported by thousands of volunteers, 400 doctors and 3,500 local staff. It has also earned the accolade as one of Time magazine’s top 10 endurance events.

In 2016, the Sahara Race takes place in Namibia (May), the Gobi March in China (June), the Atacama Crossing in Chile (October) and Antarctica in November. There is also a 250-kilometre “roving race” that karbarotates around the world; it was held in Sri Lanka last February.

“Every type of person you can imagine takes part in the 4 Deserts,” says the company’s CEO Samantha Fanshawe. “Typically, there are racers from more than 40 countries—the top three being the UK, US and China, with a lot from Australia, Canada, Japan, Korea, Singapore and Brazil.”

According to Fanshawe, runners range from ages 21 to 70, with professions as diverse as professional athletes and high-powered executives, to company owners, students, actors or stay-at-home mums and dads.

“Everyone has their own reason to take part, but the most common is pushing themselves to a next level, doing something completely different, to have something outside of work to motivate them, to travel to a place they’ve wanted to see in a unique way and as a way to raise money,” Fanshawe says. “The appeal of the experience is to run away from modern technology and luxuries in a unique and stunning environment while experiencing some amazing cultures.”

“I learned more running these deserts than I did in any MBA,” says Matthew Chapman. “I found the races an incredible equaliser. You’re side by side with wealthy, successful and entrepreneurial people, yet everyone experiences the same pain and sleeps in the same primitive surroundings. Ultimately, taking part gave me the determination to create my own global recruitment company [ChapmanCG].”

Over the years, 4 Deserts has welcomed countless exceptional participants. In 2015, Camel Fung was the first amputee to compete a 4 Deserts Race Series in Atacama as part of the team Five Legs Never Quit, wearing his “racing blade”. That same year, Team Asma’I ran the Gobi featuring the first Afghan women to ever take part in an ultra marathon; a 70-year-old New Zealander ran Atacama with his son; and Team Sound Of Small Bell completed the Gobi as a combined group from China, Japan and Korea with two blind runners and three guides.

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Mind Over Matter
In 2008, the legendary Dean Karnazes, better known as “Ultramarathon Man”, was the first to complete the Grand Slam by running all four deserts in a year. But even for such a superhuman athlete as Karnazes, the 4 Deserts was demanding. Hallucinations, dehydration and sleep deprivation were just some of the personal challenges he had to overcome.

“I’ve seen dinosaurs, tiny creatures in the sand that morph into giant monsters, and mythical characters from a book I read as a kid,” he told journalists after winning the overall event. “I feel the cold and heat like everyone else, but long distance running is as much a mental as a physical challenge. I know how to conquer my demons.”

There are plenty of other demon conquerors out there. According to Fanshawe, the number of runners per race is about 150 to 250 people depending on the location. “We like to keep them small as it adds to the atmosphere and race ethos,” she says.

Each race costs US$3,700 to enter, with the exception of Antarctica that costs US$12,900, and this is by invitation only after completing two other 4 Desert races. Of those that take part, around eight to 16 per cent of people don’t finish.

Mental toughness is key to staying in the race. “I found blisters would plague me in all the deserts. The pain could be unbearable,” says Chapman. “Apart from that, I found every other aspect very manageable. I learned to break things down into small parts and not worry about things I couldn’t control. I use the same techniques in business.

“In my final race in Madagascar in 2014. I didn’t train for it and did it on virtually no fitness. I used mental determination to get through it and it confirmed what I always knew: that completion of these races is an equal combination of physical and mental grit.”

Training, however, is recommended. Leow typically puts in six months for each race and runs with a weighted backpack before starting work every day. Kairon believes you don’t have to be an elite athlete to complete the races. “All races are physically among the most challenging on the planet and everyone trains hard. However, a key factor for success is managing your well-being during the race and listening to your body,” he says. “Just stay in shape and work towards your physical conditioning, and slowly build up the mileage—anything from 70 to 100 kilometres a week would be a good target. And of course, a rest day is important for recovery.”

It goes without saying that this is an event designed for those who relish a challenge. “I think what’s in common to all the competitors is to constantly challenge themselves and push themselves in sport and life in general,” says Kairon. “I guess it’s our way of telling ourselves that everything is possible, and to go ahead and achieve your goals.”

The sentiment is common to most 4 Desert runners. Corporate trainer, author and leadership coach Thaddeus Lawrence has run all four deserts in the series and says he took up ultra-endurance racing to discover his mental boundaries.

“In ultra endurance racing, mental preparation is key. I spend a lot of time visualising success because every race begins and ends in your mind,” he says. “I’m always asked why I want to subject myself to such gruelling punishment. My answer is always the same: you need to find a grand goal and vision in life.”

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