19th Asian Masters Track championships (2016)

Now that the dust has settled and time freed up, I’m writing an account of my experiences in the 19th Asian Masters Athletic championships held earlier this year, and the events leading up to it. Masters Athletics is the opposite of Olympics excitement– no glory and lots of old bodies, but still lots of guts!

Preamble: It began, as all good stories do, with a hot sweaty midnight encounter with an anonymous stranger whose face I didn’t even see; Things escalated and then got quite serious. There were late nights away from the family, friends began to ask questions, doubting my judgement and life choices. There was also self-doubt as I wondered if I was making the right choice, and whether the end goal was worth the pursuit. But in the end, faith and persistence worked out, helped by a strong dose of teamwork and friendship.

I’m talking of course about Masters athletics, also known as a mid-life crisis escape for old men and women =0 It is like a secret club. The members are easy to spot if you know what to look for. They are the ones out running, jumping, hurdling, throwing with their racing spikes on. They have a stop-watch in hand, and an intense look on their face. With a quiet nod of acknowledgement, or quiet conversations, we would encourage each other. Especially the ones who trained at the track near my house, I would subsequently find out their names – Belinda, Angsar, Thomas, Foong Wee, as well as meet up with old friends, such as Jason, and make new ones, such as Steven, Eddie, coach, KT, and many others.

Chapter 1 (Training): It was sometime in early August 2015, not long after I had just returned to Singapore. One night after work around 1am, I headed over to the track near my house to do my usual work-out. Surprisingly, on the completely dark track, I met someone else who was also doing intervals. This wasn’t an amateur plodding along slowly, but someone quite serious – 10 x 400m intervals, so I followed him. After we were done, he asked me what I was training for – I told him I was just keeping fit. As for him, he was preparing for the Singapore Masters track championship – a track race for those over 35, and suggested I try it out. I didn’t even know what he looked like, given how dark the track was, but his words nagged at me over the next few days, and like an insidious cancer, I finally gave in and went to Queensway to buy a new pair of spikes. Talk about mid-life crisis, reliving past glories. The last time I did this was more than 20 years ago.

With a goal in place, there followed days of waking up at 6am to run before sun-rise or pounding the pitch-black track at midnight, with a headlamp, the finish line lit by the lonely light of my phone. There were sessions of interval trainings with a face-mask on during the haze in the punishing noon-day heat, lungs heaving. There were sessions of painful intervals in the pouring rain. After the workouts, completely exhausted and then pushing the body back to work.

The objective was to run the 800m for the Singapore Masters in Oct 2015 – but I pushed too hard one day and pulled my hamstring and had to scrap my participation in the Singapore Masters. It was a frustrating time. As with all injuries, a lot of it was about confidence, and my physio gave me the confidence that things would be OK.

Chapter 2 (Racing): After 4 weeks of not running, it was Foong Wee, the same trouble-maker, who told me about this inter-club race. I had just started slowly running again after a 4 week lay-off and this was just 7 days out from my first run back. It was a Sunday, but I had an event to attend so I turned up at the race-site, stripped off my coat and tie and reported to the marshalling station. What with pinning on the race-numbers and other admin, I only had time to change and stride for a minute before it was time to report to the start-line. There was significant worry about whether my hamstring would hold up. This was CLEARLY a bad idea. It was a crowded field, full of young faces. If I were 18, I would relish the challenge. Here, I just felt like an old imposter. I turned to the kid to my left – he was 18, the one to my right – he was 19. Their combined age was still less than mine! They were polite, addressing me as “Sir”. If this were in the context of the Army, I wouldn’t mind, but there was the same sense of politeness one would have helping an old grandmother across the road.

It had been so long since I last ran, that I had to ask instructions when I could cut in, and was scolded by the inimitable umpire, Miss Jaya – “If you don’t know the rules, you shouldn’t be here” Talk about humbling. The last time I was subject to such a withering put-down was in basic military training (BMT). Meanwhile, I was telling myself – the first priority is to come back with body intact, then come back with dignity intact!

As I stood there, eyeing the 15 other runners, the pre-race excitement began took hold. The point of all the training and pain was to buy one the right to stand at the start-line, with something at stake, to test the body and mind against itself. That sense of feeling incredibly alive – priceless!

With a bang, the race took off. I didn’t have a clear strategy in mind, with no idea how my body would respond. I just tried to stay with the front pack. At the 200m mark, then the 400m mark, I wasn’t too far off the pace. However, at the 600m mark, my woeful lack of training made itself felt. I felt my breathing go ragged, and was just pumping the arms to stay moving. The final 200m were agonizing, and felt like everything was seizing up and out of sync. Eventually I finished in a time of 2:11 (a Masters season best) and beat more than half the field, dignity and body intact.

As a coda to that – the next day, my whole body seized up, starting from the back. This was clearly a case of executive over-ride, as the mind had told the body to ignore the pain and the circuit breakers. They weren’t injuries per se, but just a case of over-exertion. It took three weeks before I could hit the track again.

As far as I was concerned, that was it – this was an enjoyable diversion and I had run a respectable time. However, on my way out I met Jason, my RSM in battalion who was the Masters Athletics captain. He threw out the idea that I consider running the Asian Masters Athletics Championships. It would be in 7 months’ time in Singapore held at the new national stadium. This was a bi-annual event, with the last edition in Japan in 2014.

I recalled the last time I was at the Kallang national stadium in 199X, it was the old open air stadium. We were competing in the final race of the Inter-school Athletic championships. On paper it would be a close fight – ACJC had 3 gold medalists on their team, while my team-mates were national athletes and future national record holders. I was clearly the weak link. Thinking back to those days brought back powerful memories, and a desire to close the circle.

Aah, the power of conversations – Foong Wee and Jason – these two guys were real trouble-makers!

It was one thing to run a week-end race, but to compete at the AMAC, the time to beat based on previous editions would be a low 2 minutes. So a plan took shape in my head – if I wanted to be really competitive, I would have to turn back the clock 20 years and be faster than I had ever been in my life. Do-able? Not sure, but I would give it a serious shot. It was time to get serious.

Chapter 3 (The grind): I began to get more systematic about the training and joined the fraternity. During a race, I had met another athlete, who looked very unapproachable, but became one of my closest friends – Eddie. Training with the others at Bishan made it much more pleasant and productive. There followed further days and nights of training in the sun, and rain, through fatigue and injury. I recall my New Year’s Eve celebration on Dec 31 was a long solo run in the pouring rain at MacRitchie at night. For each training session, squeezing out time to do the prescribed stretching and exercise was a real commitment and exercise in discipline. After that, trying to get back to work was agonizing and painful. I remember nights after training where I finished running at 11pm, ate dinner, and just lay there, unable to sleep, with a night’s work ahead but completely exhausted.

5 months goes by very quickly. I tried to be as scientific as possible, with vitamins, recovery supplements, but the challenge was always going to be stay injury free. I even bought a baby wading pool to dip ice in for recovery, as I did not have a bath tub. There were further subsequent prep races, where I at least learnt not to get scolded by Miss Jaya.

In series 1 (~Dec 2015), the only race that I turned up on time, I ran a disappointing 2:12. I felt great, but obviously hadn’t pushed myself as hard as I could have.

In series 2 (~Jan 2016), I was late again, coming from an important work meeting on a Sunday, clad in coat and tie, but with a new Masters Season best at 2:08. I was getting closer to the striking zone!

In series 3 (~Mar 2016), I did a 2:05.1, and an hour later, did a 54.0 for the 400m in the scorching noon-day heat. Given that hand-timing is usually ~0.5s faster, this meant that I was faster than when I was 18!

I then went to Taiwan for a Masters race (~Mar 2016). I knew that if it weren’t a close race, I might have to lead and pull all the way, which was different than the SAA series races, where I was competing against younger, faster runners. This was fantastic fun, and I came away with the 800m and 4×400 gold. In the cold wet environment, we managed to have a great event.

Meanwhile, work was continuing at its crushing pace. With many sleepless nights, my energy levels were low and balance wasn’t possible. Eventually I was clocking my 600m ~1:31, so was really looking forward to bringing PB even lower, and targeting 2:00 for the 800m.

Chapter 4 (The Race): A few days before the race, I finally had a chance to step inside the national stadium to look at the track. With the big dome overhead, and the empty seats, in a few days, this would be the venue where hopes and dreams would be realized (or not)!

As I entered the three days of taper before the race, I was in fine fettle, and my legs were felt strong. However, as I stood up from the chair to take a phone call, I suddenly felt a massive seizure of my lower back. I knew it was a recurrence of my slipped disc, and it was not a simple case. That day I was bed-ridden, and could only lie down with a hot-water bottle the whole day. The following two days, I couldn’t even walk properly, and could only frantically visit my physio (Mark and Jo), hoping for miracles from them! Jo was encouraging, but I knew that the odds were slim.

On race day morning (May 8), I woke up at 4am to take some pain-killers, worked for a bit (if you can’t run, you can still make slides) and then turned up at the race-site. I couldn’t even bend over to tie my shoe-laces. This was psychologically crushing, however, one can only keep on going. There was no need to quit prematurely – life is a series of “real options” (as the corporate finance types will tell you), there are more than enough people to tell you that you should quit without you telling yourself to quit.

That morning, standing in the call-room in the new National Stadium, it was an orgy of activity. I didn’t really try to warm-up, as I didn’t know if my body could take it (Thankfully, I had good experience racing with minimal warm-up). The race field was quite small, but was supposed to have some very fast runners, but you can only ignore these things. As I stepped out onto the track, in the vast edifice that was the new national stadium, the scene wasn’t how I had envisaged it. I had been dreaming about stepping into the new national stadium for months, but not with this cloud of uncertainty over my head, but quickly, the race mindset took over. Nobody cared, nor should they, about my injury. In life, everybody takes different paths to get to the start line, it was how you performed that day and finished that day that really mattered. My race strategy was to go hard in the first 50m to take the lead, and see how the body responded. If it hurt, I would simply scratch. No pride at stake.

And just like that, the gun rang out and the race started. The first 50m went well, and my body was holding up. I was alone in the lead, and as I expected, I would have to run alone for the rest of the race, with no looking back or behind me. With the adrenaline, I went out very fast in the first lap, ~58s, quite a bit faster than what I had planned. The second lap was smooth, but in the last 50m, I started to really feel the lactic acid, probably a result of not warming up thoroughly. In the end, it wasn’t a PB, but enough effort for a gold medal. Not bad, being the fastest old man in Asia over two laps. What made it extra heartening was to see my dad there at the track-side, taking photos and supporting me.

After the race, I had a conference call, took part in the Opening Ceremony officiated by Min Tan Chuan Jin, then rushed back to work, changed to my suit (without showering), attended a client proposal (where I was a token participant without speaking a word), ate half a salad and had another conference call en-route back to the office. After the proposal, I rushed back to run in the 400m heats. I qualified, but decided to give up the 400m and 1500m to save myself for the 4x400m, and spare my body further damage.

On Sunday, our fastest runner for the 400m (the silver medalist) pulled out at the last minute because of injury, so I had to run the anchor leg, which was really stressful, as we weren’t sure if we would make it to onto the podium. The Sri Lanka team had the 400m gold medalist and a strong team, so they would likely have a lock on first place. Stepping up to the start line, a team-mate mentioned that our sunglasses weren’t for show, but to hide the uncertainty in our eyes. Life is about expectations – If you had told me a week before the 800m that I would run a 2:06, I would be highly disappointed, but if you told me an hour before the race that I would run a 2:06, I would have been ecstatic. Similarly for the 4x400m – on Friday, our silver medalist was a surprise find, and we were excited that we could challenge for the gold. On Saturday when he pulled out, we were downcast over our medal chances. On Sunday, seeing how the race developed, we were ecstatic, as the silver medal was the best we could hope for, with an amazing crew of Eddie, Tino and Steven.

That night at the closing dinner, I walked around and thanked all the officials and volunteers that had made the race possible. The one I most wanted to thank was Miss Jaya, who had been the one scolding me, but had made the race series possible where we got to improve.

 

In retrospect

1) Someone asked me what the toughest event I’ve done is. Which is tougher?

I’ve been on expedition races covering 800km, and mountaineering trips that took two months up 8000m mountains, but the commitment required to navigate 800m in 2 minutes required greater effort. This was a measured course, there was no threat to life, unlike being on big mountains like Everest or K2. Yet, when it is man vs. man, or man vs. self, there is no such thing as “good enough”. And so the smell of competition is an incredible driver for training.

2) But given the challenge, why do we even bother?

Were we trying to recapture lost youth? Trying to feel alive? Turning back entropy (the laws of physics suggest it’s not possible, but we can try anyway)? My answer is simple – witnessing the 70 or 80 year old athletes competing, giving their all was truly inspirational. You want to know what it means to feel alive? When you’re standing there, when there is something at stake and you know that the outcome matters. The stakes are tiny, and personal, these aren’t the Olympics. But feeling the rush as you line up and wait for the starter’s pistol, that is worth the price of admission and training.

3) The power of inspiration and friends. This was a long journey, sparked by the power of two conversations. As we walk through life – hopefully we can find the time to inspire others along the way.

A month before the race, I received a short SMS “Did you hear – YLW passed away”. I was in shock. LW was my running mentor in secondary school. He was a rather strange sort, but I guess we were all misfits in our own way, which is why we got along so well. He ran the 400m and 800m, the same distances I would subsequently take up. I remember my first MacRitchie training session with him, which was long and slow and painful, yet he continued to follow my progress closely. That first year, when I ran with him, we came in 5th in the inter-school X-Country, the following year, we came in 2nd, narrowly missing out on the Inter–school title. He had an accident not long after, and injured his ankle and had to stop running.

I was looking to share the story with him – but I guess too late. He passed away from a very rare form of cancer. I spoke to his girlfriend and talked about the old days. Along the way, Coach also fell ill, but even with his treatment, he was always on hand to give us pointers, time us and provide feedback. And so I say, for the Masters athletes – the golden boys and girls, when you lace up the spikes, when you feel the burn, when there are pre-race palpitations, when you see your waist-line slim down, you know that you’re alive. There may be no medals, and our times may get slower, but while we are alive, we should never, ever stop running and pushing ourselves to the absolute limit.

The 4×400 silver medal and 800m gold medal at the 19th AMA, dedicated to YWL – for the speed you gave me. And to all the Singapore Master’s Athletes – Coach, Jason, Wee Wong, Eddie, Tino, Steven, KT, Angsar, Belinda and the rest of the team.

Keep running!

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Climbing K2 (2014)

Life on K2 – 29th July 2014, K2 base camp

Rites and rituals

“Tok tok tok” In the stillness of the day, the sound of a hammer pounding on a tin-plate resounds through base-camp. However, this was not some enterprising local Pakistan handicraft or gear repair; it was a memorial for one of our team-members, M, who had died.

The plate stated simply M’s full name, birthday and place of birth, summit date on the 28th of July, 2014, and date of demise on the 30th of July, it said nothing about him being a father of three, a high-flying executive in charge of a thousand people, or whether he was a good or a bad man. Only simply that he had been born in Madrid, trod on earth’s soil for 46 years, summited K2, and met his death the day after reaching the summit.

A whole life, starkly captured in three lines. Such is the reality of making a challenge on the big mountains.

K2 is the second tallest mountain in the world, and is also known as the Savage Mountain for its unpredictable and harsh weather, as well as the ~25% fatality rate for those who managed to stand atop its summit. For every 100 people that have summited Mount Everest, only ~6 have stood on top of K2.

As I write this, it is hard not to wonder at the meaning of life and think about how time flows on inexorably. Just the previous night, we had heard news that M had made it back to high camp safely, but at breakfast that morning, we were informed that he had passed on in the night as a result of his exertions reaching the summit.

For ourselves, we knew exactly the incredible physical toll that a summit bid made on the body. Very often, the effort to reach the top meant that people had no more reserves in order to make it back down safely. For M, he had made two summit attempts, determined to finally stand atop K2. He had succeeded finally, but paid the ultimate price for his perseverance. From Camp 4 (at 8000m, in the death zone, where the resting pulse rate of more than 100 meant that even when lying down the effort was similar to walking), we could see base-camp down on the Baltoro glacier – so close and yet so far away. With limited food and water, dehydrated and weak, every step was agony, especially because of the thin atmosphere. The mind was obsessed with getting down, to the (relatively) thicker air at base camp’s 5000m, to the food and safety we knew it represented. And yet in the heart of the moment, when it could take more than 20, 30, 50 breaths after a particularly hard crux move, it was hard to imagine that we would ever make it to the top or back down safely; yet those moments of pain and suffering had passed. Like an audience at a movie, at times it felt as if we were only spectators, powerless to change the plot, to fast-forward past the painful parts, or to linger over the pleasurable moments to savour the feelings of success.

Why do people do this? Push themselves beyond their physical limits, tempt fate, set aside friends and family for two months (not counting the time spent training) at high cost in order to stand atop a mountain, where the only souvenirs are intangible memories and photographs? What possesses men and women at the top of their game, physically and mentally to tempt fate? The reasons are different for everyone. Some are there to challenge themselves, others to make a name, still others perversely because of the mountain’s fierce reputation. But one thing is clear – none have come to die. Everyone is here because they want to live, and to feel alive.

“Tok Tok Tok” With a final bang, my team-mate has finished the plate, and a group of us make the pilgrimage to the nearby Art Gilkey memorial site, where the mountain-side is festooned with similar other plates and plaques paying tribute to those who had given their lives in pursuit of summits of K2, Broad Peak and Gasherbrum I and II, the magnificent 8000m mountains that give the area the sobriquet “The Throne-Room of the Gods”. There are memorials stretching back more than 30 years – the names going down in the lore of the mountains, with the latest ones from 2013. We had meant to pay our respects after our summit bid, but little did we know that we would come to add another plate to the mountain walls – another shiny addition that would stay here for a long time more.

As the plate was hammered in and the incense lit, our thoughts turned to another one of our team members, who was exhausted and stuck at Camp 4, her final fate uncertain; we knew that prolonged stay in the Death zone did not bode well for her or her sherpas.

Rites and rituals surround us and give us meaning as we come, climb and leave; some are successful in their quest, but many others are not. In the past 5 years since 2008 (the year of the last major tragedy), there has only been one successful season from the South side, when the weather permitted a record number to make the summit in one day. With life and death at stake, with so much time, money and energy invested, with the odds of success so slim, it is no wonder that we turn to rituals to make sense of what we are about to do.

On our arrival, we moved huge rocks and set up our prayer flags in order to erect our Puja – a Nepali prayer flag praying for the mountains to be kind and grace us with good weather, as well as our safe return. Ropes, crampons and ice-axes are left at the base of the Puja. Although a Nepali Buddhist tradition, they reflect that the Nepali Sherpas are increasingly moving into the mountains of Pakistan, bringing along with them the quiet confidence and professionalism that they possess on the mountains.

Risk and challenge

Many people ask about the difference between Everest and K2. It boils down to technical difficulty and risk. K2 is steep – it starts steep (at least 60 degrees), stays relentlessly steep, and occasionally rises to near vertical rock or hard-ice bands along the way, requiring significant rock and ice climbing skills at high-altitude. This imposes much higher demands on strength and skill. The steepness and rock-bands also give rise to a much greater risk of falling rocks (exacerbated by more climbers above you) and avalanches. This imposes much greater demands on luck (and judgment). I recall several times when falling rocks hurtling past had us all staring up in fear – the rips and holes through the tents were testament to devastation the rocks could wreak as they made their way down the mountain.

For myself, one of the hairy moments I recall was during the descent – I was rappelling when I veered 2 steps away from the path and suddenly fell into a crevasse. It is hard to describe what it was like when you suddenly find yourself suspended in a void held up only by a thin rope (which has taken alot of abuse in the course of the season), where you cannot even see the bottom of the ice. Below you is the blue-black void, like an alien magical form of cold jade. It is eerily quiet, and flailing, your arms and legs can barely touch the sides of the crevasse. Under such situations, one is alone in the world and can only depend on oneself. The essence of mountaineering is being able to make the right judgments and being able to get down safely (summiting is optional).

Other aspects of risk that are perhaps out of one’s control is the political climate. On the day that we were to head out of Islamabad, all the roads out were sealed, due to a political rally. Being trapped in the city while scenes of violence a few kilometres away played out on the screen brought out the reality of how volatile the region was. As we drove along the Karakorum highway, we saw burnt-out buses as evidence of previous terrorist attacks (as well as overturned jeeps from landslides), and looming over us was Nanga Parbat (one of the 8000m peaks in Pakistan), which was where 11 mountaineers were shot dead last year, including some of China’s finest mountaineers, who had almost accomplished the 14 summits. Ironic that they risked their lives on the mountain, but died due to human causes.

Strength and skill

Very much like life at McKinsey or in business school, the climbing community at base-camp is highly international – there are Italians, Americans, Nepali Sherpas, Pakistanis, Czech, Polish, Bulgarians and Chinese amongst others. In my team alone there were representatives from Macedonia, Turkey, Iran, Spain and America with correspondingly many different styles of climbing, equipment, gear, approaches to risk, food on the mountain. With high stakes at play, and the strong personalities inherent in a group of high-altitude mountaineers, this dynamic occasionally made for friction and challenging interactions.

One theme that stood out clearly for me was the importance of capacity to learn. While every climber on K2 had at least one other 8000m peak under their belt (some with several), this experience set did not always translate into better climbing skills or judgment. Some were obsessed with the summit and what it represented in terms of their personal achievement, with seemingly little awareness that the real heroes of the day were often the Sherpas that laid the fixed-lines or helped carry up their oxygen. In the rarefied air of an 8000m peak, perspective and good judgment sometimes melt away. For myself, a small part of the success lay in being able to tap into the lessons that I had learnt over the past 15 years of mountaineering, in the different mountains, some big, some small.

I’m grateful to have had the chance to have been there, to visit Pakistan, in all its glory, to meet and climb with an amazing group of people, to be with old friends on the mountain again, but above all, to have an audience in the throne room of the Gods and to walk away in one piece, slightly thinner and wiser.

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Amazon jungle (2013)

Just another day on holiday ...

Bite-sized memories…

A group of us had been motoring along at a comfortable pace when the tall Brazilian runner ahead of me suddenly held up his hand to signal us to stop and pointed urgently at the ground. Slithering in the grass right across the trail was a distinctive coloured band bearing the red, yellow and black markings of a highly venomous Coral snake. Had we trodden on it carelessly, it would likely have subjected us to an intense bite full of neuro-toxins that could have been potentially fatal. This was just another reminder of the beauty and danger inherent in the sea of green teeming with life that we had chosen to immerse ourselves in.

Death threats to the racers, elusive jungle trails, malaria-carrying mosquitoes, stingrays, caimans, tarantulas, jaguars, highly venomous coral snakes, legions of stinging and biting insects, debilitating heat and humidity, razor-sharp plants, multiple swamp crossings daily and endless hills – all these and more were ostensibly the reason why CNN billed the 250km UVU Amazon Jungle Marathon as “The World’s Toughest Endurance Race”!

Racing in the UVU Amazon Jungle Marathon had always been high on the list of things I had wanted to do. In 2005, after completing the 250km Gobi desert ultra-marathon, I was inspired to follow that up by taking a trip to the Amazon rain-forest to experience the opposite extreme – going from very dry to very very wet. However, work and life conspired to necessitate an 8-year interval between those two races.

The insult of injury

An Achilles tendon ‘tweak’ sustained in 2009 during a simple trail run with friends became full-blown tendonitis after I forsook much-needed rest for the intense training required to climb Mount Everest. Though I summited successfully, a 4-year odyssey of frustration ensued as I was unable to string together more than a few short runs before re-injury. For one who loves sport and running, this 4-year hiatus was one of the most challenging periods of my life. I did, however, manage to sneak in other trips during that “lull period”, such as a ski-expedition to the North Pole, and training in the Arctic circle in winter. But the joy of lacing on my trainers, hefting my pack and running that same ill-fated trail almost four years to the day of that wretched injury, was incomparable. I was finally able to run on a trail again, and not a moment too soon – as the Amazon was only a month away.

Before we begin…

Set deep in the Amazon forest of NW Brazil, the race had a deceptively simple format: 6 stages, 7 days. The kicker was that besides a marked trail, water, medical resources and a nightly camp-site, all of which was provided by the petite but incredibly formidable race director, Shirley Thompson, and her team, everything else.– food, clothing (for racing and sleeping), medical kits, hammocks, jungle knives and other survival items – had to be brought along by the racers themselves.

Ensuring the optimal race gear trade-off meant endless rounds of packing and re-packing during the first two days in the jungle before setting off.  We agonized over the number of power gels and salt tablets to bring along, jettisoned unimportant and important equipment and conducted interminable exchanges of “Does anyone have spare safety pins/ anti-malaria tablets/ head-lamps/ batteries/ wet-wipes…”. In such an extreme environment, a missing piece of gear could have disastrous consequences, but carrying too much could also overburden one (literally). In the end, most of us had packs that weighed between 6 – 10kg. Not light by any means, especially when you factored in the weight of the packs when completely soaked, and the many hills we had to climb, but not overly daunting..

Besides receiving training to familiarize us with the jungle flora and fauna, those two packing days also gave us the opportunity to acclimatize.  I had once read an account about a desert race where the heat had been described as being a passive killer. (I’m not sure if I completely agree with that description as the 50+ degree Celsius heat I had to endure in the Gobi desert was certainly significant.) In contrast, here in the Amazon, everything seemed to be actively trying to put me at the bottom of the food-chain. The humidity and heat took an intense toll on my body. Thankfully, I was quite well-adapted to the environment, and found it strangely familiar and comforting, reminiscent of the climate back home in Singapore as well as the other tropical jungles of Borneo (Brunei) and West Malaysia where I had spent a significant amount of time.

By the second night, we were all rather anxious to get racing, for we knew that once we got started, there would be no more second-guessing, and our nervous energy could finally be put to good use.

 Let the games begin!

On the first day of the race, I woke up at 5am to add boiling water to my meal of freeze-dried food – my hearty breakfast. The camp-site was a hive of activity with headlamps dotting the darkness as racers started packing away their hammocks, applying unguents and lotions to their nether bits which were likely to blister, putting on their racing gear and refilling water-bottles. The tension was palpable.

Day 1 – The hills are alive…with the sound of blistered footsteps

The first stage began on the beach with a mad dash for pole position and then up a steep hill out of the village we had been staying at. Having been through this kind of melee previously, I was a little more measured; after all, this was only the first 23km of a 250km race.

The first 10 minutes brought us all to our first check-point, where there was a mandatory 15 minute rest (required for all check-points in the first two days to reduce heat injury) followed by our first river-crossing. This would be the first of many river and swamp crossings for the race, often the very first thing we would do at the start of each day, and our feet would rarely be dry for the following 7 days.

In the jungle, we waded through deep muddy swamps. I’m not sure what comes to mind as you read these words – perhaps a bit of dirt, or mud up to your shins, shoes need washing – but here, we’re talking about mud akin to the Florida swamps that I once had the pleasure of traipsing through for several weeks – swamps that suck you in and never spit you out; a competitor in a previous edition of this race DNFed simply by losing his shoe to the extreme grip of the swamp!

Once away from the swamp, there was a series of steep hills to ascend – leg-burning, lung-busting hills. It was interesting to see who was relatively stronger on the downs, the ups and the flats as we would constantly swap places with other competitors. Coming from the table-flat terrain of Shanghai, where the nearest hill is more than an hour away, this was a serious stumbling block for me – literally and metaphorically. Along with the ups came the downs – steep descents often meant sliding and slipping, with the nascent emergence of hot-spots within the shoes, that were also full of grit. The conditions for blister formation – heat, moisture and friction (the unholy trinity) – were all present in copious amounts, and later on, we would see the toll that it took on the racers. With the heat, hills and pace, the first day was very punishing and took me over four hours to complete, about an hour behind the race leaders. I later overheard that someone had told Shirley that a racer from the previous year had scoffed at how easy the first day was – I guess this was our pay-back. We had our first heat-injury case that day, with one of the competitors from UK, Lee, being pulled-out and given IV at the medical tent. We were treated to a comfortable camp-site next to the river that night, but that just meant that the next day would start with a swim across the river.

Day 2 – Can you take the heat?

And so the day began, as anticipated, with a river sojourn. Unfortunately, my big dry bag became completely non-functional and de-laminated, so I ended up carrying lots of water IN my dry-bag, along with my pack. The second day was also scorching hot, with more segments of open road, and occasionally, one would see competitors crash out at check-points. The second night’s campsite was in an open area near a cemetery – appropriate, for a few people were already starting to feel like they were dying. One of the good friends I had made so far, Theimos, had 5 huge blisters on each foot drained and refilled with friar’s balsam – it was meant to act as a hardening agent to hold the dead skin in place, like super-glue, but the down-side was that it felt like someone was taking a red-hot poker to raw skin. His screams as they plunged the needle in were of decibels unheard of outside of medieval torture chambers. (His daughters were quite impressed with their dad when they viewed this on video; his ex-wife was pretty pleased too).

Day 3 – Creature (dis)comforts

The third day was another 34km, this time deep in the heart of the jungle, which we shared with many creatures. I also found out the hard way what interval training in the jungle was like; when the bees and hornets come swarming at you, you are pretty incentivised to kick things into gear and sprint like your life depended on it (which it did, in a sense). We came across these angry bees several times and had to make a mad dash for it. What made this even more perplexing was that   I had soaked my clothes in Permethrin – a strong insect repellent that is supposedly especially toxic to bees – but I guess they did not receive the memo. 

Day 4 – Easy does it

Day 4 was the marathon stage. The first leg began with a swim down a fast-flowing stream that had numerous fallen trees in the way. The extremely exhausting and painful challenge lay in clambering over these obstacles without chafing or scraping our skin that was already in states of agonizing rawness. Speed, or any attempt at it, was practically impossible. We did a kilometre or two of this slowly, then the fresh fast-flowing water petered out into a swamp, and then it was just swamp, swamp and more swamp. The second half of Day 4, however, was a more forgiving, but still long and hot, slog on the road, before finally arriving at  a beautiful beach.

That night, as we were getting settled in and were preparing for the next morning’s 2am start, a town-hall meeting was suddenly called. One of the local competitors, who had been in first place, had been caught cheating via motorbike, and had been disqualified. Irate and humiliated, he had made threats against the race and the new first placed racer, Given that our route went past his village, there were concerns about the racers’ safety as well as much discussion about what to do next: Proceed as planned, retrace our steps or …?

The tension was high, especially for the organizing committee. For the rest of us, the main worry was about getting as much rest as possible before the 108km stage; essentially, we were only halfway through the race.

Day 5 – The race must go on

On Day 5, the decision was made: we would carry on, with a modified route entailing a boat ride around the affected area. However, this meant that what was usually a time cut-off (60km in 10 hours) to prevent people from ending up deep in the jungle at night was now a cut-off by place – the first 10 to reach the 38km mark would push off first, with a 3 hour round-trip between the launch and drop-off point. I was determined to make that cut-off, but I knew it would be really tough. By this point in the race, I had consistently been around 15th in the pack and would have to dig deep to make it. During the first leg, I got lost in the jungle, and thought I was out of contention. I found out at the first check-point, however, that I was in 10th position, but the 11th and 12th guys were right behind me with another 20km to go. We had a long spell of running along the beach, jungle and road. I summoned all the reserves I had, pounding a few power gels along the way  and I arrived at the check-point within 15-20 minutes of the front pack. In 10th place! It felt like catching the last chopper out of Saigon. The rest of the night was spent on the beach, pushing, running and walking. Part of the beach trail was not marked, but we were now a team of 4 – JP, a super fit Dutch soldier; Krystof, a polish engineer who had studied in Singapore; Jason, a former trader from the US who had just finished B-school; and me.

That night was unforgettable; we fought fatigue and exhaustion as we moved along the beach, climbing rocks and trying to find a path. Near daybreak, we were making up time on the front team, when we suddenly found ourselves in a deep swamp in the dark, with no trail to follow, and no more water. All our attempts to skirts around the swamp or follow the road were to no avail. In the end, we had to take a school-bus to the nearest town (the kids smelled so clean and fresh, we were really embarrassed), catch a cab and hitch a ride back to the end-point so we could run back to the finish line. That night was epic, and made fast friends of the four of us. In the end we must have covered an extra 30km and what would have been a super-fast time had us arriving only near the mid-pack – the challenges of not speaking Portuguese.

Day 7 – The end is in sight!

The final day saw us run the last 10km along the scorching beach and take a final swim before reaching the finish line, where we started the first of many good meals!

 

The race in review

Behind the blisters – training and preparation

Whenever describing the race to others the response is often one of shock or incredulity – “Why would any sane person want to do something like that?”

And it is true that the race is challenging, but ask any racer what was really tough, and they’ll tell you about the hours they put in training. One of the coolest guys on the trip was a huge, tough New Zealand-based Brazilian called Marcelo, whom we nicknamed “Big Daddy” because of his amazingly caring disposition. He shared that he would run to and from work 20km a day on Mondays to Wednesdays, then bike on Thursdays and Fridays with even more training on the weekends. This was pretty typical of the group.

As for me, living in flat and smoggy Shanghai meant that my only option was to pound the pavement along the Bund wearing a face-mask at 2am after work with a 10kg pack of rice. Clocking training time was really tough, so I had to make do with some stair-climbing before work at 7am, or hit the gym for half an hour at 3am after I finished my Powerpoint presentation.

Similarly, sourcing for gear and equipment was a nightmare. The irony was that despite the fact that the gear I needed were all made in China, they weren’t sold here, at least not in sizes larger than US11! In the end, I had to order my shoes from the US, ship them to UK, pick them up while transiting through London, and clock a mere 10km on them in Regent’s Park before the race started. Thankfully, they worked really well for me.

 Sights and sounds on the trail

 The sounds! The cacophony of sounds – from “Big Daddy’s” incessant snoring, and the crackling Brazilian military radio, to misinformed roosters that thought day-break was at 3am, and the distant howling of the monkeys at dawn – all audible from the comfort of my hammock made me forget all about the urban madness that was Shanghai, and my staid corporate life back there.

 

Blood, sweat and tears…literally

There were a multitude of injuries, from a huge gash that split open the calf of one racer (mind you, he still finished, the swamp and swims notwithstanding), to heat-related debilitations and massive monster blisters engulfing the whole foot. I recall one night the Japanese runner came dragging in past midnight completely trashed, and the other runners were helping to treat him by headlamp as he lay on the table – it was a scene from out of a war movie. Massive full-body heat rash, abrasions from the backpack were pretty much par for the course. As for me, I escaped pretty unscathed, by which I mean that my whole body was speckled with blood spots from the heat rash, and was completely sunburnt and cut-up by the plants and the insect bites. But my feet remained completely blister-free throughout the race. In fact, the most severe damage was to my laptop, which suffered a completely shattered screen during its journey in the cargo hold of the ship

 

The people

What makes events like this really special for me are the amazing people I get to share it with. The group that I hung out with the most were the people who, like myself, arrived on the last possible flight in. There was Dr. Sebastian Haag from Germany, a compact super-cool racer who was a top-notch ski-mountaineer and worked for UVU, the race sponsor. There was the aforementioned Marcelo who exemplified the depth and breadth of care and concern for others one can have,  even in such a challenging environment. Super tough and determined Mariana was the French ‘ghost’, nicknamed as such because she slept in a ultra-light one-piece white outfit. Vegetarian for health reasons, she never ever quit, despite getting lost a few times on the trail. Greek Theimos had planned to do just the 42km race till we convinced him to do the 122km segment. Together, we laughed, and swam and raced and ran and ate together for the full 10 days, and it was simply magical. There were some really crazy guys, like the Japanese runner in the full Cow outfit (Don’t ask me what it was for, nobody really understood whether it was an environmental message or he really liked to eat beef).  There were so many others that I struck up great conversations and friendships with – the volunteers and medics, many from the US or UK, as well as the photographers and many other racers from Brazil and abroad. All of us shared the same passion for adventure and a respectful appreciation of the jungle we were facing and that created a common language between us.

Back to life, back to reality

Within 12 hours of finishing the race, I was on board a plane to begin the 40 hour journey back to Shanghai. One regret I had was that I had flown so far without getting a chance to eve see Rio or Sao Paulo. My lower legs were so severely swollen with fluid by the time I landed that it took four days for the bones in my feet to become visible again. I arrived in Shanghai at 830am on a Tuesday and headed straight to a conference that I was organizing; back to the corporate life that couldn’t have been further from my surreal life barely 2 days before. That evening, as I stood in black tie attire at an office event, I found myself missing my hammock in the middle of the Amazonian jungle. Sometimes you find ‘home’ in the least likely of places.

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Bite-sized memories…

A group of us had been motoring along at a comfortable pace when the tall Brazilian runner ahead of me suddenly held up his hand to signal us to stop and pointed urgently at the ground. Slithering in the grass right across the trail was a distinctive coloured band bearing the red, yellow and black markings of a highly venomous Coral snake. Had we trodden on it carelessly, it would likely have subjected us to an intense bite full of neuro-toxins that could have been potentially fatal. This was just another reminder of the beauty and danger inherent in the sea of green teeming with life that we had chosen to immerse ourselves in.

Death threats to the racers, elusive jungle trails, malaria-carrying mosquitoes, stingrays, caimans, tarantulas, jaguars, highly venomous coral snakes, legions of stinging and biting insects, debilitating heat and humidity, razor-sharp plants, multiple swamp crossings daily and endless hills – all these and more were ostensibly the reason why CNN billed the 250km UVU Amazon Jungle Marathon as “The World’s Toughest Endurance Race”!

Racing in the UVU Amazon Jungle Marathon had always been high on the list of things I had wanted to do. In 2005, after completing the 250km Gobi desert ultra-marathon, I was inspired to follow that up by taking a trip to the Amazon rain-forest to experience the opposite extreme – going from very dry to very very wet. However, work and life conspired to necessitate an 8-year interval between those two races.

The insult of injury

An Achilles tendon ‘tweak’ sustained in 2009 during a simple trail run with friends became full-blown tendonitis after I forsook much-needed rest for the intense training required to climb Mount Everest. Though I summited successfully, a 4-year odyssey of frustration ensued as I was unable to string together more than a few short runs before re-injury. For one who loves sport and running, this 4-year hiatus was one of the most challenging periods of my life. I did, however, manage to sneak in other trips during that “lull period”, such as a ski-expedition to the North Pole, and training in the Arctic circle in winter. But the joy of lacing on my trainers, hefting my pack and running that same ill-fated trail almost four years to the day of that wretched injury, was incomparable. I was finally able to run on a trail again, and not a moment too soon – as the Amazon was only a month away.

Before we begin…

Set deep in the Amazon forest of NW Brazil, the race had a deceptively simple format: 6 stages, 7 days. The kicker was that besides a marked trail, water, medical resources and a nightly camp-site, all of which was provided by the petite but incredibly formidable race director, Shirley Thompson, and her team, everything else.– food, clothing (for racing and sleeping), medical kits, hammocks, jungle knives and other survival items – had to be brought along by the racers themselves.

Ensuring the optimal race gear trade-off meant endless rounds of packing and re-packing during the first two days in the jungle before setting off.  We agonized over the number of power gels and salt tablets to bring along, jettisoned unimportant and important equipment and conducted interminable exchanges of “Does anyone have spare safety pins/ anti-malaria tablets/ head-lamps/ batteries/ wet-wipes…”. In such an extreme environment, a missing piece of gear could have disastrous consequences, but carrying too much could also overburden one (literally). In the end, most of us had packs that weighed between 6 – 10kg. Not light by any means, especially when you factored in the weight of the packs when completely soaked, and the many hills we had to climb, but not overly daunting..

Besides receiving training to familiarize us with the jungle flora and fauna, those two packing days also gave us the opportunity to acclimatize.  I had once read an account about a desert race where the heat had been described as being a passive killer. (I’m not sure if I completely agree with that description as the 50+ degree Celsius heat I had to endure in the Gobi desert was certainly significant.) In contrast, here in the Amazon, everything seemed to be actively trying to put me at the bottom of the food-chain. The humidity and heat took an intense toll on my body. Thankfully, I was quite well-adapted to the environment, and found it strangely familiar and comforting, reminiscent of the climate back home in Singapore as well as the other tropical jungles of Borneo (Brunei) and West Malaysia where I had spent a significant amount of time.

By the second night, we were all rather anxious to get racing, for we knew that once we got started, there would be no more second-guessing, and our nervous energy could finally be put to good use.

 Let the games begin!

On the first day of the race, I woke up at 5am to add boiling water to my meal of freeze-dried food – my hearty breakfast. The camp-site was a hive of activity with headlamps dotting the darkness as racers started packing away their hammocks, applying unguents and lotions to their nether bits which were likely to blister, putting on their racing gear and refilling water-bottles. The tension was palpable.

Day 1 – The hills are alive…with the sound of blistered footsteps

The first stage began on the beach with a mad dash for pole position and then up a steep hill out of the village we had been staying at. Having been through this kind of melee previously, I was a little more measured; after all, this was only the first 23km of a 250km race.

The first 10 minutes brought us all to our first check-point, where there was a mandatory 15 minute rest (required for all check-points in the first two days to reduce heat injury) followed by our first river-crossing. This would be the first of many river and swamp crossings for the race, often the very first thing we would do at the start of each day, and our feet would rarely be dry for the following 7 days.

In the jungle, we waded through deep muddy swamps. I’m not sure what comes to mind as you read these words – perhaps a bit of dirt, or mud up to your shins, shoes need washing – but here, we’re talking about mud akin to the Florida swamps that I once had the pleasure of traipsing through for several weeks – swamps that suck you in and never spit you out; a competitor in a previous edition of this race DNFed simply by losing his shoe to the extreme grip of the swamp!

Once away from the swamp, there was a series of steep hills to ascend – leg-burning, lung-busting hills. It was interesting to see who was relatively stronger on the downs, the ups and the flats as we would constantly swap places with other competitors. Coming from the table-flat terrain of Shanghai, where the nearest hill is more than an hour away, this was a serious stumbling block for me – literally and metaphorically. Along with the ups came the downs – steep descents often meant sliding and slipping, with the nascent emergence of hot-spots within the shoes, that were also full of grit. The conditions for blister formation – heat, moisture and friction (the unholy trinity) – were all present in copious amounts, and later on, we would see the toll that it took on the racers. With the heat, hills and pace, the first day was very punishing and took me over four hours to complete, about an hour behind the race leaders. I later overheard that someone had told Shirley that a racer from the previous year had scoffed at how easy the first day was – I guess this was our pay-back. We had our first heat-injury case that day, with one of the competitors from UK, Lee, being pulled-out and given IV at the medical tent. We were treated to a comfortable camp-site next to the river that night, but that just meant that the next day would start with a swim across the river.

Day 2 – Can you take the heat?

And so the day began, as anticipated, with a river sojourn. Unfortunately, my big dry bag became completely non-functional and de-laminated, so I ended up carrying lots of water IN my dry-bag, along with my pack. The second day was also scorching hot, with more segments of open road, and occasionally, one would see competitors crash out at check-points. The second night’s campsite was in an open area near a cemetery – appropriate, for a few people were already starting to feel like they were dying. One of the good friends I had made so far, Theimos, had 5 huge blisters on each foot drained and refilled with friar’s balsam – it was meant to act as a hardening agent to hold the dead skin in place, like super-glue, but the down-side was that it felt like someone was taking a red-hot poker to raw skin. His screams as they plunged the needle in were of decibels unheard of outside of medieval torture chambers. (His daughters were quite impressed with their dad when they viewed this on video; his ex-wife was pretty pleased too).

Day 3 – Creature (dis)comforts

The third day was another 34km, this time deep in the heart of the jungle, which we shared with many creatures. I also found out the hard way what interval training in the jungle was like; when the bees and hornets come swarming at you, you are pretty incentivised to kick things into gear and sprint like your life depended on it (which it did, in a sense). We came across these angry bees several times and had to make a mad dash for it. What made this even more perplexing was that   I had soaked my clothes in Permethrin – a strong insect repellent that is supposedly especially toxic to bees – but I guess they did not receive the memo. 

Day 4 – Easy does it

Day 4 was the marathon stage. The first leg began with a swim down a fast-flowing stream that had numerous fallen trees in the way. The extremely exhausting and painful challenge lay in clambering over these obstacles without chafing or scraping our skin that was already in states of agonizing rawness. Speed, or any attempt at it, was practically impossible. We did a kilometre or two of this slowly, then the fresh fast-flowing water petered out into a swamp, and then it was just swamp, swamp and more swamp. The second half of Day 4, however, was a more forgiving, but still long and hot, slog on the road, before finally arriving at  a beautiful beach.

That night, as we were getting settled in and were preparing for the next morning’s 2am start, a town-hall meeting was suddenly called. One of the local competitors, who had been in first place, had been caught cheating via motorbike, and had been disqualified. Irate and humiliated, he had made threats against the race and the new first placed racer, Given that our route went past his village, there were concerns about the racers’ safety as well as much discussion about what to do next: Proceed as planned, retrace our steps or …?

The tension was high, especially for the organizing committee. For the rest of us, the main worry was about getting as much rest as possible before the 108km stage; essentially, we were only halfway through the race.

Day 5 – The race must go on

On Day 5, the decision was made: we would carry on, with a modified route entailing a boat ride around the affected area. However, this meant that what was usually a time cut-off (60km in 10 hours) to prevent people from ending up deep in the jungle at night was now a cut-off by place – the first 10 to reach the 38km mark would push off first, with a 3 hour round-trip between the launch and drop-off point. I was determined to make that cut-off, but I knew it would be really tough. By this point in the race, I had consistently been around 15th in the pack and would have to dig deep to make it. During the first leg, I got lost in the jungle, and thought I was out of contention. I found out at the first check-point, however, that I was in 10th position, but the 11th and 12th guys were right behind me with another 20km to go. We had a long spell of running along the beach, jungle and road. I summoned all the reserves I had, pounding a few power gels along the way  and I arrived at the check-point within 15-20 minutes of the front pack. In 10th place! It felt like catching the last chopper out of Saigon. The rest of the night was spent on the beach, pushing, running and walking. Part of the beach trail was not marked, but we were now a team of 4 – JP, a super fit Dutch soldier; Krystof, a polish engineer who had studied in Singapore; Jason, a former trader from the US who had just finished B-school; and me.

That night was unforgettable; we fought fatigue and exhaustion as we moved along the beach, climbing rocks and trying to find a path. Near daybreak, we were making up time on the front team, when we suddenly found ourselves in a deep swamp in the dark, with no trail to follow, and no more water. All our attempts to skirts around the swamp or follow the road were to no avail. In the end, we had to take a school-bus to the nearest town (the kids smelled so clean and fresh, we were really embarrassed), catch a cab and hitch a ride back to the end-point so we could run back to the finish line. That night was epic, and made fast friends of the four of us. In the end we must have covered an extra 30km and what would have been a super-fast time had us arriving only near the mid-pack – the challenges of not speaking Portuguese.

Day 7 – The end is in sight!

The final day saw us run the last 10km along the scorching beach and take a final swim before reaching the finish line, where we started the first of many good meals!

 

The race in review

Behind the blisters – training and preparation

Whenever describing the race to others the response is often one of shock or incredulity – “Why would any sane person want to do something like that?”

And it is true that the race is challenging, but ask any racer what was really tough, and they’ll tell you about the hours they put in training. One of the coolest guys on the trip was a huge, tough New Zealand-based Brazilian called Marcelo, whom we nicknamed “Big Daddy” because of his amazingly caring disposition. He shared that he would run to and from work 20km a day on Mondays to Wednesdays, then bike on Thursdays and Fridays with even more training on the weekends. This was pretty typical of the group.

As for me, living in flat and smoggy Shanghai meant that my only option was to pound the pavement along the Bund wearing a face-mask at 2am after work with a 10kg pack of rice. Clocking training time was really tough, so I had to make do with some stair-climbing before work at 7am, or hit the gym for half an hour at 3am after I finished my Powerpoint presentation.

Similarly, sourcing for gear and equipment was a nightmare. The irony was that despite the fact that the gear I needed were all made in China, they weren’t sold here, at least not in sizes larger than US11! In the end, I had to order my shoes from the US, ship them to UK, pick them up while transiting through London, and clock a mere 10km on them in Regent’s Park before the race started. Thankfully, they worked really well for me.

 Sights and sounds on the trail

 The sounds! The cacophony of sounds – from “Big Daddy’s” incessant snoring, and the crackling Brazilian military radio, to misinformed roosters that thought day-break was at 3am, and the distant howling of the monkeys at dawn – all audible from the comfort of my hammock made me forget all about the urban madness that was Shanghai, and my staid corporate life back there.

 

Blood, sweat and tears…literally

There were a multitude of injuries, from a huge gash that split open the calf of one racer (mind you, he still finished, the swamp and swims notwithstanding), to heat-related debilitations and massive monster blisters engulfing the whole foot. I recall one night the Japanese runner came dragging in past midnight completely trashed, and the other runners were helping to treat him by headlamp as he lay on the table – it was a scene from out of a war movie. Massive full-body heat rash, abrasions from the backpack were pretty much par for the course. As for me, I escaped pretty unscathed, by which I mean that my whole body was speckled with blood spots from the heat rash, and was completely sunburnt and cut-up by the plants and the insect bites. But my feet remained completely blister-free throughout the race. In fact, the most severe damage was to my laptop, which suffered a completely shattered screen during its journey in the cargo hold of the ship

 

The people

What makes events like this really special for me are the amazing people I get to share it with. The group that I hung out with the most were the people who, like myself, arrived on the last possible flight in. There was Dr. Sebastian Haag from Germany, a compact super-cool racer who was a top-notch ski-mountaineer and worked for UVU, the race sponsor. There was the aforementioned Marcelo who exemplified the depth and breadth of care and concern for others one can have,  even in such a challenging environment. Super tough and determined Mariana was the French ‘ghost’, nicknamed as such because she slept in a ultra-light one-piece white outfit. Vegetarian for health reasons, she never ever quit, despite getting lost a few times on the trail. Greek Theimos had planned to do just the 42km race till we convinced him to do the 122km segment. Together, we laughed, and swam and raced and ran and ate together for the full 10 days, and it was simply magical. There were some really crazy guys, like the Japanese runner in the full Cow outfit (Don’t ask me what it was for, nobody really understood whether it was an environmental message or he really liked to eat beef).  There were so many others that I struck up great conversations and friendships with – the volunteers and medics, many from the US or UK, as well as the photographers and many other racers from Brazil and abroad. All of us shared the same passion for adventure and a respectful appreciation of the jungle we were facing and that created a common language between us.

Back to life, back to reality

Within 12 hours of finishing the race, I was on board a plane to begin the 40 hour journey back to Shanghai. One regret I had was that I had flown so far without getting a chance to eve see Rio or Sao Paulo. My lower legs were so severely swollen with fluid by the time I landed that it took four days for the bones in my feet to become visible again. I arrived in Shanghai at 830am on a Tuesday and headed straight to a conference that I was organizing; back to the corporate life that couldn’t have been further from my surreal life barely 2 days before. That evening, as I stood in black tie attire at an office event, I found myself missing my hammock in the middle of the Amazonian jungle. Sometimes you find ‘home’ in the least likely of places.

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How to contribute?

Please visit http://www.justgiving.com/LBS-Northpoletrek and donate generously! Target is to hit GBP5000 for MENCAP. Read more below.

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The Journey … and the destination

Image

Imagine skiing over thin ice, pulling a 100+ lbs sled, dealing with freezing cold, ice breaking under your feet and tents, polar bear sightings. All these and more were challenges on this expedition.

1. It’s Great to be back! First off, it’s really great to be back in civilisation (Defined as any place with a flushing toilet). Sorry it’s been so long writing this post – getting back into the real world has been a big challenge, with classes, second year projects (thanks  Nik and Ben for being so patient while I was training and away on this trip!) and other school commitments. I arrived back at my apartment past midnight on a Sunday evening, and was sitting in the class-room seven hours later. Ouch.

2. Thanks for all the support – Yes, I made it, with all 21 digits intact! The biggest thanks to all the friends, classmates and family that supported me through this endeavour, gave me words of encouragement and pats on the back during my training and also supported my adopted charity.

(MENCAP donations hit the GBP$5000 mark, thanks!)

Big thanks especially to my brother BL, whose big donation helped us achieve the target of GBP$5000 for MENCAP. So for those of you that think that there is no future in hedge funds, think again.

Rachel from MENCAP also sends her thanks to everyone for the programs they’ll be able to fund with this!

The following are some of the main questions people were interested in:

3.      How did you get there?

The trip started from London to Oslo to Svalbard (780 North, where they have the seed vault that is a plant version of Noah’s Ark and more polar bears and snow-mobiles than people) to Barneo, which is a science station built by the Russians on Arctic ice that exists for only one month a year. Setting up the station is a whole military operation in itself! There are some amazing videos of how the specialists free-fall  in with the equipment and level the airfield. Next time you complain about a bumpy ride, think of these guys. See http://www.barneo.ru/2011.htm for details.

Image(Svalbard water-front property)

Image

(Big John in front of polar bear crossing sign – Svalbard more polar bears than people)

It is hard to imagine but the whole air-strip, and ice-station is built on top of moving ice that floats over the Arctic ocean. Underneath the few metres of ice is 4000m of icy-cold sea water down to the sea floor.

Image

(Keynesian construction stimulus package – Arctic style)

4. Flying in to Barneo 

Once we got into Barneo, there was immediately a high-stakes discussions on the route and plan of attack, as well as what time the helicopter to drop us off would fly. The three main factors in military operations are often Time, Terrain and Enemy Action.

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(Rick Sweitzer – Our intrepid leader and boss of Polar Explorers company)

a. Time – Given that the Barneo station had a hard dead-line of Apr 23 after which the whole science station would have to be dismantled and flown out because the warming weather posed a risk of the ice under the station melting. This gave us added pressure to arrive at the North Pole on time. One good thing was that with 24hours of daylight, if push came to shove, we could just log longer hours on our skis.

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 (Barneo ice-camp – An amazing example of great Russian hospitality and ingenuity. All this has to go by the 23rd of April)

b. Terrain – One of the key challenges in Arctic travel was that we were traveling over moving ice. This meant that when the ice-plates pulled apart, it could create huge stretches of open water that had to be swum around or skied around. When the ice pushed together, it created pressure-ridges of small hills that were incredibly tough to get around. The shifting ice could move as fast as we skied, so on bad days, we could be on a tread-mill, moving the whole day without getting any nearer to the North Pole.

Image(Michael crossing a small lead of open water)

(Me chopping a path through the rough ice – Note the flipped over sled)

There was one time as we were crossing thin ice that the whole ice piece I was on cracked and began to sink, with my right leg following it into the water. Talk about getting cold feet! Thankfully I managed to get out, and powder snow helped to soak up most of the water. But falling into a thin lead is one of the key areas of danger on a Polar expedition.

Another time, after we had just reached the pole and had our tents set up and were settling in to sleep, we were serenaded by the grinding of the ice plates moving. On checking, we found a crack had opened up right next to our tent, forcing us to get up from our sleeping bags, put on our clothes, pack up and move tents otherwise the tent could have gone into the water and sunk to the bottom of the ocean – literally falling property value or sinking prices.

c. Enemy Action – Ursa Maritimus (Polar Bear)

When people think of polar bears, this is the mental image that they have, courtesy of Coke’s media campaign over the years.

(What most people think when they think of polar bears)

However, the reality is that the undisputed top of the food chain around polar regions is Ursa Maritimus – reflecting its ability to swim and survive in these regions. Growing up to 650kg, with the largest recorded specimen topping 1 Ton, polar bears can sprint up to 40km/h and swim 4km/h, a good sight faster than humans.

The only advice when meeting a polar bear is to make sure you can run faster than your team-mates =0

Here is my good friend Big John posing – this bear weighed only 350kg when it died – imagine an animal three times the size!

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On our first day of the expedition, another team was being inserted by helicopter, and they spotted a polar bear mom and her cubs.

Image(Photo of mama bear and her two cubs, courtesy of Anastasia from the Norwegian team)

Not long after that, we came across a set of polar bear paw-prints. To see other signs of life in the Arctic wilderness was highly disconcerting – you can imagine that the shot-gun and pistols were at the ready after that!

5. The Team

Overall, there were 7 of us in the team, as well as 3 guides. Rick, Keith and Vern were our amazing guides from Polar Explores, while, Lu Xiaohua and Li Jianxiong were from China, Mike Stringfellow from Australia, Alex and Simon Hearn a father/son team from UK and Big John Dahlem, my buddy from Everest.

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There were so many funny stories to tell about the team, and way too much naked flesh for such a cold climate (what with frostbite risk and all) and tattoos being exposed but I guess what happens at the North Pole, stays at the North Pole so I’m not posting any of these incriminating photos.

The cultural diversity was also manifested in the kind of alcohol brought on the trip –

One of the exciting photos that didn’t pass censorship is of Simon and Alex, who stripped themselves completely naked when we finally reached the pole, covering up their man-bits with the Union Jack as well as their regiment flag (Royal Scots Dragoons).

6. Reaching the Pole

After a long journey, we finally reached the pole on April 18th at 430pm. The final going was incredibly tough, taking us more than an hour to cover the final few hundred metres. Once near there, we also had to wander around trying to track the exact spot on GPS.

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(GPS reading 90 degrees North. Longitude is where it gets confusing)

After such a long journey it was great to finally reach our destination! Within a few moments however, we had drifted on, and we were already starting to move away from the North Pole.

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7. The North Pole – What does it mean to you?

It is inevitable to make comparisons with Everest when I was on the polar expedition, and I guess there are two possible views that people can take of the world:

Life is like a mountain

Many people use mountain-climbing as a metaphor, that we have a target, a zenith, and once conquered, we descend. That’s why people like to talk about Everest to signify a big challenge in life. Make no mistake – the Everest summit day was one of the toughest days of my life, especially coming back down to Camp 2, which made it a 24hour day. (An estimated 20,000 or more calories expended on summit day – about 10 days worth of a normal person’s energy input). However, the days leading up to the summit are rather manageable.

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(One of the sights I will never forget – sunrise on summit day, illuminating the Himalayan vista all around)

Like is like polar travel

In polar travel on the other hand, EVERY DAY is tough and every day looks the same. It’s just that SOME DAYS are tougher. And when you get to the North Pole itself, you won’t even recognize it – we had to spend almost half an hour getting the GPS to track, and once there, we only spent a moment before it too started to drift.

That may be a more accurate description of life – that we chase an objective defined only in our minds, and we may not even recognize it even when we are there, and once we catch it it instantly slips away. Yet despite knowing all that, we still chase our dream, because to us, there is value in the adventure, journey and destination. Some days you drift forward, some days you drift backwards, despite your best efforts. You just have to keep going and never quit because you think the goal is worth it.

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(Solo in Baffin during my training trip)

8. So what’s next?

Buy me a coffee and we can discuss some ideas.

Thanks again to all my friends for following this, and if anyone wants to chat, get me to talk to their kids, school, work-place (tell their employees to be grateful for heating in the office), club etc, I’d be more than willing to oblige.

Many thanks again to all my friends.

Safe travels,

Lien

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Final Prep – Last post for a while…

First off, a big thank you to all the friends who have given me words of encouragement and support. Many thanks also for your contributions and donations to MENCAP!

As final prep, I spent Monday afternoon at the Robert Scott South Pole exhibition at the Natural History Museum in Kensington. Highly recommended!

For those not familiar with the story, 100 years ago, Robert Scott (British navy) and Roald Amundsen (Norwegian polar explorer), were in a race to be the first men to reach the South Pole. As Scott described simply in his expedition prospectus: The purpose of the expedition is to reach the South Pole, and to secure for the British Empire the honour of this achievement. Simply stated and simpler times, but lofty aims. Things that we can all resonate with still nowadays.

As history would have it, Amundsen was the winner then, reaching the South Pole in Dec 1911: the following photograph shows them happy after their success.

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For Scott however, his team arrived at the pole a month later in Jan 1912 bitterly disappointed at being beaten to the prize. Even worse was that on the home ward journey, their team of 5 all froze to death, as they had run out of food, being stopped by extreme bad weather only 20km from their food cache. The only thing to commemorate them was the following snow cairn, erected by the search party from base-camp that could only retrieve their diaries and belongings 6 months later, when summer broke in the Antarctic.

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The British party left no man behind, dragging along their sick and wounded even when they were running short on food. In similar spirit, one of their wounded members, Titus Oates, who suffered from bad frost-bite sacrificed himself when he walked out barefoot into a blizzard, so that he would not be a hindrance to the team. His parting words were “I am just going outside and may be some time.”

This spirit of the Scott exhibition reminds me of a quote I once read by a British sergeant – Our officers are there to show us how to die. This was not meant unkindly, but descriptive of the nobility and perseverance even in the face of extreme privation, which Scott’s expedition fully captures. I wondered whether Titus’ action was merely a gesture – too little too late, and if he had done it earlier, it would have changed their overall chances of success. But given the solidarity in the team, I believe that if there was still a glimmer of hope, the rest would certainly not have allowed him to sacrifice himself. Talk about team-work.

Today I had the chance to see the Norwegian point of view at the Fram museum. It houses the ship (Fram) that Amundsen used to explore the North and South pole regions. Their story was one of thorough preparation (living years with the Eskimos), discriminating team selection (champion skier), good strategy (sled dogs for locomotion) and above all, a single-minded pursuit of one goal.

It is hard not to compare the two expeditions, seeing that they had the same goals but such different outcomes. Having seen both the British and Norwegian exhibits, I think that the wikipedia entry is pretty accurate.However, from experience with MBA case-studies, I’m careful of drawing simple conclusions in hind-sight. It would be easy to say that one team was ill-prepared, but it could also be argued that Scott, with his flair for writing, and tragic end had a greater impact than Amundsen (MBA moral – marketing is more important than actual product quality). After all, for every Honda Case A story, there is always a revisionist Honda Case B. And anyway, these points are moot – these men have passed on, it was just a question of when.

What is not in doubt however, is that they made a wager and were willing to stake their lives on the outcome. They spent years preparing for the expedition, and to their minds, made what seemed like the best choices at that point in time. They both gambled – one survived, one failed.

The sheer human effort that the Scott team made in dragging their sledge is unbelievable. Unfortunately, despite the material science wizardry that people like Mr. Dow and Mr. Gore (Tex) have come up with over the years, modern polar travel is still a very similar enterprise nowadays.

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One thing is for certain – with Scott as an examples of fortitude, if one faces conditions that are less challenging, there can be no excuse to quit. Similarly, with an  example of dedication like Amundsen, unless one puts in the same amount of effort, there can be no excuses in the event of failure.

Things to think about.

Last post for a while, chat with everyone when back.

Blue skies.

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