Interview: Asia’s Extreme Ultra Runners

Without doubt, the list of extreme ultra runners hailing from America and Europe is long and lustrous. But as the sport rises in popularity in Asia, a handful of runners are completing extraordinary feats and putting this corner of the world on the map.

Law Chor Kin determined to complete the Badwater 135 with temperatures logged at over 50 ˚C.

Law Chor Kin determined to complete the Badwater 135 with temperatures logged at over 50 ˚C.

Law Chor Kin has been to hell and back, but he still smiles at the thought. The Hongkonger completed the legendary 2013 Badwater 135 ultra marathon earlier in record temperatures, calling it the “hardest run” of his ultra running career. But every painful and impossible step was worth the immeasurable lessons gained. That’s not to say the 217km (135 miles) journey was enjoyable.

“I have never experienced such a hard time during a race,” he says, recalling the never-ending tarmac, battles against incessant headwinds like a “giant hairdryer in your face”, all the while suffering through constant stomach cramps and dehydration.

Add to that the oppressive heat of Death Valley – the lowest point in America at 86 m (282 ft) below sea level. The air temperature was logged at 54 ˚C at the 67 km (41 mile) mark and the surface temperature was a whopping 76 ˚C. Yet, the 36 year old surveying officer overcame ceaseless battles to finish in 37h 50min 59s.

“I was amazed how a tough mind and strong determination could overcome the seemingly impossible mission.”

Just twelve hours before crossing the finish line at Whitney Portal, his crew wasn’t sure he’d make it. Though he’d started confidently, waves of nausea set in after 70km (43 miles). Then came the vomiting. He was forced, frustratingly, to a shuffle and then lying in his support vehicle, defeated.

Asked if he thought of giving up, his response is an emphatic “no”.

“I always had the goal to finish, no matter what.” His crew, meanwhile, had other ideas. Without keeping on top of his nutrition, Law’s outlook did not look good.

But as dawn broke and he received the all clear from the medical tent, he trudged on. Realising his stomach issues were due to drinking iced water, he shifted to something warmer and began stomaching food. Soon, he picked up the pace.

Ironically, the hilliest, most challenging final sections of the race are where Law did his best. Despite 150 km (93 miles) and 20-odd hours on his legs, he began running the uphills and gained on his competitors. In the final 20 km he surged to the finish, crossing triumphantly with the Hong Kong flag in his arms. The harrowing experience consolidated ten years of ultra running for Law.

“No matter how well you prepared, for such a long distance and tough race, there are so many things that are out of your control, like the weather, how your body reacts,” he lists.

“But the uncontrollables are uncontrollable. If one can focus on what he can manage and try his very best, then one can finally get to the goal.”

Though Law hopes to return to the desert one day to fulfil his goal of a top ten finish, it won’t be anytime soon.

“Badwater needs careful planning, committed training, and careful execution…. I believe with the experience I had this year, I will do much better next time.”

In the meantime, he’s taking a more relaxed approach, participating in local races with his wife, Ida Lee, also an accomplished ultra runner, and enjoying running with friends. He recently completed the Hong Kong Oxfam Trailwalker with team 2XU HOKA UFO in 12h 35min, taking third place.

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Photo: Daniel Chung

Law Chor Kin, Hong Kong
2013 Badwater Ultramarathon, Death Valley, California, USA
217km (135 miles); 3,962m (13,000ft) D+
37h 50min 59s; 30th out of 81 finishers

Chor Kin’s top five ultras:
1. Badwater 135 Ultramarathon, USA
2. Raleigh Tornado 156, Hong Kong
3. Hong Kong Four Trails Ultra Challenge, Hong Kong
4. Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc, France
5. Ultra-Trail Mount Fuji, Japan

Ever DNF’ed? Once, during UTMB 2011, when the route was changed due to inclement weather.

Favourite quote. It’s my own: “If you think you can, you can!”


 

Climbing towards Grand Tournalin at 2,535 m D+ (TDG 2013). Photo: Wang Bo

When it comes to running ultras, Jeri Chua doesn’t like to think too much. If a race piques her interest, she goes with her gut and signs up. So when stories from a friend of the ‘world’s craziest mountain race’ stirred familiar urgings, Chua knew she had to register. Six months later she found herself at the start line of the Tor Des Geants wondering what on earth she had got herself into.

There are marathons, there are ultra marathons, and then there are mammoth beasts of ultra running adventures. Tor Des Geants falls into the last category. Over six days (150 h cut off), runners journey for 330 km (205 miles) though the foothills of the highest Four-Thousanders in the Alps, through the Gran Paradiso Natural Park and the Mont Avic Regional Park – up and down repeatedly for over 24,000 m (79,000 ft) of positive elevation gain.

“I spent the first two days trying to think of ways to DNF legitimately,” says the pocket-sized Chua, rattling off a large list of ailments that plagued her on her grueling six-day journey with an accomplished smile – giant blisters, swollen limbs, sleep deprivation and near hypothermia.

Endless ascents and descents tested her resolve. To add to the challenges, on the first day she came to the rescue of Chinese ultra runner Yuan Yuan who had suffered a terrible fall, only to discover en route that he had later passed away in hospital.

“I convinced myself just to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and after that, failure was not an option,” she says. “I really tried not to let it bother me too much… at the very least a small gesture would be to finish to honour his effort.” 

“Danger was always present in varying levels, more so when you’re so tired you can’t walk straight and there’s a sheer drop to one side of the trail,” she explains. The fourth night was the most challenging: after climbing peaks above 2,000 m (6,500 ft) overnight through severe sleep deprivation, at the sight of a mountain refuge silhouetted against the sunrise, she burst into tears of relief.

“My main fear was not being able to continue if I fell, and who on earth would come get me, and how. There were points when I really didn’t think I’d make it that night.”

After six days of walking, running and fast hiking and sleeping a mere 5.5 hours she crossed the finish – the first Singaporean woman to do so yet. She celebrated with a bottle of champagne and three pizzas.

For Chua, it’s journeys like these that equip her with lasting life lessons.

“I like how my limits get tested…when you’re stripped down to mind over matter.” But she admits TDG took every bit of determination and resources she had.

Despite the brutality of the event, she doesn’t hesitate to recommend it to others.

“It’s the most beautiful event I’ve ever done,” she exclaims before adding a word of warning: “just be prepared!”

Next on the agenda is a 300 km (186 mile) journey over Thailand’s trail to “explore some new terrain” she says casually. She has also signed up for the TransRockies ultra in the Colorado Rockies in 2014.

Photo: Shamsul Adzrin

Photo: Shamsul Adzrin

Jeri Chua, Singapore
2013 Tor Des Geants, Italy
330km (205 miles), 24,000m (79,000 ft) D+
145h 38min 29s; 298th out of 383 finishers, 22nd female out of 38 female finishers

Have you ever DNF’ed? Yes, for various reasons usually injury related, but mainly so I can live to race another day.

Favourite quote: I’m torn between “If it doesn’t kill you, it’ll make you stronger.”, or “Pain is temporary, but your finish time on the internet is forever.” I use both regularly!


 

Jonnifer finishing his second 100 miler despite injuries. Photo: Rick Gaston

Jonnifer finishing his second 100 miler despite injuries. Photo: Rick Gaston

In 2012, Jonnifer “Jon” Lacanlale became the first Filipino to complete the famous Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run. More incredible than his historic finish is the journey it took – he ran much of the race with two sprained ankles and just 30 % vision.

“Gives me goose bumps every time I think of it,” he says, recalling his 29 hour and 50 minute journey. With his eyesight deteriorating from 43 km (27 miles) – presumably from altitude – he began tripping on the rocky trails, spraining both ankles. Despite his injuries, he dug deep to finish just ten minutes short of the 30-hour cut off.

Topping off his list of achievements since is a sub-30 hour finish at the Bighorn 100 miler in June this year – his second 100 miler after an impressive second place finish at Philippines Hardcore 100 in February. In between he completed the Four Lakes 100 kilometres ultra and TNF100, both in the Philippines. Not bad for someone who only picked up ultra running five years ago.

Though running has always been a part of his life, it wasn’t until he decided to run 50 km (31 miles) for charity in 2008 that Jon found his penchant for running far. In the same year, he signed up for the TNF100 in the Philippines and has been running further and faster ever since.

“[One hundred miles] seems to be a natural progression. Just thinking what lies beyond 100 km mark evokes curiosity and gives a primal appeal to it.”

Taking part in such challenges are also a way for the 43 year old lawyer to find out what he’s capable of.

“I don’t think it is all about physical prowess. There must be a spiritual aspect to it,” he offers. “You also get to see more of the beautiful spots or landmarks when doing 100 milers.”

Jon has used his running exploits to give back to the local Filipino ultra community, which is growing exponentially. Since 2011, Jon has been organizing the Clark-Miyamit Falls Trail Ultra (CM50) with 50 miles and 60 km distances. The out-and-back course follows a footpath connecting an old air base to the scenic Miyamit Falls in Pampanga, near Mount Pinatubo, Philippines. The hilly Miyamit had been Jon’s training ground, and one day the idea struck him to share it with others.

“From a measly 50 or so runners in 2011, the race has now attracted, both local and foreign, almost 200 runners in the November 2013 edition and the CM50 (miles) grants 2 qualifying points for UTMB.”

Photo: Rick Gaston

Photo: Rick Gaston

Jonnifer Lacanlale, Philippines
Bighorn 100 miler, Wyoming, USA
5,580 m (18,300 ft) D+
29h 33min 32s; 59th out of 117 finishers
Jon’s top five ultras:
1. Great North Walk 100 Miler, Australia
2. Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc, France
3. Hardcore 100 Miles, Philippines
4. The North Face 100, Philippines
        5. Western States Endurance Run

Ever DNF’ed? Yes once because of gastroenteritis.

Favourite quote: “Out of sufferings have emerged the strongest souls; the massive characters are seared with scars.” Kahlil Gibran


 

Andre standing a high four after completing the Grand Slam. Photo: Patchanida Pongsubkarun

Andre standing a high four after completing the Grand Slam. Photo: Patchanida Pongsubkarun

For some runners, a single 100 mile race is enough. For Andre Blumberg, even four of them within 10 weeks didn’t hit the mark. To add an extra element to this unthinkable feat, known as the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning, Blumberg travelled back and forth from Hong Kong four times, accumulated almost 105,000 km in the air and took only 22 days of annual leave. Impressive, to say the least.

“I landed in the US on a Wednesday to run a 100 miler on the Saturday; I landed back in Hong Kong at 6am, home to shower, in the office at 9am for half a dozen back-to-back meetings… It was brutal but it was truly an epic summer,” he says now with a mixture of relief and accomplishment.

The Grand Slam is so challenging that only 254 runners have achieved it in its 27-year history (some of them, more than once). It starts with the historic Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run in Squaw Valley, California. An unusual band of weather made the course uncomfortably hot this year, resulting in a 65 % finisher rate. But Blumberg, ever cautious and with the end goal in mind, soldiered on through the day, crossing the line in 26:37:11 and earning himself the coveted bronze buckle.

He returned less than a month later, this time for the east coast and the Vermont 100 Miler. Statistically the easiest of the quartet, the ups and downs were still relentless. Add to that humid weather and a “no headphone rule” it was the hardest of the lot, he says. But, with another one down, Blumberg was halfway there.

Before he had time to recover, he was off to Leadville, Colorado – the highest of all the races and where his journey almost ended. On his way to the 97 km (60 miles) checkpoint, a glance at the watch and quick mental arithmetic showed he was in danger of missing the cut off – a fact he attributes to an oversubscribed out-and-back course “and that there was no Coke at the aid stations, easy fuel for my degrading stomach at the time”.

Thankfully, a lone pacer came across Blumberg and offered to run him home. Despite his condition, Blumberg hesitated before accepting the offer. A man of extremes, he had imposed another requirement on his Grand Slam goal: no pacers, and certainly no mules, although race rules allow it.

“Ultra running in my view is an individual sport,” he rationalises. “Aside from the physical aspect, the mental side is quite important to finish a 100 mile race. Having a pacer blurs that line substantially… Personally I like to be solely accountable whether I finish or not, and finishing without a pacer is just so much more of an achievement.”

Despite his strict moral boundaries, he allowed himself the company and made it to the checkpoint with minutes to spare. He went on to finish in 29h 28min 36s.

 With a renewed lust for his Grand Slam journey he prepared himself for the crowning moment: Wasatch 100.

“Just 20 days after Leadville: 8,000 m (26,200 ft) of climbing, altitude and rugged trail in parts… The perfect climax,” he says with a wry smile. He finished in 34h 57min 00s – the longest of the lot – but knowing the saga was finally completed.

“Doing the Grand Slam is totally different from competing in an individual race. I always kept the whole series in mind. Finishing a race in itself didn’t mean anything… It was about the journey.”

On the downside, completing in these iconic races as part of the Grand Slam took the sheen off each achievement. Celebration was short lived, his eyes quickly settling in on the next challenge.

“Looking back, I find that a bit sad since celebrating the milestones was very limited. And then all of a sudden it was all over: ten weeks, four races. Boom – all finished…. I wish I could wind back and press the “replay” button and relive the highlights again.”

But in typical Blumberg style, the wheels are already set in motion for his next challenge: the HURT100 miler in Hawaii in January. After that, he will run the Hong Kong Four Trails Ultra Challenge – a total of 298 km (185 miles) and 14,400 m (47,200 ft) in cumulative elevation over the region’s four long distance trails. Then, to celebrate his 45th birthday in 2015, he’s in the early stages of planning

For Blumberg, it’s all about the mental fortitude, rather than the physical achievements in ultra running.

“Talent is certainly not my forte… It takes a lot of effort for me,” he admits (although his exploits show otherwise). “My mental strength is an asset. There is a narrow line between determination and craziness, and I leave it to the reader to decide.”

Photo: Patchanida Pongsubkarun

Photo: Patchanida Pongsubkarun

Andre Blumberg, Hong Kong resident (German)
Grand Slam of Ultra running: Western States 100, the Vermont 100, the Leadville Trail 100 and the Wasatch Front 100
640km (398 miles) ; 22,768m (74,700 ft) D+; 117h 19min 29s

Andre’s top five ultras:
1. 2013 HK4TUC
2. 2012 Northburn 100
3. 2013 Wasatch 100
4. 2012 UTMF
5. 2013 Leadville 100

Ever DNF’ed? Yes. I DNF’ed the TD100 miler in the Philippines in both 2011 and 2012 because, in hindsight, I didn’t want it hard enough. I plan to go back one day and finish it on the podium.

Favourite quote: Dare to dream – what can be imagined can be achieved

By Rachel Jacqueline. This article originally appeared in our Jan/Feb 2014 issue.

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