Competing in Ultra Marathons: Why I Race

Ever since I first announced that I’d signed up for my first Ultra Marathon, the Gobi March, back in July 2012, people have been asking me why. Why would I put myself through the training, through the pain, through the long days on my feet? There were a lot of remarks about me being crazy, or having a death wish, and their needing to “prep a coffin” for me. For every nice sentiment I received about my desire to compete, there were 19 others telling me that I was either insane or that I’d break down or that I wouldn’t be able to make it through.

Most people, I’m sure, have heard comments like these at one time or another, and know how hurtful it is to hear from friends, family, and colleagues that you’re never going to make it. That’s why I want to take a moment to discuss why I’ve competed in races like the Gobi March, and why I’ll be doing them for years to come, despite all the naysayers and the negativity that I’ve received for taking up Ultra Marathons.

Why I Signed Up

I know that I’ve noted in past posts that I’m not entirely sure why I signed up for the Gobi. That’s only partly true. I did send in my application form and security deposit on a whim, with simple dreams of penguins and running around Antarctica bouncing around my head. (In order for racers to compete in the Antarctica race run by the 4 Deserts, competitors must qualify for the Ultra by completing 2 of the 4 Desert’s other, annual, desert races: the Gobi March in China, the Atacama Crossing in Chile, and the Sahara Race in Jordan). In the back of my conscious mind though, I signed up because there was something I needed to prove to myself – that my life was still worthwhile.

Though Rich disagrees (he’s biased) with me on this point, I have never found myself to be particularly attractive, intelligent, nor charismatic. My redeeming quality is that I’m reasonably athletic. However, after a horseback riding injury ended my once promising swimming career when I was 18, I felt like I had been reduced back to nothing.

It took me several painful years of recovery and physical therapy before I got back in a pool or even considered returning to athletics. When I did, I tried a bit of everything, to see if I could get back to where I was. I started entering local Hong Kong long distance swimming events, which included an age group win in a 5-kilometer race. I surfed competitively, played both tackle and touch rugby, eventually playing in international tournaments for the latter, competed in triathlons, and overcame a huge mental hurdle by starting up horseback riding again despite fears of falling.

This is possibly just ego talking, but it didn’t feel like enough. Swimming had been my life, and despite the fact that I was doing so much, there was nothing I had found yet to fill that hole. I needed a real challenge in order to get me excited about my athletics again, and triathlon training revealed the one thing I just was not able to do well – endurance running.

Here’s when people ask why I decided to jump on the Ultra Marathon band wagon, rather that just start with a 5 or 10-kilometer race. Even a regular marathon would be more sensible. Yes, at that point, when I was barely able to run a few kilometers at a time, doing a marathon or half marathon would have been a more sensible choice and still one heck of an achievement; however, if I was going to ever be able to fill the hole left by my drowned swimming career, I needed to do something big, something unforgettable, and something that would push me to the end and back, because that is what swimming had done for me.

It was around the end of the rugby season that I found the 4 Deserts, and without consciously realizing it, I found what would finally be able to fill that hole. This challenge, to put it lightly, would take the one thing I was worst at athletically, force me to perform, push me over the edge, and make me that much stronger for it.

As I was in process of taking on the biggest adventure and challenge that I had ever faced, I probably should not have been surprised when people began to berate my choice, telling me that there were easier ways of killing myself than this. To say the least, I started finding out who had faith in me, and who did not.

Stage 3 (93)
Along Stage 3 of the Gobi March

Why I Continue to Race

Much as I had anticipated, the Gobi March was extremely difficult, challenging me both emotionally and physically. It pushed me to places that I didn’t think possible, and it is very likely that I shed more tears during that week than I had during my entire year of training. I may have gone into the race feeling broken and beaten down from all the negativity, but I came out of the race heavily blistered, with skin torn to bits, a bum knee, a never say die attitude, and a strong desire to go again.

Before I got to the starting line, I wasn’t 100% certain that I’d finished the race, so strongly were everyone else’s opinions weighing on me. However, as soon as I was there, I realized that there was no way that I was going to let myself stop short. I had no idea how painful the race was going to be or how hard it would get, but it was my leap of faith. I wanted it therefore it had to happen. Even during the times where I wanted to give up, a little voice in the back of my head would slap me around a bit and reassure me that I could get through it all. This little voice was something that I had heard often when I was competitively swimming, but had disappeared in recent years. Receiving this internal reassurance once more felt like finally finding my way out of a dark wood, like I was back on the right path.

Doing the race also gave me a sense of community. Being in the Gobi was difficult for just about everyone involved, no matter how hard we had or had not trained; whether this was your 1st Ultra or your 4th, everyone here was stuck in the same boat. We all knew how tough it was; we all went through the same aches and pains. For that week we all ate together, slept together, ran together, and hurt together. We relied on each other to get through the race, both the people at the top of the rankings and at the bottom. People gave me food when I was hungry, pain-killers and creams when I was hurting, hugs when I needed them, and encouragement when my legs were faltering. No one looked down on anyone else for not finishing each stage within a certain timeframe. Instead, we sympathized with one another, and took care of one another.

It was the stuff that life long friendships are made of, and that which restored at least my faith in humanity. I can’t wait to meet more of these individuals during our upcoming races, and spend more time developing that sense of community.

Then there are the locations. Many of the places that we get to travel to during these races would generally be inaccessible to most tourists, or at least off the beaten trail. Many regions of the Gobi that we traversed through had been off limits to foreigners for years, and we were among the first travelers that many of the locals we encountered had ever seen. This was evidenced by the mass of people who would ask to take photos with us as we passed their homes, and the children who would grab onto our arms and beg for autographs, as if we were some sort of Hollywood superstar. Despite having spent several months in China during university, including time in rural villages, I had never seen China like this – isolated, untouched, and so pristine. I can only imagine that it’ll get better, too, as we venture to Madagascar, and as I hope to see the Atacama, Antarctica, and anything else that future races want to throw our way.

Within the period of a week, while competing in the Gobi March, I can say that I developed a stronger sense of self worth, discovered how tough I am and how far I can really push myself, met some of the most extraordinary individuals, found a restored faith in humanity, and came to the realization that the only person who can tell me I can’t is myself. I found myself again, and because of it, continue to be inspired to keep going and see how much further I can go and what more it is that I can do.

To make it all the sweeter, when I got back to Hong Kong, with that shiny new finisher’s medal tucked safely in my suitcase, I was suddenly no longer a crazy person with a death wish. Instead, I was an “inspiration” and everyone “always knew that [I] had it in [me]”.

074 Stage 6
Film Crews Greeting Lis at the End of the Gobi March 2013

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