Mission accomplished for United man James

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 April, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 April, 2008, 12:00am

After the first day - a 41.4-kilometre stage through a salt flat and a canyon at 3,000 metres in the Chilean desert - Dean Karnazes went back to camp to check his e-mail. Karnazes, the eventual winner of the 250km Atacama Crossing and the best-selling author of Ultramarathon Man, found a message from his son, Nicholas.

It wished his father well, but, more importantly, Nicholas wanted to know how the man who worked for Manchester United was getting on. That competitor was Hong Kong-based Rob James, the Manchester United Asia brand manager, whose exploits - which saw him finish second overall - were highlighted on the team's website home page and in the most recent Liverpool-Manchester United match programme.

'We're in the tent checking e-mails and [Karnazes] said, 'I can't believe it. My son is not interested in how I got on today, he's more interested in the guy who's here from Manchester United,' said James, 43.

James, who did the race in part to raise money for and awareness of the Manchester United Foundation which supports Unicef and children's charities in Britain, led during the race's first stage and according to race organiser Mary Gadams it could have been James who triumphed, the first in a series of four adventure desert crossings.

'It's one-third preparation, one-third physical and one-third mental,' Gadams said. 'Rob is very strong on all three. Rob really gave Dean a run for his money and Rob could have won.' James and the other 62 finishers endured six gruelling days, which amounted to a marathon a day for four days, a 72km fifth day and a shorter 10.4km final day. James finished the crossing in 32 hours, 26 minutes and six seconds. He completed a race across the Gobi desert in 2006 but for this race, his decision to enter came just four weeks before the race start.

By no means, however, did he start from nothing. There was the Oxfam Trailwalker in November and a series of King of the Hills races over the winter. James knew there was mileage in his legs and secretly thought he could muster a top-five finish.

His strategy included using a light pack (about 7kgs compared with some who carried 11kg packs) and taking advantage of the weight and adrenalin on the first day.

'I have to do well on the first days when [I'm] fresh,' James said. 'Some people hold back because they think they can get faster later in the week. You don't. Everyone's deteriorating so the first day is very much eyeing up the competition and starting off at the right place.'

He was also mentally tough. In addition to the running, there is the so-called living - the time in between each of the day's stages. The race might be over in the early afternoon and James said it was important to understand how to get the body to recover.

'There's a lot of time sitting around, so during that time, it's about looking after yourself,' James said. 'It's food, it's hygiene, it's sleeping on the floor in the desert and getting enough sleep. A lot of people, if they haven't done that before, find that hard.'

James, who has so far raised #1,500 (HK$23,000) for the foundation, said the travel and the scenery are partially what propel him to race these crossings, two of which he has still to complete (the Sahara and Antarctica). While some runners focus purely on the steps, James said he was able to draw motivation from the snow-capped Andes, the immense salt-caps and the vast sand dunes.

'On day four, I ran with [Johan Petersen, who finished third] and he was struggling through the salt flats and I kept saying, 'Look at this scenery, it's fantastic',' James said. 'I get extra energy from where I am surrounded. It was constantly changing scenery.'

As much as it was a physical challenge, James said it was also a means to focus on himself. Competitors could check their e-mail, but James was happy to get a week-long break from the computer, the BlackBerry and any work-related questions. He was, however, grateful for his iPod, a device he used at the end of each day to help him get through the final few kilometres. There was Queen, Tina Turner, Bruce Springsteen, Sting, Coldplay and basically anything he could sing to.

There was, however, an absence of sappy break-up music.

'I'm pretty c*** at choosing music,' James said. 'I mean, in the Gobi I put on James Blunt and James Blunt is great but when you're in the middle of the desert listening to James Blunt, it can get a little depressing.'

Gadams said the Atacama Crossing was probably the most difficult of the four annual races she organises, in part because of the 20km or so of sharp and crusty salt flats, all which were in various stage of development. Some had sharp-angled edges and others took on a coral-like formation. The race course has few solid trail paths and there were sand dunes like those found in the Sahara.

But some of the tough terrain also made for the best photo opportunities, despite the fact that James did not include a camera in his pack because it was too heavy. He did, however, insist on taking a picture of Petersen.

'There's usually a moment each day where you get that 'wow-stop-and-look-at-this',' James said. 'Jo hadn't got out his camera and I said, Jo I'm going to take a picture of you now, in front of this little patch with the Andes behind and we're going to stop for 30 seconds. This is what it's all about and you have to pinch yourself every now and again.'

On that same day, James made it through the salt flats in first position and ended up winning the day's stage by over half an hour. But one of his best moments came during the race's longest day where he finished the final section in the dark listening to his iPod. After steep-sided canyon walls, he emerged from the pitch black to see a star-filled sky.

James is still undecided whether he will be among the 190 participants who cross the Gobi this June and while he would like to do the other two races, he does not anticipate trying them this year. Having returned from Chile just last Wednesday, James has not returned to training although Karnazes was an Olympic torch-bearer while the torch was in San Francisco.

As for the Red Devil fans? It wasn't just Karnazes' son who was interested in how James did. Others, who donated via James' website, also posted their good wishes. 'Keep going like a true UNITED RED would!' wrote one, while another, proclaiming to be the club's biggest fan, wrote 'Hope you make it, Good Luck'. He did.

Pushing it to the limit

Rob James had to endure this many days of competition in Chile: 6