The human jogger-naut | South China Morning Post
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  • Apr 12, 2015
  • Updated: 10:38pm

The human jogger-naut

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 December, 2010, 12:00am

Billed as 'The Race of No Return', the unique challenge of the 4 Deserts race series promises to take participants to the 'driest, hottest, coldest and windiest places on Earth'. With a tagline like that, it's a wonder many people sign up to do any of the four annual events held in the world's most extreme conditions.

For some, though, the challenge of surviving - and indeed flourishing - under the searing sun of the Sahara or in the biting wind chill of Antarctica is motivation enough to head out on Hong Kong's trails, running along rugged pathways in preparation for the task.

One man, though, decided he would go further than most. For Phil Tye, competing in one - or even two - of these ultra marathon races was not enough; he set his sights on completing all four in one calendar year.

Even aspiring to complete the quartet of events is no mean feat, an accomplishment managed only by a select handful of full-time runners whose bodies had, over many years, grown used to the wearying effects of such a gruelling sport.

And yet Tye - a self-confessed 'average guy' - has just completed the Grand Slam, becoming the first Hong Kong-based runner to do so.

'Only two people had ever done this Grand Slam and this is a heck of a challenge,' said Tye. 'I did my first ultra marathon in Namibia in 2009 and I was way out of shape, way too big.

'On hindsight it was dangerous although there were no problems. I like that sort of adventure. When I set out a real challenge I thought: 'Let's go and try the four, let's do something weird'.'

Each 4 Deserts race covers an astonishing 250 kilometres during a six-day period, with the series starting in the Atacama Desert in Chile before moving on to the Gobi Desert in China and then on to Egypt to run in the Sahara Desert.

The final event - which is by invitation only to those who have previously taken part in at least two of the other races - sees runners in Antarctica. By the end of the last race of the series, Tye and eight others had completed the Grand Slam, swelling the ranks of those who had completed the four races in one calendar year to just 11.

'I had to recognise my limitations,' said Tye of his experience. 'I'm not an experienced ultra-marathon runner, I don't live and breath this stuff. I live and breath having fun and enjoying an experience that's quite different and going to places I would never have gone like Atacama or Gobi. I've had the most amazing experience doing it and I've got a lot out of it.'

It was a very different mindset, however, that ultimately pushed the chief operating officer of a hedge fund manager in the direction of the extreme. After being diagnosed with a cancer, Tye took a different approach to life.

'I was diagnosed with cancer last year, with melanoma, and it was a deep melanoma so when a doctor sits you down, looks you in the face and tells you your life expectancy is less than 100 per cent, it's a wake-up call,' he said.

'I had successful surgery and I've been clear for a year and they say if I'm clear for another year then we're back to square one, touch wood. But it made me think that you've got to make use of your time, if you enjoy what you do and do it seriously and also at the back of mind I wanted to prove I was strong.

'As I had already done a Racing the Planet event, I thought 'let's do something stupid, something an ordinary guy hasn't done'. And also I wanted to raise awareness.

'One of the big motivations was raising money for the Hong Kong Cancer Fund, getting everyone in my industry to raise some awareness and raise some money.' Tye did just that by bringing in more than HK$300,000 for his charity with more still to come from outstanding donors.

'Being in the hedge fund industry, guys hedged their bets,' he said. 'But it's an industry where there's money floating around and it's a generous industry so that has been successful.'

Aside from all the fund raising, though, it is the experience of being in some of the world's most inhospitable environments with like-minded individuals that will be Tye's most treasured memory of the last 12 months.

'You can't do it without bonding with people, unless you're one of the really top guys and are really driven and are amazing athletes,' he said.

'To get through this you rely on many people to do a lot of things to help you get through. Psychologically and equipment-wise you rely on each other and it's a close bond. That's my regret about not doing it again next year, is not getting to see all these people again.

'A lot of this stuff isn't about physical ability. Of course, you've got to be able to do it but most of the stuff is very mental.

'When you're sitting one day in the middle of the desert in the middle of a 40-kilometre leg and you really don't want to go on, it is because the mind says you don't want to give up that you go on.

'Something comes out of you that pushes you on, makes you rethink your strategy. You think about getting through the next 10 kilometres, where you can get refreshed, get water, get nutrition and be better from there. It's all in your head.

'But the toughest bit is the physical side. You've got a blister on our heel and you know you've got another 210 kilometres to go, or the night before a 100-kilometre run you can see bone through the wound. Those are the tough bits.

'But your mind gets you through it. The mind breaks it down and says: 'Don't worry about 100 kilometres, worry about 10.' You break it down that way and when you do the 10, you think about the next hill and that's how my mind works. But we're all different.

'I'm proof that an ordinary guy can do this, with enough willingness and desire. When I train at lunchtime my staff come with me and they've been so strongly behind me. They come and climb the hills with me. They've got their own challenges. I'm not obsessive about things, I do it because I love it.'

Having achieved his remarkable feat, Tye has set his sights on something more mundane in the coming months as he looks for the motivation to maintain his fitness drive.

'My goal for the year is to run a marathon because I've never done one,' he says. 'I'll have to learn to run on the roads, though.'


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