Adventure races ease pressure of treating Hong Kong cancer patients

Coming into work on a high after a solid weekend outdoors or after a good run - that sort of happiness is contagious - says Queen Mary Hospital radiotherapist Jeremy Burton

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 August, 2015, 11:00pm
UPDATED : Monday, 10 August, 2015, 11:00pm

Does being healthy and working in the health industry go hand in hand? This month we meet three medical professionals who think so, gaining insights from their active pursuits and applying their experiences to help others live well.

As a radiotherapist, Jeremy Burton sees the faces of cancer every day. It's a constant reminder of how short and precious life is and that "you really should do whatever it is that makes you happy". For 23-year-old Burton, that's getting high on the green side of the city.

Burton has been active in Hong Kong's trail running and adventure racing scene since he took part in his first 25km trail race last December.

"I'd never run more than 5km before. My legs were in agony for days after, but I was hooked - it's really addictive," he says, rattling off a long list of races he's taken part in since.

"My family see my Facebook page and wonder if I have a job. That's the great thing about Hong Kong: on weekends there are so many islands to explore and during the week you can sneak in a trail run before work."

Every day I meet people going through a lot in their lives. You can't be miserable for them; it's always good to have a smile on your face
Jeremy Burton

Burton, a self-described country boy from England, joined Queen Mary Hospital after graduating. He expected a concrete jungle, but has been pleasantly surprised by the active outdoor lifestyle here.

"I'm fitter than I ever was back home. Before it was all about lifting weights to look good; now it's all about pushing myself and feeling good."

His daily regimen begins at 6am with a workout - be it a run, swim, or paddle. "When I start work I feel like I'm 10 steps ahead of my colleagues, and my former self."

On the weekends, he pairs up with girlfriend Natalie in local adventure races.

"Every day I meet people going through a lot in their lives. You can't be miserable for them; it's always good to have a smile on your face. Being positive comes naturally to me, but coming into work on a high after a solid weekend outdoors or after a good run - that sort of happiness is contagious."

Having to face cancer every day, throwing myself into sport has been a good way to deal with the challenges. Some parts of the job, such as dealing with small children and babies who are suffering, can be really tough. But the ones that do make it - which is the majority - make up for it. It's great to see patients come back recovered and healthy.

Lifestyle choices have an impact on your health later in life - alcohol and smoking are two obvious choices. Personally, if there's an occasion to celebrate, I will, like any other 23-year-old. But I believe training brings great balance; when you have a race the next day it's also motivation to make the right choices.

No matter how tired I am when I exercise, I feel so much better afterwards. It gives me so much more energy than I seem to begin with.

I don't follow a strict training routine. Any week can involve dragon boating, hiking, trail running, kayaking or swimming. Sometimes I do a few different sports in a day. Last week I trained for 17½ hours. Maybe it's a bit much, but I love it.

Many people believe bigger is better when it comes to race distances, but I have no desire to race ultramarathons. One hundred kilometres is quite hard on the body. You also have to be really committed to run all that way. For now, I love the variety and just being fit for life.

I'm a sucker for smoothies. I start my day with a breakfast smoothie on-the-go and eat nuts for a mid-morning snack. I'd love to cook more at home, but my kitchen is so tiny, and it's often cheaper to eat out. But when I do, it's simple: green vegetables and a bit of meat.

Running might be free, but racing isn't cheap. Race fees add up after a while, and it's easy to run through a pair of shoes within a few months if you're racing as often as I am. On the flipside, you get lots of free T-shirts.

I love that everyone's a winner in Hong Kong. At the finish of every race someone is always clapping. You always win a medal, and often there are prizes, which can get a little strange at times, but it puts a smile on your face.

Competing with your partner can certainly test a relationship. We only ever argue during races. I'm always trying to encourage her to run up the hills; she's always yelling, " leave me alone" - it can be hard to keep a straight face. I'm a stronger runner but she has the upper hand with paddling, so it's a good team effort.

I didn't even know what dragon boating was before I moved to Hong Kong. Although [Natalie and I] often paddle together, we are in rival dragon boating teams. I think it's healthy to balance out the teamwork with a bit of competitive rivalry.