Hong Kong’s Samantha Chan overcomes fear of getting lost in Gobi Desert to finish third in 400km race branded one of world’s toughest

Intensive training with hand-held GPS pays dividends as Samantha Chan stays on track in solo nocturnal journey through the desert

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 03 October, 2017, 10:41am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 03 October, 2017, 10:44pm

Hong Kong ultra runner Samantha Chan Man-ha has finished third in the Ultra Gobi – a 400-kilometre non-stop, self-navigating race described as one of the toughest in the world.

Invited to the race as an elite athlete, Chan finished in 119 hours, 33 minutes and 51 seconds on Tuesday. She was beaten by Marta Poretti of Italy, another invited elite runner, and China’s Yu Hongyan. Poretti won in 106 hours flat, smashing the course record, sleeping less than five hours for the entire race.

Chan’s performance earned her the 15th position in the overall rankings in Ultra Gobi 2017, which is limited to just 50 people, featuring some of China’s best ultra-runners and world-class invited foreign athletes.

Chan, who admits that navigation was never her strong point, overcame her fear of getting lost by training intensively in the use of hand-held GPS.

Her newly developed navigational skills allowed her to successfully, and alone, cross sections of challenging terrain, including mountain chains and deep canyons. She encountered hyenas and jackals on her solo nocturnal journeys through the desert.

“Actually, being in the desert at night alone is very peaceful” said Chan, who was invited after she won a 100km race in Xinjiang last June. “I was never really scared.”

Chan passed some uncomfortable hours, arriving at one rest station 260km into the course in a delirious state after hours alone in the unchanging landscape.

“Why do people run here?” she asked race staff, alternating between crying and laughing. “There are cars and buses, even helicopters. Why do we run here?”

Her performance was hampered by severe foot injuries, caused by repeated pounding against hard terrain.

With 60 kilometres to go her ankles were so swollen and painful she was reduced to tears when she put on and took off her shoes.

Propped up by painkillers, she then had to navigate her way through 15 kilometres of salt pans, terrain consisting of hard clumps of earth, which proved extremely painful for her bruised feet.

This section was, by her admission, by far the hardest part of the race. She still managed topass one male competitor, an elite marathoner, just before the finish.

Hong Kong runner Samantha Chan in fourth place and going strong 88km into the Ultra Gobi

Chan said preparing for the race was more stressful than the race itself, as she was hampered by injuries, and was unable to run the high mileage required.

In addition, Ultra Gobi calls for a great deal of strategy – planning how long and where you sleep and what nutritional plan to adopt.

The men’s and overall winner was Daniel Lawson of the UK, who finished in a remarkable 70 hours and 51 minutes, beating the previous record by 22 hours.

Lawson, who is based in India for half a year, and is the European 24-hour champion, was almost 10 hours ahead of the second-placed Nicole Bassi of Italy and 12 hours ahead of third-placed Nathan Montague of the UK.