Blind Hong Kong ultra marathon runner Gary Leung Siu-wai now knows the difference between cold and freezing – and the life-threatening dangers when facing minus 50 degrees Celsius (minus 58 degrees Fahrenheit).
The intrepid Leung and two other Hongkongers returned abruptly from Yukon, Canada, on Friday night after an aborted attempt at the Yukon Arctic Ultra – a 480-kilometre (300-mile) race down Canada’s westernmost territory.
Team leader Steve Lo Chun-yin made an executive decision to call it quits two days in.
The start of the event – billed as the “Coldest race on Earth” – had been postponed by a day because of the severe weather, the first time in its 15-year history.
“It was the coldest place on Earth – it’s around minus 41 in the Arctic, but it was minus 45 to minus 47 where we were,” said 51-year-old Leung, alongside guide runners and social media personalities Inez Leong Lok-in and Lo, who ran under local charity Wheel For Oneness.
“People assume there isn’t much difference between minus 20 and minus 40, but it’s not true at all,” said Leung. “At minus 20 you can still ‘face’ it literally, but when it’s minus 40 your gloves, hats, scarves … whatever you’re wearing, you need to make sure every little bit is covered, otherwise you’ll start to feel pain and eventually get frostbite.”
Of the 21 runners who registered for the race, only one soldiered on to complete it.
“So many had to quit because their toes had swollen to twice their normal size, their blood vessels burst or their fingers turned white. Everything just froze up,” said Leung.
While he still considers the experience to be an accomplishment, Leung is determined to return and complete the race.
After all, proving the doubters wrong is what he does best.
“I think I’ll be OK for next year’s one,” said Leung, adding that he will needed to drag more tyres on the beach to prepare for the “50 to 60 pound” bags full or food, cooking utensils, emergency supplies and litres of boiled water.
“Some people say to me, ‘you can’t even see, what’s the point in travelling to all these places? There are people with all their senses [intact] but still stay at home and do nothing – I’ve just decided to explore the world.”
Leung suffered from nyctalopia – more commonly referred to as night blindness – as a child before fully losing his sight in 2009. He previously said going blind caused him to spiral into depression, alcoholism and contemplate suicide.
But Leung’s outlook on life has had a complete turnaround since taking up running, and although he could not physically see the Yukon landscapes, he was still in awe of it all.
“I’ve learned to appreciate going to cold places and feeling the snow – it makes me happy,” said Leung, who successfully “tested his feet” with a staggering 21-day 1,200km run around Taiwan last October. “These days I like longer races with different climates and terrain.”
Having represented the Hong Kong Blind Sports Federation in ultra marathons across Asia, North America and even the South Pole, Leung and his guide dog, Gaga, have become somewhat famous – to the point they are recognised on the subway.
“A group of girls helped me down the steps of the MTR and said ‘We’ve seen you before, are you that blind marathon runner?’ They told me they wanted to lose weight and asked if I had time to teach them how to run.
“Now we train in Kwai Fong Sports Ground every Wednesday and Friday evenings,” said Leung, who has shed a whopping 30kg since running.
“Even when I can’t join them, they send me messages to say they weren’t lazy and had finished their warm-down. Now they’re all happy because they’ve lost five or six pounds.”
It is heart-warming tales like these that cause fellow runners to swoon over Leung pre-race.
“No matter where I am – training or competing – people shout motivational messages,” Leung said. “Sometimes my guide runner tells me ‘Gary, the person next to you is giving you the thumbs up’, but I had no idea because I can’t see.
“Moments like that give us so much – we become more confident because we have a reason to run harder.”
If they had gone all the way in Yukon, Leung, Lo and Leong would have become the first Chinese competitors to finish the race.
“It would have been a historic moment,” said Leung. “We wanted to show that Hong Kong is a force to be reckoned with; who says we can’t do it?
“No matter what condition you have, no matter what you’ve been through, as long as you have belief and work for it, you can do anything.
“Some people with illnesses or are in unfortunate circumstances may not even have an extra minute or second, yet the rest of us are standing here.
“Who knows what will happen tomorrow, or the day after, or next year. We might as well do something that makes us happy and productive.”