Extreme races, wondrous beauty

The routes of endurance runs in distant places will appeal to travellers after pandemic

Ultra-marathoner Alain Esseiva has taken on races in Antarctica (above), Mongolia and Kazakhstan.
Ultra-marathoner Alain Esseiva has taken on races in Antarctica (above), Mongolia and Kazakhstan.PHOTO: ALAIN ESSEIVA
Ultra-marathoner Alain Esseiva has taken on races in Antarctica, Mongolia (above) and Kazakhstan.
Ultra-marathoner Alain Esseiva has taken on races in Antarctica, Mongolia (above) and Kazakhstan.PHOTO: ALAIN ESSEIVA
Ultra-marathoner Alain Esseiva has taken on races in Antarctica, Mongolia and Kazakhstan (above).
Ultra-marathoner Alain Esseiva has taken on races in Antarctica, Mongolia and Kazakhstan (above).PHOTO: ALAIN ESSEIVA
Ultra-marathoner Alain Esseiva (above) has taken on races in Antarctica, Mongolia and Kazakhstan.
Ultra-marathoner Alain Esseiva (above) has taken on races in Antarctica, Mongolia and Kazakhstan.PHOTO: ALAIN ESSEIVA

We are now 12 months into the global pandemicand I have not been able to run ultra-marathons, which were all cancelled last year.

But the dawn of a new year - and the prospect of some travel emerging later in the year with the global vaccine roll-out - is a good time to remember that ultra-marathons have taken me to the most isolated and beautiful places on earth.

These include the Atacama Desert in Chile, the Sahara in Namibia and hundreds of kilometres of wilderness in Mongolia, Nepal, Laos, China, Vietnam and Antarctica.

Running ultra-marathons on little food and water non-stop for seven days over rough terrain in hot and cold temperatures, up mountains and through streams, is a wonderful challenge for me.

It has always been rewarding to push my limits and this has definitely helped me with the challenges I have faced as an entrepreneur and as a human being, especially during the pandemic.

Importantly, these extreme races allow me to see parts of the world I would never visit otherwise and go through amazing experiences, including being saved from a fast-flowing Mongolian river by a rare Przewalski's horse.

While running days with nothing but a backpack and some water may not be for everyone, these routes for endurance runners are also places travellers can savour in the future.

ANTARCTICA

On Nov 23, 2018, I crossed the start line of one of my most fascinating, and coldest, ultra-marathons.

The Last Desert is a 250km run across Antarctica and it took me past many hidden places like the Drake Passage, South Shetland Islandsand Paradise Bay.

To get to Antarctica, I first had to travel to Argentina and spent some time at Lago del Desierto, Patagonia. Surrounded by mountains, glaciers and forests, this is nature in its fullest glory.

I then headed to the port of Ushuaia on the southernmost tip of Argentina to catch the ship to Antarctica, which took about 21/2 days.

The variety of wildlife was wondrous, including a blue whale and humpback whales as well as Adelie penguins and leopard seals, once we sighted land.

Upon landing, we started a scheduled five-stage race, though the final leg was cut short due to inclement weather. We ran by day and spent the night back on the boat.

The duration of each stage depended on the weather and could range from two to 18 hours. While gruelling, this was also a magical race through a world of ice, snow and water, where humankind has very little reason to be.

There, silence was king, giving runners and travellers the space to reflect while observing wildlife close up. We were never too far from the penguins, which were incredibly curious and would often come up to us as we ran past.

In total, I ran 127.61km and the hardest day was probably Day 4, when the weather started turning and we really saw nature "in action", from icy snow to strong winds to heavy clouds.

MONGOLIA

In July and August 2018, I ran the Gobi March, a 250km ultra-marathon held in Mongolia.

The race took me through rolling hills dotted with white gers (nomadic tents) and ancient Buddhist monasteries.

The Gobi March takes place in the Karakorum region of Central Mongolia and encompasses a wide variety of Mongolian landscapes, including deserts with huge sand dunes and also lush valleys, rivers and mountains.

We ran through the Orkhon Valley, a Unesco World Heritage Centre, and ended the race at the ancient capital of Karakorum.

I ran for 50 hours and 39 minutes in a race split over six stages. Each evening, we would sleep in gers. One night, they were flooded, so we had to decamp to a nearby sports centre.

We would often arrive at our camps late in the evening or even early the next morning - once, around 2.45am - which meant running with glow sticks for illumination.

Certainly, the best part was running through some of the oldest human settlements in existence. These included many parts of conqueror Genghis Khan's vanished empire, such as the one-time centre of Mongolian power in the Orkhon Valley grasslands.

KAZAKHSTAN

I journeyed to Central Asia to take part in the three-day Kazakhstan Action Asia race in 2019. I was in recovery mode after an injury to my left knee but, unfortunately, the pain flared up again before the race. I had to take it a bit easier, though I managed to run 100km and make it to the end.

The terrain in beautiful Kazakhstan is extremely rugged and mountainous with many canyons and ridges - which were challenging for racers, though it was lovely passing wild horses on the route.

I flew to Almaty, formerly the capital of Kazakhstan in the Soviet era and again after independence until 1997. The city, still a major commercial centre, is surrounded by mountains and is about 700m to 900m above sea level.

Each night, we would sleep in a yurt,a round tent covered in animal skin used by nomads on the steppes of Central Asia.

The Kazakhs are traditionally herders and would rely on animals, usually sheep, for food, transport and clothing. Hence mutton features predominantly in their diet. The cuisine is varied and includes influences from Russia, Uzbekistan and other neighbouring states.

There are a number of local dishes I would recommend. Basturma consists of tomatoes, cucumber, rice, soup noodles and lamb or mutton, and we ate this most days at the end of the race.

The more adventurous can sample kuirdak, a combination of kidney, heart, liver and other organs of a sheep, cow or horse. Boiled in oil, the offal is served with pepper and onion.

LOOKING AHEAD

Though ultra-marathons in far-flung places may be a distant dream for now, these races have been replaying vividly in my mind during the pandemic.

These remote places, away from overcrowded cities, will be even more desirable when travel resumes.

• A Swiss national living in Singapore, Alain Esseiva is the chief executive and co-founder of the Alpadis Group, a fiduciary services firm.


Lessons from racing

The travel facet of running ultra-marathons around the world is a huge reason I choose to compete in these races, and other reasons are just as important.

First, escaping the hustle and bustle of Singapore and disappearing into a desert or mountain without access to Wi-Fi helps me do my job better.

The hours spent running alone allow me to think and ultimately make me more creative. Experiencing new countries and cultures has made me more open to new ideas from colleagues.

During the pandemic, I made it a point to get onto the streets in Singapore early for runs. While the experience is not the same as running in the Gobi Desert or Antarctica, it still clears my head and relaxes me during a very disruptive time.

It has also made me a better leader and manager. I micro-manage less and empower more, including junior colleagues, providing them the freedom to make decisions even if this means they fail from time to time.

In the worlds of work and running, failure is a constant possibility. I could perform poorly during a race, fail to achieve my target position or time, or I could get injured and have to pull out.

But failure allows me to learn and get better and is something I want to extend to my own team.

Furthermore, by travelling thousands of kilometres to a far-flung place, the pressure to succeed is high and you do not want to return home with no medal. But this is part of the process and helps build character.

Lastly, spending so much time outdoors has given me a new-found appreciation of nature and the environment. I have always loved nature while growing up in Switzerland, but now that I am a company chief executive, I am able to ensure we consider the environment in everything we do. This includes reducing our use of single-use plastic. We also reduce paper usage and travel less for work, much as we love travel.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 26, 2021, with the headline 'Extreme races, wondrous beauty'. Subscribe