Completing Nature's Toughest Race
In preparation for the Asics City Relay Singapore 2016 happening on 24 September, our associate editor Farhan Shah travelled to the mountain town of Chamonix to participate in nature's toughest relay - the Asics Beat the Sun 2016 challenge. He survived to tell the tale. This is his story.
Getting to Chamonix is a sporting act in itself. Short of skydiving from an aeroplane while flying pass Mont Blanc, the second highest peak in Europe, you’ll have to fly to Geneva, endure an hour-long journey on a road that’s built more for agile mountain goats than a lumbering van, and hope that your driver stays alert enough on the hairpin bends and to to avoid the precipice beyond the asphalt.
But all is forgotten once you arrive at the breathtakingly beautiful Chamonix, a picturesque commune made for postcard photography and National Geographic shoots. Located approximately 1,000 metres above sea level and just beside the imposing Aiguilles Rouges mountain range, Chamonix is known as the “gateway to the European Cascades” and is popular with extreme sports enthusiasts. Winter sees skiers flood into town to tackle its powdery slopes while summer brings with it trekkers, base jumpers and trail runners.
I reached Chamonix on a cold summer morning at the invitation of sportswear giant Asics to take part in its annual Beat the Sun challenge, one of the world’s hardest races. The premise is simple. You start out at the crack of dawn and run up, down and around Mont Blanc, covering a distance of 140 kilometres and traversing three countries. The challenge is to complete this foot race, held on the longest day of summer, within 15 hours, 41 minutes and 35 seconds, while battling altitude sickness and almost 90-degree vertical slopes, and contending with glacial terrain, rocky hillsides and everything in between. It is nicknamed Nature’s Toughest Relay for good reason.
The idea for the Beat the Sun challenge originated from a fortuitous moment. Two trekkers had completed their route just as the sun set behind them during the summer solstice. They thought, “Instead of competing with each other, why not race against the sun?”
The first relay was a small event held in 2014. It was between two teams comprising some of the most elite runners in the world and unfortunately, only one beat the sun. The other group reached the finish line a mere 30 seconds after the sun had dipped below the horizon. The disappointment was excruciating. 152 kilometres of non-stop running and 9,450 metres of accumulated climbs had amounted to nothing.
But the event gathered steam in the global running community. There was something viscerally appealing about pushing your mind and body past their breaking points, and both professional athletes and weekend warriors clamoured for a sequel.
The following year, five teams, each with a mix of three elite runners and three amateurs, from different regions – Northern and Southern Europe, Africa, Asia Pacific and the Americas – returned to Chamonix to compete with each other and the sun. The event was an overwhelming success. Heartened by the response, Asics expanded the 2016 edition to eight teams and revamped the route to make it harder. Just my luck.
I consider myself decently fit. I lift, run and box regularly, rock climb on weekends, and can easily cover 10 kilometres under an hour. But running up a mountain was, suffice to say, a whole different ball game.
The first problem was the lack of oxygen. My body had spent its entire life at sea level and was accustomed to the richly oxygenated air that comes from living close to the ground. However, the higher I went, the thinner the air and the lower the oxygen content, which forced my lungs to work harder just to supply my muscles with the oxygen I needed to continue running. About two kilometres into my run, my body was in a peculiar state of stasis. I barely had any lactic acid, my muscles were not fatigued and my mind was still as fresh as a daisy. Yet every step felt leaden and I was taking incredibly hard and deep breaths.
The second problem was the mushy, slippery snow. Imagine running on an ice skating rink, except instead of solidity, the rink is a ball pit. Unlike the Europeans, who were used to the surface, I was an Asian man who grew up on a diet of rain, humidity and grass. When I wasn’t slipping down the glacier, my feet was sinking into the snow. It was a wonder how I managed to complete the run.
The two Asian teams that were competing professionally in the Beat the Sun challenge also faced the same problems as I did. Unfortunately they finished three hours after Helios had rode his chariot into the darkness. Only two teams – Northern and Southern Europe – managed to beat the sun. The former actually completed the course a whopping 51 minutes before the orange ball took its bow for the day. This was made even more impressive considering that Asics had to tweak the route, and thus made it longer, when an avalanche made a portion of the track impassable.
Nevertheless, I returned to Singapore a few days after the run, physically and mentally prepared to tackle the Asics City Relay Singapore happening a month from now. If you don't already know, four of us from the magazine will be running in suits in a bid to raise funds for Global Clinic. You can register for the run here. While it's nowhere close to Chamonix, it's still an exhilarating experience. And thank God there's no snow.
All photos courtesy of Asics