Racing against herself, against all odds

April 02, 2017 - 09:00

A young woman with an incredible track record of breaking endurance barriers wants her experience to instill indomitable courage in Vietnamese youth, Thanh Hà reports

One step at a time: Thanh Vũ takes part in the Atacama Crossing last year.
Viet Nam News

A young woman with an incredible track record of breaking endurance barriers wants her experience to instill indomitable courage in Vietnamese youth, Thanh Hà reports

There are metamorphoses and there are ultra-metamorphoses.

What happened to Thanh Vũ belongs to the latter category.

A bright young woman who achieved her aim of corporate career success after leaving her native place of Hà Nội to study in several other countries, she dropped out of the proverbial rat race, out of the blue.

Not long after, she stands as the only Vietnamese ultra runner to participate in the 4 Deserts Grand Slam, an unimaginably gruelling race spanning 1000km over four deserts in different parts of the world.

She is also among only 13 women in the world, and the first female Asian, to finish such a challenge.

And she has no intention of stopping there.

Ready to take on the toughest of competitons, and face the hardest conditions, whatever the odds, Vũ Phuơng Thanh wants to conquer such races held in all the seven continents and the North Pole by 2018.

Thanh or Thanh Vũ, a name well known in the international ultra community, completed the 4 Deserts Grand Slam at the age of 26 last November.

Earlier, in 2015, Vũ finished the Atacama Crossing in Chile, fulfilling her dream of becoming the first Vietnamese to do so. The crossing is part of the 4 Deserts Grand Slam.

"I immediately fell in love with the experience. You see the most beautiful spirit in the competitors, the course and the volunteers," she told after the Chilean event.

Spurred by the experience, Thanh set herself "the ultimate challenge" — the 4 Deserts Grand Slam, an annual event widely recognised as among the toughest, most prestigious outdoor footrace series in the world.

The series includes the Sahara Race (Namibia, Africa), Gobi March (China, Asia), Atacama Crossing (South America) and The Last Desert (Antarctica, South Pole).

Competitors have to traverse 250km in seven days over rough desert terrain and are provided just water and a tent to stay.

Until now, 66 runners, including Vũ, have accomplished the 4 Deserts Grand Slam by completing all the four races in one calendar year.

It is said that the Deserts Race Series is life changing for some, life enhancing for most. Vũ would agree.

"The races have taught me a lot about inner strength and humility. I have become bolder in the way I live my life, because the races helped me see that I am stronger and more capable than I have believed myself to be."

Her most memorable moment was at the Atacama Crossing.

"On top of a really steep hill on day two, it was insanely hot and I took a break. I couldn’t have been there longer than five minutes before I turned around and saw Camel Fung (an amputee with a prosthetic leg) climbing up the hill with tenacious force. I thought it would be a while before he made it to the top, but there he was, pushing harder than any of the able-bodied competitors. I could feel his presence exuding determination. I will never forget that inspiring sight.

“My life has changed for the better through all these experiences. Not only have I felt stronger and more confident in my life pursuits, but I’ve also felt that what I do can have a positive impact in the community,” Vũ said.

“For the next two years, I will continue to pursue bigger and harder goals, which will challenge me to break through my boundaries again and again, learning and gaining.”

Champion smile: Each gruelling race that she has completed spurs Thanh Vũ to do one better, next time. — Photo courtesy of Thanh Vũ

The first one is The Track, a nine-stage 520km race in 10 days in Australia from May 17 to 26.

It is the longest among all the races that Vũ is going to run, and no Asian woman has finished it until now.

The second one is the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc from August 25 to September 4.

“The race course spans the mountain range in high altitude, crossing through the French Alps, Swiss Alps and Italian Alps. The cumulative elevation gain over 171km is about 10,000m, meaning it is an extremely hilly race. Out of the 2.500 runners, usually some 10 per cent are women participants, and only some 100 women are able to finish the race. It is a very difficult race to finish, and I really hope that I can make the women of Việt Nam proud by finishing it,” said Vũ.

Next year, the 27-year-old plans to run at the North Pole’s Arctic Ultra which is a 230km five-stage race to be covered in five days.

Vũ said the average temperature there was usually minus 20oC. Frostbites are a common cause of withdrawals at the race. It’s going to be the coldest race for her yet.

Following that will be the Grand to Grand Ultra of 273km in North America, which will see her running in six stages through seven days. She said the heat in Utah and Arizona will add to the challenge.

For any athlete, injuries are unavoidable. Vũ recalls her suffering, her confusion, leading to near collapse. Sometimes she could not sleep and would cry at night.

However, the image of the amputee athlete in Atacama has helped her reach the finish line.

Vũ said the time she spent living and studying in Canada was when she equipped herself with all the necessary life skills that made her strong and confident enough to join these challenges and discover herself.

Vũ, based in HCM City now, has set a target for her upcoming runs.

“I had almost no experience and talent in sports but it did not matter. What’s important is that I want to be the best version of myself and will not step back when facing a challenge,” said Vũ, who quit Singapore’s Bloomberg for running.

“I used to think that overcoming the world’s toughest races will help me discover my personal limit, and I would be the first Vietnamese woman to complete the impossible tasks.

On the sands of time: Thanh Vũ plans to complete ultra marathons in seven continents and the North Pole by 2018.

“If my extreme runs can inspire other people, who have more potential than me, then it is the most wonderful thing for me.

“I hope to share my journey, my process with others, especially the youth. Perhaps they will find that their big challenge is not running ultras in the deserts but something as practical as moving away from family for university, changing jobs, marriage, raising children, etc.

“Whatever the challenge may be, I want to encourage them to conquer their personal fear and anxiety to break through their boundaries,” she said.

Vũ knows big obstacles await her ahead.

“The difficulties will be tremendous, including injuries, fatigue, and sometime, even acts of Gods in these locations with extreme climate. The only way to minimise the difficulties is to focus on having the best preparation, both mentally and physically,” she said.

“Training and rehabilitation will be the priorities. Though the physical preparation is the obvious challenge, I also owe a lot of support to my friends, family and the running community in Việt Nam. Such preparation requires a disciplined lifestyle.

Vũ, who wants to organise ultramarathons in Việt Nam for the Vietnamese, says she cannot do what she does by herself.    — VNS