Last updated: 05-Nov-18
By Luke Jamey
Eric and Paul Chan are two Canadian brothers on a hot n’ dusty mission to run eight desert ultra-marathons in one year. As any desert running veteran will attest, this is no mean feat. We had a chat to find out a little of their background and what inspired them to take on this arid adventure.
Q. So please enlighten us with a slice of your backstory, who are Eric and Paul Chan?
Eric & Paul. Thanks for having us. First and foremost, we are two passionate runners from Toronto, Canada. We just love the sport of running, whether it be road, trails, or deserts!
Eric. I have been running for 8 years now. I competed strictly in road races before I got involved in ultra running. When I am not running around the world, I work as a running coach and a certified holistic nutritionist.
Paul. Unlike Eric, I am actually new to the sport of running, having only run for two years. I work as a certified holistic nutritionist as well.
Q. Ok, so homing in on your running history… Eric, I read somewhere you were a regular in the Sub 3-hour marathon camp?
Eric. Yes. I’ve been running Sub 3 since 2011 and the streak still stands. I’m proud of this achievement because I am able to maintain this streak under all different types of weather conditions. Be it under ideal conditions, +30C (90F) heat wave, or poor racing strategy, I somehow kept this streak alive.
Q. What got you into marathons in the first place?
Eric. I got into running after finishing my first and last Ironman Triathlon. I was working long hours and running allows me to clear my mind and de-stress, plus it’s hassle-free. Put on my shoes, and get out the door. That’s it. I fell in love with the sport after my first marathon in 2009. Running came natural to me. I can figure out things (pacing, running technique, race strategy, training plans) that normally take years for other runners to master. Running gave me some of the best moments of my life, and I will always cherish every one of them. It made me feel alive.
Q. Now Paul, where does running fit in with you?
Paul. I was never an endurance athlete. I dabbled in many sports, but endurance sports never appealed to me. I always thought that running a marathon was crazy and that I was not built for long distances having never run more than 5k in my life. It all started when Eric and I came back from a backpacking trip in Central and South America in 2014. I was looking to try something new and inspired by Eric’s running and out of curiosity, I decided to enter my first half marathon on a whim.
I was only running once a week at that point, so pretty much I had zero training going in. I just wanted to see if I could do it. Not only did I finish my first half marathon, I had so much fun doing it that I decided to train for my first marathon! I asked Eric to coach me and he agreed. I had heard about the Boston Marathon by then and I dreamt of qualifying one day.
Q. What was it like having Eric as a coach? And how did the race go for you?
Paul. Eric knew what my ambition was so he designed a special training program to see what I can do in a short span of time. He taught me proper running techniques right off the bat because he wanted me to start off with good fundamentals. He was also monitoring me closely to make sure I don’t get injured. Injury happens a lot to novice runners mainly due to poor running form and the fact that they run too fast and/or too much too soon.
Training under his expert guidance, I slowly realized that my dream was not a dream at all, but an achievable reality. At the 2015 Mississauga Marathon, I ran 3:05 at the age of 40 to qualify for the Boston Marathon after only six months of training.
Photo credit: Eric and Paul Chan.
Q. Great stuff. Now for both of you, what stimulated the change from marathon running to ultra running? And at what point did you decide to run eight desert ultras in year?
Eric. I kind of stumbled into ultra marathoning. After one of the toughest workouts in my build-up for a spring marathon in 2015, I had the onset of an asthma attack. At the time, I didn’t know what was happening to me because I haven’t had an attack since childhood. I was bedridden for a few weeks before I got a handle on it and sought treatment. The recovery process was long, and frustrating. I could never get back the fitness that I once had.
I lost my passion for marathon training thereafter. So during the summer months, I decided to seek out other ways to keep my passion for running alive. Late one night, I was scouring around on the internet looking for some inspiration. I just wanted to try something new.
I stumbled upon a movie called Desert Runners. It was about the journey of four regular blokes seeking the ultimate challenge for themselves by signing up for a race series that has them traverse through four of the toughest deserts in the world, each carrying all of their own supplies and equipment. I was inspired not only by their tenacity, but also their backstories and their motivation to take on such a monumental challenge.
One thing was for sure, If I wanted to take on something as extreme as desert racing, I wanted to go on an epic adventure that I can truly call my own. Embarking on such an adventure requires serious commitment and financial resources, so I wanted to make it count!
Something popped into my head one day. How many of these extreme desert races can one endure? How many can one do in a year? I found out that the current Guinness World Record stands at six, but the question remained. With the help of my brother and many sleepless nights, we compiled a comprehensive race schedule. In the span of 12 months between 2016 – 2017, without overlap between races, that magic number turns out to be eight.
The Eight Deserts Challenge was born. Understandably, my brother was seriously apprehensive about the racing schedule. Between the months of September and November, one must compete in four races in a span of six weeks across three continents and countless time zones. It was beyond insane.
Q. The Marathon des Sables (MdS) as the first race, especially for a relatively new runner like yourself Paul, must have been pretty intimidating. How did you both prepare for it? And specifically how did it differ from your standard marathon training?
Paul. I was expecting the worst from MdS. How can you not when a running race, a self-supported ultra marathon no less, is in the Sahara? We know it is serious business so both Eric and I read up all we could on the web to prepare for it. The crazy thing is not only had we not done an ultra marathon at that point, we had never actually competed in a trail race before. Talk about trial by fire!
You really can’t simulate the heat and the sand of Sahara where we live so we had to find the next best thing. For one reason or another, we chose to set up our training camp in Joshua Tree, California. There is quite a bit of sand there and it is about the warmest place you can find in North America in February. Eric wanted to increase our mileage drastically as compared to our marathon training. We were running twice a day, seven days a week. Aside from just running more, he wanted to make sure we were mentally prepared. Everyone knows that ultra marathoning is mostly mental. If your mind gives up, then it is all over.
Q. So how did the assault on the desert go? And did you finish full of optimism for the next seven races, or were you doubting your challenge at that point?
Paul. MdS was a lot tougher than we imagined! It turns out that they change the course every year and this year was the toughest edition yet. On the first day alone, we had to run up a 200m sand dune and against a 50mph head wind! Temperature went up to 48C during the course of the race so conditions were truly brutal. To top things off, we had to throw away half the food that we brought because we couldn’t stomach it. Let’s just say everything tastes different when you are out in the desert.
We managed to complete the race (thank god), but we were quite beaten up both mentally and physically. Finishing MdS gave us confidence, but scared us in terms of the kind of suffering we had to endure for the next seven races. In the end, we were glad that it was our first race. It prepared us for the type of adversity we had to overcome to complete the Eight Deserts Challenge.
Photo credit: Eric and Paul Chan.
Q. Probably being the most famous desert ultra around, I guess the MdS was a relatively obvious choice. But which other races did you pick and why?
Paul. Like you said, MDS was an obvious choice. We wanted to test ourselves against the toughest deserts on the planet so the other races were picked based on the different challenges that they pose. They are the 4 Deserts Sahara Race (Namibia) – the Oldest Desert and the Tallest Sand Dunes, the 4 Deserts Gobi March (China) – the Windiest Desert, Ultra Bolivia (Bolivia) – the Highest Desert, the 4 Deserts Atacama Crossing (Chile) – the Driest Desert, Trans-Pecos (Texas, USA) – the Most Hostile Desert, Oman Desert Marathon (Oman) – the Sandiest Desert, and the Arctic Ice Ultra (Arctic, Sweden) – the Coldest Desert.
Q. Now a lot of people may think, ok eight ultras in a year, whilst not easy, is something done relatively regularly by people in the sport. But explain why doing eight desert ultras is a bit different? And specifically the toll that environment takes on your body and its recovery?
Eric. Each of these desert races are self-supported. This means that you have to carry of all mandatory gear and food supplies for the week of racing. The distance is only a small part of the challenge. The greatest challenge is the ability to compete day after day, on a limited calorie diet with a rationed water supply. A healthy adult male requires 2500 calories to conduct regular day-to-day activities (aka. not running through the desert). In a desert race, however, we had to carry that same number of calories in order to keep the weight down to a minimum, running in extreme weather conditions and in unforgiving terrains.
The temperatures out in the deserts can vary greatly. It can go as low as 0C (32F) to as high as 55C (130F). Sometimes there wasn’t enough water between checkpoints to keep you from overheating, so you had to be smart about your hydration and cooling. In the Atacama Desert, we had to run over terrain that NASA described as “MARS-like”. In the Bolivian Salt Flats (Salar de Uyuni), the terrain was so rough and jagged that falling over was just not an option because you wouldn’t have any skin left. Oh, did I mention that race is held between 3,700m (12,000ft) and 4,100m (13,500ft)?
To make matters worse, we had very limited time between races to recover, regain the weight we lost, overcome the challenges of international travel, and finally, avoid any debilitating sickness and injuries for the entire 12 months.
Q. We’re an ultra marathon race directory by trade, so we’ve got to delve into your thoughts on the different races. First off, which has been your favourite so far and why?
Paul. Without a doubt, for me it has to be the 4 Deserts Gobi March. The race is staged along the path of the historic Silk Road so this in itself is epic. Because it is one of the farthest inland ultra in the world, getting there is an adventure on its own! The diversity of landscape and terrain you get to experience is simply amazing. You have grassland, mountains, river beds, rocky terrains, river crossings, and deserts all in the same race. On top of that, you get to camp in Mongolian style yurts, which makes it extra special!
Sounds nice and fun right? Well, it is if you can handle the extreme conditions of the race (laugh). Be prepared to tackle high altitude, hail, snow, extreme cold and extreme heat … all in a single day! Did I mention sand storms?
You really feel like you are racing on edge of the world.
Q. …and your least enjoyable?
Eric. For me, it was the Oman Desert Marathon. I was so depleted after three desert races in five weeks along with three other races I had done earlier in the year that I could barely run, let alone compete. It was absurd to even attempt to complete one of the sandiest races on our schedule. It consists over 100 miles (165 km) of deep sand with countless numbers of large sand dunes thrown in-between. Paul and I were so exhausted after each stage that our tent mates called us “The Sleeping Twins”. It was fitting because for the first three stages of competition, we slept for 14 hours a day. With limited calories on hand, we slept hungry every night. In essence, every second that we didn’t to run or eat, we slept. We had to muster every ounce of physical and mental energy just to get us through the day. I don’t know how we managed to do it. There are no words to describe the level of fatigue we experienced, but I can tell you the human body can do amazing things.
Paul Chan. Photo credit: Ian Corless.
Q. How did the terrain and environment differ between the races? What was the most challenging in that respect?
Paul. What makes this challenge difficult is that every race offers its own set of challenges, even though they are all “desert” races. We simply had no time to prepare for each one properly given our aggressive schedule. Some races have lots of sand and sand dunes like MdS, Sahara Race (Namibia), and Oman Desert Marathon. Others have river crossings like Atacama Crossing and Gobi March. Most races are extremely hot, except for Ultra Bolivia and Arctic Ice Ultra. Some are staged in high altitude like Gobi March, Atacama Crossing and Ultra Bolivia. The most technical is definitely the Atacama Crossing because aside from a huge number of river crossings, you have to go through stony terrain, lava fields, wetlands, salt flats and even sand dunes! The most hostile desert race of all has to be Trans-Pecos. If you can’t handle biting flies, wasps, tarantulas, scorpions, rattle snakes, spearing cactuses and all the rest, you probably wouldn’t enjoy this race.
Q. In terms of race organisation, which race really stood out for you? And did you experience any significant organisational ‘blips’ at any of them?
Eric. The best organized race by far was the Marathon des Sables (MdS). It’s not too surprising given that not only do they have the biggest budget, they are also the pioneers in the sport of multistage racing. Everything ran like clockwork without a hitch.
My personal preference is the race series held by the 4Deserts organization. Due to the smaller field, I got to interact with my fellow competitors in a more intimate setting. Moreover, because it’s a race series, I got to reunite and reconnect with friends I met from previous races. Over the course of seven desert races thus far, the friendships I had developed with my fellow competitors is something that will last a lifetime. They saw me in the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. Something that not even my closest friends have witnessed.
As for organisational ‘blips’, one incident definitely stood out. In the 4th stage of the Oman Desert Marathon, we were reminded to take extra water between checkpoints because a number of racers were treated for severe dehydration and required IV treatment. Upon arrival at the end of the stage, however, we weren’t given any water until nightfall. The irony is that I was only dehydrated because I wasn’t given ANY water. I can laugh about it now, but I wasn’t laughing at the time. It’s funny how simple things in life can make one so happy when we strip everything down to its core.
Q. What logistical hurdles did you have to overcome travelling between all the races?
Eric. The eight desert challenge is epic on its own. Any rational person who dared to tackle such a feat would surely maximize their chances of success by returning home to rest or go to a favourable destination to resupply. We did none of that. We lived in our suitcase for seven months, travelled through 11 countries, trained with the Kenyans in Iten, summited Kilimanjaro, saw the Pyramids, visited Petra in Jordan, and everything in between.
But this project isn’t about making sense. It’s about overcoming incredible odds, living the adventure, and telling your grandkids about it when you get old. Live your life without regrets.
Most countries where we stayed abroad had no access to supplies or equipment, so we had to improvise. We ended up making some mistakes over and over because we had no other means of getting what we needed. Sometimes we had to run in shoes with the rubber coming off the outsoles, but that’s what makes the adventure all the more interesting. You have to go into each race with the mindset that you are competing on a level playing field, forgetting the fact that you are handicapped with less than optimal equipment or recovery. The moment you feel sorry for yourself or feel disadvantaged is the moment you are tempted to call it quits. Quitting is always an option because It’s the easiest option. If your mental game isn’t ironclad, failure is just around the corner.
Q. I’m guessing recovery was probably the hardest thing to get right? Particularly this Autumn, where you’d done four of the desert ultras in just over one and half months! How on earth did you manage this? And have you picked up any recovery tips n tricks you could share with us?
Eric. The first thing I noticed after our first two desert races was our lack of sufficient core strength, upper body strength and toughness in our joints to handle the wear and tear of back-to-back races. It’s hard on the shoulders, lower back and knees while maintaining proper running posture carrying a week’s worth of food and equipment on our backs. To further compound the problem, we had to run under harsh conditions over treacherous terrain.
In the six weeks we stayed at the High Altitude Training Centre (HATC) in Iten, Kenya to prepare for “4in6” as Paul and I would call it, we spent a great deal of our time building up our bodies to handle what was to come. Unsurprisingly, many foreign runners also go there to train. There’s one thing I notice that many of them commonly lack: core strength. It was quite remarkable that we somehow managed to avoid illness, flight delays, major blisters, or debilitating injuries (aside from self-inflicted ones!). This is all a testament to our preparation and the many years I spent as a running coach honing my running technique and the months I spent fine-tuning my brother’s as well.
In order to maintain good conditioning over a prolonged period of time, I decided to race ourselves into top shape and maintain it as long as possible rather than peaking for any particular race. Heading into September, I made sure I was injury/pain free, in great condition (but not at “race” shape), and not overthinking about what was to come. I ran each race as hard as I could with the goal of chiselling my mind and body to handle the rigours of desert running. Between each race, I maintain conditioning using active recovery techniques so that my body’s metabolic rate remains high. Drastic change to one’s activity levels can significantly impact performance. By sightseeing around town, doing light stretches, and getting some quality sleep, I felt much more rejuvenated than being sedentary.
All that fell apart on the record-breaking race in Oman because we only had five days between races. It took us over two days (50hrs) just to fly across 10 times zones from North America to the Middle East. We barely got any sleep, and we were jet lagged heading into one of the hardest races on the schedule. We pushed beyond our physical limits, but somehow we found that extra reserve that we never knew we had. I truly believe that “you are only as strong as your mind is willing”.
Photo credit: Aaron Bates Photography at Trans-Pecos Ultra.
Q. Nice, ok let’s talk nutrition. Did you get this all nailed before the MdS, or did you fine tune your personal nutrition plans throughout the races? Could you also give us an idea of your daily race meal plan and a shout out to any products that worked particularly well?
Paul. We thought we had it nailed before MdS, being nutritionists and all. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a spectacular failure (laugh)! We definitely had to fine tune our nutrition throughout the races. The thing about desert nutrition is this: what works for one person won’t necessarily work for another. You can investigate all you want on the internet and even try them at home, but you won’t know whether it will really work until you are in a race. This is especially true when you race in extreme heat because your taste buds change.
For Eric, ramen noodles for breakfast and dehydrated meals such as Expedition Foods worked for him. My GI, on the other hand, is more sensitive so none of the dehydrated meals worked for me. In the end, the only thing I can stomach aside from ramen noodles is my own concoction of mashed potatoes. During the act of competition itself, both Eric and I use a mix of gels, energy bars and CarboPro (carbohydrate powders) as our go to nutrition. One thing I can’t stress enough is the importance of pick-me-up foods in a self-supported race. No one can endure eating just tasteless foods for seven days straight. It will drive you mad!
Q. Moving on to gear… running one desert ultra is tough on the kit, but seven in under eight months, well… What items have really stood out for you and why?
Eric. Pretty much the only piece of running equipment that survived through all seven races relatively unscathed is the MDS 20L Ultrabag, and my Raidlight Sahara Hat. Everything else was either replaced or worn out. Even my Smith sunglasses got scratched up by flying debris! Nothing escapes these deserts without a scratch. Hahaha. Although the Ultrabag wasn’t the lightest for its category, it is by far the most durable. Other competitors who used other brands experienced significant wear and tear after only two races. You also need a special type of hat to survive out there in the desert due to the intensity of the sun. In that regard, the Sahara Hat worked really well as it blocked out most of the UV rays and I never got sunburned.
Q. And was there anything that got spanked by the sand and has since been replaced?
Eric. Even though I am an efficient runner with good biomechanics, none of my footwear survived too long out in the desert. The most we got out of a pair of shoes was two races. We had to re-equip between races. The terrain in these deserts was so rough that either the soles gave out first or the shoes became so crusty and stank so badly afterwards that I didn’t dare to get near them again.
Water bottles are also something we have to replace often. Most of them aren’t really durable and would start leaking after one or two races. Because we used these same bottles to hold liquid nutrition as well, they often smelt disgustingly foul after each race and I’m not sure whether it was hygienic to reuse them. Unfortunately, sometimes we had no choice! Frustrating to say the least, but like I’ve said before, you just have to block it out of your mind and keep going.
Q. Tell us about your final ultra? It’s a slightly different environment, but technically still a desert? How do you think you’ll both cope with the change from extreme heat to extreme cold?
Paul. Our final ultra is the Arctic Ice Ultra in Feb, 2017. It is a five day, 230km self-supported race in Arctic Sweden. Although not a traditional desert per say, it is definitely a desert and an extremely cold one at that! Temperature can go down to -30C or below. It will be quite an interesting challenge to adapt to racing in the cold after all these hot desert races. We even have to learn how to run with snowshoes! Well, I guess living in Canada has some advantages after all (laugh).
Q. Finally, have you been dreaming up any new challenges to sink your teeth into once this one’s (hopefully!) completed?
Eric. The Eight Deserts Challenge was conceived as the ultimate test of mental strength. A lot of people can summon the courage and strength to push through one heroic continuous effort. It is an entirely different type of beast to maintain that level of mental concentration through a 12-month period. Each race gets tougher and tougher as the body starts to breakdown over time, not able to fully recover between races. It is truly a monumental challenge.
For our next project, I think it will be more of an athletic endurance challenge: an ultimate test of endurance with emphasis on athleticism. We have some ideas on what it will be, but you’ll have to stay tuned to find out the details!
Awesome, thanks so much for your time Eric and Paul and good luck for Sweden!