Song of fire

Medical student Jerry Song speaks to Priya Kulasagaran about his experience of competing in one of the world’s most extreme races to raise awareness about AIDS

After running for hundreds of kilometres across windy mountain terrain and scorching desert heat, Jerry Song had finally reached his breaking point. The 21-year-old was exhausted, the blisters on his feet searing with pain, and his muscles cramping up. A cold wind was blowing, but he felt like his body was burning up from the inside. To top it all off, he had a thirst that only a sea could quench.

“This was really near the final checkpoint for the race. The doctor stationed nearby said I was suffering a mild heat stroke, that’s why it felt like I was burning up. It was really frustrating; I was so close to completing the race, but I felt like I just couldn’t take another step,” he says, recalling the moment.

What made him take that next step was sheer willpower, and the promise he had made to his family, friends, and supporters back home. The young Penangite had pledged to complete the run to raise awareness and funds for the Malaysian Aids Foundation (MAF).

“I was also lucky to have the support of the other participants of the race. Being the youngest one there — most of the others were easily in their 30s and 40s — they all really took care of me, and kept encouraging me to stay motivated. That helped me push myself further as well,” he adds.

To say that Song finished that race was no small accomplishment, especially as this was one of the world’s most gruelling footraces; the 4 Deserts Gobi March in China.

Extreme racing

The 4 Deserts Race series is a prestigious outdoor footrace series that draws participants from all around the globe. Aside from being a testament to the lengths of human endurance, the series also places charity as its central theme. Participants have not only raised thousands of dollars for educational and medical charities around the world, but have also raised funds for those affected by natural disasters in countries where the races are held, namely China, Chile, Ecuador, and Nepal.

The Gobi March is one of the series’ most diversified courses, combining a cool weather mountain trail race with a hot desert race. In addition to making their way through a 250km route over seven days, participants also have to support themselves during the journey. This means carrying all their own equipment and food across some of the most inhospitable climates and terrain, with organisers only providing drinking water and a place in a tent each night to rest. Temperatures can soar to such great heights during the day, that a Shanghai-based competitor once died of heatstroke during the 2010 edition of the race.

Taking place along the Ancient Silk Route in the Xinjiang Province in northwestern China, this year’s race was held from 18 to 24 June.

Song says he had run marathons before, but nothing of this magnitude. “I’m really new to the whole extreme sport thing,” he says, with a laugh. “I started running when I was 16-years-old, but more just a leisurely activity. So the moment I decided to join this race last September, I started my training for it.”

His preparation started with clocking in 50km every week, and by January, he had upped this about 100km a week. “I also started training with a backpack filled with heavy water bottles, so I could get used to having that weight on my back while running,” explains Song. “Then I added variations to my exercise routine, like going to the gym for strength training and taking up yoga. When you’re doing a race like this, the main thing you need is endurance — it’s not like you’re going to be able to run throughout the course. You may run for 5km, then walk for 2km, then run again; so stamina is important to get you running again.”

Song is still in disbelief that he had made his way through sand dunes, mountain passes, dense forests and the vast, arid Black Gobi Desert just a few months ago. “The first three stages of the race were quite comfortable actually. The average temperature was around 10°C, but up in the mountains, it can get as low as 5°C; it was freezing when it rained. But that last stretch, the heat was intense, you’re literally stepping on burning ground,” he shares.

Dubbed the Long March, the penultimate stage is a continuous 82km race in the scorching heat that is the Black Gobi Desert with temperatures hitting 45°C. This was the point that Song had almost called it quits. Thanks to his determination to pull through, Song now holds the record for being the youngest Malaysian to complete the race.

Raising awareness

Song’s foray into extreme racing began rather unexpectedly with his larger mission: to spread awareness about HIV/AIDS. Currently starting his fourth year of medical school at Universiti Malaya, he remembers being struck by the information he learned about the disease during his first year in university.

“I realised that while a lot of people know about HIV and AIDS, not many have a real depth of understanding about the diseases. They just know that it exists, and not much else; it almost felt like not enough people cared about it. As a future medical practitioner, I feel like I have a responsibility to impart this knowledge among members of society, so we can all work together in helping people with the disease and putting a stop to it,” he says.

He began his outreach efforts by organising a lecture about the disease, but found that the response was less than enthusiastic. “I guess when you’re a student, going for yet another lectur can be quite boring,” he says, with a laugh. “So for the next awareness campaign, we held a run. We handed out pamphlets, and had teams going to strike up conversations with people when they were cooling off after the run. The idea was just get people to start thinking about HIV/AIDS and learn more about it.”

During these informal conversations, Song realised that his suspicion of the level of ignorance over HIV/AIDS amongst his peers was not far off base. “We realised that they had heard about the disease, but had no clue about the statistics of people affected by it, what sort of treatments were available, or even where to go if they or their loved ones were unlucky enough to be affected by it. That’s when I knew I had to do more,” he says.

Song then started organising fundraising events for the MAF, and during a cheque presentation to the organisation, he came to learn about a Malaysian extreme sports enthusiast who was doing similar work — Jeff Lau.

Lau, now 26, is one of MAF’s Red Ribbon Youth Icons, and had already participated in two two Marathon des Sables (ranked by the Discovery Channel as the toughest footrace on earth) in the Southern Moroccan Sahara Desert to raise funds for the MAF.

This year, Lau also signed up for the 6633 Arctic Ultra, a self-supported race covering a staggering distance of 563km across the unforgiving frozen landscape of the Canadian Arctic Circle, amidst temperature that drops to minus 50°C. Arguably one of the toughest, coldest, windiest ultra-distance footraces on the planet, its 9th edition this year took place between 7 and 13 March.

“After hearing his story, I felt moved to do the same,” says Song. “I wanted to challenge myself to grow as person, while at the same time do my part to raise awareness.”

Mission to inspire

Song’s zeal towards his chosen cause is hardly surprising considering the reason he chose to go into the medical field in the first place. “Growing up, I’ve had quite a few friends pass on from cancer and car accidents — some while even in primary school itself,” he shares. “So I told myself then that I have to do something to help people like these when I grow up.

In secondary school, Song committed himself to first aid work, and found that he truly had a passion for it. “I really liked the adrenaline rush of rushing to someone in need, while helping people within my means and hoping for the best. It just made sense to go into medicine because it felt like I was meant to do this,” he says.

He adds that while it was a struggle to train and participate in awareness campaigns while juggling his studies, it was well worth the effort. “I also love to dance, and I usually perform my breakdancing at the university’s annual concert. But I love the struggle to juggling all these things at the same time, it’s the struggle that makes you grow. It’s a matter of making sure your spending all your time as efficiently as you can,” he says.

Having participated in his first extreme race, Song is already planning to make sure the experience will not be his last. “I feel like I’m on this journey to be inspired, and in turn inspire others. During the race, I met so many amazing people who shared their stories about the runs they have done, and I felt really motivated. I believe that everyone can make an impact on society just by doing the things they love and making use of their full potential. That’s what I’m planning to do,” he says.

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