80 pct mental, 20 pct physical: Hanoi ultramarathon runner's recipe for endurance

By Thi Quan   March 18, 2021 | 05:00 am PT
80 pct mental, 20 pct physical: Hanoi ultramarathon runner's recipe for endurance
Vu Phuong Thanh competing in the Atacam Crossing in Chile in 2017. Photo courtesy of RacingThePlanet.
Vu Phuong Thanh has been running extreme marathons for years and has legitimate claims to being the toughest Vietnamese woman.

The 31-year-old quit her job as a financial analyst at Bloomberg in Singapore in a quest for thrills.

She completed the 4 Deserts Ultramarathon Series in 2016, an annual series of four 250-kilometer races consisting of the Namib Race in Namibia, Gobi March in Mongolia, the Atacama Crossing in Chile, and The Last Desert in Antarctica.

"I am very proud that I am the first female Asian racer to complete this ultramarathon," she says.

Since then she has completed numerous ultramarathons on all seven continents, including the 522-km Ultra Race in Australia in 2017-18 and Mount Everest in 2019.

She was especially impressed by the Atacama Crossing, which took seven days, in 2015.

She was feeling a bit discouraged in the scorching sun and dry air of the Atacama Desert. But when she was taking a short break, she spotted a man clearly aged over 60 with one prosthetic leg determined to finish the race, single-minded and not looking around.

"That moment imprinted itself on my mind. Whenever I am depressed and desperate for something, I remember his image to motivate myself to try harder."

She says most people think toughness is physical, but for her it accounts for only 20 percent and endurance is mostly in the mind.

She recalls trying to complete the ninth stage of the Ultra Race when her legs were swollen after running nearly 400 km over eight days in the red Simpson Desert in Australia. She was in tears at the thought of giving up on the last day.

"When I saw the sun rising on the horizon, instead of pain and sadness and frustration, I felt grateful again. I realized I was fortunate to be there at that moment even though the surroundings were empty and barren. The feeling of gratitude helped me carry on in that strange yet magical moment. I also thought of people who had set examples of strength and perseverance. And just like that, I completed the remaining 137 km in 24 hours and 40 minutes.

"My determination helped me win, not my physical strength. It is one of the best marathons I've ever run."

She also talks about the importance of drinking water and replenishing electrolytes.

When running the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc in 2017, after 143 km and 38 hours through dozens of hills in snowy weather, she was too tired and gradually neglected the basics. It was so cold that she stopped consuming water and electrolytes.

She developed hyponatremia, or low sodium concentration in the blood, and lost consciousness when she was almost at the finishing line. She was fortunate there was a team of medics, and, thanks to good weather, a rescue helicopter managed to take her down from the mountains to a hospital.

Now she is thinking about participating in "tough" races as soon as international flights resume, revealing that it is a never-ending personal goal.

"Many people ask me why I run and how much longer I will be doing this for. I tell them I will continue running, swimming, cycling, and pursuing other challenges as long as I can."

Her next goals are participating in ultramarathons in Bhutan, Morocco and Canada, and mountain races at altitudes of 6,000 m and more.

"I believe the journey matters more than the destination. I hope I can inspire other people and encourage them in dealing with life’s challenges with what I am doing."

The Covid-19 outbreak has caused many international races to be suspended indefinitely.

Thanh is using the downtime to physically and mentally prepare herself to resume racing when things return to normal, running, cycling and swimming to train her knees.

She spends most Sundays at home running 10 hours indoors and swimming 10 km in a 30-meter pool, and says this also helps her become more patient.

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