There is something indefinable about humans who push themselves through extreme feats of physical and mental strength, just to be the first.
Vu Phuong Thanh, 27, is one of these people.
In November of last year she became the first Vietnamese and first Southeast Asian female to complete what is known as the ‘4 Deserts Grand Slam’ – running 1,000km self-supported across four of the toughest deserts in the world.
Beginning in May 2016, she ran the African Sahara and followed that with China’s Gobi in June, before taking a few months off until October when she crossed Chile’s Atacama (for the second time) and then, finally, completed what is known as ‘The Last Desert’ in Antarctica!
Tuoi Tre News caught up with her for an interview.
How do you feel now that it’s over?
I feel happy, proud and a little taken aback by how this year has gone. It’s beyond anything I could have imagined. I can’t wait to share the amazing experiences, the beauty of nature, and the human spirit that I’ve witnessed.
Awesome, we can’t wait to see it all. You finished the final race in Antarctica! That’s incredible. Can you describe it?
Antarctica was nothing like I expected. Past competitors had given me the impression that this race was very short due to weather dependency. Since safe areas to run in Antarctica are limited, we had to run in loops, from 1.4km to 11.4km. The idea was that we’d run as many loops as we could before the weather turned bad.
In previous years, the weather had turned very quickly and the longest days were about 6 hours. However, we unexpectedly had great weather so in the first day alone we were able to run for 13 hours. In total, we were outside for 42 hours in deep snow. After a while, the snow on the course was packed down, but it still required a lot more effort than usual terrains, and because of the long days your body is at risk of slower recovery.
Sounds tough. What does ‘The Last Desert’ even look like?
It was a spectacular experience. The continent of Antarctica is so pristine and the view is out of this world. Running right near sliding penguins and seals is not something you get to do every day.
Definitely not. I hope you took some pictures. Throughout any of the events, did you ever feel like quitting?
Definitely. After a hellish 80km Long March in the Gobi, I was traumatized by the experience. It was a heat I had never experienced before. The temperature was 50+ degrees Celsius. I couldn't eat any of the food I had prepared. Water was hot and my electrolytes tasted like plastic. I think the plastic bottles had melted into the water. People's shoes were literally melting on the road. At several moments I felt like my life was in danger.
After I completed the race, it took me a while to refocus on my goal of the Grand Slam. I had to rethink a lot of things to make sure it was worth it.
We’re glad you made it Thanh. Finally, and this is probably the most obvious question, but why did you do all of this, and what, if anything, comes next?
In the world of ultras, there’s always a longer distance, tougher terrain and "crazier" challenge, and as a Vietnamese, there are still many firsts to be set. I think the message from this journey, and why I did it, is that your limits lie where you place them.
Defying them is a scary idea because there will always be a million reasons not to break from your comfort zone. When you have a truly extraordinary destination to reach, the journey to get there will be worth much more than anything you’ve ever learnt, read, or heard about because you are the hero in your own story.
Thanks, Thanh, and congratulations! We look forward to hearing about your next chapter!