Thanh Vu is preparing to run 1,000km in some of the toughest conditions on earth
In a world where the word ‘epic’ gets thrown around too easily, Thanh Vu is about to attempt something that actually is quite phenomenal. In 2016, the 25-year-old is trying to become the tenth woman, and the first Southeast Asian female, to complete the 4 Deserts ultra-running ‘Grand Slam’.
The feat involves finishing four of the world’s toughest ultra-marathons in one calendar year. Each one is a self-sustaining, 250km slog through mostly uninhabited deserts. Comprising six gruelling stages each, the courses take in some of the hottest, driest, windiest and coldest places on earth. Competitors must provide and carry with them all of their own food, gear and clothing, and are given a ration of water and a tent to sleep in at night.
While Thanh is not new to extreme physical endurance — she’s already a seasoned tri-athlete and marathon runner — she’ll start what she describes as her “ultimate challenge” in the dry heat of the Sahara on May 1. Home to the largest sand dunes anywhere, the Saharan course will feature some of the most stunning, but brutal landscapes in Africa. Once she gets through those, she will then travel to China in June to take on the Gobi, with scenery including the spectacular but dangerous Tianshan Mountains.
After this she’ll get a much-needed rest before resuming her assault on history in October in the Atacama Desert in Chile. This is where last year she became the first Vietnamese woman to finish, and described the experience as like “going to the moon and back”. Finally, the series will culminate in Antarctica at the end of November, and if that doesn’t blow your mind, nothing will.
To even start this final event, racers must have completed at least two of the other three challenges — as if doing those gives you the base level of insanity required. Organisers call it ‘The Last Desert’. We call it putting yourself in harm’s way.
If successful, by the end of the year Thanh will have endured 1,000km of ultra-running, gone through several pairs of shoes, travelled the globe and achieved her goal of being the first Southeast Asian woman to complete all four; the ‘Grand Slam’.
Interrupting her intense training last month (you don’t just turn up to these torture tests) I had to ask her that very obvious question, along with why she was dedicating a year of her life to something so hard, and how she felt about the first event just over a month away.
“I’m freaking out,” she began, “but thanks to the support I’m getting, I’m grateful to have the opportunity to chase my impossible dream.”
As for the Why?, Thanh wants to create history to raise awareness for her chosen charity, Tu Sach Cau Vong (Rainbow Bookcase), but most of all to prove to the world that her generation of women, and Vietnamese women especially, can go past any limitations put on them by history.
Blending long-distance interval running with The Bike Shop’s David Greenfield and hardcore PT workouts with California Gym’s Master trainer Al Morgan, Thanh has everything going for her, but that doesn’t mean she expects it to be easy. Far from it. A skim through her blog from last year’s Atacama Crossing gives an insight into just how tough she found it, and the mental fortitude wrapped up in this five-foot-nothing package.
“This is really hard… I’d like to think I’m tough and I’ve done the mileage and the terrain training, but my God, whoever designs the course knows how to push your mind and body to the limit, at every single step. But I promise I won’t give up as long as I can still move my limbs. Run, walk, crawl, I will do whatever it takes.” — Thanh Vu, October 2015
Learn more about Thanh Vu’s epic journey into history on her YouTube channel or on Facebook, and follow the 4 Deserts Series at 4deserts.com. To donate to Thanh’s charity Rainbow Bookcase, go to tusachcauvong.com