Few people have raced all four races in Racing The Planet’s 4 Deserts series, which includes a 250-kilometer, seven-day, six-stage race in Chile’s Atacama Desert, China’s Gobi Desert, Egypt’s Sahara, and Antarctica’s “frozen desert” (or the “last desert” as Racing The Planet folks call it).
I know, right? Talk about some remote, hot/cold/insert-other-insane-environmental-variable spots on our grand planet! As of this writing, just 125 have finished the four-race series, what amounts to an off-the-charts physical commitment to training and racing; significant time away from jobs, families, and the rest of life; and a boat-load of money for race-entry fees and travel.
Team Born to Run
Even fewer folks (presently 28 hardy, hardy souls) have completed these four races in a calendar year, what’s affectionately called by this ultra-ultra-ultra-endurance community the 4 Deserts Grand Slam. It’s a stellar pleasure to introduce you to five of them:
Meet Greg Donovan. He’s the mastermind behind Team Born to Run, five Australian runners who together completed the 4 Deserts Grand Slam as a team.
Hold the phone! Stop the press! Yes, Team Born to Run ran each of the four 4 Deserts races together. Like, did everything together, sleeping, eating, running, er, bathroom-ing. But we’ll get to those gory details later.
The 51-year-old lives in Sydney and works as the Manager of Product Design and Development for Aon, the multi-national insurance company. Greg’s married to wife Raylene and they together have three children.
After Greg’s son, Stephen Donovan, was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes as a teenager, he was inspired to raise money for diabetes research and awareness. A recreational marathoner, he thought doing something with the sport might be a way of garnering attention for his fundraising cause, the JDRF.
Greg remembers when the concept was born. “I wanted to do something special. I wanted to raise money and awareness for Type 1 Diabetes. I chose the hardest and most out-there running challenge I could think of.”
Greg’s no stranger to fundraising, “Back in 2002, I ran the New York Marathon and raised $150,000 for the children whose parents were killed in the World Trade Center terrorist attacks. I knew that running was a good way to raise funds, so that led to this crazy idea.”
Matt Donovan is the 22-year-old middle child of Greg who was roped into Team Born to Run by relational proximity. Matt chuckles when I ask how hard his dad tugged on his heartstrings about joining the team. “Yeah, he definitely roped me in. But in all seriousness, when he came to me with this idea there was no turning it down.”
Matt’s close with his brother, Stephen, and just as motivated about the prospect of advancing diabetes research on his and others’ behalves. The 2011 graduate of the University of New South Wales is a CrossFit trainer. Though physical activity has always been a part of Matt’s life, the 4 Deserts Grand Slam was far-and-away the grandest endurance endeavor he’s so far taken a crack at.
Ron Schwebel, at 61, is just getting started with his running. The Sydney-ite is an age-group ace, setting national age-group records at events ranging from short-distance road races to long ultramarathons. He’s been experimenting with the hallowed sport of ultrarunning since 2005 and is a self-proclaimed lover of numbers. Ron is widowed and has three grown children as well as two grandchildren.
Says Jess Baker (who we introduce next) about Ron, “Ron is one of the quietest members of our team. And he’s delightfully eccentric. In Antarctica when we were presented with our awards, Ron stripped down to nothing but a survival blanket as a mankini.” Ron’s elated to have been added to the team, “Such a great privilege. These people are good people. I have no comment about that award ceremony.”
I suppose all good desert-crossing teams need a fine lady to keep it mostly kosher (Or to really knock things off the tracks!), and Team Born to Run has Jess Baker to fill the womanly role.”I bring the estrogen,” laughs Jess. “I’m eternally grateful to Greg for inviting me. I love running; I love travel; I like doing good for other people.”
British by birth but a long-time Sydney dweller because she loves the continent, when the 30-year-old isn’t running she’s a PhD-possessing, behavioral-health professional at the University of New South Wales. Jess has a longstanding relationship with long-distance running originally birthed out of a love for football (read: soccer for us Americans). As an adult she’s done lots of ultramarathons and ultra-distance running adventures. Jess and Roger Hanney (introduced next) are a couple.
If you met 38-year-old Roger Hanney in person, he would need no introduction because of his booming personality (and the fact that he wears Hokas and is already tall and, thus, looks a like a giant). But since we’re in the Internet medium, here goes nothing.
Roger did club-style cross country and track as a child in Australia. Five years ago, he decided he wanted to push his running further by signing up for a road half marathon. “Things started to go wobbly after a 15k training run. But at that time, that was the furthest I’d run. I thought I was supposed to feel wobbly.” Roger remembers, “Over a period of six days, I virtually lost my eyesight and got to the point of drinking about a gallon of water in an hour and still feeling dehydrated.” His Type 1 diagnosis came in the wake of this medical emergency.
None of this has caused him to reel in his running, though. It’s instead, possibly, propelled its development. I met Roger in 2011 at a 50k in Utah when he was on a whirlwind marathoning, ultramarathoning, and adventure-running tour of the United States. And now, less than two years later, he’s one of the hallowed 28 finishers of the 4 Deserts Grand Slam. Clearly, the word “limit” is not in Roger’s vocabulary.
If his answer to my what-do-you-do-for-a-living question is any indication, Roger’s life beyond running might be a bit beyond category. “I’m the Australian Hoka OneOne guy, as well as a gear-whore shiatsu practitioner social-media-spasm-having, ultrarunning Type 1 Diabetic, an all-running, all-singing, yoga-challenged marvel of modern medical chemistry. And a bit of a Muppet, on occasion.” I can vouch that all of this is true, especially the Muppet part.
Though Team Born to Run seems a fascinating hodgepodge of personality and life experience, Greg created the team with intention. “I wanted to put together a diverse group. Boy did we get that!” He laughs, then continues, “I wanted the team to have the youngest-ever person to do the 4 Deserts Grand Slam. That’s Matt. Then I figured why not have the oldest? So next we found Ron. Of course we should have a woman, and Jess was recommended to us as a tough Sydney ultrarunner. And, when I asked if Jess had any connection to someone with Type 1, she volunteered that her runner boyfriend did. Our team would not be a team without a member who had diabetes, so Roger was a perfect fit. No one with Type 1 had yet done the grand slam, and neither had a couple.” The stage was set for an epic and record-setting around-the-world adventure.
Team Born to Run’s 2012 4 Deserts Grand Slam
Here’s how Team Born to Run’s remarkable 2012 played out: the whole shebang started up in South America in March with the Atacama Crossing. In June, the team ran together at China’s Gobi March. The second half of the year’s racing came fast and furious with the Sahara Race at the end of October and the beginning of November and The Last Desert (Antarctica) race at the end of November and beginning of December.
But really, what’s it like for five very different people to race 1,000 kilometers in some seriously challenging conditions… TOGETHER? As in, all the time, in the same place? As in, living, breathing, smelling the seven-day stink of each another? When I asked the team to comment on their dynamic during a group interview, their response went hilariously like this (with edits for brevity because it lasted 15 minutes):
Matt: I did a lot to help Dad, especially in the Sahara. I made sure he was drinking. Ron took care of all the stats. You could count on Ron to give you a pretty accurate ETA to the next checkpoint. Jess was the one with a smile. Thank you very much for that, Jess, though we may not have responded in the moment. Everyone had roles.
Jess: Matt is the youngest, but he stepped up and he was exceptional in terms of teamwork and looking after his dad and keeping everyone together. And because Ron is so strong, I didn’t think of him as 60. Age is kind of put out there a lot, but to me, it’s the personalities that are diverse.
Roger: Matt ran his first marathon just a month before we left for the Atacama.
Jess: Matt got so ill in the Gobi. But he just kept putting each foot forward.
iRF: Matt, I read your blog posts from the Gobi. I could feel your pain.
Jess: We could see it!
Greg: Our race nearly came to an end in the Gobi on Day 3 because Matt was so ill.
Matt: Roger, too, was suffering the same condition. Although I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, it was nice there was someone to experience it with.
Roger: Yeah, we had a couple of 5:00 am chats through the walls of the outdoor toilet.
Jess: Just imagine when you can’t eat anything, you can’t drink anything, your stomach is upset, you’ve got this massive pack to carry, and you just want to lay in bed. When we made it through the Gobi, I knew we would make it through the whole year.
Greg: It’s an amazing thing to get a team of five people through all four events and all in one piece. The Racing The Planet people said a lot of teams enter, but they generally break apart after a couple days. They were really surprised we made it through.
Jess: Go us!
Ron: It’s not just during the event that we beat the odds, but the whole year that things could have gone wrong for us with injury or an accident… Or even not being able to get time off work.
iRF: Ron, let me ask you about the team dynamic.
Ron: There were a few times when the dynamic broke down a little but we managed to keep it together. We handled each other pretty well.
iRF: In Australia, do you roast somebody at a party for them? Do you have any good stories about in the desert or in the cold or in the toilet or over food… whatever went down?
Roger: Greg lost his passport in South America.
Greg: Ha, that was a close call!
Jess: A fond memory was actually before Atacama when we decided to go up a volcano. Matt kept drifting in and out of consciousness and we got the altitude giggles.
Roger: We’re at about 17,500 feet altitude.
iRF: This was before the race?
Roger: Yes, we just wanted to go sightseeing.
Greg: Ron, the numbers man, was conscious about the weight in his pack. He wanted to keep his pack’s weight down. He was actually weighing his underpants.
Jess: Can you remember how much they weighed?
Roger: Forty-seven grams.
iRF: Can anyone roast the young lady?
Jess: I can roast myself. I always say stupid things. You’d never know I have a PhD. Matt ribs me about that. I did protest that it doesn’t equate to intelligence. Matt and Greg, for the Sahara, there was a big concern about getting sand in your shoes, so we wore gaiters. Some people recommend getting the gaiters’ Velcro professionally stitched into your shoes. Matt and Greg stuck it on with tape.
Matt: Between the bus and walking 200 meters to our tent on the first day, the gaiters fell off our shoes.
Jess: We need to roast Ron because he was a hit with the ladies. He always had a harem of women at dinnertime.
Roger: Ron was never in bed before 9:00 pm. Jess would have a thing about peeing. Being a girl she didn’t have the same convenience we did in a place that is essentially flat and visible to the horizon. Every now and again it was kind of like this Biblical vision and there’s this bush that shouts, “Don’t look over here.”
Jess: In barren landscape, it’s hard to know where to pee. My bum has been exposed to a lot of people.
Roger Hanney Runs with Type 1 Diabetes
I’ve run about a half-dozen stage races in my ultrarunning “career,” so I know about the inherent caloric duress of racing them. On top of that, in stage races like those of Racing The Planet, competitors must carry all of their food, camping, and in Roger’s case, medical provisions. It’s perhaps impossible to put in a backpack an equitable amount of calories to that which you burn. In short, when people ask me about food and stage racing, I tell them that it’s a week of voluntary starvation.
I, thus, have to wonder how Roger handled his situation. He begins, “There were a couple of times, say, especially in the first race, in the Atacama, where I ate some of, say, my Day 4 food on Day 3. And then I got to the second-to-last day and didn’t have much food left.” There was a lost-property area where other racers left food they couldn’t bring themselves to eat, but Roger says he ate whatever others’ couldn’t. “They weren’t tasty calories, but they were calories.”
Roger is also quick to deflect attention from his diagnosis. “Type 1 is not my crutch. I don’t want to wave a flag saying, ‘I’m Type I; I need special treatment.’ The cool thing about having Type I is that if you manage it, you can pretty much do everything.”
Even if Roger doesn’t like the attention people like me give him, he still has to make big plans to care for his body during these major physical endeavors. In addition to the slew of food he brings along to manage his blood sugar naturally, he also brings a whole medical package for monitoring and regulating his insulin. “I’ve got my main glucose meter with spare cartridges and a spare meter with its cartridges. I bring back-ups of everything because these races take place so remotely and I fear they’ll break in the heat, cold, or sand. I’ve got my lancet device for pricking my finger and testing my sugars. I carry about five times the amount of insulin I would regularly need as over multi-day runs, insulin sensitivity increases.” Roger uses an insulin pump, but also carries an insulin-injection pen as a back-up.
During the 4 Deserts Grand Slam, it wasn’t all Type 1 rainbows and butterflies. Roger managed a few critical insulin spikes and crashes. “On the third day in the Atacama, I took a reading and my blood sugar was 450. In a normal person it should be 63-99. At that high a level, the body is sucking fluid out of internal organs and soft tissues to dilute blood sugar, with dehydration and impaired performance being immediate potential hazards. I took insulin and thought I’d come down from that high over the next couple hours of running.”
What happened next was unexpected and equally uncomfortable, “Half an hour later the cold sweat and lip tingle started to kick in and I checked my sugar again. It was 51 and falling. I bombed three gels and waited the 10 or 15 minutes for them to kick in. These moments are frustrating as it feels like they erase all the hard work I’ve put in to be self-reliant.” Non-diabetics can easily relate to the feeling (though probably not the situation’s gravity). Says Roger, “Technically it’s bonking, but it feels worse. Going hypoglycemic is a bottomless bonk.”
Roger finds a lot of parallels between his medical condition and his sport. “I recognize that there are some things I have to be on top of. But just about everyone doing ultras comes with a compelling purpose. Everyone has some kind of interesting story. It can be a medical issue, it can be a life issue, a work issue, it can be just their way of experiencing the world. I’m lucky to be out there.”
Roger’s running future is full. “Ultrarunning knows no boundaries. And even diabetes holds very little in the way of limitations once you get it dialed in. North Face 100k [in Australia], Big Red Run, Coast to Kosci, Racing The Planet Madagascar, Tor Des Geants. Anything and everything. I just want to be out there.”
The 5 Deserts?
I wish I could tell you that the five guys and gal of Team Born to Run have completed their shenanigan-ry and are having a nice, long rest. Because isn’t that what sane folks would do? Like any good fundraisers, they aren’t.
Team Born to Run is putting together (and then running as a team) the Big Red Run, which will take place for the first time in July. It’s a six-day, 250-kilometer stage race through Australia’s Simpson Desert. You can run it, too, if you’re dying for a jaunt in the Australian Outback. By the way, if you’re disinclined to days of torture, er, running adventures, you can also participate in the simultaneous Big Red Run 100k or Big Red Run Marathon.
Explains Greg about the Big Red Run’s invention, “Now that we’ve done other deserts, we want to create a similar event in our home country. We think Australians might want to do some of the things we’ve done and hopefully it will attract some people from around the world.” The Big Red Run is also a fundraising continuation for Team Born to Run. Says Greg, “As a fundraising event, we’re hoping folks who run will raise money for the JDRF, too.” Jess is excited about the race, “The Outback is so special; it epitomizes Australia.”
Team Born to Run is adding a member for their fifth desert. Greg’s son and Matt’s brother, Stephen, whose Type 1 diagnosis several years ago spurred the team’s birth and fundraising efforts, is joining the fray!
2013 looks good, and I suspect Team Born to Run is just getting started.