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Hot on the trail of a runner's dream
Victoria man gears up for just desert
Special to The Globe and Mail
VICTORIA -- Jeff Chand jogs back and forth across Moss Rock, a vantage offering a panorama of sea and mountains.
He trains six days a week, resting on Mondays, alternating sprints with hill climbs and long runs through the countryside. He is another of a legion of local athletes one can see preparing for marathons and triathlons.
Mr. Chand, 29, is an acupuncturist who has also studied the use of traditional Chinese herbal remedies. He has his own practice in the Victoria neighbourhood of Harris Green, where he specializes in sports injuries and chronic pain.
Good thing, too. He's about to race across the Sahara desert. On foot.
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He has entered his first ultra race, a competition lasting seven days and 250 kilometres, across a forbidding stretch of barren wasteland.
The days will be so hot he is likely to hallucinate, the nights so cold the runners share tents to stay warm.
As if the challenge were not daunting enough on its own, Mr. Chand readily admits to a lack of knowledge as to life amid dunes. The closest he has been to the Sahara is a hotel by that name in Las Vegas. (Not to mention The Dunes, The Sands and The Mirage.)
"I have no experience," he says. "I've only ever driven through the Mojave desert."
Mr. Chand is a neophyte in the brutal world of the RacingThePlanet series. Other Canadians have performed admirably in desert races, which is something of a surprise since many of us live in a winter wonderland for half the year.
Also known as the Four Deserts race, the series was created in 1996 by Mary Gadams. The Chicago-born athlete and entrepreneur -- who is now based in Hong Kong -- has ambitious plans for the series, which attracts an enviable demographic of professional go-getters. The idea of running across the planet's most inhospitable corners earned her early and valuable television coverage from the BBC and National Geographic. (Bloomberg Television is a current sponsor, as is Forbes.)
The desert ultra-marathons are held each year in the Gobi, the Sahara and the Atacama Crossing in Chile. A fourth invitational event is held in Antarctica in January.
Mr. Chand's training has been arduous. Coach Mike Suminski has had him running up and down 10 hilly streets separating the Fairfield district from its tony Rickland neighbour. He also runs the Lochside Regional Trail and the Galloping Goose trail.
In late October, as he makes his way across the Sahara in shorts, a 12-kilogram pack on his back, his friends back home will be wearing slickers and carrying umbrellas.
The furnace-blast heat of the desert floor, as high as 50 C, is what he fears most.
He learned about the race when a friend sent him a link to the website.
"After I read it, I couldn't go to sleep. I kept getting up in the middle of the night and checking it. After a while, the idea of running across the Sahara didn't seem as crazy as it actually is."
Mr. Chand has finished only two marathons in his running life. Six years ago, he completed the Royal Victoria Marathon in 4 hours, 33 minutes and 33 seconds. He saw some 1,778 pairs of heels cross the finish line ahead of him.
He has paid more than $3,000 for the privilege of taking on a desert.
His wife will join him in Egypt as a race volunteer, a role that also falls to any competitor forced to drop out because of injury or exhaustion.
Mr. Chand, who is accepting charitable pledges on behalf of Doctors Without Borders, said he decided to enter the race as a mental and physical challenge.
"We do what's in our comfort zone," he said. "We just do what we're comfortable with again and again."
There will be little comfort on the dunes, where he will cook his own dehydrated food each night. No dessert, just desert.
His daybook has been packed in the past year since the acupuncturist moved his practice to a new site. In the past month alone, his schedule has read something like this:
Aug. 12: Marry long-time sweetheart.
Aug. 15: Celebrate 29th birthday.
Oct. 29: Run across Sahara.
If all goes well, Mr. Chand will cross the finish line at the foot of the pyramids at Giza seven days later.