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CEO Matt Chapman Conquers the Desert in Madagascar

On Saturday, 13 September Matt Chapman completed a seven day 250km ultra-marathon across the desert in Madagascar. This physical and mental challenge pushed the ChapmanCG CEO to his limits.

Laura Cook, our Communications Manager, interviewed Matt after the race.

Congratulations — you made it! How did you feel when you crossed the finish line?

Thanks a lot! I was thrilled to complete the 250km run in Madagascar. Although this was my sixth ultra-marathon, I hadn’t done one for five years. Additionally, I really didn’t have time to train much at all, beforehand. The odds were stacked against me as to whether I would be fit or resilient enough to complete it. I felt a huge sense of accomplishment (and luck) to make it to the finish line. This race was the sweetest victory of all.

Were there any moments when you thought you might not finish? If so, can you tell us about them and how/why you kept yourself going?

Yes – so many. The first day went OK, but from the second day onwards I developed bad blisters. These worried me, and I felt that if they continued to get worse, I might be out of the race. Thankfully they didn’t get too bad, although they did make the journey quite painful. The culprit was many river crossings and a track surface that often involved sand and dirt. These, when mixed together, produced a sandpaper-like effect in my shoes! Each day I would tell myself to just do my best, and go as far as I could. I was willing to withdraw if I had to – I guess I didn’t place too much pressure on myself, and took each kilometer as it came. This was a great lesson: think about the now and the future solves itself. We had also recently set up The Tommy Lim Initiative, and I was determined to keep moving in order to maximise donations for the charity! I am very excited with not only the potential of this charity, but also by the thousands of physically disabled people in Singapore that it will ultimately help.

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You have run ultras before — were there any surprises about this one?

The course wasn’t as tough as Gobi, Sahara, Antarctica, Atacama or Namibia, in terms of climbs or obstacles, although the distance was the same. But as I said earlier, I was under trained. This was potentially the biggest problem; however, in the end I made it through. The weather was hot – some days were 40C. I also didn’t sleep well, averaging three hours per night, so I ended up very sleep deprived throughout the event. I was also quite surprised, for someone who is generally quite organised in life, that I was very disorganised in the desert. I lost many items of kit along the way from being forgetful – it became a joke amongst my tent mates. I was happy that I kept a very positive mental attitude through the race. I also tuned out the outside world and concentrated on my surroundings – this mindfulness helped get me through, I think.

What was the most challenging aspect of the run for you?

The long run on day five – they call it “the long march” – was 76km. I started this stage at 8am and finished at midnight. It was a test of mental and physical stamina. I had doubts as to whether I would complete it, but by 50km in I thought “it will be ok” but the pain did get extremely bad. The last 26km was down a dead straight sand track, and it was dark and I was very tired. I was lucky to complete this final stretch with a fellow competitor who had a witty sense of humor, and I spent most of this final stretch snorting with laughter (which distracted me from the pain). When I got to the finish line, on this long day, I fell asleep outside my tent, before I could even get inside.

What did you most want to do immediately after finishing?

I ate a lot of food! A week of ultra-running produces a weight loss of 5kg for me, simply because I could not carry enough calories with me. I indulged in all of my favourite foods, and I think I have rapidly put back on that 5kg. It was a gift to be able to have a shower in my hotel to wash off all the desert grit. The hygiene along the course was terrible. I felt a huge sense of relief to be clean again. The deprivation aspect of not being able to eat properly, or change your clothes, and living in a dirty camp, does get to you after about day three, and is an understated part of doing these races.

I know you pared down your food to make your pack lighter — was that a good decision, and did you have enough fuel to keep you going?

I was delighted with my 7kg pack. It was one of the lighter packs of the 200 plus field. A lighter pack is less impact on your feet. I didn’t feel any ill effects of the pack, which was very surprising, as I hadn’t had a chance to train with it. To keep my weight down I kept my diet to a mere 2,000 calories per day. This was perfect, and while I didn’t have a surplus of food, I didn’t skimp either. My diet had very few sugary things in it, as I prefer savoury food items when I am exercising. I didn’t take anything in the way of luxuries, and didn’t even have a sleeping mat to sleep on – I slept on the ground in my sleeping bag.

How many competitors finished? Were you happy with your placement?

Around 45 competitors of 230 had to drop out, leaving 185 people who completed the event. I finished in the middle at 90th position. I wasn’t after a high placing, but I was pleasantly surprised with finishing mid-field, given my relative lack of fitness. Previously I have been a top ten finisher in four of the events, but to achieve that requires discipline. I was happy I just launched on in and did the event, irrespective of my demanding business and personal commitments. There is never a perfect time, and I decided to seize the moment.

Was there a continuous sense of camaraderie between competitors, or was it more of a feeling of individuals competing?

Meeting interesting and highly motivated people is a key reason I enjoyed this (and other) races. The field can loosely be divided into two types of competitors. Firstly, there are those who are serious athletes who do many of these races and who want to win. Secondly, there are those who are reasonably fit but don’t train too much, perhaps like me. Competitors were from all walks of life, ranging from time-poor CEO’s of big companies, to mums and dads who had saved up hard to compete in the race.

Were you happy with the equipment that you brought? Anything you would include or do differently for your next ultra-marathon, if there is one?

I was generally happy with my packing. There are several things I would change if I ever did another ultra. I wore a black shirt to run in, and this was hot. Next time I would choose a lighter colour, so it isn’t so hot and doesn’t show up the salt stains (you sweat a lot). I would get shoes one size bigger than I got, as my feet swelled and I didn’t have enough room. I took two pairs of socks, and with the dirt on the course, they became like cardboard, so I would take perhaps another two pairs. I would take an inflatable pillow, as the lack of a pillow caused a restless sleep. I would still go without my sleeping mat, even though the ground seems particularly hard on night one or two! My diet was fine and no changes there. I may have taken an iPhone for music, photography and some reading material, as I went phone-less. It was a real test to be off technology for a week. I would take zinc cream for my nose, as the sun was intense, and more wet wipes, for hygiene.

I know you said you wanted to slow it down after this, but do you think you will ever run another ultra?

Part of me says yes, and part thinks no. What really stood out to me was how much I enjoyed being in wild nature and exploring the Madagascan countryside. I also loved getting to know the other competitors. Without technology or distractions, you really have to interact with others – there is no hiding. It also felt good pushing myself and testing
my limits. It is, however, a big time investment to take yourself out of normal life and go away to do these things. I am not signing up for anything else yet, and I am focused on bedding down my existing projects before signing up for anymore physical challenges.

What lessons will you carry forward from the race to apply to your everyday life from now on? Did you learn anything new about yourself?

This was an excellent time in my life to attack a major physical challenge. I needed to hop out of “the bubble.” I reminded myself that I can push my limits, and it’s important not to over-worry about things you can’t predict. I really appreciated the support of so many friends, colleagues and family, as events like this tend to rally people around you. I reinstated to myself the need to remain positive and optimistic. I think it’s also vital not to be complacent and just accept a certain level of accomplishment and success, but at the same time not to unrelentingly or unsustainably push oneself.

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