Sunday, July 21

Sarawak’s Ultraman takes it all in his stride


SHANNON Francis Lee has a different way of realising his inner potential.

While some may choose to excel in music and others in art, the 41-year-old opted to pursue something uncommon in Sarawak — ultra-running.

He now claims bragging rights to being the first Sarawakian to complete a 200km run in his sport. He finished third in the Titi Ultra Hulu Langat, Selangor 2017 over that distance on March 19 this year.

Ultra-running or ultra-marathon is distance running which exceeds the typical marathon distance of 42.195km (26.2 miles). It can range from 50km to 250km, 12 hours to 24 hours endurance running or even multi-stage races. Ultra-running requires participants to be self-sufficient (carrying their own hydration and food source) and disciplined.

It is not for the faint-hearted, but for those willing to test their physical and mental limits.

Shannon recalled sports was never his forte in school.

“Don’t get me wrong — I do like sports. But no matter what sports I tried before, I was never really good at anyone of them,” he confessed.

He remembered it was very hard for him to take up running, and as he described it, his first run over 5km back in June 2012 felt like  torture.

“But as months progressed, I picked up the interest or the Runner’s High as long distance runners call it. I started by running 10km, then 21km — and 42km.

“Each time I ran a half or full marathon, I would be asking myself — why torture yourself? Can’t you just sleep in during weekends? Or as they say in Hokkien, lang ho ho cho mik ai ki cho bo eng (why bother yourself unnecessarily when you are fine as you are).

“But I soon realised there was a certain hunger in me to push and challenge myself — to be more than what I could be. I started off with three full marathons in 2013, followed by 11 more the following year. By 2015, I had already done 26 full marathons. It was like flying almost everywhere with either my family or my friends,” he said.

Shannon started participating in ultra-runs in Hong Kong, Singapore, Phuket, Gold Coast, Edinburgh, Paris, Orlando and Japan. His family were especially thrilled as they got to go on holidays while he went for his runs. And for the fun of it, he sometimes ran in superhero costumes — Spiderman, Batman, Ultraman, you name it!

He said the spectators were very excited to see the runners in such extraordinary coutumes, especially in Japan.

Hungry for more

Despite all these outings, Shannon was still hungry for more and wanted to test his limits further. In 2014, he signed up for his ultra-marathon debut in the Penang Ultra 50km.

Although the route (50km) was just 7km longer than a full marathon, he discovered that the concept was totally different as runners had to carry their own water (hydration) and food (energy bars or gels).

“There are no road closures, unlike marathons. So we have to be very attentive and observant. At night, reflective vests and head lamps are mandatory for motorists to see you and for you to look at course markers.

“To me, this was a totally new ball game. I ran in an Ultraman costume as a personal tribute for being an ultra-runner. It took me six hours 20 mins to complete the run. The feeling was different from completing a full marathon — it’s addictive.”

The desire to push the envelop led him to join the 78km Putrajaya Ultra — from 10pm to 1pm the next day.

He said this particular run taught him more than he could have imagined. Apart from learning how to prepare for the event, he also found ultra-runners to be chummy and helpful.

“I met new ultra-running friends all over Malaysia. The community and network is amazing. Everyone is willing to share his or her experience and knowledge. I guess that’s what happens when you run more than 10 hours together.”

Turning point

On his 40th birthday in March last year, Shannon decided to do something he would have considered crazy back in 2012 — running the 100km ultra race or Titi100.

He said the Titi100 was the turning point in his life as it gave him plenty of time to think about life, his family and God.

“When you spend 18 hours running on the road, either by yourself or with someone, you realise that faith, determination, perseverance and strategy are what you need to get you through. It may be a lonely journey but you are never alone. There is always God, regardless of what religion or faith you may have.

“It taught me we are just human and whatever we have and want can be taken and given away at the snap of a finger. In short, it taught me humility. No matter how bad things may seem, there is always a rainbow in the end. We just have to leave the negatives and look forward positively.”

Shannon is among a handful of Sarawakian runners to have completed the 100km ultra. Although it was a personal achievement, he knew he could go further and started signing up for more ultra-road races such as the Langkawi 100km Ultra and the Penang 100km Ultra.

It was during one of these races that he learned from the other runners there were more than just the road ultras — like the trail ultras (running and hiking over trails), for instance, where participants get to connect with nature.

“It differs from road running as it generally takes place along hiking trails, often on mountainous terrain where the ascents and descents can be much larger.

“Some of the most popular local trails are known as The Most Beautiful Thing (TMBT) in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Cameron Ultra (Cultra) in Perak and Penang Eco Challenge. These courses are recognised by the International Trail Running Association (ITRA). On completing these runs, you will be able to accumulate ITRA points to qualify the Ultra Trail Mount

Fuji (UTMF) and the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc (UTMB), both of which are considered the Holy Grail of ultra-trail running,” he explained.

A surprise

For his first ultra-trail race in 2016, he chose TMBT, indisputably the toughest trail race in Malaysia. He surprised himself and the other runners by completing the 100km course in below 24hours (30 hours cut-off).

“In doing that, I knew my body could endure a challenge of one day. The next logical thing would be to see how my body handles 30 hours. One month later, I signed up for Putrajaya 100 miles (160km). Although it was the third edition, there was zero finisher prior to this.

“So for me to even complete this race would be an achievement. And thankfully, I managed to do it in 28 hours 19 mins for fourth position overall.

I was the first Sarawakian to cover 100 miles in a race — based on Mura (Malaysian Ultra Running Association) records,” he said.

Shannon passed a new milestone for Sarawak and himself by finishing third in the 200km Titi Ultra in Hulu Langat, Selangor, from March 17-19 this year.

“It’s like running from Kuching to Sematan and back. The biggest struggle for me was sleep deprivation. But I managed to overcome that with 30-minute power naps. Just like in life, knowing when to stop and rest is important.”

He said throughout the run, there were challenges — either the 37 degrees centigrade heat, the thunderstorms at night, the multiple elevation climb or even tummy discomfort. However, he pointed out that “if we put our body, mind and spirit into whatever we do, we can succeed”.

He said it was a great honour to be lifting the Sarawak flag as he ran to the finishing line in the 200m Titi Ultra.

“I’m proud to be a Sarawakian and will continue to make Sarawak proud. Maybe Malaysia too one day.”

According to Mura records, Shannon is the first Sarawakian to complete 200km in a single race.

So what’s next? Will Sarawak’s Ultraman stop at 200km?

Shannon said the UTMF and UTMB are beckoning, and with God’s grace, he hopes to do it in this lifetime.

He is quick to acknowledge that his ultra-running achievements would not have been possible without the support and prayers from my loving family and friends.