22 year olds to run 250km at the Sahara Desert – to raise funds for mental health awareness

They are all only 22 years old.

But age is no barrier to Jon Tan, Stephen Hwang, Jonathan See and Nicholas Eu, who are all Year 4 medical students from the Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine, the National University of Singapore. They will be taking part in a 7-day multi-stage 250km Sahara Desert Race in Namibia, which takes place from 1 to 7 May this year.

Come May, these 4 NUS Medical students will be running 250km at the Sahara Desert Race. [Photo courtesy of Mental Muscle]

Come May, these 4 NUS Medical students will be running 250km at the Sahara Desert Race.
[Photo courtesy of Mental Muscle]

And considering that most of the quartet did not really come from a running background prior to beginning their training for the Sahara Desert Race, they had a lot to catch up on, in terms of running and learning.

Said Jon, “We had done the SMU adventure race and the Safra adventure run, so our experience was more in terms of adventure races rather than actual running. Nicholas had done some marathons though, but that was about it, for our running experiences.”

Running to raise funds for mental health awareness

The Sahara Desert Race is part of the 4 Deserts series – which also includes the Gobi March in China, the Atacama Crossing in South America and the Last Desert in Antarctica, and the quartet, who are collectively known as Mental Muscle, will be taking part in the race not for personal glory, but for a good cause – to raise funds for mental health awareness.

The Sahara Desert Race in Namibia is part of the 4 Deserts series. [Photo courtesy of www.4deserts.com]

The Sahara Desert Race in Namibia is part of the 4 Deserts series.
[Photo courtesy of www.4deserts.com]

Said Jon, “We had started thinking about this race last August but we dared to register only when we had decided on what cause we were going to advocate. We didn’t want to go in blind – but after deciding on our cause, though it became a lot easier to put our names down for the race.”

Added Stephen, “After that, it was 100 per cent commitment to this cause for us, no matter what.”

Their parents did not approve at first

Their parents took a much longer time to be convinced though. Said Nicholas “For my parents, their initial reaction was no. They refused to let me take part at first, and I had to convince them that what I wanted to do was safe and that I would be able to take care of myself.”

Added Stephen, “But once our parents saw how badly we wanted to do this, they were convinced. Now they see us training and sacrificing a lot of other things and are starting to see the value in what we are doing, as well.”

But training for the race has not been easy though. Said Jon, “Training for this race requires a lot of discipline and perseverance and hard work. It may be tough working under stress and tight deadlines but it’s all about good time management.”

Training for the race requires plenty of discipline and hard work. [Photo courtesy of Mental Muscle]

Training for the race requires plenty of discipline and hard work.
[Photo courtesy of Mental Muscle]

He continued, “For instance, since committing myself to the Mental Muscle cause, I have stopped gaming and really, it is at the point where we are studying, waiting for the MRT train, posting Instagram photos and updating Facebook on the journey home, or catching up on sleep. There’s no time for much else.”

Have been doing a lot of running with a load

To train themselves for the 250km race ahead, the quartet has been doing plenty of running. Said Nicholas, “We have been running a lot. Initially we started running at MacRitchie Reservoir but now due to team project meetings, we usually meet at each other’s house and run through the park connectors, for about 20km to 30km to save some time.”

But simply running is not the hardest part – especially when you are required to carry a load at the same time. Added Jon, “As we will be running with a pack during the race, we have also been training with backpacks of about 9kg to 10kg. Initially it was hard to run with a heavy pack and we would wake up with backache the next morning. But now it has been getting better and we’re still able to run again the next day.”

Their longest back to back training runs so far, have been 20km one evening followed by another 20km the following afternoon.

Training under the midday sun will help them acclimatise to the heat at the Sahara. [Photo courtesy of Mental Muscle]

Training under the midday sun will help the quartet to acclimatise to the heat at the Sahara.
[Photo courtesy of Mental Muscle]

Due to their school commitments, the quartet have also recently been able to train in the afternoon – which will help them to get used to the heat that they will be facing in the Sahara Desert.  But the runs under Singapore’s searing heat, has been very tough going for them.

Said Jon, “Initially we could only run after school and at nights, but these days we have more free time so we can do more long runs in the afternoon, which we will need to do, to acclimatise to the heat at the Sahara Desert. We do about 20km to 30km at midday and walk for another 10km to cover greater distance, so that we can mimic the actual race conditions as much as possible.”

Added Stephen, “And the other day, we wore a long sleeved thermal when running under the hot noon sun… and it was a new experience. It felt like a sauna, literally. We ran 20km but it felt significantly more tiring than that.”

He continued, “But of course though, running in the heat with our packs, has been much easier now, than when we had first started.”

Have been fortunate to not have sustained serious injuries

They have been lucky in terms of injuries. [Photo courtesy of Mental Muscle]

They have been lucky in terms of injuries.
[Photo courtesy of Mental Muscle]

But Jon added that whenever the quartet increase the distance or add load, then their training becomes tougher. He explained, “We have found that it is important for us to regulate sleep and remain injury free. So far we have been lucky – we haven’t had any serious injuries; just the minor tears and strains, ITB pains and shin splints, but nothing that has kept us out for extended periods of time.”

Added Nicholas, “We try to step it down whenever we get injuries and we have a general rule of thumb – the pain should not be more than the previous training session, and not getting to the point where it feels worse.”

A training plan for the race, given to them by the 2013 South East Asian Games Marathon gold medallist, Mok Ying Ren, has helped to guide the training of the four students, though.

Said Jon, “We are really grateful to him for that – his short training plan was really useful, especially in the initial stages of our training.”

Running for a good cause has kept them motivated

However, their good cause, of running to raise funds for mental health awareness, has kept them motivated and on their toes whenever the going gets tough for them.

The quartet started thinking about the race last August. [Photo courtesy of Mental Muscle]

The quartet will be running to raise funds for mental health awareness.
[Photo courtesy of Mental Muscle]

Said Nicholas, “We initially had apprehensions about people with mental problems prior to our psychiatric posting during our studies. We thought they would be crazy and dishevelled. But after meeting them, we have come to realise that they are normal people; they can be uni students or housewives and they have family members and friends, just like you and me. This really struck a chord with us and we began to realise that mental patients should be treated like anyone else with an illness, and not to be shunned because of their illness.”

Added Jon, “The misconceptions that many people have about those with mental illnesses are gleaned from the movies, which usually paint them in an unrealistic light. People often think that those with mental illnesses are violent and are crazy. For instance when you tell people that you have depression, they will tell you to just snap out of it.”

He continued, “But depression is an illness that requires treatment and support like many other diseases. On the other hand, if you tell people that you have cancer, they will be very sympathetic and they will feel sorry for you. So we need to change the public’s mindset about mental illnesses and get people to feel more empathy towards this group of individuals.”

Fund raising has proved to be the biggest learning curve for them

And it is all of this fund raising, that have proved to be the biggest learning curve for the four medical students.

Fund raising has proven to be the biggest learning curve for the four NUS students. [Photo courtesy of Mental Muscle]

Fund raising has proven to be the biggest learning curve for the four NUS students.
[Photo courtesy of Mental Muscle]

Said Nicholas, “The running part is actually a small part of the project. I think a lot of people think this is all about running but it’s actually 80 per cent admin and media publicity – to create awareness of our cause, we really need to reach out to our sponsors and beneficiaries. This is the biggest step so far for all of us.”

Added Jon, “Getting people to know more about the cause, writing emails and talking to them about it, has really made me step out of my comfort zone. I had to learn quickly, in order to express myself through business emails.”

But their efforts have paid off so far though. To date, the group have raised about $15,000. Their target is to reach $50,000 before they run the race.

Sponsors such as Pocari Sweat Singapore have helped the quartet. [Photo courtesy of Mental Muscle]

Sponsors such as Pocari Sweat Singapore have helped the quartet.
[Photo courtesy of Mental Muscle]

Some of the donations have been courtesy of their sponsors, who have helped out with cash donations, as well as in kind –  such as Garmin GPS equipment, 2XU tights, ASICS shoes and Sworke sunglasses and Pocari Sweat hydration.

Said Jon, “100 per cent of these funds will go to the beneficiaries. We will not use any of these funds for training purposes and equipment.”

To find out more about the runners’ cause, head down to their website at www.mentalmuscle.org

And to donate to their cause, go to Tinyurl.com/donatementalmuscle

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