Facing 50, Singapore-based banker Munir Nanji embarked on a gruelling 250km race to raise money for youths in Kenya. He tells Options how meticulous planning and ancient philosophies helped him push past his limits and how the experience changed him

(June 6): When staring down the barrel of a 50th birthday, most people start planning a big party or embark on a bucket list trip. Singapore expatriate Munir Nanji (main image) opted for a personal challenge instead. He signed up for a 250km multi-day race in New Zealand and in lieu of presents, canvassed friends and family to donate money to a charity in Kenya, his birthplace.

Nanji is a keen mountaineer and has summited Mont Blanc twice; the last time in 2016 with his daughter Serena

“I wanted to push myself to do something different and I wanted to give back,” says Nanji, who had never run long distance before, not even a 10km race. In early March, Nanji laced up his shoes, strapped on a backpack and embarked on Racing the Planet’s ultramarathon in New Zealand. The terrain was mountainous, the weather unusually cold. Participants had to carry all their food and gear, wade through rivers and sleep in tents.

Two-fifths of the 185 runners dropped out, most of them by the first or second day. Nanji, who trained for two months in between hectic travel in his role as managing director for multinational business Asia-Pacific at Citibank Singapore, crossed the finish line in 10th place, surprising not only himself but also people in the running community. He also raised US$18,150 ($24,850) for Educate!, a non-profit that equips African youth with the skills to obtain jobs or create their own businesses. That money is earmarked to help 136 youths across Kenya.

Nanji came back 6kg leaner and with a few black toenails. But in terms of headspace, he returned with a new appreciation for how the mind can drive one to new heights. “The race pushed my limits both physically and mentally beyond my imagination,” he says. He was fit and had trained doggedly for two months but that could not prepare him for the vagaries of the elements such as gusty winds, a day of relentless rain and freezing temperatures.

The first day of the race was such a shock to his system that he very nearly caved in. His 9kg backpack chafed his back, his feet were blistered despite being taped up and his digestive system was in distress from carbo-loading the day before and eating on the run. I’m not going to make it, he thought to himself, as he hauled his body up and down the South Island’s rugged topography.

However, he soon discovered that the human body has amazing resilience as well as the ability to recover very quickly. Returning to the campsite after each stage of the race, he would put up his battered feet, refuel on nutrition-dense food and drink and draw motivation from the esprit de corps of his tenacious fellow runners. “Many of them had very inspiring personal stories,” he says, noting that there were four participants in their 70s, a diabetic woman who had to run with insulin patches and a blind man, who ran with a friend. After a healing overnight sleep, Nanji would wake at dawn, revved up to tackle the next challenge.

Being immersed in one of the most stunning natural landscapes of the world also helped. Runners were flagged off at Nevis Valley near Wanaka and made their way through grassy plains, rocky turf, off-road segments and forest trails. They even had to wade through chilly rivers, but were rewarded with vistas of rolling farmland, cerulean lakes and ice-age glaciers. At every 10km, they had access to water, shade and medical attention. The race, which was organised by Hong Kong-based company Racing the Planet, ended near Queenstown.

The terrain was undulating and unforgiving but runners were rewarded with majestic views of New Zealand’s rugged landscape

Uphill strength

For the first four days, the competitors ran the equivalent of a standard marathon (42.195km). They had a 10-hour cut-off time. Temperatures soared to about 25°C during the day, but plunged to as low as 1°C at night. Despite what he thought was a rocky start, Nanji finished Day One in 16th place. Day Two was even harder, with lots of uphill trails. By Day Three, exhausted to the point of collapsing, he began asking himself: “Why am I doing this?”

Despite that, he was among the elite top 10 in the race, a feat for a newcomer. Nanji modestly attributes it to a dollop of luck. However, thorough planning and grit — plus the support of his wife Miwa, who doubled as his coach — also played a big part. Prior to the run, they had painstakingly researched optimal nutrition options and looked for the most lightweight equipment, from sleeping bag to shoes to waterproof clothing, measuring every item down to the last gram.

And despite being on a plane every other week for his job, Nanji found time to train regularly, working up from 5km inclined runs on a treadmill to sprints up Bukit Timah Hill and long runs spanning 25km to 40km around MacRitchie and Dairy Farm. Perversely, the city state’s hot and humid climate helped as it galvanised his body to work harder. When he found himself in other cities on work, he set aside a half day to clock up mileage outdoors, such as along the MacLehose Trail in Hong Kong.

What also helped Nanji was his innate cardiovascular strength, particularly up hills. He played a variety of sport growing up in Nairobi and had kept himself in robust shape through the years, playing squash and skiing with the family on holidays. But above all, he has a passion for mountaineering. “I like elevation. I like going uphill,” he says.

He has scaled Mount Kilimanjaro several times, which at 5,895m is the highest peak in Africa. He has also reached Camp 2 at Mount Everest, which lies 6,400m above sea level. He climbed Mount Kinabalu in a day (most people take two) and summited Europe’s loftiest peak Mont Blanc twice, most recently in 2016 with his daughter Serena, who is at university in the US. Nanji also has a son, currently working in New York.

Nanji with his wife Miwa, who was also his coach

Kintsugi and Rumi

What ultimately propelled Nanji to a strong finish was his mind. To improve his mental strength in the run-up to the race, he began meditating. The long hours of training also gave him a window to “reflect on the things you don’t normally reflect on” and he started delving into ancient philosophies that spoke to him. Chief among these was kintsugi, the Japanese art of repairing broken ceramics with lacquer mixed with gold, silver or platinum. The premise of kintsugi is that it is possible to give a new lease of life to things that are broken. Indeed, a thing becomes more precious because of its scars.

The words of Rumi, the 13th century Sufi mystic and Persian poet, also resonated with him. These include Rumi’s Three Gates of Speech, where he urges people to consider if their words are true, necessary and kind before speaking. Another of Rumi’s exhortations — Raise your words, not voice. It is rain that grows flowers, not thunder — underscores the power of patience, staying calm and pausing before reacting.

These timeless truisms helped him embrace brokenness and discover strengths he never knew he had. On Day Five, also known as the Long March, runners had to cover a staggering 80km. Worse, rain pelted down relentlessly for 12 hours and at one river crossing, the icy water was up to Nanji’s waist. The brutal weather prompted the organisers to change the course mid-race and Nanji ended up losing his way.

His reserves were at rock bottom and every part of his body hurt. “I was freezing cold. I was broken,” he says. Then he recalled kintsugi and how the cracks allow beautiful rays of light to enter. Pain and difficulty has its other side, he reminded himself. Instead of spiralling into despair, he stayed composed, focused on breathing, thought of his family and pushed on, slogging through an extra 15km before he found his way to the campsite. It was 10pm, he could barely stand and was so cold he had to be put in a bivouac bag to warm him up.

On the last day, he limped the last 10km to the finish line, with an injured knee ligament and the help of walking poles. His time of 39 hours 42 minutes put him in 10th place. “I was amazed at the result, as my goal was simply to complete the race,” he says. It was a race that both crushed him and changed him, and he learnt more about himself and what was important to him. He now prizes the compelling power of staying calm and being cognisant of words and actions.

He is also trying to incorporate more mindfulness into his daily life. “The most precious thing we can offer others is our presence,” he says. On top of that, there have been spillover benefits for his professional life. The level and detail of preparation needed for the ultramarathon has made him a better planner and better at visualisation, he reckons. But most of all, it has made him break through barriers both physical and mental. “You realise you can achieve so much more,” says Nanji. As Dean Karnazes, one of the greatest endurance runners of our time, aptly puts it, “The person crossing the finish line will be different than the one that was standing at the starting line.”

Sunita Sue Leng was an associate editor at The Edge Singapore

Explosion in endurance races

Racing the Planet, based in Hong Kong, organises endurance races in remote places across a variety of wilderness environments. All competitors must carry their own food, fluids and equipment for the race. Its 4 Deserts races — comprising the Atacama Crossing in Chile, Gobi March in China, Sahara Race in Egypt and Last Desert in Antarctica — are viewed as the leading ultramarathons in the world. These 250km races take place over seven days.

Ultra races have rocketed in popularity. In Hong Kong, for example, the number of multi-day footraces has shot up from six a decade ago to more than 60, The Guardian newspaper reports. Extreme races such as these tend to attract gritty masochists and older runners: The fastest-growing age groups are those between 45 and 65. That is probably because most people slow down with age but their capacity for endurance tends to increase. Another reason is that as more people complete marathons, runners look for more challenging races and more bragging rights.

This extreme sport is not without risks. A prevalent problem is dehydration. Another is gastrointestinal distress. As the body’s blood supply is channelled to the muscles in motion, less goes to the gut and food is digested less efficiently. This can trigger stomach cramps or nausea. The most dangerous of all is exercise-related hyponatremia, a severe salt deficiency and electrolyte imbalance.

Racing The Planet has had some high-profile casualties, including a death from heatstroke in the 2010 Gobi Desert race. In the 2011 Kimberley Ultramarathon in Australia, four people were burnt after being trapped in wildfire mid-race. In the Sahara race that same year, a runner suffered a hyponatremia-induced seizure and was left brain damaged.

Some studies show that the severity of ultra-endurance exercise might lead to structural and functional changes in the heart and blood vessels, electrical changes in the cardiac nerves and possible damage to the heart tissue. -- Sunita Sue Leng