“Every single one of us possesses the strength to attempt something he isn’t sure he can accomplish.” Scott Jurek
I’m Brendan Funk and on November 28th, 2016 I became the youngest person ever to complete a series of ultra-races known as the “4 Desert Grand Slam.”
The “slam” consists of four 155 mile races across 4 different deserts: the Namib, the Gobi, the Atacama, and the Antarctic. Each race requires four consecutive marathon distance days, a 50 mile day, a rest day, and finally a “fun run.”
Competitors are required to carry somewhere between 16-30 pounds of supplies in their backpacks: Food, sleeping materials, tools, and extra clothes were carefully analyzed for weight and usefulness before being chosen to be carried inside backpacks. For one week, this backpack is life. Everything required to survive except for a tent and water, which is graciously provided.
Completing one of these races is a stout challenge for an experienced runner. I was not experienced or a runner. In fact, I hated running. And yet, for some reason, I completed four in one year.
To understand why I hated running, you have to understand that mine was a pain that traveled with me from my days in high school track. During my freshman year I dropped out of football, wasn’t good enough for the basketball, and attempted track as my last resort.
I began the year as a sprinter and after a few weeks began feeling some pain in my left knee. I told my coach and he gave me the option to switch to a sport with less running: pole vault. Unfortunately, I was terrible. I had no body control, no speed to build up to, and the work ethic of a poodle. On top of that, every step felt like someone was ripping and tearing at the ligaments underneath my kneecap.
So I quit. I quit all sports. I was lucky and young and had the high metabolism to stave off weight gain, but over the next 6 years I drifted away from anything more competitive than Scrabble and more taxing than studying. I would occasionally attempt to work-out again, and within a week, the pain would come stomping back into my knees with a vengeance. I decided that sports weren’t in the cards for me.
One day, as I struggled to stay awake during another night shift at my job as a security guard, I pulled out Netflix and began watching a movie entitled Desert Runners. The film—which is a great watch for anyone interested in learning more—follows a group of runners through their training and struggles in preparing for and racing across dunes, through sandstorms, and beside icebergs. An arguably unwise and abrupt idea began pecking at my mind, I should do this, I thought.
Two days later, in July 2015, I sent out a message to the President of the 4 Deserts Race Series. The conversation was exceptionally naive on my part.
“Hello, I will be 21 years old next year, if I complete the grand slam, will I be the youngest to ever complete the series in a year?”
Then and there my dream was born. Somehow, the lifelong knee pain seemed to escape my notice as I laid out the first down-payment on the race. Only after paying did I began to panic.
I went out for my first run and realized my mistake. Three miles and I was huffing and hurting and feeling ridiculous. But I had made that payment and it was only partially refundable, so I continued.
I went to a physical therapist and received exercises to help with my knee. I picked up yoga for stretching and completely altered my schedule around running. I met with coaches and spent hours online searching for the best gear, the best clothes, the best training advice, all while relegating the rest of my life to second place. By late December, I felt healthy and strong and ready to go for my first marathon which was to take place on January 9, 2016—my birthday.
The marathon was a disaster, I was unprepared. And the kicker was that I only had five more months until the first race. I trained harder. My gear came in and I tested and tweaked as much as I could, but I was quickly running out of money. I would be broke by the end of the year, but that didn’t matter to me. I knew that getting a job would interrupt my training, so I decided to live frugally and buy cheaply where I could. Finally, when I had completed everything I thought I could I realized that the time had come for my first race to begin.
Before touching down in Walvis Bay, Namibia I looked out of my window and saw only tall sand dunes kissing the coast for miles until stretching out of sight. A taxi took me from the small, 2-room airport and toward the hotel where I would meet my competitors for the week. The hotel was buzzing with the sounds of Chinese, French, Spanish, German, English, and a few others as I introduced myself and met my roommate. A few meetings, a dinner, and a gear check later and we were off to the desolate north.
The date was April 30, the time was 5 pm, the sun was setting and the wind was cold. I woke up the next day to the same cold weather, put on my 22-pound pack and my running shoes, and began the race moving slowly north.
Day after day I ate, slept, and breathed running. Every movement was forward or in recovery. Eating was not for pleasure, but necessity. My legs spasmed and my body began rejecting food. Finally, on the last day on a cold morning I limped across the finish line. I was happy to have completed the first race, but my mentality didn’t change. I had to recover, because the next race was only five weeks away.
In the Gobi I fought 128 degree heat and sandstorms. The Atacama was a layered with tough, mountainous climbs and the emotions to match as I felt the journey coming to a close as the sunset dipped behind the Valley of the Moon. The Antarctic—complete with jumping Orcas, penguins, and a snowy wedding ceremony—allowed me the opportunity to reflect and breathe in peace.
I had hated running…but not anymore.
For more information:
Brendan Funk’s Website: http://www.brendanfunk.com
4 Deserts website: http://www.4deserts.com/