When American Scott Baldridge was forced to withdraw on the long stage of last year’s Sahara Race (Namibia), the Austin police officer knew he we would be back to finish what he started. Baldridge has indeed returned to compete in this year’s Sahara Race (Namibia), but adding to his challenge is his plan to attempt the 4 Deserts Grand Slam -- completing the Sahara Race, the Gobi March, the Atacama Crossing and the Last Desert all within the same calendar year.
It’s a feat that fewer than 100 people have completed -- and an opportunity that only comes around once every other year given that the Last Desert in Antarctica is only held every two years.
“I have a tendency to go all out when I decide to do things,” Baldridge said. “I figured a great way to prove to myself that I can run a 250-km race in the desert is to run four of them in a year. Plus, ever since my first trip, I have loved to travel around the world. This would be a great way to see places that I would not be able to check out without these races.”
Baldridge is among several competitors who have signed up for this year’s Grand Slam. Sahara Race (Namibia) 2018 competitors attempting the Grand Slam so far also include: Australian Jacqui Bell; Hongseok Choi, Cheongshin Heogwak and Dong Hyeon Yoo of South Korea; Israel’s Sam Itah; Qatar-based Frenchman Hichame Moubarak; triple Guinness World Record holder Fiona Oakes; Poland’s Marek Rybiec; Belgian Bart Van Schilt; Japanese competitor Takuya Wakaoka; Malaysian William Chew Chee Ling and from Hong Kong, Edward Chan Chung Yin and Wong Ho Chung.
Born in Guangzhou in Mainland China, Wong grew up in Hong Kong. A fireman, who then became a physical fitness instructor for the fire department, Wonog began running competitively in 2011 and within two years, he had become a force on Hong Kong’s competitive trail running scene. With a number of local and regional race victories under his belt, Wong is not only attempting the Grand Slam, but is a contender to be this year’s series champion.
The competitors attempting the Grand Slam are diverse and each has a fascinating story. Bell, for example, is just 23 and the Brisbane native not only has the Grand Slam on her mind, but a record-breaking attempt as well. Bell is hoping to be the youngest female ever to complete the Grand Slam and her enthusiasm for the 4 Deserts Series is infectious.
“Running brings purpose and meaning in my life,” Bell said. It makes me want to jump out of bed every morning and be the best version of myself.”
Adding to Bell’s physical challenge is her commitment to raising $20,000 for the White Cloud Foundation, a cause that is very personal to her. “I personally have suffered from mental health issues and running has had a huge impact in helping me come out on the other side of it,” Bell said.
Attempting the Grand Slam is a special challenge -- and an amazing opportunity. Jax Mariash is the first woman to complete the Grand Slam Plus (the complete 4 Deserts Series and the RacingThePlanet Ultramarathon all within a single calendar year) and was 2016’s 4 Deserts female champion. Asked whether or not she had the opportunity to enjoy the races as she powered through five 250-km races in a single year, Mariash replied:
“Believe it or not, more than you think,” Mariash said. “It is important to keep telling yourself to look around. The terrain we are on is terrain that less than 1% of the people in the world will see. We are so lucky to see these sights and step in the terrain that we have. In many cases we have been gifted to run in terrain that usually people cannot go by foot, so this is really special. It is an amazing opportunity.”
As for encouraging others to join him on his Grand Slam attempt, Baldridge just encourages people to take the first step and sign up. “The cut-off times are very generous. You do not have to be an elite runner to do these - you just have to get into the right mindset. Once you do that, just start running.”