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March 24, 2010

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Marathon man heads to Morocco

MARATHON runner Jerome Colson is off to Morocco for what is billed as the world's toughest foot race - a six-day ultra-marathon in the blazing desert. Nancy Zhang asks him why he does it.

For most people completing one marathon would be a major achievement of the year, if not their lifetime. But for Belgian expat Jerome Colson, running marathons has become commonplace - so commonplace, in fact, that they have become simply practice in the run-up to the biggest challenge of his life.

In early April, Colson will undertake the Marathon Des Sables, a six-day, 252-kilometer race through the south Moroccan Desert. Widely known as an ultra-marathon, it covers the distance of six ordinary 42-kilometer marathons through the desert and is touted as the toughest foot race on Earth. Runners carry all their gear and food.

"It may be crazy but when you really get into running, you just want to do the next challenge, something more difficult or faster. It's just to see how far you can push your body and state of mind," says Colson.

The discipline of running reflects Colson's sense of focus and dedication. "Whatever I do I like to reach the goal, go for it all the way."

Colson arrived in Shanghai three years ago as the assistant food and beverage manager at the Portman Ritz-Carlton. He started running four years ago with a group of six friends in Belgium.

Charity run

Starting with just half an hour a few times a week, the friends built their fitness up to marathon levels. In 2008, with Colson stationed in China, the group named Accrorun decided to run the marathon of the Great Wall of China.

To give their runs more meaning, each marathon raises money for a cause close to their hearts. They raised 30,000 euros (US$40,670) in the Great Wall marathon for the cancer-stricken nephew of one of the runners. With the proceeds they built a playground in the child's hospital.

With the next run in the south Moroccan Desert, they hope to raise money for another runner's family friend who has rheumatoid arthritis. They hope to raise 15,000 euros to build gyms for two hospitals in Belgium that help with physical rehabilitation of arthritis sufferers.

"We like to focus on someone we know or are close to so that we know exactly where the money goes," says Colson.

To prepare for the challenge of a lifetime, Colson is running a series of marathons in Asia as simply "practice." He ran a 50km race in Singapore last October, followed by another marathon in Hong Kong last November, and another 30km race this January.

"I like to do two to three marathons a year so that I'm training all year long," he says.

In an ordinary week he runs 40-80km, and 25-35km on weekends. This means getting up at 5am to run five days a week for an hour each day, and three to four hours a day on the weekends, and running through vacations. He has researched his own strict training program.

In the Marathon Des Sables, Colson will be running with a backpack containing his tent, food and all other equipment needed to survive for six days in the desert. He will take dried food, energy powder and a small cooker. Making tough decisions between weight and comfort at night, Colson has managed to get his backpack down to 8.7 kilograms.

In the full year's preparation for the race, the support of his family has been invaluable. In addition to running, Colson is devoted to his work and his family - his wife Trine, and two young daughters, Erin and Thea. They have had to put up with the long hours he spends researching training programs, and absent hours every day for training.

"It is difficult for them and I love them for supporting me in achieving my goal. I will be running with a picture of the three of them in my front pack," says the devoted father.

He recommends running a marathon to all runners for the sense of camaraderie, the fun and sense of accomplishment upon crossing the finishing line. According to Colson, achieving your dreams is just a matter of how much you invest in it every day.

"Everyone can do it, and the memories of the marathon alone are worth it, even without any other reward. You will remember it for the rest of your life."

Jerome Colson

Nationality: Belgian

Age: 34

Profession: Executive assistant manager of food and beverage at The Portman Ritz-Carlton Shanghai


Self-description: Dedicated (to my job), determined (with my running), and devoted (to my family).

Favorite place: Along Suzhou Creek at 6am when the sun rises.

Perfect weekend: Get the day off on Sunday. Wake up at 5am for a three-hour run, come home for breakfast with my wife and two daughters, then play with them on the bouncy castle and in the pool. Followed by lunch with family and friends, a massage or a pedicure while the kids are napping in the afternoon, and a walk on Nanjing Road W. In the evening Skype with family in Europe, a good home-cooked meal followed by an early night.

Worst experience: Having to use a toilet in the early morning in a small street of an old town.

How to improve Shanghai: Reduce traffic. Make the city more pedestrian-friendly and increase green areas such as parks, flowers and trees.

Advice to newcomers: Check out Shanghai streets at 5am - there are very few people, no cars, little noise and a surprise around every corner.


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