The Shay Rebellion | Christopher Shay

What’s Your Workout: Extreme Racer Keeps Going Back for More

by Christopher Shay

The Exec

Shane Knowler has completed six seven-day, 250-kilometer desert races in some of the world’s most remote areas.

On his first race, through the Gobi Desert, he lost the trail, suddenly realizing that there were no footprints in the dirt in front of him. Then while scrambling up Namibia’s Fish River Canyon, the world’s second-largest canyon, on another race, he ran out of water (he refilled later that night).

“It’s uncomfortable, dirty. You’re wearing the same clothes for a week. There are no showers, no toilets,” says 46-year-old Mr. Knowler, a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers’s consulting group.

Last year, Mr. Knowler became one of fewer than 100 people to complete the four-desert circuit of the Atacama, Gobi, Sahara and Antarctic. The events are organized by Hong Kong-based RacingThePlanet, which organizes the four 250-kilometer races every year, plus a fifth roving event. The Antarctic race is invitation-only. It took Mr. Knowler almost four years to complete all four races (11 competitors have done the whole series in a year).

Mr. Knowler started extreme-distance racing in his early 40s. In his 20s, he was a regular runner and swimmer, but later fell out of shape. Five years ago, he was hiking with friends when a 250-kilometer-race veteran told him about her experience running through the Gobi Desert. By the end of the hike, he had decided to sign up for the 2006 Gobi race. “I was nagged into signing up for it,” he says. Now he is training for his seventh race, in Nepal, in November.

Competitors race carrying their own equipment and food, with only water and a place to spend the night, usually large tents, provided by the organizers. At least one stage of the race is 80-100 kilometers long, enough to force participants to trek through the night. Mr. Knowler runs and walks, though about one-fifth of participants run the whole way.

“When I’m racing at night, I often turn off my torch and go by moonlight. You’re in some amazing landscape, and there are billions of stars above you.”

Mr. Knowler says the races ultimately help him at work. “Sometimes at work you’re stressed, and I just think back to the bottom of the Fish River Canyon in Namibia,” he says. “It proves to me if I can get through that tough situation, I can get through this.”

The workout

Mr. Knowler says the key to his prerace workout is training with weight on his back. The sleeping gear, food and clothing racers must carry can add up to 10 kilograms, so Mr. Knowler trains by running with bags of rice in his backpack.

“A lot of people underestimate how different it is to do long distances with a backpack,” he says. “Ultra-marathon runners do the race and they’ve never done distances with a heavy pack. They often don’t do so well.”

Mr. Knowler tries to run between eight and 12 kilometers every weekday along the trails of Hong Kong Island with 10 kilograms of rice on his back. He will often run up Victoria Peak and back multiple times. On the weekends, he will either go on a 30-50-kilometer hike, or do a 15-20-kilometer trail run.

He recently added a little weight training to his routine, but in the end, he says, there aren’t any tricks to his workout. His recommendation: “Train, train, train and then train some more.”

The diet

During the long lead-up to a race, Mr. Knowler doesn’t have a special diet other than to eat healthy. There’s “nothing in particular” that he consumes or avoids eating, he says. But during the few days before a race, he will load up on carbohydrates.

During the race, he relies on packs of freeze-dried, dehydrated food as well as oatmeal and instant noodles. He also takes electrolyte pills or salt tablets to replenish his sodium levels. Low sodium levels can lead to cramps, fatigue and dizziness, which can be deadly in the middle of a desert. Mr. Knowler will also eat pork scratchings and beef jerky to feed his salt needs.

Cost & gear

“It’s not a cheap adventure,” Mr. Knowler says. The entrance fee for races varies, but he says it is typically about $2,800 just to compete. On top of that, there are travel costs.

Racing gear isn’t fancy, he says, but it’s important to find what fits you. “It’s a very personal thing,” he says, adding that choosing a comfortable pair of shoes is among the most important decisions.

Everyone, he says, has blisters on their feet by the end of the race, and it’s common for participants to lose toenails. Mr. Knowler wears Salomon shoes, which typically cost $100-$160. He also wears quick-drying, sweat-wicking clothing.

“Anything that takes the sweat away very quickly and dries is good,” he says.

The other big decision is choosing a backpack, he says. Mr. Knowler uses an Osprey backpack, which he says “is a good combination of light and roomy.” They run between $200 and $400.

Mr. Knowler will buy the lightest sleeping bag that’s appropriate for the race’s climate. Light sleeping bags for cold weather aren’t cheap and can cost upwards of $500.


Mr. Knowler brings two iPods on every race—he needs an extra one because there are no places to recharge. He says among his favorite things to listen to on the trail is opera. “Opera can be rousing and keep you going,” he says.

Category: Article, Lifestyle


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