‘I feel broken’: inside the mind of the woman who walked 1,000km in 12 days

“I just have to take one step, one kilometer at a time… Ultrarunning is a love-hate relationship,” says Natalie Dau in a voice message recorded somewhere along the east coast of Malaysia.

The 52-year-old had completed a third of her 1,000km run from Thailand to Singapore, and things were getting tough.

“Today is the first time in four days that I’ve wondered if I would actually finish this thing. I love the challenge of the sport, love the rawness of it all, but hate these lows. And they happen often,” said she.

Natalie had to clock at least 84km a day – the equivalent of two marathons – to reach her goal of completing her run in 12 days.

Natalie is an ultrarunner: they run distances greater than 42.2 km, the length of a marathon. But she hasn’t trained as an athlete all her life. She didn’t start racing until she was in her late 30s to get fitter.

Although running has taken off worldwide, most data shows growth in Western countries. Figures for Asia are difficult to come by, although several countries in the region host popular marathons, such as Taiwan, Cambodia and Japan.

The challenge is to find more enthusiasts among non-professional athletes who, like Natalie, are committed to good causes, often documenting their strenuous efforts on social media.

“Whether you come in first or last, it doesn’t matter. You’ve done something almost superhuman, something that 0.05% of the world’s population will never do,” she said.

But it takes its toll. She was sunburned and exhausted from hours of running under the scorching Southeast Asian sun. Her hip started to seize on the first day. On day three she developed a urinary tract infection.

She finally crossed the finish line in central Singapore on June 5, along with hundreds of runners who had come to support her on a weekday.

Dressed in brightly colored running gear, they ran through the city’s industrial estates in the early hours, just as daily wage workers, with their backpacks and plastic lunch bags in tow, headed to work.

Natalie Dau at the finishNatalie Dau at the finish

Natalie Dau crossed the finish line in central Singapore on June 5 (Project 1000)

Twelve days with ups and downs

“The longest I’ve run before this was 125 miles,” Natalie told the BBC the day after she finished her run. “I was looking for another way to challenge myself.”

She came up with the idea to flee from the Thai border, via Malaysia, to Singapore in September. Over the next eight months, several friends came on board to help plan the run, which was later dubbed Project 1000.

“I was a bit naive at the time and knew little about what planning for such a run would cost. My team asked me things I hadn’t thought of: what happens if you need a hospital? How do we plan for border crossings? ? How do we plan border crossings?” will we need a lot of safety vehicles?”

Every night during the 12-day ultramarathon, Natalie sent voice notes to the BBC, summarizing the highs and lows of each day.

On day five, she said: “We took some time to have some breakfast at a roadside stall and enjoyed the view for five minutes before setting off again. Today was a good day, but I don’t expect all days to be good We still have a long way to go.”

She and her team slept only two to three hours each night, because on day three they decided she needed to start running shortly after midnight to beat the heat.

“Finishing dinner at 8pm and setting your alarm for 11:30pm isn’t much fun,” she said in another post.

Getting up every day was the “scariest thing,” Natalie said after her run. “I woke up every morning and wondered, ‘What if I can’t run today?’”

“The finish line is so far away, you can’t imagine it. I couldn’t even see the finish line at the end of the day… You have to mentally keep your head in the zone without knowing what that finish line looks like .”

Towards the end, she described her body as “feeling extremely broken”. She plastered her toes because “they all had blisters.”

“I’m having trouble walking, I’m tired and I just want to get home and see my family. I’ll try to enjoy tomorrow, but I really can’t wait to cross the border (to Singapore), to be honest,” she said in her Day 10 note.

‘Ultra runners want to feel uncomfortable’

Ultrarunners are “a certain personality type,” Natalie said.

“In some parts of the world we all live quite comfortably. People are trying to be a little more uncomfortable, and ultrarunning is a really good way to do that.”

In addition to that sense of personal achievement, Natalie said she had hoped Project 1000 would empower women. The run raised about S$50,000 (US$37,000) for GRLS, a charity that funds projects that encourage more girls and women to take up sports.

“Whether people donated or not, it was a platform to get a message across,” Natalie said. “Doing this as an older woman, I really wanted to prove to people that you can keep challenging (yourself). We are only limited by our own beliefs.”

However, ultrarunning at this level remains a privilege because it takes time and often requires sponsors and support staff.

Still others who participate in these runs say the grassroots sport is still accessible to many people.

“You don’t need anything but a pair of shoes,” says John Ellis, a Hong Kong-based ultrarunner.

“The social and competitive side of racing is fun, but the world is a big, beautiful place and it’s fun to get out there and see it while pushing your limits and discovering new things about yourself.”

Mary Hui, a Hong Kong-based long-distance trail journalist, said it is also a “welcoming community.”

“Running with a big pack, lots of interaction before and after, training for hours with these people… You’ll notice that even the best runner can have a bad day on the trails. That can lower the threshold.”

When asked if the thrill of completing the run was worth all the pain, Natalie said, “The adventure and the experience… It was worth it.”

Would she do it again? She wondered out loud and only responded with nervous laughter.