One of Asia’s top adventure sports athletes, Ryan Blair, was in town recently to run a trail running workshop and to get more Malaysians to hit the trails.
WE need more painkillers!” Ryan Scott Blair yelled to his teammates, as he pounded the gruelling trail.
Battling massive leg cramps, throbbing knees and excruciating pain from old injuries, Blair’s team of four had been hotfooting it for more than eight hours. They were one of the 1,200 teams taking part in the 2012 Oxfam Trailwalker Hong Kong an event where participants ran or walked 100km (within 48 hours) to raise money for charity.
“It’s a very unforgiving race course that covers over 20 peaks and a total elevation gain of 5,000m. If you have to stack it all up, we’re talking 80% steep staircases, rock-strewn trails, road and catchwater (reservoirs),” says Blair, 40, during our interview in Kuala Lumpur recently. He was in town to conduct a trail run workshop organised by The North Face, a global outdoor gear brand.
“It’s brutally hard on the body,” he adds.
Dubbed one of the world’s toughest charity team challenges, Trailwalker started in 1981 in Hong Kong as a Gurkha-led training for the army. Today, the annual affair sees about 22,000 participants in races held in 11 countries.
“After 10 hours into the race, you’re so exhausted. But somehow in the heat of competition, you can dig inside yourself and find some power or energy that you didn’t know you had,” adds the Hong Kong-based adventure sports athlete.
Blair’s North Face team (with three others) finished in third place with a record of 11 hours 52 minutes.
“It opens your mind to how resilient and strong the human body and spirit are. It’s a great metaphor for life itself. You can really do and go so much further than you realise,” says Blair, sharing his life philosophy tapped from more than 20 years of adventure racing.
Passion for the outdoors
A consummate outdoorsman, Blair grew up in the great outdoors of Oregon in a town called Bend that sits at the foot of the Cascade Range, a mountain range that stretches from northern California through Oregon, Washington till British Columbia (Canada).
“I was totally exposed to the outdoors. I was spoiled by the amazing rivers, mountains, lakes, beautiful weather and active outdoor community back home,” says Blair, 40, who studied international business in university.
But on a backpacking trip to China and Vietnam in 1992, Blair caught the Asia bug.
“I got a taste of Asia and found it exciting and dynamic. The variety of culture, food and people is mind-boggling,” he adds. Less than a week after graduation, Blair hopped on a flight back to Asia and traversed the Indian and Nepal Himalayas for a year.
In 1995, he arrived in Hong Kong, fell in love with the city and set up base.
“A lot of people think Hong Kong is just about skyscrapers but it’s like 70% national or country parks,” says Blair, a director of Asia Pacific Adventure (APA) that specialises in adventure event management, outdoor skills training and action film production.
“In reality, it’s one of the best outdoor cities in the planet with an incredible network of trails. A 10-minute taxi ride from the city takes you to nature,” he adds. “Hong Kong has become like the epicentre for adventure sports growth in Asia.”
In the mid-90s, adventure racing was all the rage, triggered by the popularity of Eco-Challenge, the multi-discipline, expedition-length adventure race created by Mark Burnett who was in turn inspired by the Raid Gauloises adventure race that started in 1989.
“Back in those days, there were hardly any races in Asia and I remember flying back to America to take part in short events,” says Blair who partnered with Hong Kong-based Action Asia magazine to create the first adventure race in Hong Kong called Action Asia Challenge. National Geographic Channel came in later as a partner to broadcast the events. As one of the pioneers in Asia’s adventure racing scene, Blair has helped develop races in Thailand, Taiwan, The Philippines and Malaysia.
“I was involved in setting up the course and location for the National Geographic Action Asia Challenge (NGAAC) 2001/2002 which was held in Pulau Pangkor,” says Blair, a four-time winner of the Action Asia Challenge. He also notched first spots in The North Face 24-hr Exploration Race, China, and the International Exploration Adventure Race, Taiwan.
“What is so great about organising these races is to find a passionate community in every location. After we stage an event, the locals would go on to organise local race events like in Malaysia and Thailand,” says Blair.
But in recent years, trail running has become the in thing, he added.
“I think what has helped is the proliferation of road running races,” he explains.
“And after training for road races, people would say, ‘What else?’ ”
“People who got on the trail would say, ‘Wow! This is actually more fun.’” Blair theorises, smiling. “Training on soft surfaces and varied terrain has less impact on the body and minimises injuries.”
Being in a crazy and busy city like Hong Kong, Blair finds it relaxing to hit the trails and just being out there.
“When you go longer distances, it calms your mind, leaves the stress behind and is therapeutic,” says Blair who wants to inspire people to get out more. “I love nature.”
Blair says trail running is the easiest thing to do at a moment’s notice.
“For me personally, the more that I’m out there, my life balance improves,” he elaborates.
“Running and training also motivate me to eat better and smarter. I naturally crave healthy vegetables and fruits.”
“Besides, in so many countries in the world, we’re losing nature in urban areas. Getting more people outdoors is how we can protect what’s left in the long run,” says Blair.
“Malaysians are so blessed with large swaths of green spaces Just lace up your shoes and off you go to explore nature!” he exhorts.