Serious Sisu: Ultra, ultra woman Jeri Chua

There’s not much that surprises us here at SisuGirls, but we are in awe of Jeri Chua. Most recently she ran Hong Kong’s 100 kilometre Oxfam Trailwalker in a shark suit (yes, the whole way); at the end of this week she will attempt to run 298 kilometres as part of the Hong Kong Four Trails Ultra Challenge.

But that’ll be a walk in the park for Jeri — in October she completed the 400 kilometre Ultra Trail Gobi in China's Gobi Desert, finishing second female overall and becoming the first Singaporean woman to complete such an ultra distance. It’s one of many “firsts” Jeri has collected as a proud Singaporean in the 20 years since her endurance addiction began. Read on to learn more about this incredible, pint-sized pocket rocket.

Jeri Chua with a fellow competitor during the 2015 Ultra Trail Gobi (c) Grace Gao

Jeri Chua with a fellow competitor during the 2015 Ultra Trail Gobi (c) Grace Gao

Please give us an introduction. Where did your love of all things endurance begin?

I'm Jeri Chua, and I run! Mostly for the fun of it, but I used to be a bit more competitive.

I got into ultrarunning through triathlon. I signed up for my first race in 1994 and completed the 2km swim, 75km bike and 16km run in 5h 42min on a borrowed bike and managed to make the ladies' podium. Needless to say, I was hooked! I got a proper bike, some instruction from my tri friends, and entered every race I could find. In the same year I made it into the Singapore National Triathlon Team.

Jeri on the bike at Kona in 1998

Jeri on the bike at Kona in 1998

In 1997 a friend suggested we try to qualify for Ironman Kona Hawaii - outright. So in March 1998 I did my first Ironman in New Zealand. Choppy seas, hail, rain and sunshine didn’t stop me and I finished in 12:30:38, completing my first ever marathon (3:53h!), winning my age group and qualifying for Kona. Mission accomplished! This meant I was the first ever Singaporean (man or woman) to qualify for this iconic race. 

On to Kona I went, my second Ironman in the same year, but with a disappointing 14:39:58 finish. It was my first lesson in burning out. I managed a couple more Ironmans in my time before moving to the UK in 1998 where I lost the will to train in the cold and eventually stopped competing altogether. After a long hiatus, I started running again in 2009 with the St Austell Running Club. The club had some seriously hardcore ultra runners who first introduced me to trail running… and then the really long stuff!

In 2009 I took part in my first ultra and was hooked again! The following year I completed my first 100km race (The North Face 100 Singapore) and my first 100 miler (Great North Walk Australia) to get the required points to get into the much talked about lottery for the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB). I got lucky and the next thing I knew it I was in Chamonix!

I became the first Singaporean woman to complete the UTMB when I finished in 2011. Not content with staying comfortable, on hearing about "the hardest ultra ever" - the Tor Des Geants, a 330km ultra through the Italian Alps - I signed up straight away.  When I successfully completed the race in six days in 2013, I was once again the first ever Singaporean to complete the race.

Two years later I confronted a new type of ultra beast: the 450km Anzac Ultra in Australia. Unfortunately I DNF'd at 315km with a torn muscle. But I recovered to do the 400km Ultra Trail Gobi Race the same year.

The plan in 2016 is also ambitious: the Hong Kong Four Ultra Trails (298km) and the Trans Pyrenea (895km, 55,000D+).

Tell us more about the Ultra Trail Gobi. What is it and why did you choose to do it?

[B]elieving there is no such thing as coincidence, when the invitation to do the Ultra Trail Gobi popped into my inbox the same time as I’d reached the unsatisfactory conclusion of my 450km Anzac Ultra attempt, my immediate thought was desert + searing heat + a chance at 400km of redemption, so I said yes. Simple as that.

A new race, it's a 400 kilometre mostly self-supported, self-navigated adventure through the Chinese Gobi Desert (Gansu region) with rest stations every 35km to 40km and a 150 hour cut-off. Honestly, I've never had a burning desire to see a desert close up. I’d always imagined a desert as being a vast expanse of relentless flatland and would shudder at the thought. But, believing there is no such thing as coincidence, when the invitation to do the Ultra Trail Gobi (UTG) popped into my inbox the same time as I'd reached the unsatisfactory conclusion of my 450km Anzac Ultra attempt, my immediate thought was desert + searing heat + a chance at 400km of redemption, so I said yes. Simple as that.

How did you feel about taking on a self-navigation race? How is it different from normal races?

It was a very steep learning curve! I reckon I ran at least an extra 50km during that race by getting lost. I borrowed a GPS from a friend and that was a big help, but learning how to use it before the race would have been a good idea. It was strange not having the reassurance of trail markers to guide me, and certainly added a lot more stress and frustration when the trail was ambiguous. But I learned a lot, so all's well that ends well!

Highlights? Low points?

Jeri at the finish of Tor Des Geants in 2013 (c) Foto Lanzeni

Jeri at the finish of Tor Des Geants in 2013 (c) Foto Lanzeni

The best bit about UTG was the experience. I've never gone that far and I've made friends for life out in that desert. Incredible days and nights of laughter, pain and all sorts in between. One of the highlights was the breath-taking snow-capped mountains as the backdrop one day - I couldn't stop grinning; another was that feeling of elation at finally finding a checkpoint one day after hours of searching.

The lowest point was just before I had pressed the SOS button on my tracker after about 150km. I'd been navigating with two others following me. Gale force winds, sub-zero conditions, extreme fatigue and navigating in the dark were not a recipe for success. I felt so responsible and we couldn't find the right track for hours, I was so worried one of us would fall down the cliff. Sometimes it's important to learn when to ask for help. [Read more about Jeri's adventure in the desert here.]

How do you deal with exhaustion?

By weaving blindly in the dark and praying I don't fall off a cliff! And caffeine. Tailwind Raspberry Buzz or Coca-Cola, usually. I'm sensitive to caffeine so a serving of Buzz or a can of Coke will keep me awake all night.

But honestly, I don't get much sleep in normal life so I guess I have pretty decent sleep deprivation training. Not ideal for recovery, but at least there's some advantage.

How do you deal with and rationalise pain?

Pain is French bread, and awesome with salted butter! For the most part I figure pain is relative, my brain is only trying to protect my body, but I know my limits are beyond what my brain (which is very prudent) likes to think, so I focus on other things. I've also learnt to differentiate between this-hurts-but-I'm-ok pain and something-is-seriously-wrong-stop-now pain. From experience, the former will go away if you keep going long enough, usually to be replaced by a new pain somewhere else later on.

Pain is French bread, and awesome with salted butter!

If it all becomes too unbearable, I take a nap. After a certain point of fatigue, my brain can't block the pain and I have to get some rest before I can deal with it again. I find a 10 to 15 minute kip usually helps.

What pushes you to keep taking on ultramarathon adventure after adventure?

The challenge of the unknown. I sign up for races that pique my interest, usually the smaller races and less-well known ones now. I like exploring, and seeing how far I might be able to push myself. I have a vivid imagination, and just hearing about a new adventure gets me all excited and before I know it, I've signed myself up not knowing what I've let myself in for. I love the internal battle that is waged - I can do this, no I can't - and getting to where you think your limits are, and then pushing them further.

What is something you know now about ultrarunning that you wish you knew when you started?

So many things! That doubling a marathon training program is not the solution to training for 100km. Neither is tripling it for a 100 miler. To take off my reflective vest and headband before taking a picture with ultra idol Kilian (Jornet) otherwise I'll look like a giant lightbulb. And that I don't need to carry EVERYTHING in case of emergency.

The challenge of the unknown...I like exploring, and seeing how far I might be able to push myself. I have a vivid imagination, and just hearing about a new adventure gets me all excited and before I know it, I’ve signed myself up not knowing what I’ve let myself in for.

Who inspires you?

The guys who finish last. They're driven by a dogged determination to complete what they started, despite being out there for the longest possible time. It's a very long and painful day(s), but they still do it, time after time, with a big grin on their face.

Finally, who do you think has serious "sisu"?

My maternal grandmother. She endured fleeing from China, then the Japanese Occupation, having 12 kids, some very tough times, and yet she was always smiling. My aunts and uncles are amazing people, a testament to this incredible woman. She was kind, generous, always ready to comfort and console. She helped look after all the grandkids and always had a kitchen full of good smells and great food regardless of when you turned up. She was a rock for all of us, a constant we could always rely on, and a matriarchal pillar of strength.

(c) Sunny Lee

(c) Sunny Lee


Jeri in her shark suit completing the 2015 Oxfam Trailwalker

Jeri in her shark suit completing the 2015 Oxfam Trailwalker

When Jeri is not running (it sometimes happens) she is surprisingly ultra glam as a freelance fashion stylist and writer. She is also part of RaceBase Asia, an events company that put on trail races around Asia focused on building a sense of community. Follow Jeri and her ultra adventures on Instagram or on her blog