Singapore's very own ultra-man

Singapore's very own ultra-man
PHOTO: Toh Poh Joo
As far as ultra-marathoners competing in an arctic climate go, Mr Toh Poh Joo sticks out like a frost-bitten thumb.

Among the 12 competitors of the 6633 Arctic Ultra marathon - an eight-day 566km ultra marathon across the icy tundra of Canada in temperatures as low as minus 40 deg C - he was the only Asian and Singaporean.

Despite hailing from a tropical country where temperatures seldom drop below 20 deg C, Mr Toh not only completed the gruelling race, in which almost half the competitors dropped out halfway, he came in second.

And by several accounts, he could have come in first if he had not been such a nice guy - instead of pushing on with the race during the last stretch, he stopped to share his tent with the eventual winner, Tiberiu Useriu, a Romanian.

"I noticed that he was limping and was told that he had sustained an ankle injury," said Mr Toh, 41, vice-president for terminal operations at Changi Airport Group (CAG).


"He seemed to be in great pain and he was struggling. Even though I could walk for another two hours, I stopped there so that I could share my tent with him.

"It would be wrong to just leave him. I don't regret helping him, I'm just happy I finished the race."

Mr Toh also said that one of the other competitors, who dropped out of the race, told Mr Toh later that if he had focused on himself, he would have won the marathon.

"It didn't matter to me whether I won or not. I just wanted to finish the race since I didn't get to last time."

Mr Useriu, a bodyguard to a Romanian minister, beat Mr Toh to the finish line by 56 minutes.

The 6633 Arctic Ultra marathon is a race across Canada from Yukon to the banks of the Arctic Ocean at Tuktoyaktuk.

When Mr Toh first told his wife, Ms Linda Loh, that he wanted to enter the race, she was very excited for him.

"He has always wanted to do it," said the management consultant.

When asked if she was worried for him, she replied: "If you're well-equipped, you will be fine. I was confident that he could take care of himself."

It was not the first time Mr Toh participated in this race.

He first attempted it six years ago, but did not complete the race as he suffered 4cm-long deep cuts on both his heels due to the cold and dry climate in Canada.

Mr Toh told The New Paper that he trained a lot more this time round.

From September last year, he went on 12 to 14-hour walks from Bukit Timah to Changi Village and East Coast Park on weekends, and on weekday mornings, he went on two-hour hikes up and down slopes while pulling a 30kg sled.

Mr Toh flew to Canada on March 5, six days before the start of the race on March 11.

"I slept with the windows open to get used to temperatures there," he said.

Despite walking for 15 to 16 hours a day with only three hours of sleep, Mr Toh made sure he did not get too comfortable at checkpoints, which were warmer and had better facilities, such as proper toilets.

The toughest moment of the race for Mr Toh was when he had to climb up a 4km hill while enduring winds of up to 80 to 90kmh.

However, these times of hardship were when Mr Toh learnt the most.

"In such harsh conditions, you really find out what breaks you and what you can do to lift your spirits," he said.

Mr Toh survived on snacks such as nuts and chocolate, as well as freeze-dried food such as rice with curry or rice with beef that could be prepared with just hot water.

The first thing Mr Toh did when he finished the race was call his wife. "I was very emotional. I was crying when I told her I had finished the race," he said.

The race helped Mr Toh raise about $30,000 for The Straits Times School Pocket Money Fund.

The Changi Foundation, the charity arm of CAG, has matched this amount with a donation of $30,000.

Senior vice-president of Airport Operations Management at CAG and Mr Toh's supervisor Jayson Goh said: "We are extremely proud of what Poh Joo has achieved.

"He has inspired many not only by training hard to take on the challenge in such extreme conditions, but also by having a big heart to dedicate the race to a charitable cause, assisting our kids in need."

General Secretary of the Singapore Kindness Movement, Dr William Wan, also commended Mr Toh's actions.

"I am especially heartened by Mr Toh Poh Joo's display of sportsmanship. Despite the competitive element, Mr Toh did not forget the importance of helping others, and that in sports, the spirit of sportsmanship is what builds ties." In such harsh conditions, you really find out what breaks you and what you can do to lift your spirits.

This article was first published on April 11, 2016.
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