Christopher Schrader, originally from Hong Kong and Li Po Chun UWC graduate of 2011, found his passion for endurance sports at the age of 16 in England, when he crossed the country by foot. Several ultra marathons and the “Four Peaks Race” in Hong Kong followed, and he founded YEN, the Youth Endurance Network. Highlight of his path so far is surely his 1600 km walk across the Gobi Desert in 2011 that made him the youngest person to have ever crossed the Gobi Desert, as well as his 6000 km cycling expedition across Canada in 2012 with which he raised money for Multiple Sclerosis Research. Last week, Chris came to Li Po Chun UWC to hold a talk about his expeditions and the combination of athletics and charity. Many interested students came to listen to his inspiring words. Here is a recount of his talk – it is very long blog entry, but I found everything too essential to be cut out, so enjoy!
“The great thing about endurance is that you don’t have to be particularly good at sports to do well in endurance. It’s not about your body. It’s about your mind. That has never been more true than in endurance sport. On all my expeditions, whether that was in Mongolia, or whether it was cycling, I would do months and months of training – every day four or five hours – for an expedition. When you’re trying to train yourself in endurance for an expedition, you’re trying to make yourself as comfortable as possible doing that activity, for as long as possible. But what you are accepting in the end is the inevitability that at one point you will no longer feel comfortable. And then it comes to how strong you are in your mind; how long you can stand that pain. It’s a very easy thing to think about it right now or for four or five days. But after a while you realize that your biggest enemy is not the pain, but yourself. You will start trying to find ways to give up, you’ll find excuses. And that is the hardest part.”
Chris also told us about the legendary ‘first’ expedition he did at the age of sixteen and that inspired him to continue endurance sports combined with charity fundraising: “It was November and at my boarding school in england we were all talking about what we would do in summer and what we had as plans. Most of my friends were talking about music festivals, traveling to Spain, and the other typical things you do when you are sixteen. I guess as a joke, I suggested walking across England. I didn’t really expect to be taken seriously, I meant it as a joke. But my good friend Charles, who was sitting right next to me, looked at me really really seriously and said “Yeah, let’s do it”. And we walked away from that meal and started planning that expedition. It took us six or seven months to get an idea of what we were doing and then we started training for it. Around two or three months down the line we realized that this was going to be a great opportunity to raise money for charity. And that became the defining point of all my expeditions; it’s what got me into the Gobi Desert, it’s what got me to university. It was the decision to do something for charity.
I didn’t think of it much back then – in fact we hadn’t chosen to do this for charity. Normally people go like “Oh I’m really passionate about the Marie-Curie Cancer Fond, I want to do something for that. And then they say “Oh, I’ll just run a Marathon”. For us it was the other way around: We were two teenagers looking for something interesting to do and then we realized charity was it. I chose a foundation called the Joshua Hellmann Foundation for Orphan Disease for my walk across England. Why I chose that one? Well, I had a friend called Joshua Hellmann and we basically grew up together. I pretty much spent every weekend with him. And then at the age of ten he all of a sudden had a stroke and went blind. It got worse, he got more and more strokes, he became deaf and had increasingly problems with speaking. Eventually he was constrained to a wheel chair. So I saw my best friend, who I used to see go out and being outdoors and playing, all of a sudden, within three years, becoming completely immobilized. He had a genetic disease that affects so so few people that in fact there are no cures for him and nobody pays attention to this. They call it the orphan disease. It’s when a disease is so rare, e.g. only affects around one million people in total, that there could be but non-profitable research on it. And because, as they name says, that is not profitable, there is no money available to search for solutions to help the affected people. That is the reason why, even though my friend came from a very wealthy family, my friend was not able to receive any help. When I was fourteen he passed away.
I was in the boarding school at the time so this was hitting me very hard; it was the first time I had lost a person that was really close to me and it was also very tough for me because I didn’t understand why he had died. I thought he was in the hospital and getting better, but in reality it got worse and worse. So, in the end, his death changed a lot of things for me. The foundation was established by his mother Mary. I was like “Wow, this is an amazing charity, this is amazing work”, so I chose it – it was convenient at the time and it made sense to me. I now know that, three days into that walk, I would have not continued the walk if it had not been for this charity. The exact charity aspect provides an accountability: I was no longer responsible for just completing the walk to challenge myself and feeling good about doing that. Instead, it was actually for something I really really care about. And that is the kind of endurance you need that keeps you going. ”
During his talk, Chris went on unfolding his later life in Hong Kong and at Li Po Chun UWC. He explained, how he crossed 150 kilometers of Hong Kong by running, cycling and kayaking together with his friend from England; once again for charity: “Yes, 150 kilometers, and we said we would do it in 24 hours and raise money for charity. We finished in 23 hours and 57 minutes, so we were a little bit close but we did it.” He also recounted how he kept on challenging his athletic self and started mountain running: “I wasn’t a runner, but this is a beautiful, beautiful location, and there are not a lot of places where you have an environment like this in Hong Kong. I guess it was more of a convenience.” – I could not agree more!
“A lot of people back then asked me, especially in LPC: “How do you do this? How do you organize and expedition, what motivates you, where do you get the sponsors from, where does it all happen?” And this was really the crucial point in, really, my life. Everyone in this room, I don’t doubt it, has a particular skill or interest.” Schrader asked the students in the room about exactly those. The answers varied but were not heavily surprising: Dancing, running, partying. “At some point you become so good at your interest that you can either simply continue it or actually make money out of it. If you don’t make money out of it, you can use it for a cause. Or, as a third thing, you can just lend your abilities to a community as a whole, to other people. You start thinking: Hey, if I’m good at dancing, how can I use this to improve my community? What can I start, what can I create? Who needs my help? Those are the things you think of. That’s when you really start benefiting from your skills. The best business men in the world all have certain skills and know how to apply them to the world in general. Saying you can run a couple of mountains for money is not really a unique skill – but being young and saying that you can, is.
I knew a lot of people in Hong Kong who were looking for this opportunity, who were looking for a way to get onto these expeditions. They were asking me about it all the time. So I started a small, small organization called the Youth Endurance Network. It has its roots in LPC and I’m really glad to hear that it’s still active here. It basically started with ten students. We would talk about expedition ideas and would train; waking up at six in the morning, being out there … Not all the people went every day, some would go on mondays, others on fridays, but I would always get up to meet these people, and we would go training and have a little bit of fun after school. That was how it worked. Then I thought: What is an event that could engage young people in Hong Kong and support a cause? You have to be practical in this idea; if you’re good at dancing and you know other people who are good at dancing, you can’t be like: “Okay I want to have the biggest dance in the world, we’ll get 100’000 people dancing next year in some place.” It’s not gonna happen, it won’t work. You need to be realistic. Be realistic, but be a little idealistic as well. Strive for a little more innovation!
I knew a lot of people in Hong Kong, I was running, so I thought: Why don’t we organize a race, where we run for 24 hours around the peak, running nonstop, and every lap that those runners run, they’re saving money for human trafficking. I was not particularly attached to human trafficking, it was an issue that I knew nothing about. The choice of human trafficking as supported issue was complete coincidence. You will realize this in life: It is really good to have ambition and it’s really good to have direction, but the best things in life come by chance. If you close your mind to chance all the time, and if you close your mind to these opportunities that come out of nowhere, then it’s harder to be successful. You look at some of the most successful people in the world; when they were young, they had an idea of what to do, but then their lives took a completely different path.
But back to where I was. So we set up this race; we had eight international schools participating in our first year, and it was really hard to set it up. Aaron, my helping friend, was a young guy and I was a young guy. A lot of people didn’t believe we were able to do this – raising money and organizing everything. They didn’t believe the turnout was going to be great, they didn’t think anybody would bother. But the turnout was tremendous. We had around 360 people at our first event, we raised over 250 000 HKD after eight months of preparing. It was a full success.
The one lesson I can take away from that is: If you ever strive to start a business, or an event with no profit, or build up anything else in life – you will always receive more NOs than YES’. You will see a lot more inadequacy in yourself than in other people. I was probably used to nine NOs for every one YES I got. If I was looking for ten sponsors, I would have to approach ten people, give them all my time, all my energy, and I would get nine NOs. Nine times you have to deal with a harsh rejection; but you have to deal with those nine times to get that one yes. That means you have to have that endurance, you have to be able to deal with that constant denial – but don’t give up! Because if you really prove to people that you don’t give up in general, and you really care about this, then you will succeed in the end. That is inevitable. You call it the law of average. In business it means, that if you approach ten people, one of them will say yes. That’s for the average person approaching them. But some people are really really good. Meaning, they can convince four out of ten people, so they only have to deal with six denials. That’s a big difference. But in the end, who wins? The guys with four out of ten people, or the guy with one out of ten people? The later! Because that guy will go and ask a total of hundred people, and so in the end he’ll have ten people, which is six more than the other guy has. And to make all of this easier, I have one good advise: Use your network. You might not always have a friend who can help you, but you definitely always know someone who knows someone who can help you.”
Another important point that Chris raised concerning the set-up of the 24-Hour-Race was legacy: “We did not only look to setting up an event that would only go for one year. We were really thinking about starting something that would last forever; a legacy. Legacy is so, so important in life.” He used a Batman quote to clarify his idea: ” ‘It’s not who or what you are underneath, it’s what you do, what defines you‘. The actions support who you are. And I really support that quote. We wanted to set up this event in a sustainable way. We wanted to build a legacy. How could we make sure, that the next day, if my friend was hit by a car and I died in a plane accident, this would carry on for the next thirty, forty years without our help? I think, in the end we set that up very well. An LPC student helped to organize it this year, and hopefully there will be somebody who can do it next year.”
Eventually, near the end of his talk, Chris finally started to elaborate on a point that most students were certainly most interested in: His 51 day long walk across the Gobi Desert. “How did I end up in Mongolia? Well, I was checking my emails and I got this email from a guy who is a desert explorer. I knew nothing about desert exploration .The expeditions that I did, were really only those that you heard of: the ultra marathon, and that walk across england, plus some other ultra-marathons across Hong Kong. That was essentially all I had done in terms of expeditions. Somehow, that guy got hold of my name. He said: ‘Chris, I want to interview you about a potential expedition’. I said ‘Great, when?’ and he said: ‘Ten minutes’. So I added him on Skype and we got talking. He said: ‘I read your CV, I like what you’re doing. I’m going to walk across the Gobi desert next year, do you want to join?’ And I said yes. I didn’t even think about it, I did everything my parents had told me not to do. I just said yes. I remember that my knowledge of the Gobi desert was so small, that I had to go and look it up online. Apparently it was in the North of China, so it was nearby – and that’s how I got onto this expedition.
It links somehow to my first expedition; when I came up with this idea in England and I simply said yes. What makes these event similar is not the expeditions itself – they were totally different from another – it’s the fact that I thought very very little about the idea when I proposed it and then later when I said yes. As humans, we are really cautious animals, in a sense that we think deliberately about a decision before we make it. And as soon as you make a decision you regret it. So if you are given an opportunity, as human you do not think about the positive parts of it; you just think about all the negative parts: What shouldn’t you do, what could go wrong etc. So if you spend long enough thinking about an issue, you will convince yourself, just by sitting alone in the room, that you shouldn’t do it. This means that sometimes it is really just about saying yes in that moment, grasping on to that opportunity and eventually making the most of it.”
For this expedition, Chris walked from the very West of Mongolia to the other side of the Gobi desert. That was about 1700 kilometers air line, but obviously he had to make curves around this line during his trip, so probably it ended up as around 2000 kilometers of straight walking in the desert. Chris took his last IB exam, Biology Higher Level, in the end of May, had a couple of hours time after that, took the taxi, went to the airport and was gone, heading for Mongolia. While all my friends were out at home or in Thailand or partying, he himself was stuck in the middle of nowhere in a seemingly endless desert: “Today, I think it’s beautiful. But back then it was only dry, empty desert with nothing else to do than walking across it. Still, in the end, the expedition was really, really beautiful – though it was far from exciting.
I remember how we started the day: The mountains were spread West to East across Mongolia, and got lower towards their ends, kind of disappearing. These mountains are huge, they really are big. So you were walking the whole day and you look to your left and you see this particular peak with some sort of shape far behind at the horizon. You walk the entire day, for 50 kilometers, and after ten hours of walking you are like great, what progress have I made? Hence you look to the left towards the mountains, and the exact same peak is in the exact same position as it was before. You feel like you made no progress. That is really difficult. And it becomes worse, because by the time we got to the desert proper, it was entirely flat. There wasn’t even a reference point. You started your day in one big nothing, you ended your day in one big nothing, and it was like you had basically walked in a circle. Mentally, that was extremely hard to cope with. If you want to compare it, just go to the LPC gym: Scatter some sand here and there, put the heaters on full power and just walk there for ten hours. Then you get an idea. The number one issue is not even the heat or anything related to that; it’s the boredom. You become really, really, really bored. And even though you have weather changes and each other in the group, it is still very difficult. In the other, however, we succeeded. We managed to finish the entire expedition and how it ended up happening was totally different to how we wanted it to work out. It’s a great story.
But in the end, what is the connection between all of this – the Gobi Desert, the 24 Hour Race, Cycling across Canada – and Charity? Many people would naturally ask: “Why should I pay you money to go on a cycling trip or run a marathon?”. The idea is quite simple in my mind: Endurance is the currency of charity. Just imagine someone coming up to you, from who you know that they do absolutely no running, ever, and they tell you: “I will run an Ultra-Marathon for a specific charity.” You will be seriously impressed, because that person usually never runs. So how will you explain to yourself, that that person now wants to run for this Ultra-Marathon? That’s right: They must really care for that particular charity. By doing something that nobody expects you to do, by pushing yourself into a zone that you are totally unfamiliar with – the key factor is the shock factor. And that is what we are doing. Endurance is a way to show how much you care about a particular cause. For me, that is a personal challenge, because the more things I do, the more the people expect. So you have to do more and more extreme expeditions to convince people, raise money and support the charity. With the time you ask yourself: Well, will there be an expedition some day, that can top them all? My answer is no, there isn’t. As humans, we don’t grow and grow for all our lives, but we adopt different opinions and move into different directions. As we move away from a particular direction, or towards one, new challenges arise. And it is really up to us to embrace these challenges, whatever they are.”
Christopher Schrader ended his talk at LPC with a quote. It was a piece from the notebook that he had brought to the desert with him. The quote he read to us was written around day 35 in the desert, as he said. While the whole room was still, Chris read to us: “Adventure itself is a romantic idea. To escape one’s present circumstance and place oneself in an unfamiliar environment quite possibly a dangerous one, results in a greater appreciation for everyday life. Whether it be in material wealth or the relationships with the people around you. Adventure is a kind of education – an amazingly powerful tool of transformation. It can invoke strength and hope, and however bad life may get, adventure serves as a juxtaposition – as in a reference point – to weaken those negative moments. What I am not suggesting is adventure is necessarily negative, but it is through its difficulty that it becomes an enlightening experience. The real test in adventure lies in one’s endurance capacity i.e. how long can they hold on for – and it is the endurance, the ability to prolong this ‘tough’ existence that truly defines the adventure.” Heavy applause ended his talk.
Hayley, my head of house, gave a short final speech. What specially struck me was her plead to us students: “You can never be too young or too old to be inspired by someone. I hope this talk was effective for you guys, that you take it with you and you take it onward, that you do something yourself – it doesn’t have to be athletic! – to create awareness and help other people in the community.” She is very right. And that’s one more reason why I love LPCUWC: It is a school full of students who are ready to become inspired, and eager to act upon this inspiration.
Note: Christopher Schrader’s blog “From the Camel’s Mouth” can be found here. The photos from Chris in the Gobi Desert were taken by Emmanuel Berthier.