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Man on a Mission

While many other 26-year-olds may be too busy juggling work responsibilities and social life to even consider the notion of changing the world, Jeff Lau is bent on doing so starting with the AIDS landscape in Malaysia. And he is doing it, one step at a time – quite literally, if I may add – by participating in the Marathon des Sables 2016.

For the uninitiated, the Marathon des Sables (also known as the Marathon of the Sands) is a 6-day ultra marathon covering a whopping distance of 251 km. Ranked by Discovery Channel as the “toughest footrace on earth”, this annual event gets its name from the fact that it takes place in the Moroccan Sahara Desert! By participating, Jeff aims to raise funds for the Malaysian AIDS foundation (MAF). “My aim is to raise at least RM160,000 which MAF will channel into HIV education, empowerment and health literacy programmes for youths under MAF’s Red Ribbon Youth Club,” Jeff says, who is also a Red Ribbon Youth Icon.

Giving back to society

When asked if he had always been an adrenaline junkie prior to joining the marathon, Jeff shares candidly, “I’ve always been into sports like running, cycling and swimming. I’ve taken part in various triathlons and swimathons – both locally and internationally. But later on, I began liking running more because cycling makes my backside sore from the constant sitting whereas you have to be in seawater for as long as 4 hours during swimathons. Running is great because I get to listen to music at the same time and if I get tired, I can simply change the pace and walk.”

So, it was only natural for him to join one of the world’s most brutal races, right? “Not really. It started with an injury to my knee ligament, for which I had to undergo surgery. Recovery took 9 months; throughout the entire time, I could barely do anything at all. I felt so useless. The physiotherapy sessions only compounded my pain and stress. That was when I promised myself that when I fully recover, I will give back to society.”

He then shared his dream with one of his running buddies, Ralph Dixon. “I told Ralph about my intention and he suggested that I join the Marathon des Sables since he was training for it too. That was how we both ended up running in the Marathon des Sables 2014,” he recalls proudly.

When the going gets tough …

Touching on his preparation for the race, Jeff says, “I’d run twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays with an 8 kg backpack for a distance of 35 km each time. In total, I ran 70 km a week. I prepared myself as best as I could because during the marathon itself, runners have to carry a load of 12-14 kg for 7 days!”

But no amount of training could prepare him for the real thing. “I’m not one to give up easily but the Marathon des Sables really is something else. Besides carrying a heavy load, we had to cook our own meals throughout the entire course of the run. For breakfast and dinner, we consumed a minimum of 2,000 calories daily. In my case, I chose foods which were light in weight but high in calories like Milo, chocolate-coated dates and instant noodles. The environment was tough too. The sand in the Moroccan Sahara Desert was very soft so I had to walk instead, which slowed me down considerably. We also had to run under extreme temperatures. It was 45-50 degrees during the day but it dropped to as low as 8 degrees at night.”

Dehydration was another major factor. “We were given just 13 litres of water daily, so you can imagine how precious water was for us! Many didn’t bother with showering; we resorted to alcohol wipes. Many runners gave up half-way due to dehydration. I almost gave up on Day 4 of the race (the 80 km leg) when I had run for over 18 hours and still had 20 km to go. By then, I had injured my knee and was still carrying a heavy backpack. I was beyond exhausted and sleepy. All I could think about was quitting the race!” he admits.

But as tempting as it was, Jeff remained steadfast. “I badly wanted to quit but I remembered how the people, especially children, living in the desert barely had access to electricity, food and water – things that we normally take for granted. It made me realise I had absolutely no excuse to give up. I was also reminded of the plight of the underprivileged people living with HIV back in Malaysia – the reason why I took up the challenge in the first place – whose constant battle with stigma and discrimination daily as well as struggle with access to life-saving treatment and health services cannot be overstated.”

With renewed determination, Jeff pressed on and successfully completed the race – becoming the youngest Malaysian to ever finish the Marathon des Sables while raising RM80, 000 for MAF funds.

Powerful lessons

Looking back on his experience, Jeff says, “I’ve a newfound appreciation for things we tend to take for granted. I now complain a lot less about trivial things like my food not being tasty or not having enough money or my single bed being too small. The marathon really broadened my horizon and changed my perspective of life.”

Returning for Round 2

Judging by how tough the Marathon des Sables experience is, one normally wouldn’t repeat it – regardless of how rewarding it can be. But Jeff sees it differently – which is why he will run for a second time in this year’s Marathon des Sables. “I consider myself a fortunate person, in that I had the opportunity to further my studies in Australia without ever having to worry about finances. When I look at Malaysia’s HIV situation, there are people living with HIV, in this day and age, who suffer in silence. I suppose this is my way of sharing my ‘fortune’ with others who are less fortunate. I’d like to create a society with equal access to health, which truly is an inalienable human right.”

What does he hope to achieve in the Marathon des Sables 2016 then? “Ralph and I aim to at least double the fundraising target i.e. RM160, 000 so we can help more people,” he shares. “Aside from enhancing my overall performance, I hope in the next few years, as a result of my second attempt, my record as the youngest Malaysian to finish the race will be broken! I want to inspire young Malaysians to not only brave the Sahara but also champion a social cause they believe in strongly and take action for the betterment of society.”

A national treasure

With Jeff’s passion for charity, it was only a matter of time that his efforts were recognised. Late last year, he was made a Red Ribbon Youth Icon by the Ministry of Health. Discussing his new role, he explains, “I hope to break down barriers, bit by bit, that impede important discussions such as those about sexuality and other topics which have an adverse outcome on youths making informed decisions about their sexual health.”

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An attainable goal

Jeff concludes, “I long to see a generation of empowered and inspired youths who will shape the course of the HIV response as we strive towards our common goal of ending AIDS by 2030. There’s so much the youth can do. For starters, they can improve their understanding of HIV and AIDS. They can also volunteer in NGOs, drive AIDS awareness campaigns at their colleges or participate in AIDS forums like MAF’s Red Ribbon Youth Club. While the goal of ending AIDS seems ambitious, as demonstrated by our commitment and willingness to think out of the box when the government implemented the ‘controversial’ harm reduction strategy a decade ago, this goal is highly achievable.”

And with this, we wish Jeff all the best for the Marathon des Sables 2016. Malaysia Boleh!

Those wishing to make monetary contributions to MAF can do so by visiting www.simplygiving.com/event/mds2016 or contacting Arif at MAF at 03-4047 4257, 012- 959 4596 or arif@mac.org.my

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