When the Cambridge Union’s chat moderator with Bear Grylls posed questions to the room, the hand that came up first was that of Hassan Esufally, a Masters student at Cambridge’s Judge Business School. Esufally wanted to ask his childhood hero how he could follow in Bear’s footsteps and make a financially viable career as a professional adventurer. It’s an understandable question; after all, who hasn’t felt inspired to get up off the couch and climb a tree, swim in a river, or eat a maggot after watching a few episodes of Man against Nature or The Island? Unlike most armchair adventurers, however, Hassan’s dream of emulating Grylls and completing the Explorers’ Grand Slam (climbing the highest peak on any continent and skiing at the North and South Poles) seems like the next step. natural for a man who became the first Sri Lankan in history to run a marathon on every continent. Yes, including Antarctica.
I sat with Esufally in an upstairs room at the Cambridge Union just a week after Grylls visited. He doesn’t look like you’d expect from an “adventurer,” swapping khakis for a suit and tie and no sign of an unruly beard a la Wim Hof. But as Esufally lists his many notable accomplishments – taking his running shoes across the African savannah, the Antarctic ice caps and the Inca Trail’s Andean mountains to name a few – there are a hint of sheer will and determination that would inspire someone to do such feats behind their easy-going exterior.
“I wanted to do something amazing for my country and raise awareness that Sri Lanka could be a country where people can fulfill their dreams”
We remember his first marathon, completed while still a student in Melbourne less than ten years ago. “My friends just laughed and said you’re never gonna be able to do it,” he recalled, “but I said ‘you know what guys, I’m going to try and prove you wrong and do it when even “.” Three months later, as he crossed the finish line, he was instantly hooked on the “sense of accomplishment, satisfaction and accomplishment” that comes with finishing the 42.195 km race. From there to Melbourne, the idea of joining the exclusive 7 Continents Marathon Club (comprising 388 members at the end of 2021) was then born.
So what stimulated this desire? Esufally explains, “I wanted to do something amazing for my country and raise awareness that Sri Lanka could be a country where people can fulfill their dreams. I wanted Sri Lanka’s profile to be raised in other areas, not just cricket. There is also a fundraising aspect to Esufally’s exploits, raising money for underprivileged children through UNICEF Sri Lanka while competing in the Ironman Challenge (3.86km swim, 180km cycling and 42.2 km of full marathon within 17 hours), as well as for the victims of the attacks of the Boston marathon while carrying out the same marathon in the United States.
Then there is the support of his wife, Esufally’s “biggest supporter and biggest fan” who awaits him at every finish line. I remind him of his friends’ doubts before his first marathon and ask him if the desire to prove people wrong is a contributing factor: “It’s about proving himself right rather than proving others that they are wrong.
“[I put my treadmill] inside an ice blast fridge and ran over it in minus 20 degrees wearing all the clothes I would take with me to Antarctica”
“I’m someone who loves visualization and goal setting,” says Esufally, recalling the five goals he set for himself for the five years after graduating from Melbourne: to marry the girl of his dreams, get his dream job, achieve dual Sri Lankan-Australian nationality, complete an Ironman and become the first Sri Lankan in history to run a marathon on all continents. He finished the five six months earlier. “I imagined myself crossing the finish line in Antarctica with a Sri Lankan flag in my room in Sri Lanka, and it happened. I think that if you sincerely believe in these universal laws, you can manifest whatever you want in reality. But you also have to invest, I think that’s one of the formulas for success.
Esufally’s advice to young people who want to do amazing things? “You have to work hard, you have to be persistent, you have to write down your goals, you have to have the bravery and the courage to say it out loud sometimes.” These are not groundbreaking revelations, indeed, many of them look like they were pulled from a fortune cookie. However, they take on a lot more weight when coming from someone who ran a marathon in Antarctica, as opposed to a tech bro who tells you how he managed to double his investment in Dogecoin and is now expanding his NFT wallet.
When it comes to Antarctica, you don’t need to be a geographer to know that it’s cold. Very cold. Minus-25 degrees cold in fact. Sri Lanka, on the other hand, is hot. 30 degrees hot to be precise. Esufally laughs: “A bit of a temperature difference, 55 degrees, more or less.” The next logical question is how the hell can you train for a marathon on ice in a tropical climate, to which Esufally answers with a smile: “I actually found this factory owner in Sri Lanka, I put my treadmill in the back of my jeep, drove to the factory, then put it in a blast fridge and ran on it in minus 20 degrees wearing all the clothes I would take with it me in Antarctica. He adds: ‘It actually went viral at home’; said with the self-awareness one can only achieve after spending months, clad in lycra, running on a treadmill in an industrial refrigerator.
Refrigerators aside, the road hasn’t always been easy for Esufally. He remembers how he twisted his ankle halfway through the Inca Trail, a trail that traditionally takes three nights and four days to walk, with runners given a 14-hour deadline to complete what is considered the marathon on hardest in the world. When asked why it’s so difficult, Esufally opens up a Pandora’s box of less than ideal running conditions: “You start in complete darkness at 4am, you run through the Amazon rainforest so your clothes get wet, you can get lost off the trail, and there’s obviously some altitude to deal with, it’s hard to breathe and, coming from Sri Lanka where there is no altitude, it’s not easy.
This is when the interview ends. Ultimately, he needs to run, so he’s off to Morocco to train a little in the desert for the next step on his list of goals – the World Marathon Majors and the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. Before we part ways, he slips into the fact that he’s writing a self-help book about the lessons he’s learned. If there’s one thing Esufally’s story teaches us: when life feels like a tough marathon, zip up your parka, open the fridge door, and keep running.