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June 24, 2019updated Jun 25, 2019

Taking on the Chapman’s Challenge at Pangkor Laut

By Alex Martin

I start at frantic speed, keeping sight of the leaders. Despite arriving from London just hours earlier and suffering jet lag, I feel surprisingly good. I overtake one runner and then another. I start dreaming about a top 10 finish. Here I am, a travel journalist turning up at the last minute to beat chiseled cross-fitters and prominent triathletes.

All of sudden, the situation changes. The pleasant paved roads make way for the jungle trail. My stride is disturbed by a barrage of roots, slippery rocks and the fear of venomous snakes. The air is noticeably thicker and the sweat is refusing to evaporate from my skin. I am on the brink of overheating. “You’ve blown it,” reads my inner monologue. It’s only a matter of time before a torrent of competitors flies past.

I move to the edge of the trail, making room for the more-disciplined runners. Yet, no one comes. I have slowed down significantly, so where is everyone? I realize that I am not the only one struggling with the fierce heat, the stifling humidity and the wild terrain.

Alex Martin competing in The Chapman’s Challenge / ©PangkorLautResort

This is the Chapman’s Challenge, an endurance test inspired by the miraculous survival story of Freddie Spencer Chapman. He was part of a British special forces campaign against the Japanese in 1941 when, a year later, supplies ran dry and contact with allies was cut off. Presumed dead, he had two choices: become a prisoner of war or venture into the wild. He chose the latter and successfully evaded enemy forces for over three years before being rescued.

The fact that no one manages to overtake me during the jungle section is an example of why Chapman, who died in 1971, sought refuge under the dense canopy. He knew the best way to avoid capture was to take away the Japanese advantage, and the jungle did that for him. In this harsh environment, nature reigns supreme. Anyone trespassing on its land must play by the rules. His discovery later inspired the title of Chapman’s memoirs, ‘The Jungle is Neutral’.

Chapman’s legacy is now honored with this challenge on Pangkor Laut Island, the very site of his rescue via submarine. The race consists of a very hilly four-mile run on road and jungle trail and finishes with a 0.62-mile ocean swim. It takes me one hour and one second to finish it. It leaves me utterly exhausted yet it is just a slither of the hardship that Chapman had to endure.

The finish line is located in the exact spot of his extraction, the idyllic Emerald Bay – the beautiful waters justifying its name. Still mostly undeveloped, it looks much the same as it did when Chapman sat here awaiting rescue. In fact, much of the island’s interior is untouched save for a few well-trodden paths. But in another sense the island has changed dramatically because it is now the site of one of the world’s most exclusive hotel resorts.

Pangkor Laut Resort takes up the entire 300-acre island, but only a fraction of it has been built on. Many of the villas sit on over-water stilts or are cleverly blended into the landscape, giving this expansive resort a natural feel. The island itself remains a wild place, a fact made clear when I spot a five-foot lizard basking in the morning sun. A polite notice in my room advises to double-lock my door because the island’s monkeys have become adept at opening them.

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The hotel’s owners, YTL, want it this way and they are as keen to respect the island’s history as they are its natural environment, so when Chapman’s story found its way to the management team the idea for an event soon followed. They wanted to honor his legacy in the right way, so they invited Chapman’s son, Chris, to start the event. He has since returned every year as the guest of honor while his two children, Stephen and Hazel, regularly compete in the event.

Emerging from Emerald Bay for the final sprint to the finish line

Chris Chapman (left) congratulates winner Matt Poole at the finish

“By chance we came here five years ago because I had heard about Emerald Bay from my mother” Chris says. “We came for one night and I was chatting to the manager and he mentioned that they had been thinking of starting a challenge and invited me to start it.

“We came for the first one and we have come back every year since. It’s very nice for us as a family to have his name remembered in such an appropriate way.

“Not everyone knows the full history but that is fine. They can enjoy the event for what it is. I am not concerned if they don’t because it’s up to them if they want to know about the history. A lot of people have come up and thanked me for our family involvement with the event which is really touching.”

Chris is there at Emerald Bay to welcome home all of the finishers and he listens intently as they share their own experiences of the Pangkor Laut jungle. Throughout the weekend you see people naturally gravitate towards the Chapmans – they are celebrities to this small band of fitness fanatics and offer a direct connection to the story that has inspired them.

The evening banquet at Emerald Bay

For some, the event has been life-changing. The organizers tell me of one couple who met at the inaugural event, fell in love and are now engaged. I meet a man, Ong Hendley, who says the event has changed his life. Four years ago, working for YTL, he was overweight and sedentary. He took up the Chapman’s Challenge on a whim with no training. It was a painful experience, but an inspirational one. He no longer works for the hotel group but returns to the island every year a little bit leaner and a little bit faster. He now fits in with the muscle-bound competitors. It may only be four years old, but the event is making its own history.

The event draws to a close with a gourmet banquet at Emerald Bay. We sip from coconuts and watch the sunset over the ocean, people taking it in turns to share and listen to each person’s unique race experience. There is enough food to feed a battalion and competitors rightly indulge after their achievements earlier in the day.

Chris is once again invited to speak to the crowd and helps hand out the prizes. There is a party atmosphere as the live band takes to the stage and those still with strength in their legs shuffle to the dance floor. Others are already booking their places for next year and fancy their chances of improving their time. The jungle may have something to say about that.

The fifth edition of The Chapman’s Challenge will be held May 15-17 2020. Nightly rates start from $350 per night. To book your place on the start line, visit pangkorlautresort.com.

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