At first, Michael Dee’s goal was merely to conquer Chile’s brutal Atacama Desert, as part of a nearly week-long endurance race across one of the harshest environments on Earth. At about 10,000 feet high, the Atacama is where NASA scientists go to study terrain that most resembles the dry, desolate landscapre on the planet Mars.
It’s also where this 53-year-old native of Buffalo, NY, took up a unique challenge as part of the 4Deserts Ultramarathon, known as one of the most punishing endurance races on the planet.
But Dee’s ultimate goal seemed as extreme as the race itself. The Singapore-based businessman hoped to raise enough money to send that nation’s Special Olympics athletes to the 2011 Summer Games in Athens. And Dee didn’t want to just send a few athletes; he wanted to raise enough to train and send the entire 60-member team to the world championships, half way around the world.
Dee’s inspiration comes from seeing – up close-- what Special Olympics can do for its athletes. He recalls how his younger sister, who has Down Syndrome, blossomed after enrolling in Special Olympics as a child. Dee says she has great spirit “and a lot of confidence -- and I think all of that came from Special Olympics.” Decades later, Ann Dee still participates in Special Olympics in New York, and also helps mentor some of the junior athletes.
Michael Dee is a longtime investment banker with Morgan Stanley and Temasek Holdings in Singapore. In fact, Dee uses the term ‘‘investments’’ to describe donations to a cause like Special Olympics. He calls it an investment in the future of people with intellectual disabilities – and in the community at large.
With that in mind, he began his 155-mile race, which adds up to about six marathons in one. Atacama racers must lug all the food and equipment they’ll need to get them through the weeklong ordeal. They run with the towering Andes Mountain range on one side and the Pacific coast on the other, as trade winds swirl in between. Temperatures hit 115 degrees F during the day, then plunge to the 40s at night.
For Dee, a low point came during a sleepless, nearly 23-hour push, as the winds howled day and night. He says he and the other racers were putting themselves “physically and mentally to the limit. You have to dig very deep to keep going.”
Dee says the “hardest thing to overcome is the mental side, and, if you think about it, for our Special Olympics athletes, it’s the same thing.” He says he kept in mind the poem “Invictus” (Latin for “unconquered”). Its memorable lines include: “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”
He says those words reminded him of what he’s learned over the years about drive, determination and Special Olympics athletes. Dee told himself, “If they can do what they do, then I can get this done.”
And so he did, and now Dee is ready to get it done again. This summer, he’s taking on another ultramarathon challenge, this time in China’s Gobi Desert.