By Garrett MacLean

Ultramarathoner Thanh Vu sheds light on the parallels between endurance racing and the corporate world. With insights aimed at fostering resilience and personal growth, Vu’s perspective offers invaluable lessons for executives navigating uncertain terrain. 

In the classic fairy tale, “Snow White,” the young princess flees into the woods and experiences fear, loneliness, uncertainty, and numerous obstacles that test her inner resilience. As many know, the story is a timeless symbol of transformation and triumph in the face of adversity. But it begs the question: What would you do if you found yourself in a forest alone, freezing for hours or even days? You feel your body aching. You notice your supplies are running low. And you realize you’re now a character in a beautiful, twisted fairytale. Would you cry? Would you begin to sing Taylor Swift melodies as a last resort? Would the experience connect you with Mother Nature and remind you how blessed you are to have the opportunity to choose to torture yourself in such a glorious way?

That’s what Vietnamese ultra- marathoner Thanh Vu did last month, trucking along under the Northern Light’s strongest Aurora in its 11-year cycle in the northern tip of Sweden. Keep it simple. Push it. Push it. Keep it simple. This is the mantra she repeats to herself while maintaining razor focus en route to completing the 500km Montaine Lapland Arctic Ultra in 9 days, 9 hours, and 18 minutes. That’s not a race; that’s an expedition. And like any expedition, there’s a reason for it.

Thanh Vu set a goal for herself years ago, an endless goal she’ll never reach, but one that keeps her committed, providing clear direction every step of the way. She aims to become the most resilient Vietnamese person in the world.

Born and raised in Hanoi, Thanh later moved to study in Singapore, Canada, and the UK before landing a dream job after graduation, working at Bloomberg in Singapore as part of the financial products team. Despite living a life many people dream of, hopping from this country to the next week in and week out, she quickly became bored by the allure of simply accumulating travel points. After two years, she started imagining what a break from the corporate world would look like. Instead of sitting at her desk, daydreaming about quitting her job to relax on a beach, Thanh dreamt of a challenge that would push her beyond her limits to become her absolute best. Not only did she accomplish this goal, she made history – more than once.

In 2016, she became the first Asian female to complete the 4 Deserts Grand Slam, trekking 1000 km across the world’s toughest deserts (Namibia, Gobi, Atacama, and Antarctica), averaging running nearly a marathon a day for a year. In 2017, she became the first Asian female to complete The Track, a 522 km journey across Australia. In 2018, she completed a 230 km race in the European Arctic Circle and a 273 km crossing of the Grand Canyon. In 2019, she completed the Everest Trail Race, racing 173 km through the Himalayas. And in 2022, she was the first Asian female to become the IUTA World Champion of the Deca Ultra Triathlon in the continuous format, which includes a 38 km swim, an 1800 km cycle, and a 422 km run.

But, let’s go back to 2015. When she seemingly quit the dream life, she faced a different kind of challenge: stomaching the guilt of disappointing her parents. After making her decision, Thanh’s mother didn’t speak to her for weeks. Leaving the default path to take the road less traveled worries any parent. Many enroll in a major, take a job, or live in a specific city to escape the guilt of not living up to expectations or disregarding the countless sacrifices parents make for their children.

“There’s always going to be guilt, and sometimes we cling to it as an excuse not to launch ourselves into something in the unknown,” Thanh says. “At some point, we have to stop blaming our parents for the choices we make. At the end of the day, we have to take responsibility and accountability for what we want to do. Their generation went through so much uncertainty and turbulence, so for them to be able to achieve security and stability is massive. But for us, because we’re born in a more stable environment, if we don’t introduce more turbulence into our lives, we’re not going to get stronger.”

Thanh’s words speak to philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s concept of anti-fragility. Introducing small shocks to an antifragile system doesn’t merely generate resilience, it adapts, evolves, and thrives in response. You see this in athletes, artists, and entrepreneurs. Muscle fibers tear when subjected to intense physical activity and become stronger. Creativity skills strengthen when your art is criticized or even rejected by audiences. Adversity, failure, and disruptions in the market are nothing more than fuel for those embedded with the entrepreneurial spirit. As Taleb wrote, “Wind extinguishes a candle and energizes fire.” Therefore, to become stronger, it’s best to keep things simple: be the fire and don’t just wish for the wind; create it by pushing yourself forward in life. For Thanh, she pursues physical endurance challenges that resemble miniature versions of life, where the ups and downs of a race teach you a lot about yourself and how you want to live. 

Beyond sport, art, and business, having difficult conversations fortifies relationships. That goes for your parents, your friends, your spouse, and your boss at work, but most importantly, as Thanh notes, it’s the conversations you have with yourself that define who you end up becoming in life. “The best and only way to convince people worried about whether you make the right decisions is to do your best. Show them that you’re okay, you’re happy, struggling, and finding out what works for you,” Thanh says. 

Thanh’s journey exemplifies the in – terconnectedness of antifragility and inspiration. Successful athletes, artists, and entrepreneurs use setbacks as stepping stones rather than stumbling blocks and are able to find inspiration wherever their unconventional path leads them. Being from Southeast Asia, Thanh says all she has to do is look around to stay inspired. “Resilience is in the blood of the Vietnamese,” she adds. 

For her, it’s the sight of an aunt and uncle, who lack fancy titles yet persevere on the streets at 4 am, engaged in the hustle of selling treats to support their family. It’s observing her own mother’s resilience when she embarked on the Son Doong Cave expedition at the age of 60. It’s witnessing another individual, also in their sixties, during Thanh Vu’s first race, running up sand dunes until their prosthetic leg fell off, only to watch them empty the sand, reattach it, and press on. Lastly, it’s the continual reminder of the limitless power inherent in the human mind, body, and spirit, evident in her fellow competitors.

“Before when I was 24, I worked in Singapore, and that’s kind of like the world of wealth and success with multi- millionaires and billionaires and such, but I couldn’t really find someone that I would say ‘Wow, I would want to be like you when I’m older.’ But now, I can see myself being in my 60s and still being resilient and still doing these hundreds and hundreds of kilometer races and being able to humble some 30-year-olds and help them get through life with a little more humility.” 

When it comes to endurance racing, your money, your title, or your status mean nothing. Instead, it’s virtues that require decades of practice to cultivate, like patience, kindness, humility, empathy, and resilience, that will get you through such physically demanding challenges. This is true in racing, in business, and in life. 

Throughout her expeditions, Thanh has developed the ability to point out leaders with such virtues from the rest of the pack – not managers, a point she specifically made. Combining her racing experience with working full time at THP (Tan Hiep Phat), the largest family-owned FMCG company in Vietnam, she has inspired many to become leaders in their own lives, encouraging them to take on seemingly impossible goals while building trust along the way. Since 2017, she has toured the world from Asia to Europe to the US, speaking at conferences, leadership summits, and various domestic and international conglomerates, including Unilever, ACB, Reinsurance Group of America, and others. Thanh’s talks draw parallels between endurance racing and day-to-day life by providing actionable insights designed to instill a bold corporate culture, encourage employees to be the best version of themselves, and, above all, remind audiences to embrace the longest endurance challenge there is: life itself. 

Her relentless pursuit of becoming the most resilient Vietnamese person in the world demands transcending fear and guilt, courageously venturing into the unknown, one step at a time. This September marks a pivotal moment in her decade-long racing career as she takes on her most daunting challenge yet – the Triple DECA, a triathlon that has never been held before and one of the longest races in history. It covers the equivalent of 30 Ironman distances in continuous loops. Coinciding with her company’s 30th anniversary, this endeavor represents a whole new kind of formidable fairytale that has yet to be authored. 

And like Thanh, all explorers understand that it’s there, at the frontier between the known and the unknown, where you find yourself out of your depth, your feet no longer touching the bottom, that history is not only made but also where the most beautiful stories are written.

Keep Going: Rolling with the Punches in 2024

The Business Executive Network’s End of Year Lunch in 2023, held at the Sofitel Saigon Plaza, aimed to celebrate the resilience of CEOs and businesses after a challenging year and inspire attendees for the upcoming year. The afternoon was filled with insightful talks from panelists, David Archibald, Trent Morrow, and Thanh Vu, who shared their remarkable stories of endurance. David Archibald, General Director of Al Naboodah Group Vietnam, highlighted the importance of resilience in business amidst great turmoil, drawing parallels between overcoming both personal and corporate challenges. Trent Morrow, the “Marathon Man,” shared his incredible journey of running over 370 marathons in the past decade. Thanh Vu, Ultramarathon World Champion, discussed conquering 2,260 kilometers of swimming, biking, and running, and how she was able to push her body beyond its limits during such extreme tests of human endurance.

70 CEOs and General Directors came together to gain fresh perspectives, and the atmosphere was that of enthusiasm and appreciation. We extend our gratitude to our speakers, and the Sofitel team for their exceptional service and hospitality as always.To join us for more insightful events like this in the future, stay connected with the Business Executive Network and continue to receive personalized insights, fresh ideas, and opportunities for professional growth in business in Vietnam.  


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