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Love for the outdoors, military history and life as a UWCSEA boarder in the 80s

Avtar Singh Sandhu, UWCSEA Class of 1991 at the start of the Sabah Adventure Challenge which he renewed, and developed into a successful sports events company

Love for the outdoors, military history and life as a UWCSEA boarder in the 80s

We caught up with Avtar Singh Sandhu '91 during a visit to UWCSEA in November 2017, en route to his home on the island of Labuan off the coast of Borneo with his long term partner, Victoria and niece, Chelsea. We asked him to tell us a little about the outdoor events company that he founded and developed and has very recently sold.
Over the past 17 years, Avtar has organised wildly adventurous ultra-marathons and adventure races in Sabah. Over those years he built his enterprise into a fully-fledged event company, Sabah Adventure Challenge which would eventually become Borneo Ultra Trails Pte Ltd with a board of directors and full-time staff.
He planned and tested the gruelling ultra trail marathon race courses over 100 kilometers, including the rivers that competitors would tire tube down (grade 2) of which three almost resulted in his drowning, devised and created mandatory kits and safety protocols for trail running races in Malaysia as well as the sports tourism business model for trail running in Malaysia and successfully looked after the thousands of runners participating in his races in some of the most remote locations of Borneo.
He rebuilt the Sabah Adventure Challenge in 2004 into an iconic adventure race and in 2011, created the now famous TMBT Ultra Trail Marathon and subsequently the BUTM Ultra Trail Marathon. The TMBT (12km, 30km, 50km and 100km on the foothills of Mount Kinabalu)  and the BUTM (12km, 30km, 50km and 100km) races are now recognised as major international races on ultra trail marathon calendars around the world.
Having competed in a number of ultra trail marathons, adventure races and mountain races over the past 25 years, Avtar used his experience into organizing extreme races in Borneo.
When asked how he got into ultra-marathons, Avtar spoke fondly about his love for cross country running which started back in his seven years of boarding at UWCSEA. He says, “I was fortunate to have the late Mr Hubert May as my boarding house master, taking me and a small group of other 11-year olds to MacRitchie Reservoir in an old VolksWagen van at 5am to run every Saturday morning.”  
He says, “I tried to get in touch with him a few years ago but unfortunately I was not able to speak with him as he was too ill. I wanted, after 33 years, to thank him for putting me on this path and for being a very, very good father figure to me as a young boy living away from home. He instilled a lot of the values I carry with me today and sometimes, we regret we don’t get a chance to say thank you.”
Avtar and fellow border Daniel Fowlds were the best cross country and middle distance runners in their year. “Daniel was the best cross country runner in our year. I was always behind him from start to finish and we always finished 1-2. I was a very good runner but Daniel was better. In football, I was blessed with great speed. And this was a massive advantage as a full back or central defender. You have so much confidence when you know you are faster and can catch anyone on the soccer field. In cross country running, I was blessed with pace and endurance for middle distance running and it helped me in football in the long term. ”
Avtar also gives credit to tutor Nick Alston who introduced him to the outdoors; kayaking lessons and a Nepal expedition at UWCSEA which changed his perceptions of the great outdoors and adventure. Looking back, Avtar credits Alston for his big foray into organising races; “the Nepal expedition was what gave me my first insight into what expeditions were all about and the responsibilities team leaders have looking after the group. I am sure we gave Alston all sorts of headaches but he was always calm, collected and organised and it made a massive difference in the experience we had in Nepal.”
Looking back, he says he enjoyed being a boarder. “The boarding staff, including the Mays and Matron Jo provided the much-needed support and established a daily routine that I, as an 11-year old, then needed. In fact, the early morning routine I adopted as a boarder has followed me through the years to this very day.”
Apart from running, Avtar also participated in the ANZA Football league with other Junior house boarders in a team named “The Sailors.” The first year in the ANZA league was a disaster; heavy defeats in every match and no win’s. Hubert May changed everything the following season and results improved dramatically with the introduction of a proper football coach who taught us discipline, tactics, basic football skills and organized us into a unit. We played for each other and gave 120% on the football pitch for the team because we didn’t want to suffer the humiliation we did in our first year.
We subsequently started winning match after match, and eventually won the League and the Cup that year. Avtar won the ‘Best Player of the Year’ award for “The Sailors” in the ANZA league and played in the senior football teams as a defender until fifth year for UWCSEA as well. He says, “Mr. May regretted one thing I think looking back. As motivation to win, he promised us a free Burger King lunch if we won our ANZA match’s; we won most of our match’s that season so it was an expensive treat for him though I think he had a good laugh looking back!”
Even though his own father thought he was too young to go away to boarding school, Avtar says he had been determined to join UWCSEA after being interviewed by teacher Charles Engmann who painted a wonderful picture of the experience he would gain, and because he says, “I liked the uniform!” Avtar remembers, “Engman was the big, happy and charismatic man…he was a so warm, and he made you feel you wanted to be a part of the whole UWC experience. And I had no regrets. The UWC experience was a life changing experience for me.”
Avtar left UWCSEA after completing Grade 10, known as Year 5 at the time and pursued his pre-university studies at Canning College in Perth, Australia where he continued his passion for soccer and played as a left back for South Perth Soccer Club in the then 1st division of the Western Australian Soccer League but suffered a serious injury in his first match, badly damaging the ligaments in his ankle though he came back to win “best young player of the league,” after coming back from an eight week lay-off to play 10 league match’s and scoring a goal on his birthday in a 1-2 defeat.
After spending three years at Seattle University, Avtar joined the Big Bear Pacific Northwest Running Club as a 19 year old and began short trail races. He eventually moved on to half and full marathons before trying his luck in longer 50 mile and 100 mile races. “It was a very tough learning curve but it was a very good experience running with older, matured runners who taught me the ethics and values of cross country running not only as a sport but as a potential tourism product.”
Avtar returned to Borneo in 1995 and was involved with the family sports business. In 2004, he took over a friend’s adventure race called the Sabah Adventure Challenge and re-modeled it, introducing a new sports tourism business model that would be  used by event companies all over South East Asia.
After 17 years, Avtar felt it was time to do the things he always wanted to do and that was to begin writing military history books, spend more time at home with his dogs and to lead a quiet, stress free, peaceful life on the island of Labuan. He made the decision to sell his event company in January 2017.
“I didn’t want to spend my life time from 5am to 11pm in front of computers which was what was starting to happen as the TMBT and BUTM races grew in size and popularity. I wanted to evolve and do other things in life that mattered and this was the time to do it. I had almost drowned a number of times testing river crossings and rapids that would be used for my competitors as I tested all rivers personally to ensure they were safe. I had also ruptured my Achilles tendon and suffered lower back injuries. The responsibilities of managing so many lives during an Ultra Trail marathon for 48 hours is massive. Though in reality, it’s actually a 7 day week of anxiety and stress because a lot of things never go according to plan; you deal with different human characters with different personalities, the weather, mother nature…it’s tough but you try to foresee where problems can and will crop up and mitigate risks and manage using experience and foresight. But you are ultimately responsible if things go wrong so you have to give so much in that short space of time.”
Avtar has kept himself busy writing not just one but four books of military history. His first book, The Enemy of my Enemy is also my Friend, has just been released. His second, called Ferdinand/Elefant: Beast of the East explores WWII tanks and their evolution. He says, “My interest in military history was first ignited at UWCSEA by Dr Underwood” who had a unique and interesting approach to teaching the history of WWI and II.”
Having led a purposeful and rewarding life, and having more time now that he has semi-retired, Avtar hopes to pay it forward by pursuing two causes close to his heart.
The first is an investigation into scholarship opportunities for promising Sabah native students from the villages around Mount Kinabalu. The second is a desire to reduce the amount of plastic and rubbish washing ashore on the beaches of Labuan Island.
Avtar started diving in 1989 and spends a lot of time in the water. He has become greatly alarmed by the amount of rubbish being dumped into our world’s oceans and he hopes to start a movement in Labuan to begin with, to slow and hopefully to eventually prevent such activity taking place.
He dropped in to UWCSEA to discuss this cause, because as he says, “I thought what better place to start looking for inspiration and input than from current UWCSEA students. These young minds are the future and they can make a massive difference in what kind of world we live in.”


14 Dec 2017
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