MBA Alum John Du posing before his run at the Gobi Desert Challenge.

MBA Alum Takes On Gobi Desert Challenge

Friday, April 5, 2024

By Bridget Burnham


The China Executive MBA community completes life-altering experiences in the Gobi Desert, a life-altering terrain. The Gobi Desert is a large, cold desert and grassland region in northern China and southern Mongolia and is the sixth-largest desert in the world.


Large crowd of runners bearing flags waiting for the race to start.
Competitors in the Gobi Desert Challenge gather to start, bracing against the wind and elements.

Standing on a barren stretch of the Gobi Desert in May 2023, John Du, ’19 MBA, felt small and lost. Four days of continuous running through the vast expanse of the world’s sixth-largest desert humbled him.

“All the training in the world can’t prepare you for the extremes,” says Du. From daily 30-degree temperature swings to scathing sand storms, the 121-kilometer (75-mile) Gobi Desert Challenge pushes the limits of human endurance. “It’s more than just a physical challenge; it’s a mental one,” says Du.

His family and colleagues questioned his choice when he began training for the grueling race. But it wasn’t until day four in the desert, just 10 kilometers from the finish, that Du wondered for himself if he was losing touch with reality, especially when he heard someone calling his name.

“I didn’t expect anyone to recognize me out there,” says Du, who, in this moment, was separated from his team and covered head-to-toe in protective outerwear. But he heard his name.

The figure behind the voice approached, unwinding a tightly wrapped scarf to reveal Professor Gu Zhaoyang, an instructor from Du’s China Executive MBA (CHEMBA) days. “I felt Professor Gu’s encouragement as soon as I saw the familiar smile,” says Du. The two ran together for a few kilometers, holding the energy of the encounter together for as long as they could before Du broke away to complete his race.

Meeting his professor in the expanse of the Gobi was pivotal for Du—a vivid reminder that life’s unexpected connections can enliven even the most desolate places. “That encounter was a turning point,” says Du. “It reminded me that no matter how alone we feel, our journeys are intertwined.” 


View of mountaneous terrain from airplane.
An aerial view of the rugged terrain of the Gobi Desert in northern China. Photo courtesy John Du.

Woven With Resilience

Du was neither an extreme sports athlete nor necessarily an ace student growing up, but his route to the Gobi mirrors the desert’s diverse terrain. His family’s history of migration from China to Vietnam and his personal peripatetic global journey, from Vietnam to Australia to Europe—and eventually to China—instilled in Du an inherent resilience that he used to propel himself toward new opportunities and experiences.

After graduating as an exchange student in Sweden from Western Sydney University, Du worked as a production development engineer for a Swedish automotive manufacturer before transforming copper manufacturing plants across Europe as a global Lean expert and plant manager. In 2012, Du relocated to Zhongshan, China, to head Luvata Superconductors. Six years later, he says he felt his professional growth stagnate. At that time, he found out about the unique learning opportunity the CHEMBA program provides through the Carlson School of Management and Lingnan College, Sun Yat-Sen University. The unique partnership compelled Du to explore a challenge he never thought he’d consider: returning to school.

I have confidence in the power of my persistence. If I set out to reach a goal, I know I can achieve it.

John Du, ’19 MBA

Transformation Through Education

Enrolling in the CHEMBA program forced Du to tackle deep-seated doubt in his academic abilities. “I wasn’t the most studious kid back in Australia, but pursuing my MBA helped me prove to myself that I could overcome my fears,” says Du. Finding fresh confidence and a new community opened doors for Du’s personal and professional growth. A friend from the program convinced Du, who hated running, to sign up for the Gobi Desert Challenge at an alumni event in 2021. The four-day challenge is open to all students and alumni of Chinese business schools and their affiliated universities from other countries. “He said, ‘If you do it, I’ll do it,’” recalls Du, who decided to train for the extreme endurance race as the next leg in his endeavor for self-improvement.

Preparing for the Gobi Desert Challenge required ruthless prioritization and self-management, balancing early morning runs with his demanding schedule managing and growing a manufacturing organization, and in his newest role as father to his daughter, Evelyn. Through miles and months of training (the race was postponed twice, from May 2022 to October 2022, then eventually was held in May of 2023), Du leaned into the consistency and camaraderie that got him through his studies to persist toward his goal.

“There were days it was hard to get out of bed for those morning runs. But the discipline I learned and practiced in the CHEMBA program helped me stay the course,” says Du. Tracking his progress on a spreadsheet gave him visible motivation to lace up his running shoes daily, but his teammates sparked a new level of transformation.


Community in the Gobi

The tents at night all aglow.
The soft glow of the tents lights the campground at night. Competitors face 30-degree temperature swings during the challenge.

Du trained with MBA and CHEMBA students and alumni from Lingnan College, Sun Yat-Sen University. The Carlson School’s CHEMBA program was one of the first joint programs approved by the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China in 1999. But it wasn’t until 2018 that CHEMBA students participated in the challenge. Veronica Zeng, '22 MBA and former CHEMBA marketing director, recruited and ran with the first CHEMBA alumni team in the Gobi Desert Challenge in 2018 and 2019. Though she no longer works for the program, Zeng still promotes the race as an unmatched opportunity for Chinese business students and alumni, and expats, like Du, to connect. “There are so many business schools in China,” says Zeng, “But the Gobiers get familiar very quickly.”

Du welcomed new connections with open arms, running three days a week, rain or shine, in matching uniforms, with people he now describes as a “close-knit family. We all look out for each other,” says Du. “You become cohesive as a team as you struggle together.”

Bright memories, like running into his professor in the desolate desert valley, or spotting fellow Gobiers at races and business meetings, color Du’s Gobi experience. But so do the difficult conditions and dark moments, like when his classmate and training partner missed his goal time on the fourth day of the race. “We saw each other, exhausted and covered in dust in the middle of the desert, and were on the verge of tears,” says Du. “It was a really hard moment, but we shared it.”

Crossing the finish line of the Gobi Desert Challenge completely reshaped Du’s outlook. “I approach challenges in my personal life and work differently now,” Du says. “I have confidence in the power of my persistence. If I set out to reach a goal, I know I can achieve it.”

Du and his training partner are now both preparing for the 2024 Gobi Desert Challenge. Their goal is to finish faster than they did in 2023. “Running is a reminder that you get out of life what you put in,” says Du. He hopes to pass that lesson of perseverance and passion on to his daughter and colleagues. “I’m 47, I’ve never been a long-distance runner, and I’m out here training. If I can do it, you can too.”


Veronica sitting on the ground.
Veronica Zeng, a former CHEMBA staff member

Veronica Zeng: Resilience, Recovery, and Transformation

In the shadows of the Gobi Desert, Veronica Zeng, a graduate and former CHEMBA staff member, found her life’s calling when the 2018 Gobi Desert Challenge reshaped her perspective and career. She recruited and ran with the first CHEMBA participants to improve her marathon time, which she did. Zeng then went on to compete at the highest level in the 2019 race.

“The Gobi tested my physical limits and redefined my understanding of what I’m capable of,” says Zeng. In the unforgiving desert’s harsh conditions and vast, relentless terrain, Zeng’s training struggles and her road to recovery from injury unearthed a new passion for physical therapy. “I learned the importance of not just enduring, but healing and growing through training,” she says.

Post-Gobi, Zeng decided to help bring physical therapy education to China, working to close the gap in sports, injury, and recovery training. “The Gobi taught me how to use what I learned about resilience to help others live healthier lives,” she says.

Spring 2024 alumni magazine cover

This article appeared in the Spring 2024 alumni magazine

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