Saturday, 10 September 2016

Mastering Zen. La Ultra - The High 333. 2016


“Whatever you do it will be insignificant, but it is important that you do it anyway.” Mahatma Gandhi

La Ultra – The High 333 takes place in the region of Ladakh, in the Indian Himalayas. The region forms part of the ancient Tibetan plateau and is the highest desert in the world. Ladakh was an independent state but when India achieved independence from British control; and with the looming threat of a Chinese invasion in 1947, Ladakh decided to become part of India. The region is predominantly Buddhist and is the summer home to the Dalhai Llama. The border with Pakistan and China is only some 60 kms away and the military presence is enormous. Tensions between the countries at the time of writing seem pretty relaxed with soldiers playing chess with each other from across the Border. But things are not all peaceful and in the adjacent region of the Kashmir, in Srinagar recent unrest has resulted in gunfire and many people killed. Indeed, Angmo, one of the local Ladahki people that was on my crew could not return to work as the region had become too dangerous. But during the time of the race, the Indian army moved in in full force and stability has been returned to the region, albeit with the imposition of force.

It is indeed an interesting region to visit.

This was my third attempt at the 333 km version of the race, having failed the two previous times. The first time I was in the lead by 2 hours at 317 kms but I had collapsed and gone into shock, unable to complete the distance. Last year I had actually finished the distance but I had done so outside the time limit of 72 hours, arriving 54 minutes late. Clearly the distance and time limits were within my capability but had frustratingly slipped through my fingers as the finish line approached. I had decided to give it one more attempt before putting it down.

The underlying difficulty of La Ultra – The High is not the distance in itself; but it is the altitude. Performing athletically at altitude exposes you to serious health risks, which you have to keep under control. High altitude sickness, particularly Pulmonary edemas are genuine risks that have to be mitigated with a lengthy acclimatisation period and a disciplined, serene approach when actually running above 5000M. Excessive work rates at these altitudes cause the body to break down quickly with often serious consequences. It is fair to say that it is a dangerous race. 
The word “La” in Ladakhi means “mountain pass” so the name of the race; “La Ultra” literally means “The Ultra of the mountain passes.” You have to cross 3 mountain passes, Kardung La at 5400M, Wari La at 5300M and Tanglang La at 5350M. The distance is 333 kms long and it all has to be done within 72 hours. In describing the race, it is like having the environmental hazard of extreme conditions similar to Badwater except that you change the heat for altitude but with the imposition of extreme athletics and time controls as found in the Spartathlon. Indeed, the nature of the race is a sort of hybrid between these two emblematic races played out at high altitude in the Himalayas. Brutal. Rajat Chauhan the race director has indeed created the ultimate master piece of ultra-running art.

In more recent years I have been searching for the pure zen state in my running; that state of complete balance and peace where nothing can perturb you, where thoughts enter and leave your mind at ease, where no thought is hung on to, but where no though is blocked either. It is an incredibly peaceful state devoid of any conflict. The state of mindfulness where only the present actually matters, where superfluous thoughts simply drift away. You become completely in tune with your body, completely synchronised to every micro detail and subtle change in your physiology. The beauty is that once the state is reached you can run in an optimised manner forever and ever and ever; the nirvana of the ultra-marathon runner. Many times I will go out to train and find the state almost instantly, arriving back home without any recollection of the run that I have just done, the state of disconnection with the clutter of life being virtually complete. Indeed, I have become very good at it but in huge races, the pressure of the event and the competition have meant that whilst actually racing, I have not entered the state at all. Indeed, it has been far from that where I have pushed my body conscientiously beyond its limits with sometimes disastrous results. It shorter, 100 km races I have had great results by pushing hard in the traditional athletic sense but this simply has not worked for a race like La Ultra – The high. 


Clearly a change in approach was needed if I were to succeed in La Ultra and the obvious answer was to search for the zen state whilst running this enormous challenge. The delicate balance required to finish a race of such enormity is like running on a knife edge. Just one tiny loss of equilibrium and you fall off the side only to crash and burn as I had found out on the previous occasions. Maintain perfect balance and I would finish. But that is easier said than done, as the race itself generates a lot of tension. If there is any tension, then the state can’t be achieved. Lining up on the start line for a 333 km race at over 5000M generates a certain anxiety and destroys any opportunity of entering in the zen state. There is a cruel irony in that if the zen state is consciously searched for it is impossible to find. You have to let the state find you and for that you have to be completely at peace with yourself, completely balanced and completely relaxed, yet highly focused and tuned in on the task in hand. Not an easy task when you are about to cross 333 kms of the Himalayas at over 5000M running like a demon.

At the start line of the race in the Nubra valley at 8 in the evening it had started to rain and the Nubra valley had flooded a short section of the road that we had to cross. It wasn’t cold though and the thin jacket I had was perfect for keeping the rain off. We had sandals and we swapped the running shoes for sandals just to cross the flooded section. There were only four of us in the 333 km category with the majority of the runners doing the 111 km. There were a number of runners from the Indian Navy and we joked about when the boat was coming to ferry us across. On the bus over to the start line I had sat next to a friendly Navy officer called Hari. Hari had just climbed the Kang Yatse at 6200M as part of the acclimatisation for La Ultra and I asked him what his job in the navy actually was. “Oh, I’m in charge of firing the missiles.” He said, quite humbly and unassumingly.

We all crossed the floods without incident and then started up the long hill to Lardung La at 5400M. I had started using a GPS watch to make sure that I didn’t run too fast but I found it rather distracting and really quite annoying. I like to listen to my body and run with the flow, do what feels right at the moment and constantly keeping myself in check with a GPS watch just doesn’t fit with me so I switched it off.

The relief of switching the watch off cannot be understated and very quickly I settled into a pace that just seemed right. Not too fast, not too slow. And as the night advanced and the rain became colder I slowly climbed to altitude and I felt an intense feeling of happiness and joy running in this place. The clouds would break every now and then exposing the billions of stars in the Himalayan night sky, contrasting sharply against the silhouette of the mountains, but would soon close in again and rain some more. The flow was perfect and I ran with effortless ease up the hill until I reached South Pullu at 48 kms and 4700M above sea level. I had intended to get here at 7:15 into the race but in the end had arrived at 6:45. I was ahead of schedule but it had felt right. It had felt like the river of time had just delivered me here and that was simply the way it was going to go. I had tuned in and that was that.

Upon reaching the Check point at North Pullu; Grant Maugn from Australia and Jovica Spajic, the Serbian Beast were just leaving. Grant commented that I had climbed that fast but I certainly had no intention of continuing at that pace. We all hugged and wished each other the best for the race. Grant and Jo continued and I continued to change into my warm clothes that I had left in a drop bag. Upon reaching North Pullu the race hits 4700M which is the height where the lack of oxygen starts to become an issue. I had already decided, before the race that from now on until the summit that I would drop the pace here and simply hike to the top. Grant and Jovica disappeared into the dust and I simply got on with the task in hand which was to get to the top amidst the light snow that was now falling. I put on my down jacket and covered that with a Goretex layer. Amidst the harsh, cold conditions at altitude and at night, I was warm as toast and was actually enjoying every second of the experience.

Dawn broke just as I was summiting Kardung La which was surrounded by a freezing mist that swirled around the mountain pass painting a picture of incredible, stunning beauty as the surrounding mountains came into view, and then disappeared again as the mist closed tightly in. The water on the ground had frozen and had formed a hazy white broken surface due to the snow that had fallen, but the wind had stirred up the surface and it was easy to step on.

From Kardung La until South Pullu the descent was a pleasant, delightful experience simply allowing the gradient of the hill to pull me down. As I descended the air warmed and even the sun came out which added to the pure joy of running in the Himalayas. Straight ahead, over the other side of the Hindus valley I could see the Stock range peeking through the clouds. The view reminded me of when I had climbed the Stock Kangri mountain just 2 years ago with José Luis Rubio and Ryoichi Sato. As I hit the 5000M mark I started to find even more energy, obviously due to the richer oxygen content in the air, it really is quite amazing just what 400M difference makes at that altitude and managed a happy, relaxed pace all the way to South Pullu where the crew car was waiting with a hot coffee and some food.

The crew was composed of Andu, Stansin, Angmo and my wife Elena. Stansin had crewed me last year, Angmo the year before and both wanted to see me actually get to the finish on time. Elena had also decided that she was going to kick me all the way to the finish if that was what was required. Whatever happened this year, this was the last attempt. Whatever happened I was to put it down at the end. This was the last attempt. But it was the perfect crew, completely balanced, in tune with each other and very experienced. They knew what they were doing.

From South Pullo to Leh, the road became busy with traffic but the run continued to be a pleasant experience, simply tuning into my bodies sensations and letting it do what it had to do. The crew were very attentive and I had all the food and drink I needed; the optimum combination for running well, but not too fast, or too slow. That sweet point in the middle where the flow is effortless, the mind is where it should be and the distance just melts away as time flows its inevitable course.

At about 10 kms before Leh, we came across one of the many stray dogs that live in the area. I instantly recognised it as we had seen it before in Leh. It had been operated on and still had part of his body shaved and a visible scar from the operation. The dog also recognised me and instantly hooked into my pace following me just a few metres behind. When I stopped to get some food from the crew we gave some to the dog as well. Needless to say that he didn’t leave us until we arrived at the Goba Hotel in Leh for a half hour planned rest.

But I couldn’t sleep, even though my mind was at peace I simply didn’t feel sleepy so after some 20 mins I got up and decided to get on with the job. But getting out of the room was going to be difficult. Somebody (Elena) had locked it from the outside! I shouted and Vikas soon came; releasing me from my temporary prison. Elena had decided I needed to sleep so what better way than to lock me in the room! A quick foot check and repair and we got once again on our way to Spituck. The road to Spituck isn’t a pleasant affair as it is a main road with a lot of traffic, but the journey transgressed quickly and within an hour and a half of leaving the Goba Hotel we were crossing the bridge just after Spituck village where the 111 kms distance finished. Rahul, one of the Indian runners in the 111 km category had just finished some 5 minutes before me. I had got to know Rahul on the 5 day Markha Valley treck, just 10 days before the race, which we had done as a means of fully acclimatising for the race.

The next stage, from Spituk to Serthi follows a sleepy back road parallel to the Indus river but on the opposite side of the river to the main road. The valley is the epitome of a high altitude desert with barren and rocky features defining the landscape. Every now and then the road takes you to irrigated pastures and you are hit with moist air and greenery of an intensity that is hard to describe. It is a pleasant road with little traffic and although the conditions were good I started to find this section much more difficult than the previous 111 kms. Initially I just put this down to accumulating fatigue, having been on the go now for more than 20 hours but as we approached Karu, and the beginning of the second night took hold, my work rate dropped considerably. The sleep monsters came out in force and conspired with all their might that I should stop. But I was not having any of it and battled on regardless. Alex caught me up and overtook me on the way to his own 333 kms. He was going strong and I couldn’t keep up.

Just after Karu, the crew and I all agreed that trying to forge on regardless was a waste of time and that a short sleep break was necessary to get things back on track. We laid the sleeping bag on the floor and I sort of fell into a restless sleep. I felt like I was sleeping but then I wasn’t, and then I was, and then I wasn’t again. Either way, when the crew woke me up all I felt like was vomiting. I got up and started walking with Stanzin along the dusty broken road to Serthi. He didn’t stop reciting Buddhist prayers all the time and although I had no idea what he was saying; the meaning was obvious. He was praying that I would break out of the low point and get back on with the race. Stanzin is truly a good person and although I am not religious myself, I have a deep respect for his. We walked all the way to Serthi and as I really hadn’t recovered at all by the broken sleep I had had, we checked into the check point and I laid down for another hours sleep at about 3 in the morning.

But this time I fell into the most wonderful rest I have hadin a long time and when I was woken just one hour later I felt incredibly refreshed. It is amazing what one hour of proper rest can do and with a coffee just to get me going we started power hiking up the hill to Wari La at 5300M. As the dawn broke I was already above 4000M and Alex had once again caught up with me. We power hiked together for some time sharing stories about how the sleep monsters had attacked us both the previous night but Alex’s long legs meant he had a natural pace that was faster than mine and I slowly saw him drift off into the horizon.

But this is where I realised that I had reached a superior plain in my own ultra-endurance. In races gone by I would have kept pace with him, I would have upped m pace and matched his, I wouldn’t have let him get away. It was well within my ability to match his pace, push just a little harder, but it was ever so slightly away from my own equilibrium point and for the first time in my life it really didn’t bother me. I was so tuned in to me, so tuned into what I had to do that he left me behind and More importantly I had let go of my ego and I carried on at my own happy pace. The remainder of the climb up to the top of Wari La at 5300M was a really pleasant affair, I really didn’t feel like I was pushing it but my crew, especially Stanzin insisted that I was making excellent speed, much faster than last year and for a perceived effort that was much lower. The stunning moment though was when I reached the summit with very little conscious recollection of the actual climb.

The summit of Wari La looks straight across the Nubra Valley to the Karakorum range with Pakistan to the left and China to the right. Cotton wool clouds swirled around the almost 8,000M mountains in front of me casting deep shadows across the glaciers. It is a truly beautiful, stunning place to be and it was the raw beauty of the place that actually shifted my focus back into the real world. So completely absorbed had I been in the climb that I hadn’t really stopped to think at all. In an effortless expression of the zen state I had climbed the mountain and felt completely refreshed as a result. The run down was just as wonderful. I walked briskly down until I hit about 5000M and then started running again. The difference in Oxygen at 5000M is very noticeable and almost instantly I hit the zen state again. Before I knew it I was back at base camp and then back in Serthi. I remember stopping to admire the magnificent herd of Yaks at about 5000M that were grazing on the sparse vegetation but apart from that I remember very little, once again zoning out as I hit the perfect state of mind for running insane distances in the Himalayas.

The section from Serthi to Karu though was far from the intense pleasure I had felt on Wari La. The road was under construction and most of it was just a dusty track. Hopelessly inadequate for the amount of traffic that was passing on the road. It was by far the most dangerous part of the whole race with cars, trucks, motorcycles and every kind of motor vehicle you can imagine and not a single one would take the slightest deviation to avoid a runner. The only course of action was to step completely off the road whenever a vehicle came along which of course destroyed any meditative state that could be attained whilst running. Even though I was able to maintain a good running pace, at some 230 kms into the race, the section took twice as long as I could have done due to the appalling conditions on the road. I came to the conclusion that one of the most beautiful places on the planet had to have one of the worst roads. That’s how balance works.

Once in Karu things got better again and then I picked up a happy pace once again all the way to Upshi where we all stopped for a planned break of about 2 hours. It was 8:30 PM. We set the alarm for 2 hours later but I woke after an hour and a half. I used the other half hour to repair some minor foot damage before the crew gave me the order to start running again.

Angmo joined me on the road as it was pitch black by now and as we entered the narrow gorge leading to Rumptse the darkness engulfed everything around me, shrinking the world to just the few meters illuminated by my head torch. But the darkness wasn’t at all foreboding and the cold air coming off the river was invigorating. When running with someone, I find it impossible to enter the zen state, their presence distracts me and I can’t hit that optimum state where time and distance just melt away. When things aren’t working out I often prefer someone there but when I am in total equilibrium I prefer running on my own. I can hit the state quickly and the kilometres become effortless.

So Angmo re-joined the crew vehicle and along with Elena fell soundly asleep on the back seat of the car. Stanzin and Andu stayed awake all night and kept me fuelled up, working diligently to keep the machine running. Alex’s flashing light was only about a kilometre ahead and would appear in view every time the bends in the road coincided. And I just kept on, and on. Ticky tacky like a little baby pig trotting happily through a field until we came to Rumptsi, the final camp before the last big mountain pass Tanglang La at 5350M. Elena had now woken and had been busy on the calculator and gave me some wonderful news. According to her calculations I could have a full half an hour of sleep and still maintain schedule before we headed up the pass. It is impossible to understate the feeling of joy at being able to lie down and sleep for an extra half hour that hadn’t been previously planned. A rare luxury in the rarefied barren high altitude desert that is Ladakh.

The crew woke me exactly half an hour later and poured a hot coffee down my neck. Within 5 minutes I was on my feet and heading up the pass. It was dawn and the locals were just starting to go about their business. I crossed and old Ladakhi looking lady with a young child, maybe 7 or 8 years old walking on the road. When I overtook them they sped up and both sped up and matched my pace with massive beaming smiles on their faces. The old lady said something that I didn’t understand but I replied “School?” to the grand daughter and the little girl said “Yes!” “School”. The Grandmother was taking her grandchild to school and they actually ran with me on the road for an absolutely delightful 10 minutes until they arrived at the government run school for Tibetan refugees. A stark reminder of the genocide and subsequent displacement of the Tibetan population just some 100 kms over the border. The Ladakhis and Tibetans have always seen themselves as related and now the province of Ladakh is the home to many Tibetans, not able to return to their homeland.

After they left me, the climb up Tanglang La was just as enjoyable as Wari La. Once again I have very little recollection of any details; such was the perfect state of my own mind during the climb. I was neither thinking, nor not thinking. The climb belonged to an ethereal flow and it was that flow that was carrying me along. Even stopping for food from the crew wouldn’t break the trance although I can remember eating boiled eggs and potatoes with olive oil somewhere along the way that Elena had lovingly prepared. I also remember Jovica stopping and hugging me on the way back after smashing the race in 60 hours together with Grant.

At the top we stopped for a photo and then looked at the clock. It was 64 hours exactly into the race. With a full 8 hours to finish the remaining 25 or so kilometres all I had to do was roll down the hill. I had covered over 300 kms and strangely I felt just great, but when I tried to run downhill, my legs simply behaved like blocks of concrete and refused to run. So I walked to the finish, that my legs did allow. Everyone from the crew took it in turns to come out and walk with me and although their presence meant that my meditative state was lost I valued their company for all the diamonds in the world. They had all helped me get here and these were the final moments that we should all enjoy together. It was an especially special moment out there with my wife Elena. She had been on the crew and had paced me a lot of these last kilometres. It was important for me that we finished this together. Stazin had been the rock he was last year but with a much better result. Ango too, she was simply wonderful. Andu, the driver was awesome. The perfect team and not a single cross word was spoken. 

We all embraced in a long line of people as we crossed together in just under 69 hours where a bottle of Godfather beer was thrust into my hands and promptly got poured down my neck. Alex came in an hour and a half later, ecstatic at his achievement. He had really toughed it out in the end but had made it. 






Reflections

La Ultra - The High 333 in under 72 hours is such a massive challenge that it requires not only a team of people to support you all the way but it also requires you to give the very best of yourself on all levels. You have to remain incredibly strong, both physically and mentally but more importantly you have to let go. Let go of your ego, let go of your anxiety, I mean really, really let go and learn to flow with the tide of time and tune into your most inner of beings. You need to let all the clutter in your life fall away and set about the only task that matters at the time. Running an insane distance in the Himalaysa. The zen state is real and once you learn how to achieve it you can do amazing things.

The Gandhi quote at the beginning of the article “Whatever you do will be insignificant. But it is important you do it anyway.” Really sums it all up. Gandhi I believe; meant that you should remain humble in everything that you do. I am neither a better or worse person for doing this. I have learned that letting go is not easy but when I do let go I am capable of being the best I can be. What I did was insignificant, but it was important for me that I did it.

I bowed before these mountains and they let me pass.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

Weakness


"One who conquers himself is greater than one who conquers a thousand times a thousand on the battlefield."
~ Gautama Buddha

“Dear Rajat;
You really have created the world's finest masterpiece of ultra-running, a canvas of 72 hours long by 333 kms wide in the Indian Himalayas. Upon this canvas are the runners, the artists who paint their art as they make their way over the most beautiful of majestic mountains. But I have a problem. I spilt the paint, I was clumsy and the art I left behind on your perfect canvas is flawed. The paint ran over the edges and that just won't do. Art is meant to be perfect and anything less just isn’t art. It is a mess. I will have to start this painting again.
Your good friend, Mark"


I wrote these words to Rajat, the Race Director shortly after La Ultra – The High. I had actually covered the 333 kms in Ladakh, the Indian Himalayas on foot but I had arrived late, 54 minutes to be precise on top of the 72 hour time limit. This was my second attempt at this distance in the Himalayas and my second failure. Last year I had even been in the lead at km 317 but I had collapsed, totally exhausted and spent. I had gone into shock. This year should have been my year; I was extremely well prepared and very, very fit. During the build up to the race I was quite able to run; and I mean run, uphill up to 5400M.

Whenever we feel that we underperform on a race it is a natural thought

process to look for the reasons behind why we failed to perform. This isn’t the same as finding excuses. Excuses are nothing else but false reasoning to make up for otherwise inadmissible weaknesses that the runner cannot actually come to terms with. In writing this little piece I am certainly not making excuses, on the contrary, I am seeking to understand what went wrong so that I can correct the weakness and come back stronger. Like I said; I should have blown the race out of the water. So why didn’t I?

The race truly fell apart for me on the second day where I lost a lot of time. When I finally managed to gain control again, and in spite of making good progress afterwards, I was unable to make up enough of the lost time to enter within the time limit. What I think happened is interesting, because it exposes a weakness that I never thought existed in my own repertoire. It all started in the first leg of the race on the way up to Kardung La at 5400M.

During this first leg I felt incredibly strong and even though I was consciously pulling myself in from going too fast by the time I had got to North Pullu I had already gained half an hour over what I had done the previous year. By the time I had got to the summit I was a full 2 hours ahead of last year’s schedule. In running at altitude, pace is everything and going too fast exposes you to serious health risks, mainly a pulmonary edema. When I summited, I was already questioning myself as to if I had gone too fast or not, whether I had exposed myself needlessly to the ravishes of altitude and would I pay the price later on. Last year a couple of talented runners had really flown up Kardung La and had subsequently ended up in hospital for precisely that reason.

So on the second day, when I was climbing Wari La at 5300M and I started to have difficulties breathing, the little seed of paranoia that was sown the previous night started to take root in my brain. My breathing became more and more laboured and bore nothing in resemblance to how I had performed at the same altitude during training. Interestingly I also started to have severe pains in my legs, particularly with the tendons on the outside of my left knee. But by far the most alarming symptom was the difficulty I was having breathing.

So the thought started to go round and round my head, all the false logic backing up the original false premise. The mind is absolutely wonderful at circular arguments and within a short space of time I managed to convince myself that I had a pulmonary edema. And the more I convinced myself of that then the more difficulty I actually had breathing. When I got to base camp I promptly checked in with the doctors and they gave me a thorough examination. But there was just one problem; they didn’t actually find anything wrong with me! Now that really threw me, and to be quite honest my original reaction was that they had gotten it wrong. But they checked and checked and checked again and I had absolutely nothing wrong with me. Accepting this was difficult; I was so convinced that I was sick that undoing the false logic and circular arguments took some time. Besides, I was still finding it difficult to breath.

Eventually Rajat, the Race Director gave me a tough order and simply told me to get on with it and that I was making excuses. My wife helped him out.

So, I got up, actually felt OK and started running again. I even felt good and started to run at a decent pace. Ultimately my recovery wasn’t enough to recuperate the time I had spent down, I finished but just outside the time limit allowed.

After the race Rajat wrote this message to me: “I want you to read this transcript of an interview with Prof Tim Noakes. https://www.bulletproofexec.com/podcast-transcript-3-hacking-fatigue-with-tim-noakes-plus-more-4-hour-body-fun/

A bit that you'll definitely enjoy is below:

I have this really interesting explanation for why an athlete comes second, and particularly if it’s a close race. In my view, the athlete who comes second justifies the performance by producing symptoms which are more severe than they really need to be. “Oh gee, this symptom, I really tried my hardest but I was exhausted.” In fact, that’s a justification.”



Could it be that the mere thought of something going wrong caused it to

actually go wrong? At least in the brain? The overriding physical evidence was that I was fine, in spite of how I felt. In short It certainly does look like I managed to invent it all, a little catastrophic fantasy all in my own little head that bore scat resemblance to reality. But what still impresses me is the power that it had over me. It went far beyond the intellectual.

As part of my own race plan I planted little prayer flags at the start and at the major peaks along the race. I did this out of respect for the mountains and for the Ladakhi culture and people. On each one I wrote a little message. One of them wrote “Fear is the mind killer” Oh the irony.

Huge thanks: To my crew Stanzin, Nono, Priyanka and the driver Tundup. Only they know what they had to put up with; but they got me to the end. I finished totally broken, the realisation that inspite of giving it everything I had on that final descent, that I wasn't going to make it in time was just heart breaking. I went to a very dark place before accepting reality and just aiming to finish the distance.

I now have to go back and take care of my inner self again. I have always been

mentally strong and taken it for granted. Alas, it has also been something that I have neglected in recent years which I must again nurture back to full strength.

Wednesday, 8 July 2015

The importance of fat metabolism in ultra running

Never has a topic, not just in ultramarathon running but in the nutritional world in general been subjected to a generalised pseudoscientific analysis as that of diet.

It is of course very natural for every athlete to contemplate and analyse every aspect of their training in order to improve performance and that includes diet. The chemicals that you put into your mouth ultimately translate into performance and it is natural to analyse what is the optimum combination of these chemicals that lead to a best performance in an event. But diet is not just about optimum performance; it is about generalised optimum health as well. The two are closely related as without optimised health there can of course not be optimised performance.

I will argue a case that a diet for optimised health is indeed a diet for optimised performance but that the diet during that optimised performance is actually radically different from the diet that lead to that optimised performance.

In the introductory sentence I mentioned that the subject of diet is one that has been subjected to more pseudoscientific (bad science) analysis than any other, not just in the world of ultra-running but in the dietary world in general. Body biochemistry is hideously complex with interplay of literally thousands of biochemical pathways, a symbiosis of which is a long way from being fully understood. It would be fair to say that at best we only partially understand these mechanisms and at worst completely misunderstanding them leading to practices that not only do not lead to optimum performance but that actually harm it and our general health in the process. I am not saying that these authors set out deliberately to mislead but when there is such a large interplay of a ridiculous number of parameters it is frighteningly easy to arrive at incorrect conclusions.

Bad Science
In writing this piece I will draw attention to the fact that I have a Ph. D. in science (Physical Chemistry). I do so, not to boast about my academic credentials but to draw attention to the fact that I am trained in the scientific method and more importantly I am trained in spotting bad science. Diet is certainly not my academic specialism but as an ultra-endurance athlete it is one that I have a great deal of interest in and one that I have studied extensively. Perhaps the most important thing I have discovered from my research on the topic is in spite of huge amounts of data that actually exist there is a huge lack of what I would describe as hard understanding on the topic and the subsequent substitution with what is otherwise known as bad science. And for those of you that prefer a bit of straight talking; that’s “Bullshit” in American English or “Bollocks” in British English by the way.

The term “Bad science” which has been popularised in Ben Goldacre’s excellent book with just that name “Bad Science”. (http://www.badscience.net) It does not mean for one minute that these conclusions are actually wrong. What it means is that the conclusions have been derived on incomplete data. But before analysing what we mean by bad science, let’s look at some “good, hard science” and then make a candid comparison. Newton’s laws on motion can be described as good, hard science. Newton, about 300 years ago formulated a set of very simple equations that were able to describe the whole of the then known physical word. These laws and his equations, whilst not only being very simple were extremely powerful. They had a predictive nature about them that is fundamental to the concept of good science.

Describing what we know about diet and ultra-running performance can indeed be described as bad science. This is not at all surprising as it is a hideously complex topic and isolating parameters that can be studied in order to determine their precise effect on performance to the degree of accuracy that Newton was able to describe the effect that mass has on acceleration and on the applied force when he formulated his second law is close to near impossible. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to describe a sports diet in such a way as to say that increasing your intake of x% of y ingredient will lead to a z% increase in performance; Alas it is not so. Not only does the diet effect performance but also a host of other environmental factors that over a prolonged period of time simply cannot be controlled. In studies of this nature there is a generalised absence of what would be the control group, for no other reason than nobody really knows what the control group should actually be. At best we have “best attempts” to isolate factors and study them but in spite of tremendous efforts on the part of the researchers they remain in the realm of bad science simply because of the impossible nature of isolating the parameter that is being studied or of simply establishing a valid control group, exempt from being corrupted by other factors. This doesn’t mean their findings are incorrect, only that they are flawed as a scientific endeavour. It also doesn’t mean that we haven’t discovered anything; on the contrary, there has been a major advancement in our knowledge on the topic. But wading our way through the myriad of scientific complexity is a daunting task, especially when so much research tends to be contradictory. Translating all of this science into a practical diet, that is easy to follow and that leads to a genuine optimum performance for a particular individual is near impossible, especially when we include the different genotypes of all of the athletes that may be interested in this material.

What we are left with is a philosophy, a set of general rules that certainly have a lot of valid use, but are by no means a detailed recipe for success. Many authors have tried to do just this and as would be very natural for a topic of this nature they have evoked the theory of evolution and justified diets on what our bodies had adapted over millions of years of evolution to eat. Whilst I believe that this approach can successfully lead to identifying the major trends in an optimum diet, I do not believe that it can lead to optimum performance in a race. Our ancestors generally had access to poor quality foods and developed highly efficient systems for extracting energy from these foods. By injecting high quality, energy rich foods into this system we can give it an extra boost leading to even greater performance.

So then, on to the bad science. It is unfortunate, especially after the introductory paragraphs but the nature of the topic is such that it is all we have. What I will express is of course is simply an opinion. I consider it to be a valid opinion though as it is at least coherent with what I know intellectually and what has worked well for me in running ultra-marathons. I will argue a case, based on evidence but much in the way that a lawyer would argue a case in court. I will be coherent in what I say and I will back up with as much data as I have available. However, it will remain an opinion albeit an informed one; based on my own academic research as well as my own experience in running ultramarathons. Ultimately it will be another piece of bad science, although I will argue there is a lot of truth in what I am offering.

This lack of hard data has been summarised in Mark Hine’s excellent book “Our natural diet” (http://www.markhines.org/Our-Natural-Diet(2857229).htm) where Hines draws attention to these very problems and offers an interesting synopsis of what may well indeed be our natural diet. But is our natural diet the same as an optimised diet for ultra-endurance running. It is an interesting question.

The diet for an ultra-endurance athlete has to allow the athlete to achieve the following goals. First and foremost has to be the ability to maintain a prolonged effort over a prolonged period of time. Following that the diet has to provide enough energy for adequate training, allowing the athlete to achieve his or her goals. Coupled in has to be the aspect of good health. A sudden burst of energy for training purposed does not necessarily constitute optimum diet if we are considering our long term health.

Back to the bad science then. In the void of any hard reliable data upon which to make any hard scientific conclusions the developed world in general came to the conclusion in the 1980s (http://understandnutrition.com/2013/05/08/the-low-fat-diet-why-it-was-so-popular-and-where-it-stands-today) that fat was bad. As athletes, weight is one of the most important aspects that have an effect on performance. Carrying a couple of extra kilos has a huge effect and slows you down so there is immense interest in keeping that weight off, or losing it if we carry too much of it. So when the general opinion in the field was that eating fat made you fat, we all diligently followed our low fat diets, convinced that this was the only way forwards to optimum performance. The problem is that this mind set has recently been shown to be complete nonsense. (http://realmealrevolution.com/) Noakes is in my opinion one of the very best sport’s scientist ever in the field. Not only because he has written a host of literature based on actual research but because he is willing to change his opinion and recognise that he was wrong with previous conclusions that he had made. His book “The Lore of running” is the staple reference point for any runner that is seriously considering a fuller understanding of the science behind the sport.

So then, back to the fat. Our bodies are tremendously adaptable and we are capable of adaptations in our diet that allows us to extract the necessary nutrients from our food so that we may go about our business. When we reduce or even eliminate fat in our diets, in an attempt to lose weight our bodies adapt to this regime. If the major source of calories is then carbohydrates our bodies become adapted to processing carbohydrates, and that includes converting the carbohydrate into fat to make up for the very lack of fat. The very biochemistry of our bodies changes in order to extract what is needed. And fat is needed. It is not only needed for fuel but also it plays an important role in cell protection and hence reduction in the risk for cancer. (http://www.thenaturalvet.net/Fats-and-Their-Relationship-to-Cell-Membrane-Function_ep_61.html)

A host of studies analysing glycogen (Carbohydrate) stores and performance arrived at the conclusion that at least up until the marathon distance that the primary fuel for performance was glycogen. In other words stored carbohydrate and athletes went to great ends to optimise these stores. These included the low fat high carb diets as well as the famed carbo loading regimes that athletes undertook the days previous to a race. Carbo stores in the body can typically last for 2-3 hours which is just the right amount for a marathon. When the carbs run out, the athletes experience the wall effect with the subsequent dramatic decrease in work rate.

Studies on triathletes, particularly for the Iron man distance (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4445872/) clearly demonstrated that the top athletes could not be burning carbohydrates as the major energy source for the duration of the event. They were winning races in about 8 hours, a supposed full 5 hours over the point when their bodies ran out of glycogen. Not only that, but at the work rates involved, whatever mechanism was producing the energy it was just as efficient as the carbohydrate burning mechanism of the marathon runners and lasted a lot, lot longer. It is this precisely this latter mechanism that we are interested in in ultra-running if we are to truly unleash our potential.

So, in the low fat, high carb diet the body is being constantly trained for precisely that combination and never really learns to burn fat. The body becomes adapted to carbs as the primary fuel source, so when the carbs run out, the body subsequently crashes. But it doesn’t crash because it has run out of fuel, it actually crashes because it doesn’t know how to burn the huge reserves of fat fuel that it still has. It is little wonder that whilst on this diet, study after study has demonstrated that it was the amount of stored glycogen that affected endurance performance and every possible trick was used to get more carbs into the body. (http://musclesound.com/glycogen-role-in-sports-performance)  Once the carbs ran out, the athlete hit the wall. The problem was though, that this still didn’t explain the top performances of the top triathletes as they were able to keep up work rates comparable to the top marathon runners but clearly they were not hitting the wall at 3 hours. They weren’t even hitting it 3 hours later. What was happening? And then came the revelation that shocked the sports science community: These athletes were not actually following a low fat diet after all and they were compensating with significant calories from fat. Not only that but the athletes actually confessed to “cheating” on their trainers prescribed diet and were eating considerable fat as well. The conclusion being of course that these athletes were fat adapted. They were not actually using carbs as their major energy supply but fats; stored body fats. Their bodies were so efficient at burning fats that they were capable of comparable work rates to the top marathoners of the day who were burning carbs. So instead of focusing on improving our ability to store glycogen we should be training our bodies to burn fats.

So the low fat diet recommended by so many sports nutritionists would not only appear to be highly mistaken for an ultra-runner but it would also appear to be a major hindrance in achieving optimum performance. By eating a low fat, high carb diet, the body becomes adapted to metabolising carbs, and more importantly it becomes very poor at metabolising fats. What we need to do is move to a high fat low carb diet in order to train our bodies to burn fat. When all we have is fat to burn, the body adapts to burning fat, and when the body is properly fat adapted it can run and run and run for a very long time. And this is precisely what we are trying to achieve in our ultra-running.

So the high fat diet has suddenly become fashionable and there is a growing trend in the sport towards it. With the same mistaken evangelism that promoted the low fat diet, we now seem to be becoming obsessed with the low carb diet. Carbs, at least to some extent have become demonised and a dietary backlash against carbs is now being observed. But going completely the other way isn’t the answer either. Those elite triathletes that were sneaking fats into their diets and doing the top times in Ironmans weren’t just only eating fats. They were eating considerable carbohydrates too. More specifically; carbohydrates were the official staple of their diets but, and it is an important but; they were eating considerable fat too. In other words, and this is where we come full circle; they were eating a balanced diet! This of course actually makes good common sense. Extremes in general are bad and often the best way is somewhere in the middle.

The “high fat - low carb” paradigm is equally misleading as the “low fat - high carb” one. Both terms are inherently mistaken and both lead to considerable imbalances for what can be considered as being optimum performance in ultra-endurance athletics. What we should be talking about is simple shifts in the percentages of these nutrients, and subtle shifts at that. Barry Spears “The zone diet” (https://en.wikipidia.org/wiki/Zone_diet) does just this and whilst anyone trying to follow this diet will require a degree in biochemistry to understand what he is going on about, the message can be neatly summarised as eating a bit more proteins and fats and a bit less carbs. Instead of eating 60% carbs, Spears recommends approximately 40% carbs with 30% fat and 30% protein. This can hardly be called a low carb diet as carbs still make up the greatest proportion of the macro nutrients but it is never the less an important shift from the more established traditional marathon runners diet. More to the point, the USA national swimming team that Spears coached whilst on his diet ran riot in the in 1980s and took pretty much all the medals that were worth having in the USA. Clearly he was on to something.

Training the fat metabolism.
The first stage in training our bodies to metabolise fat is clearly to increase the fat in our diet. (http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/how-eating-more-fat-helps-you-lose-more-weight.html) This doesn’t mean eating massive amounts of fat like the famed Atkins diet but simply shifting the emphasis of the diet towards fats. Remember, we are adjusting the percentages without making major jumps. 30% of total calories from fat, on a day to day basis can be considered as a healthy “high fat” diet. (http://www.mensjournal.com/health-fitness/nutrition/why-experts-now-think-you-should-eat-more-fat-20141020) But also an important aspect of training fat metabolism is to train when the body is depleted in carbs. This can best be achieved first thing in the morning and training before having anything to eat. Whilst the body will not be completely depleted as the glycogen reserves will not be empty, they will be significantly depleted and as all food from the previous evening will be digested it will at least force the body to access the reserves and this includes the fat reserves. It is important not to force the body too hard straight after waking up, especially as we get older and lose the elasticity in our arteries but by all accounts, a lower work rate leads to a higher percentage fat consumption, although total amount of fat burned increases with exercise intensity. (http://fitnesshealth.co/blogs/fitness/14112669-best-heart-rate-to-burn-fat). 

Personally I train religiously every day before work for about an hour. I take a coffee to get me going and then hit the road no matter what. Consistency and the formation of the habit are absolutely crucial in provoking the fat adaptation to take place. It is a slow process and not something that happens quickly. If you chose this route to ultramarathon success you have to be prepared to forsake short term gains for the long term ones. Training for ultra-marathons is even more arduous than the races themselves.

The major component of any ultra-distance athlete’s training programme has to be the weekly long run. Out of racing season this will typically be anything between 4 to 6 hours with the occasional 10 hour run for me. On these runs you have to eat whilst you run and although I have no scientific evidence or research to back up some of the following statements, I can say that my own personal experience more than justifies what I am recommending. We are interested in burning fats, but to burn fats we also need to burn carbohydrates (http://www.sport-fitness-advisor.com/energysystems.html). A useful analogy is that of the pilot light and the major flame in a furnace. Without the pilot light of the carb flame burning, it is impossible to ignite the major fat flame. To this end it is important to consume carbohydrate during the long runs as without them, the fat flame does not burn. But the trick and it is a difficult trick to master is to consume just enough to keep the pilot burning, thus forcing the major fat flame to keep burning. Too little carbs and the flame goes out, too much carbs and the body takes the easy way out and burns them, at the expense of the fat flame.

So just how much carbs should you eat on you long training runs? There really is only one answer to that as far as fat adaption goes and that is as little as possible. When you feel your energy beginning to dip then that is definitely NOT the moment to take the carbs. This of course flies directly in the face of traditional advice which recommends taking carbs on a regular basis precisely to avoid this dip. Only when you are starting to feel light headed and that there is a considerable loss in performance should you eat them. And they should be relatively difficult carbs to extract as well such as fruit. Personally I go for the dried fruit as it is energy dense relative to the weight you have to carry. Gels are absolute no no’s as far as training runs are concerned. You will take just enough to lift you out of the downer, and absolutely no more if you are genuinely interested in adapting your body for fat burning. I am a great fan of dried fruit and nuts. The dried fruit contains the carbs and the nuts contain lots of fat and proteins. At this point I need to point out that this is what seems to work for me. This is definitely not a statement based on a literature research.

In taking this strategy it is very easy to get it wrong. In a carbohydrate depleted environment you are essentially starving yourself. We have seen that carbs are important in the fat metabolising process and the complete absence of them in the body can be catastrophic. Indeed, the body will simply not allow a complete absence of them in the body and it has been show (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gluconeogenesis) that in the absence of glucose in the blood, the body manufactures glucose by catabolising proteins. The brain mostly functions on glucose so the very survival of the organism depends on carbs being present in the system and will not allow zero point to be reached and starts to manufacture them internally. In lay terms that is tantamount to the body eating its own muscles and that is clearly counterproductive to any sports performance.

Clearly though, the purpose of all this is to promote fat adaptation and must not be confused with other aspects of training. This requires some considerable discipline and self-knowledge as this will almost certainly equate to slower times in the training runs compared to fuelling them with a carbohydrate rich foods. Indeed, on a typical 50 km training run that I often do, I will deliberately set out without eating breakfast. On a day with breakfast this will often take me 4:40 at a reasonable training pace. Without breakfast it always takes more than 5 hours, sometimes even longer. A casual observer will immediately point out that you can’t train properly without having eaten breakfast as you are clearly not working as hard and that the difference in times proves the point. However, the whole point of training whilst in a fasted state is not speed per se but is all about developing the fat adaption. Continuous races that take place over several days are not won on speed. They are won on endurance, and endurance is all about development of the fat metabolism mechanism in ultra events.

Other legitimate aims of any training session such as increasing your aerobic capacity and the development of speed clearly cannot be achieved by taking this strategy and more carbs should be consumed. Indeed, when I want to practice race pace, or develop speed I will always eat breakfast. For speed the body needs to be well fuelled. However, I would argue that the major purpose of the weekly long run for an ultra-distance athlete is to promote endurance and fat adaptation. Improvements in aerobic capacity and pace are the realm of shorter distance higher intensity workouts. The fact that the training run takes longer should not be the issue here, you are training for performance on race day and that will require shorter term sacrifices. But little by little, especially if you start to keep accurate records of your own training you will notice improvements in speed and endurance as the fat metabolism starts to become more efficient in your body.

Race day.
On race day we are all looking for a maximum performance. An ultra-marathon race for me can be easily divided into two sub categories as far as nutrition is concerned. The first are the 100 k races on tarmac or good trails. They are fast races and typically take less than 12 hours. My last 100 k clocked in at 8:49 which is not too shoddy a performance for a 51 year old. More importantly, my pace was extremely uniform and at no time during the race did I run out of energy or hit the wall. In this last race I didn’t eat breakfast. Not because it was part of the race plan but because I simply wasn’t hungry. Hunger is a good indicator to if we actually need food or not and for an ultra-run, I am not in favour of forcing the issue. I had a good fatty meal of sausages, ham and eggs the night before with just a few chips so I knew my reserves were full. I was also less worried about the absence of breakfast as I know that my fat burning metabolism is good. During the race, as soon as I noticed even a slight drop in speed I would drink an energy drink, or take a gel. The purpose of race day is to perform. Race day is when you get back what you put in and then, and only then is when you fuel your body for maximum performance and that means carbs. The train low, compete high strategy has indeed gainded popularity amongst many elite athletes. (http://awordonnutrition.com/sepost/train-low-compete-high-a-quick-summary/?type=article)

When you have trained properly in a carb depleted environment you have developed your fat metabolism to the full and when you finally inject considerable carbs into your body whilst running it is like igniting it with rocket fuel. The high consumption of carbs during the race not only keeps the pilot light burning brighter but also allows this very pilot light to ignite even more fats as though they were being burned in a blast furnace. What you are doing on race day by taking in high quantities of concentrated carbohydrate is actually providing an optimised environment for the burning of fats. And that leads to optimum performance. It is easy to understand the origins of the mistaken carbohydrate paradigm for optimum sports performance in ultra-distance athletics; the true function being that carbs facilitate fat burning. However, the underlying point, and it is one that cannot be stressed with sufficient force is that this only works in fat adapted athletes. During training it is a low carb diet; in a race it is high carbs still.

For any race that takes over 12 hours we require a different strategy. My own experience on relying on carbs and my internal fat store alone simply does not seem to cut it. Races over the 100k distance can take anything between 24 and 72 hours; at least for the kind of races that I like to do and the fuelling strategy returns to what could only be described as a typical balanced diet, at least in terms of the macronutrients. I will go for concentrated foods as in fibre depleted but certainly the combination of macronutrients resembles a typical food pyramid. After 12 hours I can only imagine that my fat reserves start to fail too. I clearly have much more fat to metabolise, I can see it; but after 12 hours it certainly appears that all of the readily available fat seems to have been burned and that accessing that second store of fat requires a bit more work.

The pace that the longer runs are run at is quite a bit slower than a typical 100k and that means that eating solid food is not only feasible but is actually quite pleasant as well. The intake of solid food early on in the race, and by that I mean a good combination of carbs, fats and proteins seems to keep me going for a very long time indeed.

A particular revelation in my own experience took place when I was running the Badwater ultra marathon in the States. About the half way point I switched to eating sandwiches that were soaked in olive oil and that seemed to pick me up and give me a massive boost of sustainable energy, far above the energy levels that I was experiencing by eating carbs alone. The combination of the carbs, and I strongly suspect the oil, provided a huge amount of fuel that went straight into the furnace. So, is it possible that we run out of available fat reserves too? And by replenishing these with readily digestible fats like olive oil we substitute the readily available fats in our bodies? The fat burning mechanisms in our body are already fully activated and all they need are the fats to burn. This would indeed be a great topic for a scientific study but in the absence of which I will simply try to perfect the method empirically on my own experience. Eating fats after 12 hours into the race it would certainly appear; equates to optimum endurance performance in the longer events.

Summary.
Summarising then, fat is the major energy provider during an ultra-endurance event and as such athletes should be training in such a way as to promote this biochemical pathway in the body and this means training in a carb depleted state, typically fasted and before breakfast.

As a general rule, an ultra-endurance athlete should be eating a balanced healthy diet but one that is subtly shifted towards fats, with no radical exclusion of carbs. Carbs are still very important.

During a race the athlete needs to consume more carbohydrates than in training in order to reach optimum performance and the longer the race, the more important are the fats and these have to be consumed to maintain performance.

And finally, before I get slated for the “bad science” this is just a synopsis of my experience and stuff I have read. I’ll leave it up to the actual sports scientists to collect the data and verify the hypothesis.

Wednesday, 11 March 2015

The Tattoo



Let me tell you about my tattoo.

Most people see the tattoo and simply associate it with a runner. Those in the know associate it with Phiedipides and the Spartathlon. Clearly, to carry the tattoo is to have finished the Spartathlon but the true meaning is in fact much deeper than that.

Just over 20 years ago I fell whilst rock climbing and broke my leg just above the right ankle. The leg was literally snapped in half and the foot hung on by just a few tendons. I was helicoptered out by the rescue team and then had emergency surgery in hospital. The doctors told me I would never run again.

Then in the 80’s the story of Phiedipides running from Athens to Sparta in 36 hours was considered impossible, nothing more than  a curious ancient anecdote blending in with Greek mythology of impossible feats and impossible creatures and gods. That is until John Fodden and his team set out to prove that it was indeed possible, and that Phiedipides did indeed run between Athens and Sparta. The rest we all know, which is now ultra-running history with the birth of the Spartathlon, the world’s greatest race.

So the real meaning of the tattoo is that nothing is impossible, neither the injury nor the feat. The only limits are those in our heads and they are only there to be broken. The tattoo is on the leg I broke, although you have to look carefully these days to see the scars. So whenever I doubt myself I only have to look and see down Phiedipides to remind me that nothing is impossible. Phiedipides will always be the myth that is to be broken.

Sunday, 1 March 2015

Reflexión de un viejo cientounero.


Para entender lo que significan los 101 de Ronda para mí hay que comprender mis raíces.

Desde que puedo recordar, siempre he empujado mis límites al extremo. Encuentro mi camino en la delgada línea que separa la bravura de la locura, íntimamente atractiva e estimulante. De joven, a mis 20 añitos, practicaba piragüismo de aguas bravas en el Reino Unido y escalada de roca; siempre buscando un tramo del río más exigente o una pared más expuesta, que empujaban mi limite técnico y psicológico un poco más allá. En aquellos tiempos corría sólo para mantener la forma.

Un día, cuando me encontraba en una vía psicológico, viajando en un espacio vertical liso y sin protección, me caí y me rompí la pierna derecha. Había 5 trozos de hueso independientes, la pierna estaba rota a 90º y el pie me colgaba de un par de tendones. El rescate fue dramático, me tuvieron que sacar en helicóptero y trasladar a un hospital para cirugía de emergencia.

El cirujano que me operó dijo que ahora, con la placa de titanio que llevaba dentro, la pierna era más fuerte que nunca, pero los demás médicos dijeron que jamás podría volver a correr, que las lesiones eran demasiado fuertes y que debía aceptar mis nuevas limitaciones (además de la rotura evidente se habían cortado varios tendones que tuvieron que ser cosidos y el pie estaba totalmente fuera de sitio).

Pero creo que nuestro destino está enteramente en nuestras manos y no les escuché. Empecé a correr como un demonio sobre compensando con la pierna izquierda, a pesar del dolor y la falta de flexibilidad en la derecha. Muy poco a poco volví a recuperar la forma y a correr de nuevo, con un estilo un poco raro, pero era correr. Conocí a José Luis Rubillo Gallego y juntos empezamos a entrenar y competir en carreras de orientación.



Lentamente fui olvidándome del accidente, entrenando cada vez más fuerte, pero un día bajando una pendiente muy pronunciada aterricé bruscamente sobre la pierna izquierda provocando que la tibia penetrarse dentro de la rótula. El dolor era más intenso aún que con el accidente previo y tuve que parar en seco. Resolver el problema de la rodilla me costó dos operaciones y dos años fuera de juego. Estaba totalmente desconectado del mundillo de correr cuando José me contactó para volver a participar en una carrera de orientación juntos, el Rally a Pie del grupo de montaña Amadablan de San Pedro de Alcántara. Estaba muy fuera de forma, con un considerable sobrepeso, pero José insistió y volvimos a competir. El tiempo aquel fin de semana era horrible, con visibilidad entre 2 ó 3 metros y a pesar de ser el atleta con la peor forma de todos, conseguimos ganar porque no nos perdimos.

Y un día nos enteramos de una carrera militar cívica organizado por los Legionarios Españoles en Ronda con una distancia de 101 kilómetros que pasaba por la serranía y que por lo visto tenía un excelente organización. No podíamos creer que no hubiéramos sabido de esa carrera antes, pero eran los tiempos antes de Internet y no nos había llegado la información. ¿Cómo era posible que nos hubiésemos perdido las 3 primeras ediciones? ¡Esa carrera estaba hecha para nosotros! La emoción de haber encontrado algo tan fantástico era máxima y con lesiones en ambas piernas, equilibrando cada vez en una, comencé a entrenar en serio de nuevo. Perdí peso, lo que me ayudó a correr mediamente bien de nuevo. No tenía la velocidad de antes, de hecho iba bastante más lento, pero podía correr y mis intenciones en mi primer 101 eran simplemente acabar la prueba. Con eso me daba por satisfecho.

Mi primera participación en los 101 de 1999 fue un desastre. Lo recuerdo muy bien. Estaba usando unas zapatillas media talla pequeñas para esa tipo de recorrido; zapatillas que en distancias inferiores me habían servido muy bien, pero que esta vez me iban a castigar y dejar sin uñas en los pies. Perdí 9 de las 10 en aquel viaje a pie por la serranía de Ronda. Pero más doloroso todavía fue abandonar la carrera en el cuartel. Muy a mi pesar tuve que reconocer que con los pies destrozados no podía acabar aquel año. Me quedé con la miel en los labios: el ambiente tan cálido de la carrera, el buen rollo con los soldados, el compañerismo tan fuerte con los demás corredores y marchadores, ¡y el recuerdo de mi fracaso! Nunca había fallado en una carrera y para mí eso era un desastre.

Desde ese momento los 101 se convertirían en obsesión. No pasaba un solo día que no pensara en aquella carrera. Cada vez que salía a correr tenía la mente puesta en esa prueba y en aquella época era el santo grial para mi mundo. Me hice amigo de Oscar Pajares, principal organizador dentro de la Legión, que se convertiría en una especia de héroe para nosotros.

Acabé los 101 el año siguiente en algo más de 18 horas. El invierno previo había estado bastante enfermo, sin poder entrenar mucho a pesar de las ganas, y la terminé andando. Me costó todo lo que tengo dentro, incluso varios desmayos, pero acabé. Crucé la meta con lágrimas en los ojos. Nunca en mi vida me he sentido tan reventado, nunca he estado tan cerca del límite absoluto de mis capacidades físicas, emocionales y psicológicas, mi tolerancia a dolor; pero a su vez nunca he experimentado una sensación de éxtasis tan fuerte al simplemente acabar una prueba. Descubrí que me siento más vivo cuando me siento más muerto. La adicción total había empezado e iba a marcar los siguientes años de mi vida. De hecho me sigue marcando.

Desde entonces he participado en casi todas las ediciones de los 101 con mi mejor marca en 9:50. He realizado algunas de las pruebas más exigentes del mundo incluyendo la Badwater que pasa por el Valle de la Muerte en los EEUU, The High en el Himalaya y la Spartathlon en Grecia. Esas carreras son desde luego más potentes que los 101 de Ronda, más largas y en condiciones más extremas. En todos los sentidos de la palabra me considero un ultra fondista muy experimentado. He estado en lugares donde pocas personas se atreven a ir, he visto cosas que pocos han visto porque mi cuerpo me ha llevado a esos lugares remotos. Y todo eso porque había una carrera organizada por la Legión de Ronda que sembró una semilla de ulrafondista en mí. Pero no solo para mí, sino para muchos de mis amigos, es la prueba que realmente nos inició en este mundo.

Los 101 de Ronda siempre tienen un lugar especial en mi corazón, espero participar todos los años de mi vida mientras pueda. Porque esa carrera, ese ambiente tan único, ese inicio tan poderoso me dejó marcado en la manera más positiva posible.

Mark Steven Woolley

Ultrafondista