Sunday, 31 August 2014

The Worlds Cruellest Ultra marathon. La Ultra The High 333

The worlds cruellest Ultramarathon. (A story about an epic fail)

La Ultra, The High 333 is billed as the cruellest ultramarathon in the world. In a hotly disputed arena for the world’s toughest race, La Ultra simply states that it is the cruellest and subtly avoids entering into the pointless argument over which is the toughest and in spite of not giving the “cruellest” title much significance I was to find out the full meaning of cruel.

It all started on a mountain top in Sierra Nevada range in the south of Spain, just under a year ago, with a face book conversation with Rajat Chaugan from India.

Rajat: “Are you coming to la Ultra next year?”
Me: “No, I am not really interested in repeating 222 kms in the Himalaya, I have done that.”
Rajat: “What if I made it 333 kms then?”
Me: “Sure!!”

And so it was, Rajat had managed to entice me into another Himalayan ultra-running adventure in spite of having decided to move on and do other things. In fact, I had already agreed with my close friend José Luis Rubio that we would climb a Himalayan Peak during the summer. However, the 2 objectives were completely compatible and we decided to get to the Ladahk valley early, climb the Stock Kangri mountain at 6153M, rest for a couple of weeks and then run La ultra, the High 333, with José crewing for me. Our respective families would meet up with us when we come down from the mountain and then we would all be involved in the race. What could possibly go wrong with such a perfect plan?

The Stock Kangri climb was one of the most enjoyable experiences I have ever had. We had decided to go with a small commercial expedition, simply because it meant that we didn’t have to deal with the logistics. It was a good call as all we had to do was climb and hike as the rest was taken care of for us. A well known Japanese ultra runner; Ryoichi Sato joined us, and although there were a few translation problems, the group quickly gelled into a buzzing happy unit. Indeed; the guides Tenzing and Padul were quite taken aback by how fast we hiked and climbed, but their pride always surpassed us and especially the younger lad; Padul always managed to stay in front. Many years ago I would never have considered a commercial expedition but these days, as well as being considerably older I also consider that I am helping out the local economy. They need it, Ladahk is a poor region. The guides were extremely competent and friendly and on the 4th day, after having left the village of Stock and after having progressively climbed higher and higher, allowing our bodies to acclimatise we saw ourselves on the Summit at about 7am. We had left at 12:30 in the middle of the night.

La Ultra. The High.

After coming down from the mountain we all met up with our families and had an extended 2 week rest before the race started; this was all too short but it was great to meet up with old friends from the 2012 edition and make a few new ones. The day before the race started, we had to go to the Nubra Valley and get ready for the race.

The race started at 10:00 pm and followed the Nubra Valley until the fork in the road indicated that we turn right and head up to the Kardung La pass at 5400M. The climb was steady but relentless and I spent some time running with a few of the others, John Sharp, Jup Brown and Jason Dunne, enjoying the conversation whilst it lasted but both John and Jason stormed ahead which left me for the most part running on my own, as Jup was running a little slower. 

As I got higher the temperatures dropped pretty fiercely. At North Pullu I had a down jacket waiting for me and I eagerly grabbed it whilst Molly Sherridon made me a hot drink. We were later told that the temperatures were between – 5 and – 8ºC ….. and I can believe it. I remember a moment when Alex exclaimed that he was developing frost bite and had to get into a support vehicle to thaw his hands out. Personally I didn’t have problems with the cold as I had good clothes.

As the dawn broke I found myself running on and off with Sato. He seemed to be having a bit of a tough time, as was I, especially as we were both over 5000M at this point and the hypoxic conditions meant that any physical effort took a lot out of us. We both slowed to a power walk and soon Sato left me behind. I had learned long ago that fighting the altitude was useless and I opted for a pace that didn’t leave me exhausted. There was still a long way to go.

When I got to the summit Sato was in a car resting and didn’t look too well. I greeted him, ate some food and then said my farewells; Satu was soon to be retired from the race on medical grounds. A great runner but the altitude is cruel.

As I descended I soon became much more alive and upon hitting the 4800M mark I found myself running again. At this point Kim Rasmussen from Denmark caught me. We ran together for a short while but he was going stronger than I and I let him go. There was still over 250 kms of race to go and anything could happen.

At the 90 km point, a curve in the road with a giant painted frog, called Kardung Frog, my crew; Jose Luis, Javi my son and a local girl called Angmo, a martial artist expert was waiting for me. From this point onwards we were allowed a personal crew and all the runners in the 333 km race had opted for a personal crew. From this moment on I would always be accompanied; I would never be alone. Coupled to the crew where Elena, my wife and Bea, Jose’s girlfriend who seemed to be having a great time filming the whole event.

Upon reaching the Goba Hotel checkpoint in Leh I had a short rest and then ran comfortably down to the village of Spituk. Here the run ran alongside the main road and the dust thrown up by the trucks was really unpleasant. I pulled the buff over my mouth and nose and just pushed on, hoping to get onto the back road as soon as possible.

Once off the main road, we entered into a quiet little back road of varying quality. At the start it was quite good but as the night approached the quality of the road deteriorated considerably to a point where the support car had quite a hard time in getting across. We crossed a point where John Sharp had staked out and soon after we had all decided that it was time for a few hours’ sleep. You reach a point in the middle of the night where you are not really making much progress and this is the best time to sleep. A couple of hours later we all felt much more refreshed and it was time to hit the road again.

We soon got to Serthi and then the climb to Wari La at 5300M. It was daytime now so the cold temperatures that we had experienced on Kardung La would now be avoided. The climb was pleasant, if long and slow but we soon found ourselves on the summit where we stopped for a little while to eat. 

Jup was here and we chatted for a while before descending. It was here that I felt just great and I literally ran happily and joyously down the mountain as if I didn’t have a care in the world in spite of Jose’s warnings to take it easy.

We soon reached the valley floor and then onto Karhu. At this point the secondary road joins with the main highway which goes on for about 15 kms before a turn right takes you up a narrow valley and then on to Tanglang La. At about 5 kms before reaching Upshi, with some 230 kms in the legs I felt exhausted and Jose promptly called it a day and we all slept; perhaps a little longer than we should have but all I can say is how wonderfully refreshed I felt. On to Upshi we went and then into a narrow gorge and on to Rumpsi at the base of the climb.

The climb up to Tanglang la was pure delight and the same sensation that had invaded my body whilst climbing Wari La invaded me again. I soon caught up with Kim who was having difficulties so I shook his hand, hugged him and wished him all the best, it was a race after all. The atmosphere was electric, with everyone congratulating me and wishing me well. We soon made the summit and with just 24 kms to go I settled into a gentle but happy trot using the gradient of the hill to aid my advance. At this point I thought it was all in the bag. How could I possible thing otherwise, I felt great, I had a 2 hour lead over Kim, what could possible go wrong?

The first 5 kms coming off the top were enjoyable in spite of some heavy trucks throwing up a lot of dust from the track that they were slowly converting into a road, but then the track crossed an open section of mountain with a strong, cold cross wind.

Upon reaching the support car I climbed in, just to get warm again but then things got very quickly and alarmingly out of control. I started shivering and then went into deep, uncontrolled convulsions. Jose quickly took control and covered me with every available sleeping bag and item of clothing but by then my body had gone into shock and I was all but paralysed, except for the uncontrolled convulsions. The medic Razwin arrived and took over, he put even more layers on and measured my temperature; 37.5ºC, half a degree above but I still couldn’t stop convulsing. After a couple of hours laid down during which time Kim had passed me it was obvious that I wouldn’t recover in time to finish. Jose made the actual call to quit. I didn’t argue with him, I knew I was beat. At 318 kms, at 5000M, with only 15 kms to the end I was well and truly beat, I couldn’t even stand up. Out of it. There was nothing I could do.

So Kim Rasmussen became the first and only person in the world to cover 333 kms in the Himalaya in hypoxic adverse conditions in a single stage foot race. He did it in 71 and a half hours. My sincere congratulations go out to him as he is a genuinely lovely person and I am happy to be beaten by him. He deserved to win.

And finally a race account could not be finished without a special mention to the crew and to my family. They had kept me going during some very tough times, and Jose, especially had made sure that every detail had been taken care of in order to keep me going. In the end I failed, I came so close yet the finish line may as well have been another 333 kms away for I was simply unable to make those last few kms.

So, I now have unfinished business out there. In many ways that is a good thing; it gives me something to work on, something to focus on, something to spend the next year dreaming about for I now just have to go back. And finish.


Saturday, 4 January 2014

How to train for Spartathlon.

How to train for Spartathlon.

In writing this little piece I need to say that it is completely and utterly subjective and written from my own little viewpoint as a middle of the pack, middle aged, of average ability ultra-distance runner. I have started Spartathlon 6 times and finished 3 times and all of the finishes were smack bang in the middle of the pack of finishers. Not the fastest but not the slowest either. To put this in perspective to other measurable distances I have clocked 8:27 in the 100 kms and 190 kms in 24 hours on the track. Not that fast, or great but not that slow either.

What I will describe here is more of a training philosophy rather than a training plan, but I hope it is useful and that it helps at least a few others achieve success in the Spartathlon. I have a couple of friends in mind when I am writing this so if this article actually helps them then I will collect my beer at the next post-race celebration. So these are my recommendations for a 50 something year old amateur athlete who wants to finish the Spartathlon before old age creeps up on them.

John Fodden summarises what it takes to finish Spartathlon in a beautiful, simple quote: “I shan’t wish you luck because if you haven’t trained properly, luck will be of no use. And if you have trained properly then you don’t need luck.” I like to add that “Luck starts at 5 in the morning.”

But just what is training properly for the Spartathlon?


I really don’t like qualifying a race as the hardest or the toughest or baddest or whatever based on a subjective opinion.  So many races claim to be the toughest or the most difficult but the truth is they are only playing to a public that are all just too eager to buy into the image of the event where they imagine themselves as the “toughest in the world”. However, what I will say is that the Spartathlon is the race that I personally have found the most difficult and demanding just to finish. The reason is simple. You must run 246 kms in 36 hours. The Spartathlon is the epitome of an ultra-distance athletics race. It is ultra-distance, it is athletics and it is a race. And there you have it. Most people in the “ultra running” world can understand the distance and the race element without too much explanation but I think it is the “athletics” part that the vast majority of people that present themselves on the start line fail to fully comprehend. The act of fighting in battle for an ancient Greek warrior was incredibly athletic and it should come as no surprise that Milatides chose only the very best athlete to deliver the message to the Spartan king. I repeat; the very best athlete. So when Herodotus documented this original feat of Phiedepides, we are talking about the very best warrior athlete of the day. Not a plodder and certainly not a long distance walker. If you are considering doing the Spartathlon you need to comprehend this little fact. Far too many do not.

Unlike many other ultra-distance races, the Spartathlon forces you to run almost all of the time. The moment you ease up the pace you find yourself against the time barriers and they are brutal. As a result you have to be extremely physically and mentally well prepared to finish. Note that only 33 % actually finish and this against a back drop of having to present a good solid ultra-running CV to enter. And this brings me to the first major point:

The Spartathlon qualifiers: They are far too soft. You can qualify for the Spartathlon by doing a 100k in 10 hours 30 mins, or by doing a 200k race inside the time stated by the organisation. For a start, the 100k distance isn’t really a good indicator for a 246 km race and let’s face it, 10:30 is way too soft. If you can just break 10:30 in the 100k on your best day you will almost certainly not finish the Spartathlon. I hope I don’t sound too cruel, but that is the truth. If you can just break 10:30 don’t waste your time or you money, you will only be disappointed. Most people I have spoken with that have actually finished have the 100k time in at least less than 9:30, most under 9 hours.

A much better qualifier would be the distance covered in a 24 hour track event and the word on the street is that you should be able to clock up at least 175 – 180 kms. The cut off in the Spartathlon is 172 kms in 24:30 so 175 – 180 kms in a 24 hour, flat track race would approximate to this …. Except that you still have 80 kms to go.

Clearly it is a race that is very, very difficult.

For someone who has had success at mountain trail races it is also a very deceptive race, especially if you come with a lot of experience and a strong curriculum in mountain conditions. The main feature of the mountains are the changes in pace and therefore the continuous changes in the muscles used. In the Spartathlon there very few changes of pace and that tends to load certain muscle groups more than others. The road also takes its toll in a way that the mountains do not and the body must be prepared for the pounding of the ​​asphalt. I remember all too well my first attempt after the UTMB in 2007. I finished the Tour very comfortably but the Spartathlon left me with trashed legs after a meagre 70 kms because I was not accustomed to running on the hard road. I was obviously very strong in the mountains and very bad on the asphalt. The mountains did not prepare for the asphalt of the Spartathlon. Running on a hard road surface has nothing to do with running trails and so here is my first major tip:


To succeed in this kind of race you have to know how to run with maximum efficiency. Ie , with the minimum expenditure of energy. And if you want to finish the Sparta that has to be the only goal of the year. Other races are nothing but fun and training sessions in racing conditions. And since it is so difficult I would recommend that at least 70 % of all training is on asphalt.

For the year that I first had success, I trained with a GPS heart rate monitor . I set the speed to 10 kms per hour and I experimented with different positions, postures, stride length, arm positions etc. , etc . in order to find the most effective and efficient way to maintain this speed. I started with 125 pulses per minute to keep 10 kms per hour and got to 106 just by polishing running technique alone. Clearly this already gave me a huge advantage over my previous technique with no actual gain in fitness. The moment you discover the technique it then takes lots of practice until it becomes firmly engrained in the subconscious and it becomes the most natural thing to do. Basically there are almost no foot lifts and the foot almost glides over the surface of the road, which cannot be done in the mountains without a face plant into the rocks. The arms are kept low and the torso kept straight and leaning ever so slightly forwards with your head facing forward. I also learned a lot watching the runners in 24 hours races. Think of efficiency when training, not speed.

As far as the amount of training involved I have a very simple philosophy. You train when and however you can, but for an ultra-distance runner you must maintain a very high volume. Why no set plan? Well, because I work and have a family and they have to come first. In my case this means I have to get up at 5 every morning to train but if I do not, I know that I will not finish the Spartathlon. As a general rule I will train 2 hours a day in 2 sessions during the week, one before and one after work with long runs of  5 or 6 hours during the weekends. 
I will do some 160 to 200 kms a week, week after week, for at least 4 – 5 months before doing the race. I will take a full day off every 7 – 10 days where I will do nothing. But be aware, most of this is at a slow relaxed pace. Only slightly faster than the speed I will use to run the Spartathlon. That is about 11 to 12 kms / hour, no more. These are not junk miles, as some often mistakenly assume. You are not just training your body, you are training your mind just to keep going…and going … and going. You will need that in the race and this last point cannot be stressed enough. However, I will still put in a couple of speed sessions a week just in case I want to do a fast race like a 100k. The vast majority are slow sessions that allow me to be fully recovered for the next session.

And a major factor that is often overlooked in preparing for the Spartathlon is the psychological preparation. This is where the relentless high volume really gives major benefits. With so much running your mind will eventually adapt to a state where running at 10 kms an hour is the normal state for it to be. This means that your new comfort zone is running and when those demons at 3 in the morning come out to haunt you can happily revert to your comfort zone which is running. If you can get up at 5 in the morning and get out on the road without even thinking about it, and then again every evening when you finish work, again without thinking about it you are probably well on the way to a Spartathlon finish.

So, if you do need a bit of luck, remember that luck starts at 5 in the morning, every morning for months upon months before the Spartathlon.

Good luck!!