Running the significant distance

“What have you been doing in Japan?”

The man in the seat next to me in the airplane tried to start a conversation by using this standard opening. It was late April 1998, and we were on our way back to Europe.

“My wife Mary and I ran a race between Nagoya and Kanazawa,”

The man looked confused, so I figured that more explanation was needed. Then I opened the airline magazine and looked up the page with the map of that airline’s all international routes, and started to tell the story about what Mary and I had been through in Japan.

“The race is called Sakuramichi, and we started in Nagoya early Saturday morning. The finishline was 250 kilometers away, in Kanazawa,” I said and pointed out the course on the map in the airline magazine.

“So you stopped and rested at some places, and started the next stage in the morning?”

“No, it was a non-stop race. We just ran until we got there.”

“You did? But how long did your wife run? Did the women run half the way?”

“Certainly not! In our sport we let women have as much fun as what we men have.”

“You mean to tell me that a woman can run 250 kilometers in one great stage?”

“Of course! You have such a woman here,” I replied and made a gesture at my wife, sleeping in the seat next to me.

“How much slower were the women?”

“Well … slower than what? Mary and I started at the same time, and we ran together through Nagoya. But After about 20 kilometers I left her behind and took off in pursuit of the fastest runners. Too bad, but I wasn’t good enough to really challenge them. Mary caught up with me at 90 kilometers. Then I was in trouble, and struggled hard to keep up with her.”

“I bet you felt bad about that.”

“Why would I? I could still run.”

“I mean because you were passed by a woman.”

“No! Women are underrated when it comes to extreme endurance. Anyway, we had been running in a beautiful valley ever since we got out of Nagoya and Gifu. Now it started to get dark and we ran together up a long hill.”

“So you ran with your wife because you didn’t want to leave her alone on a dark road.”

“No, I used her to keep my pace. It was very peaceful and beautiful during the night.   Many different climate zones were passed. The cherry blossom was over in Nagoya, but as we came up in the valley, we saw more and more of the blossom, and when we ran in the mountains it felt more like late winter than early spring. When the new day dawned, we ran through a long tunnel, and when we came out on the other side of the mountain, we saw a new kind of landscape and felt a much warmer climate than what we had just some kilometers back.”

“You ran in to the next day?”

“Yes, we started running about the time the sun was rising and ran through the day, in to the evening, through the night and got to see our second sunrise since we started, and we still had some hours to run. That was something really fantastic. And to hear the first birds in the morning is always something special.”

“Didn’t you get very sleepy and tired?”

“Sleepiness and fatigue may come, but they might also go. Sometimes one might be totally exhausted, and thoughts of giving up might come. But like in real life, one has to deal with problems we are faced with. One great feature of ultradistance running is the challenges the sport offers. If it was always easy to finish, the significance and spirit of it all would be less.”

“I understand that you could get tired, but what other challenges do you have to face?”

“There are challenges at many different levels. The physical challenge is obvious. We train a lot to be fit enough. 150 to 200 kilometers of running every week, and other kinds of training, such as rowing machine, kayaking and bicycling, are the standard activities. One benefits from having a muscular surplus, when we are running these distances. My wife has improved a lot after she started training on a rowing machine. I didn’t benefit as much as she did, because I am heavy even without that training.”

“Why do you need the extra muscle mass?”

“The extra muscle is needed to support the body when everything is exhausted – and it will be exhausted. I believe that many of those really skinny runners, who dominate distances between 1500

meters and marathon, will be in great trouble if the distance gets really long. And we ultrarunners might be too heavy to be really good at 10 000 meters.”

“Do you keep a diet too, in order to have a certain weight or to be strong enough?”

“I make a point of eating very much. Mary ate too little before we got married, and that was really bad for her, because she got injured all the time. Now she eats more and is more durable. Durability is very important in our sport.”

“But during the race? What do you eat then?”

“As much as possible of whatever I can find and I like to eat. Bread, rice, yogurt, cookies, are standard. But it is good to eat foods with very different flavors, because one tends to get tired of eating foods with the same taste. Anything that can motivate me to eat more food is good. In this race we saw some interesting treats at the aidstations. Grilled trout, small lobsters, fruitsandwishes, soups, and other delicatessen. That was lovely, because I have found that the more I eat the better I run.“

“I bet you get really hungry.”

“No, that is a strange thing. We usually don’t get hungry. It is like the body shuts down feelings of hunger. Maybe this is some kind of survival mechanism we inherited from the stoneage. When I ran my first ultradistance races, I did not eat much at all, because I wasn’t hungry. But when I started to be disciplined about eating, my performances improved. Now I eat at least once or twice every hour during the race. In a 100-kilometer race some years ago, I ate 13 slices of bread, with lots of butter and honey on. I weighed 74 kilos when I started and 75 kilos when I finished. Gaining weight during such a long race seems strange, but I did never get physically or mentally tired and I set a new personal best at that distance.”

“What do you drink when you run all day and night?”

“Basically water and cola. On rare occasions I also drink juices and sports drinks. But you should see what is offered at some aidstations! At one station in the 246-kilometer race Spartathlon in Greece, they treated the runners to whiskey. Beer is not unusual either. I believe alcohol is bad, but beer has a special flavor that might be desired when one has been drinking sweet drinks for so many hours.”

“Doesn’t your stomach get upset if you drink carbonated drinks like cola?”

“No, on the contrary, it seems to be really good for my stomach. And cola contain caffeine, which can help a runner stay awake during the night. But caffeine is classed as doping if it is found in too high concentrations in the body. Therefore I am a bit restrictive with my cola intake.”

“How about your total intake of drinks? How much do you consume?”

“I have estimated that I drink between 20 and 25 liters in races like Spartathlon, where the climate is warm. That is an incredible amount of fluids that goes through a body in a timespan of 24 to 28 hours. The body will be depleted of electrolytes, such as sodium. I eat sodium and potassium during the race, but those substances are lost at a much greater rate than what the body can absorb. I have some times been so depleted that the body doesn’t absorb any water at all. Instead it gets rid of water in order to rise the concentration of electrolytes. That is not very pleasant. Then I urinate about every 10 minutes, don’t sweat at all, and feel like I have a fever.”

“Isn’t that dangerous?”

“Yes, there are basically two dangers one has to watch out for. When the body can’t cool itself, one can get heatstroke. And infections are of course really bad to run with. But good old exhaustion is not dangerous for a healthy individual. I do lots of mental training, where I program my self to enjoy fatigue.”

“You enjoy fatigue?”

“Yes, if I get tired from running well, I really enjoy being completely exhausted. You see, when we start in a race of the distances we talk about here, we can be assured that the only way to finish without being very tired is to run slower than one’s capacity. But that is not the way to win races. An ultrarunner must be able to meet extreme fatigue, and run with it for many hours. If the runner has a bad relationship to the hardships, the races will either be mentally very difficult or he or she will not give 100% in order to not having to face the extreme sides of our sport. I have for many years worked on programming my brain that fatigue is something great – a very high state of being. Fatigue is not pain. It is a sign that I have done my very best. When I start, I am looking forward to the later stages in the race where I get to deal with this high state of athletics known as profound exhaustion. Since we can’t get away from being very tired, we should better develop a good relationship to it.”

“How do you do this kind of mental training?”

“Thoughts can take different paths through one’s mind. I clear the trails for my thoughts by reinforcing certain reactions and attitudes. Much of this is simply done by thinking of how I want to react, and I do lots of this when I am running, sitting in the car, or having nothing else that I must concentrate on. But I have also done lots of manipulating with my thought patterns during deep relaxation, like self-hypnosis.”

“So that is how you prepare yourself mentally for the long races?”

“That way, and by simply running enough to build my self-confidence. And sometimes I do what I call mental stretching. Then I do a long adventure that lasts for many days, by walking or skiing very long distances in the woods. Kayaking is another great way of doing mental stretching. Once I kayaked on lakes and canals across Sweden, through the archipelago when I came to the coast and across the sea to Finland. That was 900 kilometers, and it took two weeks.”

“Mental stretching?”

“Yes! That kind of training stretches the mind. Barriers are moved. In the woods or on the waters, I don’t have the comforts offered by a normal ultra race. No aidstations and no support are available. Myself must do all of the problem solving. I work hard for very long duration, and the time and distances are longer than what I get to encounter in the races I choose to run.”

“But your wife, how does she train her mind?”

“She is a natural talent. Therefore she gets by without stretching her mind. This talent can sometimes be displayed in rather grotesque fashions. She has had to overcome so many problems that it is a miracle she can still compete. For example, at the age of 15, she tore one of her hamstring muscles, biceps femoris, completely away from the seat bone where it was attached. She ran with this muscle out of order for more than 20 years before it was diagnosed and surgically reattached. During all these years she did not take one painfree step. And in a race between Sydney and Melbourne in Australia, she was run over by her support vehicle and got her foot smashed. A tendon was shredded and the surgeon who patched her foot together said she would never be able to run again. But she did, and came back better than ever before, some year later. She does also have an inflammation to the large intestine, ulcerous colitis, and if a race coincides with a period when the inflammation flares up, she has an extra challenge to cope with. It would take me very much mental training to overcome such obstacles.”

“There is one thing that I don’t understand. Why do you at all participate in a sport that involve so much hardships? I mean. There are much more comfortable ways to spend a weekend than running oneself into deep fatigue.”

“Yes, but then we would not get all these great experiences and memories. I sometimes compare this to when my wife delivered our first child. I understood that she was in extreme pain. But once she held little Isak in her arms, she started to talk about how much she wanted one more child. There was a long time leading up to this moment, and it wasn’t easy to deliver, but it did obviously hold enough value and significant for her to want to go through it all again. According to Mary, it is easier to run an ultra race than it is to deliver a baby, and I believe her. Ultra races require lots of training, they do sometimes offer extreme challenges, and one feels tired for many days after a good effort. But all of that is contributing to the meaning of it all, and it is in the very long races that one will find the really fantastic experiences.”

“What fantastic experiences do you mean?”

“We ultrarunners get to experience nature, other people and ourselves in many interesting ways. It is very special to be running from one place to another, through towns, forests, in valleys, across mountains, over plains, much of it in loneliness, and then finally reaching the finishline in a town with lots of spectators in the streets. We may be running in cold rain, under a scorching sun, in the coolness of a starry night. It can happen that we get all of these weathers in the same race. Sometimes we might be running with our fellow competitors. Then we tend to help each other through the hours of running, and I have made friends for life during races. The distance is challenging enough, so trying to beat other runners is usually a secondary mission on the priority list. I met my wife during a 24-hour race in Norway, for example.”

“By the way, how did you and your wife do in this race?”

“We ran together for many hours, and in the morning, she ran away from me, when my brain faded. It felt like my head was gone, and I could not run at all the last 26 kilometers. Sometimes I held on to branches on the bushes along the road, in order to stay on course. Of course I wished I could have run all the way to the finish. Now I had to walk. But to overcome the difficulties had a value too. And I was happy that my wife did so well.”

“I will congratulate her when she wakes up,” said the man.

Our conversation about Sakuramichi and ultra running was over, and I took another look at the map in the airline magazine. There I saw a great part of the world. I saw Japan, with Nagoya by the Pacific Ocean, and Kanazawa by the Sea of Japan. The distance was significant enough to be visible on such a map. And it was even more significant for us who covered every meter between those two cities by means of our own strength. All the fantastic experiences we had there will not be registered on any map. We carry them as memories, and are looking forward to the next race.