M: “Winging it’s” my thing Remember the blog I sent you on minimalist training for Spartathlon?
N: In fact, if I look back at my training for ironman, my best time was last year, where I came top 10% in the world in my age group, on 12 hours training a week, that is much less than people who get those finishing times. The thing is, when you are running 250k, you have to get used to the discomfort, the muscle breakdown, the kidneys in clearing the waste production, there is no shortcut.
M: This race is in the footsteps of Phidippides, he dropped dead?
N: Well, yes, whether he had the right training and nutrition, who knows? I do know that 300 people run this a year, 50% of them finish, and as far as I know, not many of them drop dead. Not to worry
M: What have people said about this challenge? Other than the usual “are you mad”?
N: I get that a lot, most people can’t fathom running 246k, particularly when you live on an island that is 17k long!
People who are close to me know this is not going to be much fun as I haven’t been training. One friend said, “Why don’t you cancel your flights and do it next year?”. When I did UTMB (168kms in the Alps) my longest run was 70k and I always wondered what it would feel like and whether it was possible, we will see how it goes. There’s a lot of luck involved in something like this, the weather etc, and the mental fortitude is what counts.
M: How were you planning to train for something like this on such a small island? Just go round and round?
N: There’s some lovely routes up towards Mgarr, Dingli and the west coast which are hilly, so you get a bit of resistance and strength trainings within your runs. I have done 1 x 100k run in Malta which was around the island. Round Gozo is about 60k, so there are spaces where you can do some long runs, but on any given day you are not running more than 20 or 40k, so there’s plenty of space to do that.
M: Do you have a race strategy? Go hard, go long? Or walking breaks?
N: The strategy is going to be imposed by the very strict cut-off times. I think they try and weed off most of the runners by the half-way mark! If you are going to slow down or stop for food or rest, then you are going to have to run faster when you are moving. So for me it’s going to be all about sustaining the pace, not stopping (if I’m going to eat or drink it’s whilst walking or jogging slowly) because in a race, stopping is dead time. The cut-offs become more lenient at the top of the mountain, at 160k and therefore that’s the target to push for, then see if my body holds up and take it from there.
M: What about the average person who would say that this is extreme and unhealthy?
N: There’s a lot of evidence that our ancestors 10,000 years ago (hunter gatherers) ran 50km a day on average, following the herds. So when you are running 50k a day chasing your dinner, that genetic adaptation stays with us. We are therefore genetically identical to those hunter gathers and therefore physically capable of running a marathon a day for sustained periods of time. So there’s nothing stopping us being able to build up that resistance again. In fact, I’ve shown that running 27 marathons back to back in 27 different countries, with very minimal rest. The problem is that we’ve lost the physical ability due to our sedentary lifestyle, and we’ve lost the mental ability because we always live within our comfort zones, therefore the mental resilience to stretch ourselves is slowly lost over generations.
M: I read recently that ultra-runners seem to suffer more from asthma than is average. One suggestion was that this is as they are outside (exposed to pollens/ pollution etc), another was that asthma suffers will gravitate more towards longer distances…
N: In my case, definitely not. My goal as a child was to go out with my friends, play football climb trees etc. My asthma was preventing me doing what I wanted to do. I gravitated towards basketball as I could jump, run fast, had great hand-eye co-ordination, that is an intense sport. Power and strength was more my field, in fact, I hated running as running was punishment when we had a bad game. When I took over that CEO role, I found life became very hectic and having running was a good escape, time when I could switch off, think and have my ‘me’ time. Therefore it was something I started to enjoy, it was liberating for me to be without my phone for an hour.
M: What’s the pit and peak of your athletic career so far?
N: I wouldn’t say I’ve had bad experiences, I’ve had learning experiences. So for e.g. the second time I went for UTMB, I went completely unprepared. I hadn’t been trail running at ALL, I felt like a fish out of water on the trails, slipping and falling, no sense of balance. I stopped half-way because I kept slipping and I sprained my knee. It was a reality check, you can’t just turn up for events like these. nYes, I was unlucky because I slipped on ice and wrenched my knee, but could that have been prevented if I’d had a bit more practice in the sense of balance from running trails?
The UltraMed was a very interesting experience. I planned to set a world record by running, swimming and cycling 666km non-stop, but did have to stop half way to recover from a problem in my kidneys. The distance was completed, but not non-stop. For me, it was a little disappointing that I didn’t manage to achieve the target, but at the same time, the mental resilience of getting up and continuing when most people said you should stop was a success for me, in the sense of managing to overcome that particular disappointment, dust myself off and keep going.
Any experience has been a learning curve, obviously tearing my cruciate ligaments when I was at the peak of my basketball career was devastating at the time, but if I hadn’t done that I would still be playing my social basketball and probably not raising money for charity, so the reality is that if you think positively about anything that has happened to you, you can get make good out of any bad situation.
M: What’s been your favourite isolated moment?
N: Probably the 27-marathon challenge, because I had been running for a month and travelling around Europe, 27 countries in 27 days was knackering without the running, so finishing that and looking forward to getting home and being with my family was a memory I will always treasure. Also the logistical planning of an event like that was huge, the running was the least thing. Pulling it off and raising €100,000 for charity was very up-lifting, it also gave me the confidence to continue to push my limits and try and do new things.
M: You haven’t yet mention MDS (Marathon De Sables)?
N: MDS I think was a bit over-rated in the toughness point of view, because of the lenient cut-off times. I think the experience was life-changing because you are in the desert, there are no mod-cons, you’re sleeping on the floor, for most people who don’t go out of their comfort zone, doing something like the MDS or a similar adventure race brings the realisation that we live in such a materialistic world. In the desert all you worry about is food, water and staying safe. When that clicks, all the stuff we think we need, we really don’t. For me that was a turning point in my outlook on my career, chasing the rat race etc. Therefore the greatest learning from MDS for me was not from the physical endurance point of view, but from the philosophical.
M: I hope that your humility comes across in this interview, but I have found with some elite-runners, an ‘elitist mentality’ as I call it. Why is this true of some and the opposite in others? Can you say anything about that?
N: Doing things a lot of people can’t can lead you on an ego trip. Therefore you need to be mindful of that. It depends a lot on the innate character of the individual, if that person is not mindful of their place in the world, and thinks the world revolves around them, they will fall into that trap.
For me, ultra-running is a personal thing, I never compete against anybody else. I just want to test my own limits and see if I can accomplish the goals I set out to do, whether that is complete a race or go faster in a triathlon, it’s never about “winning”. In fact, when doing ultra-distances, it can be a life-changing experience if you are open to it, so you become indeed more humble, as you realise we are so far off from the never-ending limit, we really cannot feel we are that amazing,
M: Do you think you will ever stop?
N: I think the idea of doing new things will always remain. If my joints can’t take the running, I will find something else (cycling, swimming etc). For me the idea of testing new limits, finding new ways of doing things is always interesting. The mental challenge is more important than the physical one.
M: Anything else you would like to mention?
N: That a lot of what I do is because of the support I have had from my parents, wife, colleagues and friends who believed in my abilities.
For example, my wife also has her own personal training business, but she sacrifices a lot so I can train in the morning: she organises the kids for school etc. I could not do any of this without her support.
To sponsor Nathan for Spartathlon on Saturday please go to the donate page, choose “a one-off donation” and put the amount and “Nathan’s challenge” in the text box.
Nathan’s website is: http://www.upyourlevel.
Read Part 1 of the series: Maria Walton here
Read Part 3: Patrick Sweeney here
Read Part 4: Dini Martinez here