Europe’s Jewel: The Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc

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Columbia Hong Kong team enjoying the surrounding trails of Chamonix. Photo: Alexis Berg

| Full article available [FREE] in Asia Trail magazine HERE |

Ultra runners worldwide grin with glee, break into an instant sweat, immediately start daydreaming, and burn with race-day anticipation when the famed ultra-talk acronym UTMB crosses their minds and escapes their lips. Since the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc’s beginning, the event has drawn revered attention and received iconic status — an event whose mountain views will stop the most serious racer in his tracks, and whose camaraderie and spectatorship rivals that of Tour de France’s.

China’s Long-Fei Yan — who won the Hong Kong 100, both in 2015 and 2016 — says about the UTMB: “It’s just like the Olympic Games, and all the participants can test their running standard in this race.” Long-Fei adds: “It’s the greatest race I have ever run with the most participants and the most events. In most Chinese runners’ eyes, it’s a sacred race and they are very proud to run the it.”

Jeff ‘BroncoBilly’ Browning entered the race in 2015, and has not been the same since: “It’s awesome and the race atmosphere is truly electric. The mountain culture is so deep in the Alps that you can’t help loving the race. The spectator turnout is amazing and it gives you so much energy to run through the villages and high-five lines of kids. People are all over the course — even in the middle of the night.”

A Stacked Field of Racers

As always, the 2017 UTMB has attracted a massive field of athletes. The elite entry list is long and full of experienced and highly qualified racers. Topping the list are runners such as, Kílian Jornet, Jim Walmsley, François D’Haene, Xavier Thévenard, Sage Canaday, Gediminas Grinius, and Dylan Bowman.

The women’s race will be just as exciting, with top runners including Núria Picas, Magdalena Boulet, Andrea Huser, Juliette Blanchet, Kaori Niwa, and Pui Yan Chow.

I asked Sage Canaday, a top podium pick, how he feels about the competition this year: “Looking at the competition it appears to be the most competitive mountain-ultra-trail race in history with a lot of repeat champions, top-ranked runners, and a long list of favourites. My goal is always to try to win, but ultimately I want to run the best race that I can.”

How to Run and Train For It

The #1 training priority in any ultra-distance event is building a solid base. And the same rule holds true for the UTMB.

Long-Fei Yan says: “If a runner wants to run good in the race, he needs to prepare at least 3-4 months for the race. System training, core training, and recovery after the training are very important.”

An interesting suggestion from Bowman is to hire a coach with specific experience training runners for events like the UTMB. He feels this is one of the best ways to train and prepare for the race: “I think prioritising time and vertical over mileage in training is important to prepare for the relentlessly mountainous course. Having good lighting gear and a solid nutrition strategy are also important.”

Here’s a top suggestion from most runners, including Manikala Rai: “Come in advance. Two weeks is a minimum. It permits you to adapt to jet lag, change of climate, new food, etc.”

Browning agrees, emphasising the importance of getting in lots of climbing and descending before race day, a sure way of familiarising oneself with the Alps’ unique terrain. He adds a note on pace: “I think it’s important to not get too caught up in the hoopla and early fast pace that UTMB is known for. The field is so deep and coupled with the electric energy of the crowd, it makes it easy to run too hard early. You have to be ready for the latter tough miles that come with long ultras in the mountains.”

Holly Rush’s top UTMB training suggestion: “Just run lots! If possible I would try to see the route before the race, this really helped me decide on the right kit and shoes and what was coming next. If this isn’t possible, then do lots of climbing practice with poles (I used poles for the first time and they really helped) and spend plenty of time on your feet. I would also practice with different foods. Expect the lows. In a race this long you will go through bad patches. Just keep moving forward and soon you will come through it.”

As Rush observed, you don’t even need to be racing to enjoy the festival atmosphere. During race week, Chamonix turns into a running mecca, with thousands of people hanging out to run and to support the runners.

By Clint Cherepa. Full article available in Asia Trail magazine (August 2017). 

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Tsang Dominates Hong Kong Trail Running Awards

Stone Tsang receiving the Altra Lifetime Achievement Awards. Photo by Lucien Chan

Stone Tsang receiving the Altra Lifetime Achievement Awards. Photo by Lucien Chan

Local trail running champion, Stone Tsang, was the big winner as the Hong Kong trail running community gathered on July 21 to recognise outstanding performances from the 2016/17 season. Nominated for six awards, Tsang took home three, including the Andy Naylor Sportsmanship and Altra Lifetime Achievement Awards.

Reflecting on his multiple wins, Stone reflected, “For me, it’s an amazing night and it’s an honor to win three awards. I’m very happy to get the support of so many people and I’m very lucky. Thank you to the community and Gone Running.”

Another stand out was Canadian Jeff Campbell, who claimed the blue ribbon Green Race Male Runner of the Year on the back of 12 wins in 13 races. Amazingly, Campbell bought his first trail shoes less than three years ago. For the ladies, over a dozen local wins and a top 10 finish at the Ultra Trail World Tour saw New Zealand’s Marie McNaughton’s make it back-to-back victories, comfortably winning the WAA Female Runner of the Year.

Despite seeing only 22 starters, the 298km Hong Kong 4 Trails Ultra Challenge was well represented, with the magic 60 hour cut-off broken for the first time in six years. Tsang’s win in the Runivore Best Solo Run was based on his second placed 54:15 finish, as well as his monumental fundraising effort, raising over $500,000 for sports-based charities. Unluckily beaten for the solo run prize, race winner, Tom Robertshaw, received the Alpinamente Sponsors Award.

The awards also acknowledge the crucial behind-the-scenes work of race organisers and volunteers. The Vibram Hong Kong 100 claimed the 2XU Best Race gong for the second year running, while RaceBase’s 9 Dragons – challenging back-to-back 50 mile and 50km courses over a single weekend – won the Black Diamond Best New Race. Local snapper, Sunny Lee, picked up the inaugural Ultimate Direction Best Trail Running Photo trophy.

The awards are organised by Gone Running (www.gonerunning.hk), a local community trail running store in Wanchai, and winners are based on public voting. A groundswell of interest saw this year’s online voting double to 5,852 returned ballots, while big name trail running brands like Salomon, Joint Dynamics and Tailwind also strongly backed the awards night with over $35,000 of prizes.

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FINAL RESULTS

WAA Female Runner of the Year – Marie McNaughton

Green Race Male Runner of the Year – Jeff Campbell

2XU Master Runner of the Year – Janine Canham

Joint Dynamics Youth Runner of the Year – Tang Ying Fei Nathania

Salomon Most Improved Female Runner – Frances Lai

Tailwind Most Improved Male Runner – Nick Cook

Runivore Best Solo Run – Stone Tsang

RaceBase Best Team Run – Team Japan

Andy Naylor Sportsmanship Award – Stone Tsang

2XU Best Race – Vibram Hong Kong 100

Black Diamond Best New Race – 9 Dragons

Ultimate Direction Best Trail Running Photo – Sunny Lee

Icebreaker Community Award – Filipina Extreme Hikers

Altra Lifetime Achievement Award – Stone Tsang

Alpinamente Sponsors Award – Tom Robertshaw

Fitness and Exercise Myths Debunked

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Some ideas just won’t die, even if they’ve been invalidated for decades. Here are some of the more common exercise myths that affect the trail-running community, especially those who are just getting started.

 

Drink a lot of water while running: Far from necessary, this can be downright dangerous. Hyponatremia, caused by drinking too much water, is a condition brought on by the dilution of important minerals and nutrients in the body. Symptoms include confusion, seizures, nausea, muscle cramps, and even death. Call me crazy, but I don’t see any of these things helping you improve your race time. After researching this topic, I can’t find a single instance of a long-distance runner dying of dehydration, but I can find plenty of examples of runners dying from consuming too much water.

 

Instead of drinking too much, take small sips when you’re thirsty, and train enough that you get to know your body and what it needs.

 

Stretching reduces injury: Stretching helps your joints move more, but this isn’t good for runners — at least not if you want to stay injury-free. What is needed by runners, especially trail runners, is stability. So ditch the stretching routine. Instead, do joint-strengthening exercises and always start a run with a good warm-up, which will definitely reduce injuries.

 

Sports drinks are the best way to rehydrate: Not if they’re full of sugar, chemicals, and dyes. Or even if they aren’t. For shorter runs, water is probably your best bet. On longer runs, where it’s important to replenish electrolytes, you can easily and cheaply make your own natural sports drink by squeezing a lemon or lime into your water bottles along with a pinch of salt. Or if you want the ultimate sports drink made by nature, carry coconut water. It contains everything your body needs, without the harmful side effects of artificial sports drinks.

 

Eat lots of pasta the night before a big run or race: First of all, you need more time to digest all those carbohydrates, so if you’re going to eat a lot of carbs to fuel up for a race, you should do it about 24h ahead of time. Second, a lot of pasta options include more fat than carbs anyway, and not any good sort of fat. Finally, your body can only store so much energy from carbs in the form of glycogen, so if you’re eating a huge meal of pasta you’re probably taking in more than you can use anyway. Inevitably, the excess will be turned into fat. In addition, most pastas are highly processed.

 

Instead, get most of your carbs from natural sources like wholesome fruits and vegetables, which come with all sorts of other health-inducing benefits. Listen to your body, give it what it needs, when it needs it, and don’t change what works for you on all your other days the night before a race.

 

To run faster just run more: Actually, the science is increasingly showing that what many runners need is more rest and recovery. If you’re running more than three days per week and can’t seem to improve, try scaling back to three or even just two days of running per week.

 

In addition, try attempting more exercises targeting your core and arms — the condition of these parts really does influence the performance of your running. Make sure your whole body is in shape, not just your legs. This balanced approach will help you run better, faster, and safer.

 

You need to eat meat: I recently read these lines in Fitness Magazine: “Vegetarians often try to get their iron fix through lentils, beans, fortified cereals and tofu. However, you’re still missing protein. Make sure to eat eggs, dairy products, or soy at every meal to get your animal-friendly dose.”

 

False. Think of the largest land animals, like cows, hippos, rhinos, and elephants. What do they have in common? None of them eat meat. Yet they get plenty of protein. Granted, cow stomachs process plant material differently than do human stomachs, but there are plenty of plant-based sources of protein for endurance athletes, like seeds, legumes, nuts, nut butters, tofu, soy milk, sprouts, whole-grain sprouted breads, nutritional yeast, broccoli, spinach … need I go on? For lots of details on this topic visit NoMeatAthlete.com.

 

By Joshua Steimle

Joshua is the CEO of MWI (mwi.hk), a digital marketing agency, and a writer for various business publications including Forbes and Entrepreneur. He lives and runs in Hong Kong. You can contact him @joshsteimle or josh@mwi.hk.

 

 

Get Stronger with Periodisation. Plan Now to Run Fast Later

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“Don’t get set into one form, adapt it and build your own, let it grow, be like water.”

— Bruce Lee

Succeeding as an endurance athlete requires putting into practice Lee’s advice, and adapting. Periodisation is a simple way to adapt and train smart now for a big payoff later. Basically, it means organising your training to peak for a race. It is a way of dividing your athletic season into a series of phases that will help you conquer plateaus, eat up boredom, and avoid overuse-related injuries. Many trail runners incorporate periodisation into their training without even knowing it.

 

What Is Periodisation?

The late Arthur Lydiard was one of the first to really promote the concept of periodised training and explain it in understandable terms.

In his book “Running to the Top,” Lydiard sums up the purpose of periodised training: “When I settled down to analyse my defeats, I realised I was hitting my peaks of performance at all the wrong times. I had to find a method not only of building stamina to stand a lot of racing but also of timing my preparation so that I could be reasonably certain of being in top form on the day I most wanted to run best.”

Ruth Hunt, who coached Lee Chi Wo to second place at the 2006 Asian Games Triathlon, as well as second at the Olympic Games, and who now coaches a wide age group of runners (including ultra runners such as Olya Korzh) says: “There are many forms of periodisation. Forty years ago when I was training to be a physical education teacher, periodisation practices were based on the work of the Russian Leo Matveyev. He considered periodisation to be a logical method of planning and developing a training program, using cycles and stages specific to the needs of the athlete, in order to reach the best possible performance.”

Etienne Rodriguez, who won The North Face Endurance Challenge 50km in 2014, explains it as separating your training cycle into blocks that are then used to “improve a specific facet of one’s running through stimulating particular adaptations in the body (e.g., speed, endurance, VO2 max etc.).”

The four basic phases, or blocks, are: Transition, Base, Building, and Peak. Your training cycle, whether it is four months or one year, divides this cycle into phases with specific goals, workouts, and performances. This adds variety into your training and helps you reach peak conditioning at just the right time.

 

Why Use Periodisation?

It can be easy to get into running ruts or routines that feel good, but ones which are not ultimately getting you into the optimal running condition. And depending on only a handful of workouts throughout the whole year is not enough for reaching peak condition.

Rodriguez notes that periodisation “benefits trail/ultra runners through focusing on a specific facet of one’s trail-running game. In most cases, this means that the area trained is enhanced at a faster rate than what it would be without periodisation. Periodisation can be particularly useful if the athlete is strong in one area but slightly weaker in another.”

Likewise, Hunt feels that an ultra runner definitely benefits more from planned sessions, and that dividing the training year into periods, and switching between high- and low-intensity training gives the body a better chance to recover between target races. She does lactate testing to confirm which energy system is being trained.

How to Use Periodisation?

As with every training plan, a periodisation plan should be tweaked and adapted to fit each runner’s needs. This is especially important for ultra runners.

“Ultra runs are so variable in terms of terrain and distance and elevation gain/loss that it’s hard to put into place a blanket prescription on periodisation for it,” says Rodriguez.

Hunt adds, “Periodisation plans should be specifically designed for each ultra runner and should include monitoring by both the athlete and the coach.”

Phases

As mentioned, every runner and coach needs to experiment and find what works best. It will hinge on your training experience, injury history, planned races, as well as other goals. Still, it is good to have somewhere to start. Here is an idea of how you could breakdown your season into four phases. This is a rough template and should be adjusted to your individual needs.

Transition Phase (1-8 Weeks)

This is a break after a significant race or the period following your racing season. There would be no serious training during this time. It can be used to rest and recover, concentrate on your running form and technique, as well as to plan out your next race or entire season.

Base Phase (2-3 Months)

During this phase the goal is to build a strong aerobic base, strength, muscle endurance, and technique while keeping the efforts easy and gradually building weekly miles. You should keep your volume moderate and your intensity low. This period should start about 24 weeks before your first significant race. This is a good time to add speed work and strength training to your routine (see sidebar #1).

Rodriguez suggests: “the initial focus is on volume, the goal being to increase endurance and get the muscular-skeletal system ready for higher intensity workouts. The long run is a key workout in increasing volume and promoting adaptions that will enhance endurance.”

Focus Workouts

Long Run: Depending on your abilities, include a weekly long run at a very easy pace.

Speed Work: Incorporate strides at the end of one or two of your runs. Try 10 sets of 20-30s bursts of speed, with 2min easy jogs in-between. The idea is to get your legs accustomed to some speed.

Strength Training: Include 1-3 weight or body-weight strength sessions a week (see sidebar #1).

Building Phase (~ 4-8 Weeks)

Start peppering in hill work, speed work, back-to-back long runs, and slowly keep increasing mileage or hours on the trails. Add in tempo runs to train at race-specific intensity.

Focus Workouts

Long Run: Keep building up your mileage or hours and possibly include back-to-back long runs.

Speed Work: Start with shorter tempo runs and keep building them up to 2h. Tempo runs will train your body to be able to sustain speed over distance.

Strength Training: Hill running is indispensable for strong running. Coach Andy DuBois starts his runners with six 2min repeats, and then builds to five 5min repeats. DuBois states, “Hill reps are race specific, so if it’s something like the UTMB then we’ll do more hiking up, and running fast back down.” He suggests if the race is more runnable to do 60min of running up and down a hill at a hard effort.

Peak Phase (4-6 Weeks)

This is where you start putting it all together with very strong speedy efforts. Your training should be testing you out — finding your limits and noticing possible weaknesses. As always, not getting injured is paramount, and you should be ready to back off at any time that a possible injury begins to creep in.

Rodriguez suggests: “The final phase is the stage to increase fine-tuning for your specific race. You want to be training in such a way that you feel comfortable on race day. If you are planning on running a fast marathon, you’d want to focus on speed and reduce your weekly volume/mileage as you get closer to the race. If you’re running an ultra that has a significant amount of elevation gain or loss, you want to use this phase to ensure that you are comfortable running it.”

Focus Workouts

Long Run: Start picking up the pace on the long runs and decrease the volume to allow for the extra speed. Taper down the long runs as race day nears.

Speed Work: Concentrate on longer tempo runs and long repeats of 1,200s or even 1,600s.

Strength Training: Keep up the weekly hill work to keep your climbing and declining strength. DuBois suggests, “If the race has stairs then they will have to fit into training as well, and may alternate with hill reps.” He suggests to possibly hike the stairs two at a time, do them with a weighted pack, and then, depending on the athlete, run them 1-3 at a time.

Periodisation undulates like the trails we run. It is a useful training tool that we can adapt to our needs and goals to become stronger and faster runners.

[SIDEBAR]

Strength Training

“Strength training will strengthen a runner in ways and to a degree that running itself will not,” says Matt Fitzgerald, an endurance sports writer, coach, and nutritionist.

Every trail runner wants to be strong and run their best. Supplementing your trail-running program with strength training can get you on track to achieving running goals and staying injury-free.

Fitzgerald feels that good core strength helps improve running economy. He says that it makes the transfer of forces between upper body and the legs more efficient. He also notes, “there is a good deal of anecdotal evidence that core strengthening reduces the risk of some injuries.”

As we get older strength becomes more important. Fitzgerald points out: “the big difference I’ve seen is in runners over 40. Those who maintain a commitment to strength training are able to extend their peak performance years, much longer than those who do not.”

A trail runner can start seeing strength gains with as little as 2-3 sessions of 20min a week. Like trail running, start with shorter easy sessions and gradually increase.

With little time investment, strength training will make you a stronger trail runner.

By Clint Cherepa

Clint is currently in Nicaragua engaged in volunteer work, writing, and ultra training. He plans on returning to the USA this summer to crew and pace his little sister in her first 50mi trail ultra.

 

What Record for Kilian Jornet and the Everest?

Kilian Jornet successfully completed his last “Summits of my life ” climbing the Everest (8,848 m) with his minimalist approach: no assistance, no fixed rope and no oxygen supply. Jornet via his press agent announced to have the FKT (Fastest Known Time) from Rongbuk monastery to the summit, with a time of 26h. Is it really a new record ?

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Stomach pain slowed down Kilian Jornet on his ascent

Starting the ascent from the Everest Base Camp at 5,100m on May 20th at 10pm local time, Jornet reached the summit 26 hours later at midnight on the night 21-22 May. He severely suffered, however, from stomach issues from 7,700 m, which drastically reduced his progression, having to move slowly and “stop his record attempt” on his way back to the advanced base camp at 6,400m, i.e. not going back to the start location. His starting point was the monastery Rongbuk at the end of the official road, 3km south of Rongbuk. This point is what the operators call EBC for Everest Base Camp. This is not what the alpinists name Advanced Base Camp (ABC) which is higher at 6,400 m.

Therefore, Jornet started his ascent with an extra 15km from 5,100m to 6,400 m that he covered in a record time of 4h35min, which is phenomenal. Once he reached the ABC at 2:35am, he rested 2h to optimize his energy for the final ascent. At 4:30am, he left ABC for a non-stop climb to the summit. He met his friend and photographer Sebastien Montaz on his way between 7,600 and 7,800m. Montaz filmed him up to 8,000m. Jornet started to suffer from stomach pain at 7,500m. “ I did not feel well and I was moving very slowly. I had to stop every few steps, but I was fine with the altitude so I decided to continue” said Kilian who decided to rest for 15min at 8,300m. “I saw  a beautiful sunset when I finally reached the summit at midnight. I was alone and I saw all the headlamps of the different expeditions from both north and south sides. I started the descent right away” said Jornet, safely back to ABC 38h later at around 12:15 on May 22nd.

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What are the current records of the Everest?

If we look at the ascents without oxygen, there are only few contenders. On the Nepalese side ascent, Marc Batard climbed in 22h29min. From the Tibetan side, same way as Jornet did, there are two records recognized by Guinness Book hold by Hans Kammerlander in 16h45min in 1996 ABC (6,400m). In 2006, the Austrian Christian Stangl established a similar time in 16h42min still from ABC to summit. These two alpinists covered, however, a significantly shorter distance than Jornet. From this point of view, Jornet has the record from Rongbuk and he is the only one to date to have attempted the ascent from that far. If we look at the times, Jornet took 19h30min to 20h to reach the summit from ABC (excluding his rest time at ABC), an extra 3h than the previous record from ABC to the summit explains Rudolph Popier, a specialist of Himalaya and member of Himalayan Data Base.

Interestingly, during his training period, Jornet established a new record of the best progression above 8,000m. He climbed up to 8,400 meters from ABC in less than 6h. That’s 350m/h for a 2,000m elevation gain. Only Denis Urubko did 298m/h on 2,235m during his record of Gasherbrum 2, while few Sherpas matched this vertical speed.

Therefore, Jornet did not establish an official record, but he did his own record his own way like he did for the Mont Blanc when starting from the church of Chamonix or Courmayeur. Up to 200 alpinists climbed Everest without oxygen, which is already a huge accomplishment. A witness at ABC, Adrian Ballinger said that Jornet may consider another attempt…

Article adapted from Wider magazine article

How to Successfully Finish an Ultra with 10h Training a Week

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To be an ultra runner you have to run 160km a week, minimum. You need to run for at least 20h in those seven days, and sleep is for the weak. What a load of rubbish.

If you look at Strava, Instagram, or Facebook it seems everyone is out for 7-8h every day, in the mountains or on the track, doing 500 sprints. This may work for some, but they do seem to post more pictures and race less when they have stress fractures or overtraining syndrome…

Having recently trained for a pretty successful IAU 24 Hour World and European Championships, on an average weekly training time of 8-12h, I know you don’t need to run so much that you lose all your friends to get yourself to that finish line. Maybe just find some running buddies so that you can socialise and train at the same time to avoid that too.

There is no set amount of mileage you need to have done before you get to that start line — you just need to be fit and healthy. Maybe a little bit strange too.

Remember, this is supposed to be fun as well, if you stop enjoying it because you’re always tired, then something is wrong.

 

Quality not Quantity

Focus on the quality, not quantity, of your training. Each session should have a purpose, be it a tempo session trying to raise lactate threshold, a hill session aimed at building strength, or a recovery session to get the blood flowing through those muscles and help them repair themselves.

If you are just going out, day in, day out, plodding round at one speed, then you are not making the most of your time. Instead, running at different speeds will keep the body adapting and growing stronger, even if it is just adding a fartlek session in each week.

As little as 10h of properly structured training, with quality sessions, is worth much more than 20h of plodding around — so instantly we have a way of becoming ultra runners in less time.

 

Concentrate on Recovery

You don’t overtrain, you under recover. How much work your body can take is very dependent on how well you recover, which boils down to a few factors.

How hard you work, what sessions you do, how often you run, how well you manage your nutrition, and how often you really think about recovery. A great book worth reading is “Training Food,” by Renee McGregor, which looks at what you should eat, when, and how much in order to make sure that you optimise your food to get the most out of your body.

Avoiding back-to-back hard sessions, such as hills or tempo sessions, allows your body to recuperate and grow after you have put it to work. If you feel like you can do a hill session two days in a row then I’d suggest maybe you didn’t work hard enough during the first one!

 

Specificity

Make sure that you are doing sessions that are relevant to your race ahead and you will get twice the benefit (and thus only need to do half as much work). If your race has lots of hills, then add hills to your long run, if it has a fast flat finish, then add that in too. If you’re going to be hiking up and down stairs, then do your hill work on those. Any way of adding value to your run will make race day easier.

 

Run Long — But Only Once a Week

In an average week, I will rarely go over 3h of training on my long run, which is once a week, usually on a weekend. Long runs are tiring and will knacker out your muscles if you do them too often.

Doing 90min to 3h means you can get all the benefits of the longer efforts without tiring your muscles so much that you can’t hit your midweek sessions like a rocket.

If you want to feel what it is like “to run on tired legs,” like many admit they do when asked why they do huge back-to-back weekends, then add a marathon pace effort in the last 30min of your long run. That’s how it feels at the end of a race.

Try practicing your hydration and nutrition, as well as get to know your new shoes, before race day, as these are ways to make sure you are getting the most out of the time on your feet. Then get your legs up afterwards and make rest an art form, with some good books or a walk with the kids.

 

Organisation Makes Time

Time is a valuable commodity, so use it wisely. If you struggle to fit your running or recovery in then look to tweaking a few things in order to keep your other half happy. A healthy life outside of running means a healthy runner too!

Have recovery food ready for when you are back home, and you will recover quicker. Adding three 30min runs to your week, on an empty stomach in the morning, adds as much as 90min of a fasted run at the weekend without the big block of time and much less potential tiredness.

Many run to commute to work, and you may be a bit sweatier when you get there, but it is scientifically proven to increase productivity in the workplace. I often used to cycle or run to work in London, had a quick wash and changed my clothes and smelled better than most of the people who took the Tube to work!

 

Run Less, Grow Stronger

It’s when you rest that you grow stronger — training stresses the body to produce growth but is itself nothing without rest.

Add strength work into your week, either with professional advice or a wee circuit once or twice a week, as something is better than nothing and having a strong core will keep you be efficient in the second half of your ultra.

Ultimately, though one 300km week may seem like a good idea, if as a result you have to take five weeks to recover, then six 60km weeks are already a better idea. Consistency is key.

Just concentrate on how fit you can make yourself — not on how others are doing on social media — and get yourself as fit as possible on race day. Fitness is only one aspect of running ultra marathons, with pacing, nutrition, kit, strategy, and mental toughness all mattering more and more as the race gets longer!

Train smart, rest hard, race easy.

 

By Robbie Britton

 

Robbie is a British ultra runner who believes you don’t have to train long to run long. He has run 261km in 24h to prove this, but dreams of being an 800m runner. He is sponsored by Profeet.

The Skinny on Speed

AsianTrail illo-Speed (1)As trail runners, we are always trying to get our edge and stay ahead of the pack. How do I shave 10min off of my North Face 100km personal best? What do I have to do to beat Stone Tsang or John Ellis in just one 50km race? Have you ever wondered what physiological traits are the reason for which the top runners are so fast? The world’s really fast distance runners tend to look so small and weedy, as if the weakest typhoon could effortlessly blow them away, yet they seem to run at a pace rivalling that of a leopard. You’re a runner. You have put in similar training hours leading up to a big event, yet despite your tough and gruelling training schedule, you do not even match their pace on a bad day. What factors are to blame for shaming us mere mortals?

Let’s take a look at the Kenyans. When it comes to running, they are hands-down the best. This nation has produced the highest quantity of world-class runners. Two tribes are specifically notable for their exceptional runners — the Kisii and the Kalenjin. I am almost certain that you have heard of the Kalenjins. If not, you’ve probably been living underneath a boulder. The Kalenjins have won more than 50% of all Kenyan Olympic and Commonwealth Games medals. The new world record marathon holder Dennis Kimetto, from the Kalenjin tribe, set the record at 2h 2min 57s on Sept. 29, 2014. The three placing after him in that same race were also Kenyan.

David Epstein, senior editor at Sports Illustrated and the author of “The Sports Gene,” states that, “There are 17 American men in history who have ran under 2h 10min in the Chicago Marathon. There were 32 Kalenjins who did it in October 2011.”

Vincent Sarich, who was an anthropology professor at the University of California, Berkeley, calculated that Kenyans outperform the rest of the world in cross-country running by a factor of about 1700. This means that while the rest of the world has one elite athlete per 20 million males, Kenya has 80 elite athletes per every one million males. There are about 3 million Kalenjins, therefore Kenya will have about 240 elite male athletes at any one time.

So what are the biological factors that make these runners so fast? Scientists and sports gurus have researched all sorts of explanations over the years but have not come to a single conclusion. Is it diet? Altitude? Genetics? Training schedule?

Diet: This is not a big factor. The Kenyans eat lots of ugali, which is maize flower mixed with water and salt. It is a good source of carbohydrates. But we also eat our fair share of carbohydrates, so this is not a significant finding.

Altitude: This can also be ruled out as a factor. Kenya is based at a moderate altitude of 2300m. This altitude has moderate year-round temperatures, favouring year-round training and red blood cell production. In saying this, countries with a similar altitude, such as Peru, Nepal, and Lesotho, have not produced a rival number of outstanding runners — even other Kenyan tribes have not managed to bring forth as many great runners as the Kalenjins.

Talent: Perhaps a possible explanation. These tribes used to partake in cattle raiding. This practice would ensure that the best runners would obtain the most cattle and they would survive the longest by escaping the spears of the recently dispossessed cattle owners. This resulted in the best runners securing the most wives as they could provide them with the most cattle. Therefore, any genes determining running ability would be passed down through the generations as this cattle raiding practice killed off the slower runners while the faster runners procreated. Their talent was distilled. Researchers John Bale and Joe Sang state that because of this, “the Kalenjin men became not explosively muscular, but lean and tireless.”

Some scientists have also concluded that it is the shape of the Kalenjin tribe’s bodies. The Kalenjin tribe has predominantly thin ankles and calves.

There were interesting findings from a study that looked at the anthropometric, gait, and strength characteristics of Kenyan distance runners. These runners all had a low body mass index (20.1 kg.m² ± 1.8 kg.m²), a low body fat percentage (5.1% ± 1.6%) and a small calf circumference (34.5cm ± 2.3cm). This study concluded that the slim limbs of Kenyan distance runners may positively contribute to performance as there is a low moment of inertia, therefore requiring less muscular effort in leg swing. The study also found that the Kenyans had a short ground contact time. This may be related to an efficient gait and running economy as there is less time for the braking force (i.e. contact time) to decelerate the body’s forward motion.

Epstein backs this up in his book, stating that “thin ankles and calves are particularly important in running because your leg is like a pendulum. The more weight you have farther away from your centre of gravity, the more difficult it is to swing.”

Superior fatigue resistance: A study was conducted comparing a group of black runners consisting of Kenyans, Ethiopians, South Africans, and Moroccans to South African white runners. The participants had similar marathon times and similar VO2 max scores and were set to run a marathon on a treadmill. The study found that the black runners completed the marathon at a higher VO2 max (89%) than the white runners (81%). This showed that the black runners have a much greater resistance to fatigue. Meaning that if the very best black and white runners have the same VO2 max values, the black runners would still outperform the white runners in endurance events because of their greater capacity to run for longer at a higher percentage of the same VO2 max. This hypothesis has, unfortunately, not been evaluated as there are not enough elite white runners in the world to match the performances of the best Kenyans, Ethiopians, Moroccans, and South Africans. What we can take away from this is that, if we know our own VO2 max score, we can train smarter to slowly increase our VO2 max percentage when racing, and therefore increase our performance.

Muscle function and recruitment capacity: The study mentioned above also looked at muscle function and found that black distance runners could complete more contraction/relaxation cycles before they developed fatigue. This makes sense as they would be able to resist fatigue by utilising a higher level of skeletal muscle recruitment, prolonging the onset of ‘hitting a wall.’ Another study found that black African distance runners have more Type II (fast twitch) muscle fibers, and their Type II fibers are more similar to their Type I (slow twitch), particularly regarding their high capillary density and high mitochondrial enzyme content. This high capillary density would ensure that oxygen delivery to, and metabolite clearance from, the muscles is more efficient. Having a high mitochondrial enzyme content would also make the muscles more efficient as they are able to utilise more oxygen as energy.

Slow rate of heat accumulation: All of us have ran a trail race during which our head felt like it is on fire, and there is nothing you can do to overcome this heat accumulation except slow down, thus limiting your performance. This is not a great racing scenario. The ability to slow the rate of heat accumulation when running fast would be highly advantageous. Factors that slow the rate of heat accumulation when running fast are: small size and high running efficiency. These are both characteristics describing Kenyan distance runners. Size can be worked on as you can always become smaller to improve your running performance. Ask most top runners what their ‘fighting weight’ or best running performance weight is and it will always be on the lower end of their scale. Running efficiency can also be worked on by improving the elastic energy return systems of the muscles. The more that the muscle acts as a spring, the less energy it will consume and the more efficient it will be. This more elastic, efficient muscle will enhance performance by slowing down the rate of metabolite accumulation causing fatigue, and prolonging the rate of a rising body temperature. Foam rolling and dynamic stretching can help to improve muscle elasticity.

In conclusion, we can improve what VO2 max percentage we perform at, our overall body weight, therefore size, and our muscle elasticity. So, despite the fact that we will never be as fast as the Kenyans, we can tweak a few factors to make us skinnier, more efficient, and quicker, and hopefully catch Stone Tsang and John Ellis on the trails soon. That is the skinny on speed.

 

Jessica Phillips is an exercise physiologist and running consultant at Joint Dynamics. She loves trail running and escaping manic city life to explore the many mountains and single tracks that Hong Kong has to offer.

 

References:

  1. Noakes, T.D., (2001). Lore of Running; Fourth Edition; pg.s 406-408; 433-437., Oxford University Press, South Africa.
  2. Christensen, D.L., van Hall, G., Hambraeus, L. (1998). Food intake of Kalenjin runners in Kenya: A field study. Journal of Sports Sciences 16, 500.
  3. Bale, J., Sang, J. (1996). Kenyan Running: Movement Culture, Geography and Global Change. Frank Cass, London.
  4. Kong, P.W., de Heer, H. (2008).Anthropometric, gait and strength characteristics of Kenyan distance runners. Journal of Sports Science and Medicine 7, 499-504.
  5. Bosch, A.N., Goslin, B.R., Noakes, T.D. (1990). Physiological changes during a simulated marathon in black and white athletes. European Journal of Applied Physiology 61, 68-72.
  6. Weston, A.R., Karamizrak, O., Smith, A., Noakes, T.D., Myburgh, K.H. (1999). African runners exhibit greater fatigue resistance, lower lactate accumulation, and higher oxidative enzyme activity. Journal of Applied Physiology 86, 915–23.

By Jessica Phillips

To Pole or Not to Pole

Claus Rolff_TransLantau

Perceived Advantages:

  1. Reduce impact forces on joints and muscles.
  2. Improve posture and increase propulsion.
  3. Increase balance and stability on technical trails and water crossings.
  4. Improve running rhythm and cadence.
  5. Reduce/eliminate hand swelling.
  6. Scratch legs without bending.
  7. Defensive weapon.
  8. Psychological aid in training after lower limb injury.

Perceived Disadvantages:

  1. Increased energy expenditure, both physical and mental.
  2. Gripping causes increased tension in arms, shoulders, and face.
  3. Safety risk when falling — fractures and new piercings!
  4. Loss of use of hands.
  5. Necessity of gloves due to abrasions.
  6. Weight and ease of storage on pack.
  7. Snag on things with very sudden results.
  8. More gear = more problems.
  9. Potential damage to trail areas.
  10. Becoming dependent on them.

 

Looking back at videos from the last few years of the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, it’s hard not to notice the forest of poles. Still, despite their prevalence the use of poles in races is not universally accepted. Ultimately though, the decision should be personal and involve a lot of testing — and thankfully, there is enough research on the subject to help us make a more informed decision.

Based on the various studies performed, it seems that running with poles does increase energy expenditure but it can help in stability, rhythm, propulsion, and impact reduction. Some research argues that poles work best uphill, others say the same for downhill, and much of the studies were done on a treadmill. Some say shorten the poles on uphill and lengthen when going downhill. I say: If it appeals to you give it a try! Work on the rhythm and cadence and build up the involved musculature. To pole or not to pole? Up to you whether those advantages outweigh the disadvantages, but have fun finding out!

If you are interested in the various researches, please refer to the following for more information.

To begin with, in 1981 Dr. G. Neureuther1 published a study that found that running with poles (RWP) decreased leg strain by 5kg per step — that means tons on a long run!

Researcher Lori Bolt et al. (2000)2 found that poles reduced the knee flexion during the swing phase and significantly increased maximum hyperextension of the hip at toe-off. They believed some of this was due to a counterbalancing force to the added arm movement and weight. They also found that most impact forces were decreased and peak propulsive force supplied by the body was also reduced when RWP.

Also in 2000, Christopher Knight and Graham Caldwell3 did an uphill treadmill study that showed RWP caused a small increase in heart rate and decreased lower leg exertion. This lead to lower stride lengths and a decreased rating of perceived exertion — suggesting that the increased energy output was balanced by the decrease in impact forces.

At a similar time Erich Müller along with Hermann Schwameder (2003)4 found a decrease in joint forces during downhill runs. Michael Bohne and Julianne Abendroth-Smith (2007)5 studied 15 experienced hikers carrying varying loads downhill and found a reduction in some of the forces at the hip, knee, and ankle when using poles.

John Willson et al. (2001)6 concluded that poles allowed people to walk faster with less impact forces. Glyn Howatson et al. (2011)7 took 37 volunteers up and down Mount Snowdon in the USA, some with poles, some without. The group with poles reported a lower subjective exertion rating and their muscles bounced back quicker the next day by both subjective and objective measures.

As usual we see conflict in results from medical science. On a hilly course, Michael Saunders et al. (2008)8 found an increase in VO2 max and heart rate with no perceived subjective exertion. Yet the same year Matthieu Foissac et al.9 found no significant increase in VO2 max and heart rate at a 20 degree incline on a treadmill when poles were used! Foissac’s group also found RWP reduced lower limb muscle activity. However, musculature activity in the upper limbs was up 95%. This tension also led to the tightening up of the face. 2008 was busy as Stephane Perrey and Nicolas Fabre10 compared energy expenditure in 12 volunteers on a treadmill and found that poles did indeed increase energy outlay but only in downhill situations.

Visibly, studies regarding poles are mixed. One would think the added movement involving poles would cost more energy! In fact 2011 Nordic walking studies by Vaida Sokelienë and Vida Cesnaitienè (2011)11 found the added load increased heart rate by 15% in comparison to comparable walking without poles. Milan Kůtek12 found in 2012 that poles increased heart rate by 15-20%. Petr Bahenský13 did similar tests and found the heart rate to be up only 4.5%. Many studies were on treadmills, which, particularly for trail running, are very different from outdoor conditions.

Yannick Daviaux et al. (2013)14 found running with poles increases stability and reduces load on the body: “these results support a facilitating effect of pole use for propulsion during level running and for the absorption phase during downhill running.”

The 2012 European Athletics Innovation Award15 went to a paper considering the advantages of running with poles. Its hypothesis was that pole use, by decreasing impact and injury and increasing safety and training effect, would increase the benefits of running while decreasing foot load. The authors found more intensive breathing, more recruitment of chest, arm and shoulder muscles, and therefore more energy used. Depending on speed, the foot can take a load many times that of the bodyweight on each foot strike. They found running with poles showed less impact force, more forward/forefoot strike, and a subjective perception of stability. This paper concluded running with poles “is highly efficient in increasing the physical impact of running but decreasing the leg joint overstraining.”

Doug has been a physiotherapist for 26 years and currently practices at Jardine House Sports and Spinal Clinic (www. physiohk.com). This column aims to explain how body parts work and how you can care for and fix them.

 

References

  1. Neureuther, G. “The Ski Pole in Summer.” MMW Munch Med Wochenschr13 (1981): 513-4.
  2. Bolt, Lori. “The Effect of Running Poles on the Kinetics and Kinematics of Jogging.” Ball State University (2000).
  3. Knight, Christopher, and Graham Caldwell. “Muscular and Metabolic Costs of Uphill Backpacking: Are Hiking Poles Beneficial?” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 12 (2000): 2093-101.
  4. Müller, Erich, and Hermann Schwameder. “Biomechanical Aspects of New Techniques in Alpine Skiing and Ski-Jumping.” Journal of Sports Sciences9 (2003): 679-92.
  5. Abendroth-Smith, Julianne, and Michael Bohne. “Effects of Hiking Downhill Using Trekking Poles While Carrying External Loads.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 1 (2007): 177-83.
  6. Willson, John, M. Torry, et al. “Effects of Walking Poles on Lower Extremity Gait Mechanics.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 1 (2001): 142–7.
  7. Howatson, Glyn, P. Hough, et al. “Trekking Poles Reduce Exercise-Induced Muscle Injury during Mountain Walking.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise1 (2011):140-5.
  8. Saunders,Michael,  Hipp, et al. “Trekking Poles Increase Physiological Responses to Hiking without Increased Perceived Exertion.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 22.5 (2008): 1468-74.
  9. Foissac, Matthieu, R. Berthollet, et al. “Effects of Hiking Pole Inertia on Energy and Muscular Costs during Uphill Walking.” Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 6 (2008): 1117-25.
  10. Perrey, Stephane, and Nicolas Fabre. “Exertion during Uphill, Level and Downhill Walking with and without Hiking Poles.” Journal of Sports Science and Medicine 7 (2008): 32-8.
  11. Sokelienë, Vaida, and Vida Cesnaitienè. “The Influence of Nordic Walking on Physical Fitness of Elderly People.” Ugdymas, Kúno Kultura, Sportas 82 (2011): 45-51.
  12. Kůtek, Milan. “Běhat Sholemi? Rozhodně Ano!” Run6 (2012): 54-7.
  13. Bahenský, Petr. “Comparison of Responses of the Organism to Load Exerted by Running with Poles and Without Poles.” Indian Journal of Research3 (2014):140-1.
  14. Daviaux, Yannick, F. Hintzy, et al. “Effect of Using Poles on Foot-Ground Kinetics during Stance Phase in Trail Running.” European Journal of Sport Science 5 (2013): 468-74.
  15. Tvrzník, Aleš, and Milan Kůtek. “Running with Poles as an Efficient Training Method Eliminating Overstraining of Athlete’s Feet.” Winning paper of the 2012 European Athletics Innovation Awards.

By Doug Tahirali

Mira Rai Found Her Chance

Mira Rai

Photo by Martina Valmassoi

 

“Everything is bonus here! Free flight, free bus — everything free!” reports Mira Rai by phone from her home district of Bhojpur in eastern Nepal. “Now I am a little bit up here! Wow!” She’s referring to her newly elevated status as a hero of her district, complete with VIP treatment. “Here, network a little bit problem. OK, bye-bye time. Ciao ciao!” and she continued on the two-day journey to her village.

Rai’s spoken English has its own system of grammar, in which ‘Wow’ and ‘Ha ha’ serve as punctuation, but it also conveys happy disbelief in her still-unfolding fairytale, a zero-to-hero story with a fast-paced plot line.

In the fall of 2013, Rai was prepared to go to Malaysia to work in a factory, but at the last minute, her former karate instructor invited her to come to Kathmandu and train for track and road racing. Bearing in mind her strength and endurance, he suggested 10,000m might be her best event.

The venture was not entirely successful. Unable to afford the small fee to train at the stadium, Rai phoned a coach for training plans, and was often prescribed a counter-productive slog along the heavily polluted ring road around Kathmandu. She improved this regimen by running up a hill to a scenic viewpoint most mornings. She’d never heard of trail running, or “hilly up-down running,” as she called it.

By March 2014, with just 20 rupees left, Rai was ready to quit Kathmandu for home, when, on her viewpoint morning run, she met two other runners who invited her to a ‘game,’ a race, that Saturday morning. She showed up for the tough Himalayan Outdoor Festival 50km in a cotton t-shirt, tracksuit pants, and $3 running shoes. Nine hours, a hailstorm, and a washed-out trail later, Rai was the first and only female finisher. She accepted prizes of $80 and a pair of Salomon shoes, and her trail-running career was born.

Fifteen months later, Rai won the prestigious Mont-Blanc 80km in Italy, breaking Emelie Forsberg’s course record. The finish-line photo showed Rai, beaming, holding the Nepali flag above her head.

“I was thinking if I could win that race, while my country was crying [due to the earthquake], I could bring a small bit of happiness. I believe the timing was important,” she said. She was right: Rai made the front page of the national daily newspapers, pushing tedious politics aside. “She did something good for Nepal,” said a shop owner in Kathmandu. “It is very good.”

“After my birthday, this is the best day of my life,” she said of the Mont Blanc race, her longest effort yet. “I was running with Hillary [Allen], just staying behind. I took it a bit easily. Really enjoyed. Wow, checkpoints they have fruit, everything, to eat,” she said, making a mouth-filling motion with both hands. “You can drink so much you have to spit it out! Near every checkpoint — ‘Allez allez,’ ‘Dai dai,’ cow bells tung tung tung. I am ‘Hello, hi everybody,’” she laughs. “At 65km, I said, ‘Let’s go, Hillary,’ and started a little bit fast. First sister [Anna Comet Pascua of Spain] was walking hands on legs. I am just walking normally, and passed her. I met Greg [Vollet, of team Salomon] at 70km. ‘Wow Mira, you are very strong,’ Greg said. OK, I will try. Bye-bye Greg brother, then I am going, and I ran hard.”

Tite Togni, a trail runner who has hosted Rai in Italy the past two summers, said this about her sponge-like aptitude: “She’s a fast learner, adapting very quickly to situations, which I bet comes from her practical schooling (agriculture) — not too much theory. In Italy, every morning before training she watched Kíllian [Jornet] videos to learn.”

The trajectory of her trail-running career has been as steep as some of the trails. Just over 12 months from her first competitive race found her challenging reigning champion Emelie Forsberg for the Skyrunning World Championships at the 109km Ultra Pirineu in Spain. Rai finished in second place, just 4min back. “I started the competition too soon,” she said at dinner a few hours after the finish. She passed Núria Picas, caught up to Forsberg, and took the lead too early in the race, which gave Forsberg a chance to recover and launch her next attack. “Next time, I will do it better,” she said.

Rai is small — 48kg, 160cm — and strong, built for endurance, but the key to her success is not merely physical. She uses the word chance frequently, as in, “Wow, good chance I have.” Her climbing friend gave her comment context, describing the life of a woman in a remote village as “enduringly monotonous.” Rai’s first chance to escape this bleak future came when she was 14 years old, and the Maoist army came recruiting towards the end of their 10-year insurgency. Fully aware of the limitations of village life, Rai was always on the lookout for opportunities, and was driven to make those opportunities work. The Maoist rebels represented an opportunity, a chance to do something different and disprove “the feeling that I am inferior to other people.” Telling her mother she’d be back in a week, she joined the Maoist rebels for two years.

Her climbing instructor, Niraj Karki, noted another advantageous attribute: “Mira doesn’t overthink things.” She has Rai logic. Pre-race nerves? “No,” she said, “I have training. If I had not done it, then I would be nervous. If I run according to my training, then it’s OK. No need to be nervous.” Is she upset if she comes second? “No, the other guy was stronger. Now I know what I need to do next time.” Is she usually happy? “Yes, of course. Every day I am happy, why not? It’s important!”

She’s also bold in new situations. Often out of her comfort zone in new places with new people and limited language skills, she forges ahead with sunny optimism. Giving an interview on Spanish television? “No problem, I will try.”

Rai is a role model for young people in Nepal. Her story has been featured widely in national dailies, on the BBC world service, on websites like OutsideOnline.com, and even a 500,000 circulation women’s fashion magazine. She’s depicted in murals in several cities, has 14,561 likes on her Facebook page, and is the subject of a documentary film, to be released in early December. The impact of her success has been felt in the worldwide trail-running community, and close to home: Rai reported that the schoolteacher in her home village organised a 4km trail race, including her parents’ house as a checkpoint along the course.

“My hope is to help sisters and to influence Nepali women, to say that we have power as well, and we can do anything. I want them to know that,” Rai said.

With money from prizes, sponsors, and fundraisers from proud Nepali organisations, she’s become one of the few athletes able to survive on sports income alone. But she realises that she must prepare for the future, like other young Nepalis who look up to her, and continues to pursue her education, as well as training.

Rai plans to spend the remaining months of 2015 resting before gearing up for next year’s demanding race schedule. She’s been invited to the very competitive Zegama trail race in Spain, and is considering races in China where the prize money is attractive. If it looks like a good chance, she will try and make it work.

It’s been said that champions will find a way to be successful, no matter what. Rai demonstrates that determination: “If I’d not found running I would have done something; I wouldn’t just be idle. I would be searching for other chances.” She’s found her chance, and has started to change the world a little for others.

Richard Bull lives and runs in Kathmandu, Nepal. He organises stage races in the Himalayas and a few ultras in the hills around the Kathmandu Valley.

 

Side Bar

  • Name: Mira Rai
  • Age: 27
  • Nationality: Nepalese
  • Sponsor: Salomon
  • Running résume: 1st in MSIG HK50 Sai Kung (Asia Skyrunning Championship), 1st in Mont Blanc 80k, 2nd in Tromsø Skyrace, 2nd in Ultra Pirineu. Rank No. 2 in 2015 Ultra Skymarathon Series.
  • Typical training day: 1-2 hour of stretching and run before breakfast, and another 2 hours in the afternoon. For longer training sessions, she will run three hours in the morning and three hours in the afternoon. Rai also has to study English at the language center six hours a day.

By Richard Bull