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Anybody for an Ultra-Marathon?
By K.P. Tan

Last Sunday I ran for two hours and thirty minutes. It is well known that for health purposes one only needs to run between 30 to 60 minutes and about four times a week. I was indeed training for my marathon and ultra-marathon race held every year in the month of December. The Singapore Marathon is slated on the first Sunday with the MR25 Ultra Marathon following three weeks later. My objective every week is to increase my Sunday run by ten percent in duration. I am not sure how far I can run comfortably without incurring any injury. My completion time for the marathon is between 3-1/2 hours to slightly more than four hours. In order to complete the marathon within that time range I need to run between 80km to 100 km per week for eight weeks before the marathon. I have no difficulty in completing a marathon. However, I have problems when it comes to running the ultra-marathon.

Last year I tried my first MR25 ultra-marathon. The race was held at the McRitchie Reservoir, where most of us have raced when we were still in school. I ran the race in the same manner as I run marathons. Every lap around the reservoir was 10.5 km. Unlike the road surface, the jungle track was not always friendly. There were stretches of rocky surfaces where the feet hurt on landing, slippery slopes where it was difficult to stay steady, and muddy surfaces that sapped all your strength. I managed the first four laps in about 4-1/2 hours but my total time for five laps was 6:18:08. I decided to call it quits after I completed the fifth lap, as I knew at that point my preparation for the race was not sufficient. It was only good enough to get a certificate of participation for the ultra marathon. It was better to live to fight on another day.

I learned that the strategy I used to run to run this ultra-marathon must be different from the same way one would run a marathon. For ordinary runners the running pace must be reduced to conserve energy as a means to increase one’s endurance. Perhaps I could complete another two laps but I was not ready for it. I had previously only proved to myself that I could run beyond the 42.2 km mark. I read on the MR25 website that only two competitors completed 11 laps: Khoo Chin Poo finished the event in 10:18:55 with Low Choon Huat following in 10:51:02. The 12th lap was beyond the means of any of the runners on that day. Only 78 runners managed to complete five or more laps. One way to look at is to consider that our pool of people with great tolerance for pain is not that large. Said another way, there are many more sane people in Singapore!

When training for a marathon, one’s longest run need only be about two thirds or three quarters the marathon distance (28 km to 32 km). Using the same principle the longest training distance for a 126 km ultra marathon race would be from 84 km to 95 km. My training speed is about six minutes per km. This means that I need to do a training run of at least 8-1/2 to 9-1/2 hours. If I increased my training for the long run by 10 per cent per week (beginning at the 2-/12 hour mark), it would take about 14 weeks for me to reach 9-1/2hours. The question in my mind is whether I am strong enough to run for that length of time? I will find out in 14 weeks! Another way to look at the training target is to take into consideration the race duration. Using the same rule, the maximum training duration to survive a 12-hour race is between eight to nine hours.

It seems an impossible task to run nine hours, the length of a good day’s work. Imagine yourself running alone the whole day; it seems like a crazy proposition! There are many worries to consider as well. First you need to ensure that you are not dehydrated. It means that you must have regular access to drinking water. Then you must learn to eat and run. During the MR25 ultra marathon, drinks and food including apples were served at three stops along the route. It was especially memorable to be served chicken rice for lunch after I finished the fourth lap. The food was served in a plastic coated brown paper with a plastic spoon. How could one eat the chicken rice after running continuously for more than four hours and in the tropical midday heat? Lunch was really dry and tasteless. I swallowed some of it and within ten minutes I was running again. It was no wonder I took such a long time to finish my fifth lap. In hindsight I should have stopped, rested for a few more minutes, had some water and taken time to chew and swallow every grain of the chicken rice before resuming the race again. It was silly to try to rush the chicken rice into my throat, which simply refused to cooperate. It was the lack of experience and the impatience to restart that gave my game plan away. I always seem to learn something new at every race I enter. Incidentally I should compliment the organizers of the race for charging only $5.00 for non-MR25 members. I thought it was the best value for money.

When I first read about the Mobil Marathon in 1987, I thought it was the race I must run at least once in my lifetime. Since 1987 I have completed eight full marathons and many more quarter, half, and three-quarter marathons. I have also completed many of the Sheares Bridge and Army Half Marathon races. I thought I have run all challenging races in Singapore. I never thought I would be crazy enough to participate in the ultra-marathon. Beyond the ultra marathon distances, there are even bigger challenges. There is always the possibility of an attempt to run to Kuala Lumpur and back in 14 days as was recently achieved by an expatriate coach based in Singapore. Then, there is the lunacy to contemplate running around the continent of Australia as has been done by three Australians! Or why not try running round the world? However, to achieve these feats it is necessary to learn how to run at least 70 to 80 km a day and have plenty of guts to endure the accompanying pain. It must be a form of self-inflicted masochism! Perhaps the endorphin flow is worth the pain. The journey of a thousand miles starts with the first step. While the sane will take a few steps, only mad dogs and ultra marathoners will attempt the extremes.

K.P. Tan, age 55, is a veteran marathoner. Visit our Archived Articles section for other stories he has written.

Thanks K.P. for sharing your article.

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