Interview: The Ultra Marathon Runner

Technique Physiotherapy and Sports Medicine are proud to be able to say we support athletes of all levels from recreational to high level sportsman. On Monday, we caught up with Dr George Bownes who had just got back from the gruelling Ultra Trail Du Mont Blanc. It’s fair to say that these events really do separate the men from the boys.

Not only did Dr Bownes manage to complete the event in around 20 hours, he also managed to walk into the clinic without a set of elbow crutches. He even had time to chat about his experience, which we listened to with the attention of a small child at grandpa’s story time. Here is what he had to say:

So George, well done on completing your 103km run around Mont Blanc. I can’t even begin to understand how hard that must have been, considering my longest runs tend to take me around 30 mins and usually involve heading around Hyde Park.

What’s the hardest aspect of training for this type of event event? 

In order to qualify for this event you have to do a number of other Ultra Races in the previous two years. For me that involved Caesar’s Camp 100, North Down’s Way 50, Norfolk Ultra and The Namib Desert Ultra so “going long” as ultra runners like to call it wasn’t new. That said this isn’t an event purely about high mileage and all that entails (nutrition, sleep depreciation, kit etc) it’s more about leg strength and recovery as the climbing involved at altitude is for want of a better word, ridiculous.

I had a bad back over the winter but fortunately you guys got me back on my feet. It did however mean I lost 5 months of training so knowing I’d be down on the miles I did I lot of conditioning work to build up leg strength. I used Gavin Walsh’s Boot Camp to build up Core Stability and Leg Strength which helped me with my injury as well as prep for the race.

So the race was originally meant to be 168km, but they shortened it to a ‘mere’ 103km for the athlete’s safety, was there a part of you that was laughing at the French for being soft?

Some of their cheese might be but as endurance racing goes the French are tough guys. A lot of people have heard about Marathon des Sables, that’s nothing compared to this. We started at 19.10, by 20.00 it was dark and for the next 12 hours if it wasn’t raining it was snowing.

The announcer at the start’s passing comment was, “do not sit still, if you see someone sitting tell them to move, have a good race.”  With temperatures as low as minus 15 degrees C at 2,000m it was sound advice. This year may have “lacked” distance but with 6,700m of vertical gain and a standardly high drop out rate you still got a truly brutal UTMB experience.

The race took you approximately 20 hours to complete, can you honestly tell us that you ran for that length of time without walking or crawling for any part of the race?

Absolutely no way did I run the whole way. The first 8km undulates so spreads the field then all you really remember after that is going up and down. I thought it might be like going up a steep black run, no way. There were several occasions where I was on my hands and knees grabbing tree roots going vertically up through woodlands thinking, how the hell do the pros do this in 10 or so hours? Climbing takes ages so lots try to make up the ground on the way down. I saw that as suicidal but the experienced down hillers take up what can only be described as an aggressive downhill skiing position and literally fly down. I tried it. Landed on my bum covered in mud laughing so resorted to a sensible pace instead.

In truth, just try and keep moving as fast and as safely as you can is realistic , this isn’t like any other ultra.

Okay George, we’ll let you off. So any other embarrassing stories you’d like to own up to seen as we are on the subject?

The down hill sections were really hurting my right hip from the jarring so it slowed me down quite a lot, the last third of the race taking twice as long as the first. Apparently trekking poles help avoid this and save your legs 20%, a fact I found out after the race! My lack of speed at the end was deployable with the final km taking 22minutes, which meant I got heavily ‘chicked’, no offence girls but I hate that more than anything.

Ouch, that’s got to hurt your pride a little. So it sounds to me like a lot of the race is just being able to put aside the fact you are on struggle street, but do you have any advice for runners out there looking to get into this sort of thing?

Ultra running in the UK is really taking off. Most people have perhaps done a marathon and want to try it out but that’s not a prerequisite by any means.

There are companies like Endurance Life who run trail running events that start at 10km as a way to build up to Ultras. Other well known companies like Centurion Running offer coaching advice as well as a range of events to test your new found skills.

Where ever you live in the UK there are Ultras on your door steep and you’ll find that people are quite a lot friendlier than the standard running crowd.

Okay. Lastly if you could choose one of the following as a method of recovery which would it be? Ice bath followed by 3 hours sleep with your legs up against the wall OR a sports massage from myself?

Our rental apartment didn’t stretch to an ice box so had to do a hot bath and legs against the wall trick. Needless to say I couldn’t walk the next day but after a ‘flush’ from you guys I bounced out of the treatment room. Enough said! Now where’s that pint you owe me?

It is fair to say that Dr Bownes did himself proud, he still hasn’t got his pint. Over the next couple of weeks Technique Physiotherapy and Sports Medicine will be releasing content aimed at endurance runners on various topics from strength and conditioning to recovery.

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