How to run an ultramarathon in 2 weeks

How to run an ultramarathon in 2 weeks

Dedicated to Dad.

I’ve been told many things about my 84km race – “crazy”, “amazing”, “hard core” are some common superlatives used. I speak from the heart, however, when I say: anyone could have done it. Perhaps you would not have finished in the 15 hours stipulated by the competition, but I would bet my bottom dollar that if I’d walked up to you and told you to race 84km because your life was on the line, then any average John, Joe or Jane would have done it within a day and still had time for a tea break and elevensies.

You see the 84km ultramarathon, as is most things in life, is a question of mind, not physics. People look at the distance and go, “Goodness. That’s so far! I could never do it.” And in that instance, the mentality determines the outcome of the race. Because even though the body has the power to accomplish this, the mind is unwilling and so the battle is lost even before it had begun.

How many times have we heard the phrase “you can do it!” from parents and teachers alike when growing up? We were taught to dream, to believe in our dreams, and to reach fearlessly for the stars. Sooner or later, though, fear of failure does creep into the mind. And we stop believing.

Whether it was in the Sports Day 100-metre dash or that afternoon football game, sooner or later we all encounter an opponent who can outrun us and outscore us. From there we are introduced the concept of “limits” in life, the haunting possibility of “failure”.  And so most of us wake up from the dream of a child’s belief and courage. “There are limits to what one can do,” we tell ourselves. And of course, the body obliges what the mind believes.

Three weeks ago, I would have laughed along with you at the notion of completing an 84km ultramarathon. Up until that point, the furthest I’d ever run in one session was 20km. A 25km race was already around the corner the next weekend and I was duly signed up for the 21km half-marathon for the following weekend, at the Sundown event. Surely, 84 km is a driving distance, not a running one? That category is reserved for the hard core athletes who run 6 times a week, eat steel for breakfast and bench press in their sleep.

But the notion of missing the only chance to test drive for the 80km overnight leg in the Sahara foot race bugged me. And thanks to my friend Trish, I linked up with a woman who was no longer able to make the run. So I took her spot in the 84km race 2 weeks before the event and was duly panicking.

With the all-powerful internet, I dug voraciously for info about preparing for an ultramarathon. Alas, most pointed to a 6-week preparation program and that was assuming you had already completed a few marathons and are feeling comfortable enough to move on to the next stage. Then there was the torrent of mind boggling info about what you should eat with 3, 2, and 1 day before race day, the xx grams of protein and carbohydrates one should consume before and after the race, and how “the human body can only take xx litres of fluid in one hour so be sure to pace your fluid intake.”

HELLLLOOOO?!! I’ll be out there racing against time, my muscles aching and screaming at 3am in the morning when I’m only easing into the 9th hour of my run — and you want me to pace my fluid intake by doing some mental calculations too? Or is a calculator one of those things I should stuff into my race belt, right next to my preferred choice of energy gels?

Suffice to say, I felt very underprepared. To make matters worse, I couldn’t overtrain in the 2 weeks prior to the race because I had to first make sure I was in the right condition to finish the 25km race the weekend prior. With an impossible deadline to beat, the only thing left to do other than regular tempo training and 10km jogs was… mental training.

In one of my forays into ultramarathon preparation, I came across this article which cited an interesting study about Olympic athletes. Those who had done 25% physical training and 75% mental training performed best in the race, more so than other groups of athletes who spent more time on physical training. That was the lifeline I needed.

So for the next 2 weeks, I squeezed mental training into every bean of time I could find. While on the bus to and fro work, I would close my eyes and imagine myself running up the hills of MacRitchie, feeling the dirt and gravel beneath my Asics and the hung humidity of the late afternoon. It got to the point where my heart rate went up and I was sweating as I popped out of the bus.

Then there was the slew of self-inflicted brainwashing: I declared “I will conquer 84km” on my Skype status (dear friends and colleagues, thank you for putting up with the random outburst), I scribbled “I WILL finish 84km” on some scrap paper and tacked it to the bulletin board above my desk at home. Honestly, when I first wrote that down, I almost laughed; the statement was ridiculous! But with every passing glance and repetition, the sentence became increasingly more believable, more achievable. One day, it became Unquestionable.

sahara race 250km 4

Finally I sat down to ask why I was doing this in the first place. Why an 84km race when I hadn’t even done a marathon? A good friend who completed the Paris Marathon in a blistering 4 hours 11 minutes said it was the most painful thing she had ever been through, and the only thing that kept her going was the reminder that childbirth was going to be worse. With a super runner like her spelling doom about a marathon, what on earth was I doing in an ultra that was twice the distance?? Of course, the honest answer was that I was only doing it to prepare for Stage 5 of the Sahara Race, where we will be required to cover 80km overnight. If I missed this Sundown ultramarathon, I would have had to find time to roam the streets of Singapore on my own to test drive for that leg of the Sahara.  In short, this was my only chance to safely cover a similar distance under similar conditions.But that answer is not going to hold water when the going got tough, say at 2am in the morning when all the body wants to do is shutdown and go to sleep. So I had to do some real digging to give myself an answer I could use as fuel for the whole race.In the end, it came down to those inspiring words I’d heard many moons ago in orientation at Cornell: “To do anything less than your best is to sacrifice a gift.”

There is a photo that I keep as my desktop background: it’s of my friend Shariff running in a race. And it’s an otherwise ordinary snapshot of a man taken from behind, except Shariff is racing with one leg – he’s got a blade prosthetic attached on the other because Shariff lost his lower leg in 2008. This is the man who is going to run the Sundown ultramarathon with me this year, is bidding to complete the Sahara Race in 2011, and has plans to conquer Mt. Everest as well. That snapshot was my ultimate fuel for the ultramarathon. I told myself that no matter how terrible I was feeling on race day, Shariff was probably feeling it twice as worse. And so there was absolutely no excuse to stop, because he was proof that the mind could master the body.


Sometimes, we dream of achieving things that would invite scorn and ridicule. Sometimes, we dream of things that the body truly cannot endure. But between that and the realm of reality, there is an astounding range of things that we are capable of achieving – an 84km ultramarathon is one of those.I challenge you to take just one day out of your life to accomplish something that you thought you could never do. Whether you take 24 hours to run 84km or to climb your own metaphorical Mt. Everest, devote the span of just one day to retrieve the fearlessness you had felt as a child, the power you had in believing that You Can.You are capable of anything, but you will never truly understand this until you take yourself to the limits.

I dedicate this post to Dad, whose titanic belief in himself and others has and will continue to transform the lives of all those around him.

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