Image for The Madness of the Ultra-Marathon runner

The story: The Western States 100 miler, Ultramarathoning’s version of Christmas, happens this weekend in California. Andrew Vize, Northern Beaches local and Australian ultrarunning peak performer, is a hot chance for a new Aussie course record. He and his support crew have been posting awesome video diaries every day in the lead up to this Saturday’s historic race.

Sydney Champion to take on World’s Best in Western States

Ultramarathon running is like any sport –different divisions, different levels of competition, different moods and attitudes for different people over different distances with different levels of commitment.

But then, there are those races that are the Grand Final, Super Bowl, and Ashes all rolled up into one. Over a regular marathon distance there’s Chicago, London, Boston – events the whole world knows. But in the world of ultra, where the big boys and tiny girls play, it happens this weekend and its name is Western States.

Taking in 160km of California’s snow-capped peaks, thin air, desert valleys, and roaring glacial rivers the course was the first ever official 100 mile foot race in the western world and for many it’s the birthplace of ultramarathon running. Punishing, historic, hallowed, and beset at any time by bushfires, blizzards, landslides, and flooding, runners speak of the race like Catholics talk of Rome and kids dream of Disney. 

In part, this is the attraction for Northern Beaches local Andrew Vize. Supported by his wife Laura – a former ultrarunner who regularly cycles 150km - and his friend and pacer Marcus Warner –with whom he recently set a pairs course record in the Blue Mountains, Vize will be jostling for a competitive finish and trying to run down the Australian course record of just over 20 hours. But like most top shelf athletes, it’s the intangibles that set his goals apart.

“It’s about really understanding who you are,” says Vize, “when you’re 200km into a race to the top of Mt Kosciuszko with a marathon to go, 24 hours in and the wind is smashing headfirst into you, then swinging around and blowing you sideways, it’s good to sit back at the end and say you kept going and didn’t give up. Most people never find out what they would, could or should do in moments of extreme fatigue, pain, stress and that’s a shame because it’s only at that point that you’re truly living.”

That’s his memory of running the 246km Coast to Kosciusko, an iconic event that crushes even the toughest runners along the way. Even the fastest zombies are still zombies before they finish. In 2010, Vize took second place in a time of just over 30 hours. On the Australian stage, he’s a newly risen star.

He hasn’t yet recorded an official marathon time and he only ran his first ultra, the 45km Six Foot Track, in 2008. It wasn’t long enough for him so two months later he ran the 100km North Face in the Blue Mountains. Just six months after that he ran a 175km race covering most of the distance from Newcastle to Sydney on mountainous forest trails, taking 6th place. He came back the next year and won.

As much as his ability to take pain, any natural inclination to run, or ‘talent’, it is probably Vize’s hardheaded training routine that will bring him success this weekend. On a recent training day, he started at 3am, ran 30km of hills in multiple layers of clothing – heat training for the desert – then unwrapped so he could really open up over the final 70km. On another day he’s working with one of his sponsors, Sydney Altitude Training Centre, running on a treadmill in a low oxygen environment to prepare his body for the mountains he’ll have to conquer. Arriving in California 10 days ahead of time, he and his pacer Marcus are spending their ‘holiday’ training on the course.

At his Monday to Friday in Macquarie Bank’s Real Estate Group, Vize says his colleagues are amused by his efforts.

“No one will come with me for a run at lunch anymore, even if I say it will be a slow pace.”

Clearly there’s a funny side to this banker whose recreation would equate to most people’s notion of torture. But in his adventures he has also plunged into what many ultra athletes would call a ‘bad low’.

Racing over the Victorian Alps, high up and near freezing, with 100km already in his legs and 60km to go, in the deep dark of night he recalls being forced to a slow walk, his body failing to respond to anything he tried. There he was, “swaying, grabbing imaginary branches and in real danger of falling off the side of the trail down the steep embankment in the dark”. Despite all competitive urges, all that was left was to lie down on the track and hope 5 minutes rest would fix what food, fluid, and supplements couldn’t.

Vize awoke when another runner hurdled his sleeping body in the night. Mojo somewhat restored he got up and carried on, again finishing in the medals.

As much as he doesn’t expect to finish in the top 5 or even in the top 10 this weekend, the same intimidating talent who will make him look slow are the very reason he hopes to keep racing in America.
“The depth of competition in the USA is huge,” enthuses Vize. “There are a number of professional teams racing over there with full time sponsored athletes.  On any given day the top 20 runners are all in contention.”

Whether running through snow for 40km or searing hot valleys for 60km, it’s clear that this king of pain relishes the challenge awaiting him in the stunning granite mountains of California.
Andrew also sends a big shout out to his training partners at http://www.ultra168.wordpress.com and their scientifically delicious sponsor Hammer Nutrition. Follow his race on Twitter @Ultra168 and follow the overall race @iRunFar Racing begins at 5am, June 25th, US West Coast time.

Below:
Links to a couple of their video diaries - crazy climate change snow coverage and well shot and narrated footage.
http://ultra168.wordpress.com/2011/06/20/the-australians-are-coming-part-1/
http://ultra168.wordpress.com/2011/06/22/the-australians-are-coming-part-2-the-calm-before-the-storm/
http://ultra168.wordpress.com/2011/06/20/certain-changes-to-this-years-western-states-100-course/

Here’s stunning footage from last year’s epic battle between 3 of the world’s best, preview for a soon-to-be-released film which really captures its harsh beauty
http://www.ws100film.com/