It’s 4.40am on a Sunday and I’m rubbing Vaseline into my groin, my nipples and the inner side of my biceps in half-light in the bathroom, trying not to disturb my wife. I peel on Lycra undershorts, and then my blue Adidas running shorts over the top. Don’t worry, it’s not some kinky ritual, but standard preparation to prevent chafing for my sixth ultra-marathon, the 50km leg of the North Face 100 series in Singapore.
An hour later, the event has flagged off and more than 500 runners are heading towards Kranji via Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and Dairy Farm. We have it easy – there are others who started 11 hours before us, and are running or walking or crawling the full 100km course.
Within minutes, the gentle rain at the starting line has become a fully-fledged torrential downpour, complete with cracks of lightning and booms of thunder over MacRitchie Reservoir. The jungle paths are turning into quagmires, with an extreme danger of slipping on the muddy slopes, tripping over roots and branches, or stumbling in potholes and puddles. I twice fall flat in the dark, wind myself, and cut my legs and graze my knees. Battle scars. I curse my feeble and completely insufficient miner’s headlamp, which barely marks the path ahead of me, and set off again.
The race is self-supported, so my backpack, stuffed with energy bars and two litres of water, is weighing me down further. My trainers are thick with goo. Later I see a Western runner standing in mud up to his thighs on the old KTM railway line, trying to recover his trainer, which had disappeared into the mire.
Six hours later, I am back at MacRitchie, exhausted, but triumphant. The sun is shining and I have pushed myself to my limits to achieve 93rd place in six hours and six minutes. The runner’s high from an “ultra” is incredible and my head is buzzing. What drives runners to such endeavours?
An ultra is defined as any race beyond 50km, 8km more than the standard 42km marathon. Whereas 17,000 or more runners routinely register every December to tackle the Standard Chartered Marathon in Singapore, and 12,922 finished last year, participation in ultras here is much sparser. Organisers will be lucky to attract a thousand hardcore runners to events, and often the races are only financially viable because of the addition of shorter 21km or 25km categories to provide sufficient volume for the large numbers of support staff needed and organisation costs. Check out all the ultra running events around Asia here.
The social reaction to ultra running is also less sympathetic. Whereas many people set running a marathon as a fitness goal and receive the compliments of friends and family, the standard reaction to an ultra runner seems to be “are you crazy?” or “you’ll wreck your knees” (see separate box on this popular misconception).
Particularly in the tropics, ultras are arduous and physically demanding. Tim Noakes’ classic book on athletic physiology, The Lore of Running, cites evidence that sweat rates measured in Atlanta, Georgia, in a marathon in temperatures of 25-32 degrees Celsius and 70-80 percent relative humidity (like we experience daily in Singapore) were typically 1.8 litres an hour – “conditions considered to be of high or hazardous heat stress”. Noakes observes that the highest sweat rates measured in more mild environmental conditions are only 1.2 litres an hour; so, basically, you sweat twice as much here.
Sweating leads to fluid loss and dehydration, and dehydration has an adverse effect on running performance. Studies have shown that a loss of even two percent of body weight due to dehydration leads to a four-percent drop in performance. Kristin Barry, writing in Runner’s World, summarised some additional problems, which are especially relevant to running here: “Both temperature and humidity increase heart rate and amplify these effects… From 24 to 32 degrees Celsius, heart rate increases up to 10 beats per minute, and humidity increases it even more. Perceived effort is accordingly much greater as both the temperature and the humidity rise.”
Pete Pfitzinger, author of Advanced Marathoning, has described how, when you sweat, blood is diverted to your skin and so your blood volume decreases. Less blood returns to your heart and less oxygen reaches your working muscles, so you produce less energy aerobically, and you run slower for a given effort level. Pfitzinger says, “As it gets hotter this effect is exaggerated because the greater the amount of heat that needs to be dissipated, the greater the proportion of blood diverted to the skin.” So your heart is pounding, you’re sweating buckets, and your body is straining just to cool off, let alone power your legs. To stave off cramps, elite runner Ewin Teo recommends taking oral salts every two hours or 20km, whichever comes first. Check out the risks (and myths) around running here.
Even the winning Kenyan man in the Singapore Marathon (which starts at 5am) only came in at two hours, 17 minutes – whereas the world record is now two hours and three minutes. This makes the achievements of Singapore’s elite ultra-marathoners even more remarkable. Vlad Ixel took the honours in the 100km North Face in 10hrs 10min, ahead of second placed Fai Wong who finished in 10hrs 29min, while Etienne Rodriquez won the 50km in 3hrs 48min, just over four minutes ahead of Ross Bryant. The timings show how the doubling of the distance leads to a disproportionate impact on the finishing times, even for the best of the best.
And afterwards? Ewin Teo has run three ultras and four full Ironman triathlons, with top five placings. He has a simple formula. “After the race I rest from running for a good two months, but keep active by cycling and swimming. At the same time I recharge mentally for the next race.”
It seems to work, as Ewin adds: “I have never been injured during a race. While building up my mileage towards the race, I have had a few repetitive injuries from over-work, like shin splints. I deal with them by dropping back my mileage and cross-training.” It would appear as though he’s found the winning formula.