It’s all very fresh but the single word “How” continues to bound around in my brain as the preface to a number of questions in the aftermath of what we have just witnessed here in Germany.
A race that started at 8am on Saturday morning drew to a close in the early hours of this morning (Wednesday) some 90 hours after it had started. A “Backyard Ultra” format where participants are asked to run 6.7km per hour every hour until there is just one runner left who is crowned the winner. Everyone else leaves the race by “quitting” and having the initials DNF placed after their name on the scorecard…….did not finish!
Over the past four days we witnessed possibly one of the most unique feats of human endurance to date as two men battled out for a new world record, surpassing all established records by some margin.
But how, how is it even possible for someone to continue running these 6.7km loops on the hour with no more than 17 minutes per hour to eat, sleep and attend to any other issues that this race many throw at them. When the previous world record of 85 hours was set in the US in 2021 the endurance community could barely believe what it was seeing and now that record has been extended by a further grueling and fatigue filled 5 hours. Mind blowing.
In 2019 Keith Russell from Naven Ireland, reached out to me to see if I could help him prepare to run Marathon Des Sables. We discussed at some length why he wanted to attempt this race and what struck me immediately was his clarity around his motivation…….his late daughter Alana #forever8. Keith did not come from a running background but got into it when he started to walk with Alana in her chair. The walks settled her down, and gave them both some precious father-daughter time. That soon progressed from walking to running, and Keith thrived on the moments he had running with Alana as he could feel the happiness it brought to her.
From the outset we understood each other well. We spoke immediately about creating feeling around running as I knew there was so much feeling and emotion related to Alana that if we could use this skill that Keith had and implement it into his running then he would achieve great things. Long distance coaching is never easy, in fact what am I talking about coaching is never easy when the goals and the motivations are so strong. Coaching and being coached is always incredibly challenging as in simple terms it is a professional relationship but to help an athlete achieve great things it is brutally personal and to strike the balance whilst retaining respect for each other takes extreme work from both parties. Keith had aggressive goals, clear values and an insane work ethic. I had a strong feeling I had some of the tools that could bring those elements to life in the form of endurance achievements.
Our relationship fast became deep but remained simple, probably a term that also would best describe the training we do. We would chat about areas of weakness, why they existed and I would then go away and figure out how to eradicate them, deliver my findings into a training peaks program and Keith would then put in the hard yards never questioning why but always looking for the edge that it was going to give him in his races. When things were good we would identify why they were good, celebrate as needed or just bank the physical and mental credits we were earning. When things were not going to plan we would try and identify why, not always reaching a conclusion but constantly having dialogue as to the various possibilities, never getting stressed if we couldn’t find an answer in the moment or not, as we both know not everything gets an answer straight away, some things need more time and everything happens for a reason.
Each training session we did, each race we entered, each time we spoke and brainstormed ideas took us one step closer to a new goal that had come onto the radar after 9 months training for Marathon Des Sables was complete only to have the race postponed due to the pandemic (a race he has yet to complete). That goal was to set a new record for the backyard ultra format, one that it was an absolute privilege to be tasked with trying to figure out as he was literally asking me to “Coach me to something that has never been done before.” There was and maybe still is no playbook, just a few things we have found that work. Ha
Although the “how” is not totally clear still, I think the following 4 points go some way to helping us understand some things:
1. The connection, feeling and awareness Keith has around why he does these events is never ever in doubt, it has not changed since day one so when things are hard almost a default mode kicks in and continues to drive him.
2. Things are mainly black and white, when there is some grey Keith does not overthink, he accepts and we figure it out. He knows that he will not always have the answer to everything but not having answers does not put a handbreak on human performance, in fact it drives it in this case.
3. Call it different, call it unconventional or just call it what works for Keith. He is willing to train in ways that you could say are non conventional to our sport but ways that we discuss and give meaning and reason to, nothing is off limits and nothing is set in stone, many things are always changing and so must we be, whilst we remain rooted to our basics. He understands “hard” like only a few people I know.
4. The difference between confidence in a process and ego is so fine, misinterpreted by many and totally misunderstood by millions. Keith’s ability to manage this insanely complex part of our human make up is hard to describe but has a huge impact.
Ten minutes into lap 89 in Rettert Keith returned to the start line with that simple words “I’m done”. Merijn was still out on the course and should he complete the loop within the hour he would win the race. He did. But he also did more than that, Merijn stood on the start line with Keith and a reducing number of runners 90 times, 90 consecutive hours of which the last 16 it was just the two of them. Merijn gave Keith the opportunity to go where no other human had been before and Keith gave Merijn the same opportunity. In the heat of a fierce battle what these two men gave to each other was something unbelievably special.
When an athlete quits a race it is brutal for that athlete and I knew the state that Keith was in having seen him every hour of this race, the ups, the downs, the fatigue, the laughs, the silences, it had give us so much. However regret is a horrible feeling and after a long pause I asked him “are you sure?” This was very hard as in front of me stood a broken man on many levels but a man I knew so well and a man I respected so much and was so focused on getting him what he wanted. It was my duty to ask. He muttered some words but he didn’t need to, looking deep into his bloodshot eyes, before he opened his lips I could see it was all over. Both our hearts were so empty and so full at the same time, this was a moment we had perhaps never prepared for, how do you even start to prepare for moments like this? Maybe one day we will get the answer. Until then we collect the experiences, the memories and from this incredible human being the energy and power that has and will inspire so many by the way he redefined what is possible in this ever exciting life of endurance sports.
Thank you mate. We move onto the next part of the journey.