Martin Fryer is for me, and for many others one of the Godfather’s of Australian ultra-running. The respect I have for this man is huge. He gets on with his business with little or no fanfare on Facebook, and delivers time and time again with quite staggering results that you really do have to read twice to get a grasp of what he’s just achieved. None more so than his recent effort at the Sri Chinmoy 10 Day race that was recently held in New York where he amassed over 1,100kms over 10 days!
To call this a race doesn’t really do the event justice. This level of running fascinates the hell of out me. In some respects, the racing aspect of the ‘event’ is but a mere small part of the entire concept – this is more about a journey of self-discovery and humility. This side of ultra-running is where the real people live in my opinion. If you were to compare this to the trails, it’s the Barkley of road / track running – and then some.
I initially asked Martin for some views prior to him leaving our shores for this race, but in the end decided to leave it until he came back and let him focus on what he was about to undertake. This interview is not about the physical side of running. It’s not about how many kms he ran in training (although I did ask!) and what he ate and drank along the way.
It deals with a much deeper aspect of running – the process of mental absorption and of just succumbing and being totally comfortable with who you really are. That may sound a little bit left field, but this is about total surrender and the discovery of yourself and who you really are. It’s a place that many of us aspire to, but are yet to realise or reach.
First of all… why? Why run for 10 days around a 1 mile block? It’s clear that it’s more than just the running involved here – there’s a whole new level of mental preparation required.
My previous experience at the Sri Chinmoy 6 Day Race in New York two years ago (2011) was a deeply life changing experience on many levels, and it seemed quite a natural progression to now try the intimidating prospect of adding another four more days to this in the form of their ten Day Race. It is a most unique and difficult duration for a race as it is long enough to really wear you down without being quite long enough to gain the benefits and adaptations that are seen when you go out even longer – like the Sri Chinmoy 3100 mile race in June. In this race, runners’ bodies start to adapt after 3 weeks when they start to get stronger and do bigger mileage.
The title “self-transcendence” for these races absolutely describes what it is all about. Self-transcendence is the pursuit of continual progress towards perfection in both your inner life (spiritual/philosophical/big picture) and your outer life (achievements/effects on the outer world/family/work). These races are so conceptually out there that if you stay in your mind and think about the task at hand too much it will completely overwhelm you. That is the key lesson that you come here for. To run from the heart and not the head. To explore your capacity at the very limits of what you thought was ever achievable to explore who you really are when you are operating at the margins.
Just running around a 1 mile block is a very pure form of running simplicity. No complex logistics and gear mania required – just pure awareness and uncompromised focus on the simple act of running. It is a philosophical, spiritual, physical, emotional and social journey all rolled up into one – and the prospect of doing 4 more days than ever before promised 40% more self-transcendence plus the opportunity to go beyond previously unimagined barriers such as 1000K. Like all great races that you aspire to – if you didn’t start the race without some basic apprehension of the journey ahead into the unknown it wouldn’t be worth doing.
Logistically, how do you plan for a 10 day race like this?
The key thing that I learnt from my previous six-day races is that a very specific plan doesn’t work that well. There are too many parameters that vary throughout these races that completely demolish the most carefully laid plans. Like any good strategic plan the idea is to have a looser, flexible plan which adapts to the inevitable changes in weather conditions, energy levels, arising potential injuries, blisters, lack of sleep etc…
However, it is critical to have a very well-organized plan for staying on top of nutrition/hydration and well-rehearsed protocols for exit and re-entry to the road before and after rest breaks. You need to know how to really use all the elements of your foot care stuff and know exactly where all your bits and pieces of kit are – as it gets overwhelming when you are chronically sleep deprived. Unlike 2 years ago (when I had no crew), this time I was fortunate to have a very experienced crewperson, Alan Young from Scotland, and he and I had a very good working understanding of the various key protocols.
Outside of this planning it was very much running to feel and resting when the pace had dropped to a ridiculously low-level. Eating and drinking were continuous. The rough plan of attack was to push hard the first 2 days as a frontrunner, based on my 24h and 48h racing pedigree, and hopefully clear out most of the field without completely ruining my own resilience in the process. A foolhardy plan to some, and certainly requiring a certain amount of faith and bravery, but playing to my known strengths. The longer these races go the more that the differences between runners disappear and it becomes a sheer war of attrition and slow shuffling.
The aim was 180 to 200 miles by the end of Day 2 and I did do 190 miles in reality. I hit the deepest, dark hole of despair that I have ever experienced in any event at the end of Day 2 and I would have welcomed someone to give me the Jack Kevorkian needle at that point to put me out of my misery. To feel that badly depleted with the prospect of 8 days to go was sobering, to say the least. Fortunately, by Day 3 I had surrendered myself to the flow of the race and moved out of my mind and into my heart – where I ran consistently in the 60 to 70 mile daily range for the rest of the race.
In light of the above, did the race go to plan? How much did you have to adapt?
The beginning of the race sort of went to plan but I was plagued by foot care issues through days 3 to 5 which dropped my goal mileage lower than I would have liked. I also realized by Day 4 that I was starting to get really slow in spite of all the calories going in and my good appetite and realized that I had skimped too much on the sleep. I had tried a lot of short-ish rest breaks, 30 min through to 2h in those first 4 days but now my recovery was too incomplete and I was forced to try a longer break of about 3h on Day 5, which had a recognizable recovery effect on my legs.
One of the key adaptations was to the weather, which is notorious at Flushing Meadows (now I know why it is called Flushing Meadows) for being highly variable and challenging- particularly a very strong wind that blows off Meadow Lake that is a 30 knot, freezing cold headwind for half a mile through many parts of the race- totally soul-destroying and very tiring- this is not a course for big mileages and records. There are plenty of sections with cracks and small potholes and bad cambers so you have to be really careful to stay relaxed and attentive on every lap.
Perhaps my main adaptation was that I ran a very “contrarian” race- while most people had long sleeps through the night I liked to clock up the miles then. The wind was often lighter at night and I loved the cool, clear night air and the sense of having free reign over the one mile loop. I would normally place one break in the early morning hours of about 90 minutes just to gain some partial recovery, but it was terrible getting back out onto the road all stiffened up and groggy and trying to warm up again. Overall, the issue of adaptation is critical as you are running these races on a knife edge- there is no recovery time from any serious injury and if you let one develop or don’t take hold of it you are out of the race.
How did you feel after the naps you had at various points in the race? Was it hard to get yourself back into the zone to race again?
This was one of the areas that I learnt a lot about this race. Early in the race I was pretty sparing on naps and restricted them from 10 min through to about 90 minutes/2h. However, by Day 4 I had still never lost consciousness at all in any of these naps – they were more like a restless, painful, half-coma and you could not get comfortable at all in a freezing cold tent, even with all of your warm clothes on. I extended my long break out to 3h as a matter of necessity by Day 5 or so and finally lost consciousness for the first time on that Day. When I woke up I was completely disoriented and had no idea where I was or what I was doing. It was like coming out of surgical anesthesia. My crewperson Alan realized this fact and would wake me saying ” Martin, this is Alan- I am your crewperson. You are in Flushing Meadows New York and you are in a 10 Day Road Race. You are currently on Day 5.”
As the race progressed it was getting harder and harder to get back into the zone again- particularly the cold of the night. You would feel groggy and disoriented I would put on a ski jacket and walk a lap with a hot drink and try to increase my walking pace to warm up again. Completely stiffened up like a zombie and wondering every time whether a run was even possible again. Normally back to a shuffle by Lap 2 and then some rhythm back by Lap 3. This protocol had to be experienced time and time again through the 10 Days and eventually becomes ingrained in your psyche. It is now more than a week after the race and I am waking up through the night thinking I have to get up and run again in the race!
What do you focus on when you’re running around that block time and time again? Do you shut it out of your mind? Where exactly does your head take you on this journey?
Sri Chinmoy’s advice to runners in these events was to stay out of the mind – “No mind, No mind, No mind” was his advice and you soon learn to understand the significance of this for survival in multi-days. I listened to very little music in this event. The word focus is an interesting one as it seemed that the best mode was one of being focused yet expansive, as opposed to focused and contracted. If you become too introspective and lost in your own mind you fall victim to the limitations of your talented, yet finite, computer-like mind that tends to generate many thoughts that are less than useful when faced with extreme pain and fatigue.
So the cliché of running from the heart rather from the head rings true in that you want to immerse yourself very deeply in the experience of each present moment of the race, which actually represent the only true reality relevant to your predicament. Speculation by the mind on the past and future events is not helpful and wastes energy that could be spent in the present moment. For me, by Day 3 the body, mind and ego were nullified by the sheer miles and sleep deprivation and I reached a beautiful point of surrendering to a simple state of pure awareness – you just experience Being – nothing more, nothing less.
You are immersed in your one mile home and all that it contains and you feel one with this home and all of the love, joy and aspiration of the competitors contained within this microcosm. This develops into an expansion of your being into the sunrise, the sunset, the wind – endless hours enjoying the subtle changes of different foot strike patterns, arm carriage positions, posture, cadence and the simple act of movement. When you are in this expanded state you feel oneness and joy and time goes fast. When you switch back into the mind you contract back to your limited sense of self and you feel pain, fatigue and overwhelm. So you continually aim to regain that peace that comes from staying in the heart and not the head.
How do you feel doing something such as this changes you as a person, if at all… does the time for reflection during the race change the way you feel about certain things in life?
I haven’t yet met one person that is not totally transformed by this type of experience. Some of it is very difficult to put into words. I just read Phil McCarthy’s blog where he has posted a brief report about his first experience of winning the 6 Day Race this year. Phil is my very good friend from the US 24h team and generously gave me accommodation in Manhattan after the race. His reaction to the multiday is quite typical.
We are familiar with the Round the World solo yachtsmen and how they are never quite the same after their experience and I guess this is a reasonable analogy. When all of the distractions of everyday life are taken away you are forced to understand what it is to live in the present moment and you are automatically led into contemplating and questioning the very foundations of what you hold to be true and what is important in your life. The big questions cannot be escaped. To me, these races demonstrate so poignantly how our capacity to really experience and manifest something special in life is limited by our obsession with our mind and our sense of efficacy as an individual- a separate self that thinks that it can control and push its way through our lives with sheer willpower and determine its own destiny.
The paradox is that we need to surrender and let go in order to make continual progress and to continue to grow. We need to expand our consciousness to feel inclusiveness with all of the people we meet and we need to immerse ourselves soulfully in all of the situations we encounter, even though most of our social pressures are to feel separate and to stay in control. Surrendering to the “flow” of a race and staying in the heart nullifies the seemingly overwhelming goal that faces us. Running from the heart introduces a sense of poise that cannot be attained by staying in the mind. I am now convinced that these fundamental principles of self-transcendence that are learnt from multiday races apply to all areas of our lives and promise a rich, authentic, exciting, fulfilled life that is full of manifestation and possibilities beyond our wildest dreams.