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Untrained Ultra – 12 Weeks, More Than 50k…

When you experiment with yourself, you can get fantastic and fascinating results – because you quit trying to find the best way first and get going instead… and because your sample is just 1.

I’m on record complaining about Tim Ferriss and his brand of personal development going astray, exactly as it applies to ultramarathons – and all the more so because I claimed that he probably could finish a 50k within the 12 weeks of training he ‘advertised’ (but never came through with even mentioning anymore).

Still on through the Seetaler AlpenInadvertently, I created a similar situation for myself in the run-up to the Via Natura 100 mile trail:

Where a real ultra-runner preparing for such a race would rake in 100-200 mile weeks, I hardly did that in the 12 weeks leading up to the race.

The last run before the race was 3 days before, doing lactate testing to finally get the medical certificate necessary for participation. (I had thought I’d just go to my usual doctor on Monday and get it signed, only to find out that he was on vacation until the day before the race. Fortunately, I asked at the ‘Sportordination‘ in Vienna, and promptly I got lucky with someone having to cancel their next day’s appointment and me getting it.)

Six 3-minute episodes rising to 18km/h speed. On a treadmill. Not what’s recommended mere days before a race.

The last time I had been out training before that (there was also a little work-related hike), I went up the Feuerkogel at the Traunsee lake (one of my usual ‘quick’ mountain training runs) the day after a sauna/steam bath visit, feeling weak and steamy. And then, after getting up there in 1 hour 30, I moved back down, checked when the next train back would go when I was down quite a bit, found that it would be in some 15 minutes, and ran all-out to catch that train.

12.6 km, 1156 m of ascent and then descent, in 02:16 hours, (at an average heart rate of 177 and reaching a maximum of 225(?)). Not all that unusual for me, but a mountain trail sprint race more than anything training-like.

Before that? Aside from one of the usual relaxed circles, that was the Linz marathon, just about a month before the 100 mile race. There, I ran in Salomon S-Lab (trail) shoes because I found that I neither had any decent road-running shoes anymore, nor the money and inclination to get new ones just for that race. And I started out only too fast, as usual when I do such things, only to get close to some cramping later on, have to walk a bit – and finish in my (apparently) usual 3:45.

April Training Statistics

April training statistics: 4 ‘moves’

All in all, after February (which was a good training month), I did only 14 “moves” I recorded as training, spanning 19:30 hours, covering a distance of 195 km, ascending merely 3000 m. That’s what a good runner may do in 2 weeks, not in more than 2 months… and I may have counted some twice because they were recorded once with my usual Ambit2 and once with the Ambit2R I was then testing.

FitBit data for last 12 months, in contrast

FitBit data for last 12 months, in contrast

Then again, my average daily number of steps during that time, as recorded by the FitBit One I carry, was between 12000 and 13000 (where 10000 steps is said to constitute a “highly active” lifestyle). So, I wasn’t just sitting around, either.

Is there anything to learn from that, though?

Well, it apparently is possible to finish a 100 mile mountain ultra marathon, going into it with a decent foundation of fitness but having done relatively little training.
Having had the adequate gear and enough experience certainly helped – but it all, aside from a decent physical foundation, mainly comes down to just what I’d written before, I feel: Do you really want to do it and are you able to overcome the obstacles in the way? Especially the psychological ones? Especially the competitive spirit that tells you that you’re not good enough if you aren’t among the fastest of finishers?

No way to know that in theory, no way to gain the fitness – whether from the usual training plans or some “minimum effective dose” – by perfect planning. You’ll just have to go out, find out for yourself, and get better at it by the doing. Or realize you don’t want that.

Still on through the Seetaler Alpen

Via Natura 100 Mile Mountain Ultra Trail Marathon

Writing the title as fully descriptive as the above seems an attempt to hit all the sweet key word spots of modern trail running – but how not? After all, this is – finally – the first 100 mile ultra marathon in Austria. And, it follows the uber-modern way of the MUT (mountain ultra trail) that Alpine trail runs have pretty much always followed…

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Starry Night's View

Over One Night, Over the Tauern Mountains – To the Ultramarathon of Life

At times, it’s good to follow in other’s footsteps… and then, to learn and do better.

Making a hobby of ultramarathon-like activities is a strange matter. Crazy to the ones who don’t do such things, they are likely to be too short, too slow, for those who want to see truly extreme feats of endurance.

A little extreme I may have become, though. For it was just four days after the previous, quickly aborted, look at whether it would still be possible to do the Glocknerrunde this year that I decided to head right back there…

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3 in 30, the 1st: Ötscher-Ultra-Marathon

If “make yourself at home” means getting comfortable and lazy, someone failed to inform me. Or rather, I deliberately choose to ignore that all-too-common interpretation in favor of one that is more exploratory, exhausting – and rich in experiences.

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5k to 50k in 12 weeks ... unchanged since the book came out in 2010/11

Lessons from the Ultra(Running) Fail of Tim Ferriss

Being interested in personal development and the creation of better lives, Tim Ferriss is someone to watch.

Between the surprise success of “The 4-Hour Work-Week” and his third and latest (and highly recommendable) “The 4-Hour Chef,” in the course of which he’s been shifting towards a somewhat better understanding of life not being just about brag-worthy experiences and records, he had collected fitness/health/body advice into “The 4-Hour Body.”

The most interesting part of it to me, understandably, was the little “last-minute addition” about ultramarathon running.

4HB Cliffhanger

The 4HB-Ultramarathon-Cliffhanger. Try getting something like this published if you’re not Tim Ferriss…

Sure, it is not the most important part of the book.

However, it has turned out to be the part that most clearly shows the psychological dynamics through which this “hacker” approach to living goes astray.

One of the grand notions of the 4-hour empire is the idea that one needs to look at the outliers and deconstruct skills to find the faster, more direct – more intelligent? – ways to a goal.

Want to pleasure women? Forget about romanticism and an atmosphere of trust and warmth, try these tried-and-tested techniques!
Want six-pack abs? Go for the “minimum effective dose” of this strange trick…. oh, wait, wrong sort of text…

Now, things like the minimum effective dose, the focus on the elements of a skill that will give the greatest result for the time invested, the search for life hacks that will give early wins and, therefore, the impetus to go on, are not bad at all.

However, those outliers might not have anything much to teach, but be “freaks” for whom things really are different, without much of any import to the majority.
The vast majority of people may not find a shortcut for going from 5k to 50k by way of high-intensity training, but does rather need to go for long and slow training runs, just as common wisdom has it.

Why? Simply because there’s still a difference between improving blood levels and fitness indicators – for which HIT (high-intensity training) can do a lot – and running for hours on end. Both physically, and psychologically – and this is where it gets really interesting.

“[A]n ultrarunner’s mind is what matters more than anything. Racing ultras requires absolute confidence tempered with intense humility.” (Scott Jurek, “Eat & Run” 2012)

5k to 50k in 12 weeks ... unchanged since the book came out in 2010/11

5k to 50k in 12 weeks … unchanged since the book came out in 2010/11

Could Ferriss participate in and finish a 50k ultra?

Certainly, as long as both determination and humility are there. – But would a person who wanted to go from 5k to 50k within 12 weeks, something like 100 weeks ago, who has made a name for himself through relentless self-promotion and the collection of strange records (and looking at the “Chinese national kickboxing champion” title, winning “the wrong way”) be content with walking for quite a bit of the distance and finishing somewhere at the back of the pack?

This, to me, is the driving issue: Approaching a problem intelligently is highly recommendable, of course.

When that supposed intelligence becomes all about the quick wins – quick ways to only four hours of work a week (because everything that’s fun is defined as something other than work), quick fluency in a language (because fluency is defined as the ability to participate in an everyday conversation without too many misunderstandings or embarrassing pauses and nothing more) – however, then it becomes dangerous.

Rather than being a highly recommendable experimentation with life, driven and driving at understanding and learning, it comes to support the quickly achieved successes that are nothing more than a little gaming of the usual system.

In words from “The 4-Hour Chef,”


In the first 24 hours, I’ll take you from burning scrambled eggs to osso buco, one of the most expensive menu items in the world. If 28% of Americans can’t cook at all,‡ and if another third are on some variation of mac and cheese, having even one seemingly difficult meal up your sleeve puts you in rare company. [my emphasis]

Compare that to the world of something like ultrarunning:

According to Outside Online, “a record 36,000 people participated in [ultra-distance events] in the U.S. last year.
Given a U.S. population of 313,914,040, that means that those who participated in an ultra-distance event were 0.0115% (rounded up) of the total population… or, in the terms of getting to greatness used by Tim Ferriss, mere participation makes you a part of the Top 0.0115% of Americans when it comes to ultramarathon running…

Move over, “the 1%.” Register for the next ultra, et voila, you’re “in rare company.

Superficial symptoms of success, however, are the exact opposite to the command over and separateness from the usual ways of doing things and the usual, pedestrian, values, leading forward to something better, that intelligent hacks are meant to show.

A better life that remembers what virtues are (and actually, any kind of good life that goes beyond superficialities), is rather like an ultramarathon: It is not achievable through quick hacks, but only by slouching on even when it’s hard, taking pleasure in the grand views as well as the exhilarating descents – and the pain and doubt, as well – taking one step after another whether it is fast or slow, easy or painful.

Will you come along with me?

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