No Limits

Live your life to the fullest

How I got into ultra running

My mentor Thomas Wittek and me in Senegal

My mentor Thomas Wittek and me in Senegal

If somebody had told me 3 years ago I would become an ultra marathon runner, I would have declared them insane. Fact is, now, 3 years later, I have run 4 ultra marathons, one in the mountains and 3 in the hottest deserts on earth. Sometimes I wonder how it is possible. How was it possible for me to come so far? How did it all happen? And it happened as follows…

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Putting determination into practice

This interview was recorded 10 days after the ultra marathon Sahara Ultra 111, which I describe here (part 1) and here (part 2):

I wonder how this article inspired you. Share your impressions, remarks, conclusions with me and other readers in the comments below. I will also happily answer your questions.

Mt. Elbrus – climbing in the death zone

IMG_0859Mt. Elbrus, 5,642m (18,510 ft) is the highest peak in Caucasus, close to the border between Russia and Georgia. It is the highest mountain in Europe (not Mount Blanc, being only 4,848m high) and it is part of the Seven Summits Challenge (7 highest peaks on each continent).

Although technically easier than Mt. Everest, on average 26 people die trying to climb Elbrus every year, which is a higher death toll than that of Mt. Everest, the highest peak in the world.

How do they die? Read the rest of this entry »

Sahara Ultra 111 – Part 2: The Hell at Night

IMG_0485_kleinThe depths of the night conquer the desert. I am running in total solitude through the vastness of the Sahara. Above me the starry sky and below absolute darkness. Kilometers in front of me and kilometers behind me not a living soul. I don’t see or hear anybody and only the little reflecting flags arranged every 50 meters mark the track in the light of my head lamp. If just one of them turns over or the battery runs out, I will be lost.

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Sahara Ultra 111 – Part 1: Going Through Hell

small_AA10425The agony starts at 32km. The burning sun of Sahara has sucked all the energy out of me. The feet go numb at every step. The renewed knee injury causes sharp pain and considerably limits it’s mobility, which makes further running like putting a quart into a pint pot. What can I do? 80km more to run in this state? Impossible! Sheer desperation. It’s over. Hundreds of hours of training. Was all this hustle for nothing? Read the rest of this entry »

How to Tell You are Off Limits

Sometimes when we do something extraordinary for a longer period of time it becomes normal for us, even if it is considered extreme or even unimaginable by others. Sometimes only by talking to others you realize how far off the norm your activities are.

And let me tell you this: If what you do brings just terror, fear and pain to the faces of the listeners, then you are definitely off limits.

Let me give you an example to epitomize this:

This story plays a couple of weeks ago in Vienna.

I was on a business trip there and naturally, I had to continue there with my training program. On sunday morning I went for a longer run before breakfast, since I wanted to finish it before the heat strikes in. After the training I was having a drink while lying on a sun-lounger in a small boot hire on the Danube. I was going to hire a boot, go to the middle of the Danube and have a refreshing, relaxing swim there before breakfast. There was a guy there from Greece working for them who spoke me up:

Him: “I noticed your shirt, are you from Greece?”

I was wearing a blue shirt from the Classic Athens Marathon sponsored by the Alpha Bank and also a matching cap from the same event.

Me: “No, I just went for a marathon to Athens.”

Him (with respect): “Really? Wow! I could tell it’s Greek, I know the Alpha Bank. When was it?”

Me: “It was 2010, the race went from the Marathon to Athens”

Him: “How long was the run?”

Me: “Well 42km. This is a standard marathon distance.”

Him (with discomfort in the face): “Really? I can’t imagine how one can run such a distance. I can’t even imagine running one kilometer, I would manage maybe 500 meters.”

Me: “I think you could do it when you prepare yourself accordingly.”

Him (still discomforted): “I think I would die before I reach the finish line. So when is your next marathon?”

Me: “I just had one. Today, before the breakfast. I have just finished it.”

Him (with disbelief and consternation): “You are kidding me. You don’t look tired at all. Is it really true?”

Me: “It is! I got up early and run without the breakfast to save time. I just wanted to avoid the rising heat.”

Him (terror coming to his face): “No! Don’t tell me this. How can you torture yourself like that? Why are you doing this?”

Me: “I am preparing for an ultra marathon”

Him: “What is this, never heard of that. Is it like swimming and biking and so?”

Me: “No, it is just running. A marathon is 42km, an ultra marathon is everything above it, 50km, 80km, 100km, there is no upper limits.”

Him (surprised and disbelieving): “No way! I thought the maximum is a marathon. I didn’t know you could possibly run more than that.”

Me: “Well, you actually can and I did it before. For example 80km in the mountains, last year.”

Him (wondering): “In the mountains? Are you crazy? No! How many days?”

Me: “What do you mean?”

Him: “How many days do you have to complete that?”

Me: “You do it in one day, in one piece.”

Him (now pain coming to his face): “No! No breaks? No rests?”

Me: “You can take a rest if you want but the time is running and if you don’t make the cut-off-time you are out of the race.”

Him: “What about the ultra marathon you are preparing for now?”

Me: “It is called Sahara Ultra 111. It’s 111km non stop through the Sahara Desert.”

Him (it is apparently mentally painful for him): “What?!?!? 111km?!?!?!? Through Sahara?!?!?!? In one piece?!?!?! It is hot like hell there!!! Are you serious? No! How are you going to manage this?”

Me: “Well, I have run before in the Sahara and Namib Desert. I have run at 50 degree celsius, so I know how it feels. I prepare accordingly for the distance. I don’t know if I finish, nobody knows for sure in an ultra marathon. This is a difference between a marathon and an ultra. But I will never know if I don’t try.”

Him (his pain increases with every further question): “You are a crazy man! How long do you need for that?”

Me: “I don’t know since I haven’t tried this before. This is first edition of this event. It depends a lot on the topography, the soil, the weather conditions, on your daily form. It may take 12 hours, or 16 hours, but it may also take 20 hours.”

Him (with pain): “20 hours of running? You must be kidding! There used to be a good runner in Greece, what was his name….”

Me: “Yiannis Kouros, right? I know about him. He is actually still running. He is 56 now, I think.”

Him: “Right, Yiannis Kouros. Is he good?”

Me: “He is very good and still the best in his age group. He is much better than me.”

Him (seemingly proud): “Does he also run ultra marathons?”

Me: “He definitely does, and much longer distances than me. What distance do you think is possible to be run in 24 hours?”

Him: “I don’t know. 100km? No, wait. 150km?”

Me: “Well, Yiannis Kouros is the only man who managed to run over 300km in 24 hours. Can you imagine this?”

Now, the final state came. In his eyes you could see the plain fear, mixed with confusion and disbelief!

Him: “No! Don’t do it to me! Please! Let’s stop this conversation! No! 300km!?!?!?!? No! Don’t tell me this! This is even more than from Vienna to Budapest, in just one day! Running! Let’s talk about something else. I can’t! I can’t any more…”

Now you understand what I meant with horror, mental pain and fear…

The Secret of my Motivation

People often ask me how I motivate myself for the heavy training in the ultra marathon preparation, for the discipline necessary to sustain the high intensity, for the regularity. Am I a masochist? Do I like to waste myself completely? Do I find satisfaction in overloading my body?

None of it! I am actually a very lazy person like everybody else. I don’t like tiring, I don’t like forcing myself to physical effort, in fact I don’t even like running too much.

So how come I am able to do all of this? Is it stern disciplin or iron, unshakable will?

Not at all! After the event I have a hard time trying to motivate myself to go out and run even a fraction of the disctance I was doing before an ultra on a regular basis. I avoid running and I even put on weight since I am no longer training, for months!

The secret, I found, is the high, outrageous goal you set yourself.
Set yourself a great, incredible challenge, commit to it and look what happens.
When you imagine how great it will be if you achieve this, if you cross another limit, if you prove to yourself you are capable of doing it, if you manage to astound yourself doing it. Imagine how it will feel to see the respect and admiration in the eyes of people you care for, or in the eyes of your anemies or competitors, their confounded, asking looks.
Imagine to do something so unbelievable, people ask for the second time to check if they have heard you right, something so extraordinary they can’t imagine it is possible, something so outrageous they even doubt it is true.
Imagine how it would be to be a person doing it, to enclose this in the range of things you are capable of doing, to be perceived as a person who can do it.
You can also visualize yourself achieving this goal with all the feelings connected to it.

Make a plan, start executing it and see the magic happen.

What I found out is: you discover a vast motivation you were not aware of. Suddenly there is no problem going out and taking on even the hardest training. There is absolutely no problem with that. I am amazed how I can run for hours after setting myself an outrageous goal, even if I was too lazy to even leave my sofa before. The bigger your goal the easier it is to discipline yourself. In fact you don’t need to force yourself at all, it all comes naturally. If it is your own goal, a goal you yourself set, the motivation comes from inside you. You will find it easy to execute your plan (f.e. the training plan).

It sounds either trivial (if you have already experienced it) or implausible (if you haven’t), but believe me, that’s where magic is hidden. Try it and you will be surprised what you are capable of.