Inspiration running

7 Things I Learned From Running With The World’s Best Ultramarathon Athlete

Running with a true legend was the best learning experience I have ever had

You’ve been running non-stop for nearly ten hours, since 3am, and now it’s nearing 40 degrees at the sun’s zenith. The sand is so soft underfoot. A lot of the time you’re completely solitary and alone in this desert akin to Mars. This was just an average day on the inaugural Wadi Rum Ultra, a 5-day ultramarathon from the 5th – 9th September 2016.

Although there were just 7 of competitors in total taking part in this ultra, it transpired there was one amongst us who was the phenomenal Salameh El Aqra. His credentials are amazing – he has come runner-up in the infamous Marathon de Sables 8 times, and won it in 2012, not to mention a whole host of other accolades.

Salameh

I was fortunate enough to run with Salameh for some moments over the 5 days of the Wadi Rum Ultra. On some occasions it was just for a fleeting few minutes (like at the start of a day before he ran off into the distance!!), and other times we had longer, up to an hour of running together. It was such an honour to run with a man, a legend, like this. Truly an uplifting, inspiring experience. He runs with such ease, grace, elegance, positivity.

So I wanted to share with you some of the little things I gleaned from him over the course of five days we spent with him, and offer up a few observations on aspects where what he did were markedly different:

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1. Nutrition whilst running. Myself and the other ‘regular’ competitors would take with us a selection of bars and snacks to eat for that day’s running (nb, this Ultra is not a ‘self-supported’ race where you have to carry all your food like the MdS). Personally, this would be a wide selection, and would probably be a mix of around 6 or 7 of the following to choose from each day: Pip & Nut sachets (these were fab, highly recommend. I would probably have 2 – 3 of these each day), Tribe bars, 9Bar, Cliff Bars, SIS Gels, Bounce Balls. In contrast, the lesson I learned from the great Salameh, was that he had just a thin cellophane bag of dates in his front pocket, and he would eat about 8 each day, on average 1 per 10km. The natural sugars in them is source of quick carbohydrates, and have lots of potassium which helps muscle function. Two dates contain 10 percent of your daily needs—the same as a small banana. When running with him, he kindly shared some of his stash, and I found they were just brilliant – no sticky, gooey residue, no stodgy bars needing to be washed down with big gulps of water. There is no sticky packaging to stash back in your rucksack, they are so brilliant simple and natural, and just what your body needs.

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2. Pace. On the Wadi Rum Ultra, there are checkpoints every 10km. Here, a vehicle is parked and there is shade and water available. So after taking a small rest and some water at each, competitors would then set off for the next 10km, this way breaking large days into nice bite size chunks. From starting and finishing one of the 10km legs with Salameh, I learned that he would set his goal for the forthcoming 10km, and then stick to that. There was one 10km section we decided to run together; I was feeling on form that day (day 4), and I relished this opportunity. As we set off from the checkpoint, he said “OK, 6 min/km pace”, and so it was set. We got our stride, found the pace using our GPS watches (I had the Garmin 920XT) and locked it in. So we ran this 10km section at the 6min/km pace, and one hour later we were at the next checkpoint, simple!! Salameh then stopped for just a minute or so for a quick intake of water, and then he was then off like the gazelle he is at that same pace for the rest of the day! Because this 6min/km pace was quite rapid for me, I thought it was wise to take a more leisurely 5-10 minute break after that, and get out of the sun and recover slightly before heading off. But I learned from this experience, and found it was such a great way of approaching each stage. Gauge how you feel, and see if you can lock in a pace for that 10km to come. I though I would give you an idea of the distances, times, pace and heart rate, I was doing for each stage of the race:

  • Day 1: 48km, elapsed time 6:10:54, ave overall pace 7:40/km, ave moving pace 7:06/km, ave heart rate 156
  • Day 2: 70km, elapsed time 9:42:00, ave overall pace 8:35/km, ave moving pace 7:51/km, ave heart rate 129
  • Day 3: 48km, elapsed time 6:32:53, ave overall pace 8:10/km, ave moving pace 6:47/km, ave heart rate 127
  • Day 4: 42km, elapsed time 4:20:31, ave overall pace, 6:10/km, ave moving pace 5:57/km, ave heart rate 146
  • Day 5: 30km, elapsed time 2:55:05, ave overall pace 5:54/km, ave moving pace 5:43/km, ave heart rate 131

3. Rhythm. The stops delay the runners, and steady steps are very good for long distance. Keep a good rhythm, and be light on your feet. Don’t stop and start, walk and run, try your best to find a pace and level that is comfortable for how you are feeling and that stage. Set a mini target, and stick with what is comfortable, sustainable, and keep going …!

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4. Trainers. Salameh had just a regular pair of Asics, probably weighing about 200-220 grams each. I am not sure what model they were exactly, but they were nothing special at all. I was in a pair of New Balance Leadville V3 weighing 293 grams, and actually these were fantastic for me. But in reality, a pair of trainers that sat between Salameh’s Asics and my New Balances’, around the 250gram marker, I think would have been just as ideal for the job, and saved lugging around 100grams extra on your feel for 250km!

5. Gaiters. All competitors (including myself) on this race were using the Raidlight Desert Gaiters, and these are actually fantastic and did the job brilliantly, no sand got in my shoes at all. They weigh around 76 grams each. But Salameh had some wonderful homemade gaiters. They were simple and made of a very light lycra type material which he had stitched directly onto the trainer itself with a needle and thread. These then had a small elasticated section which gripped snugly around the lower ankle. Salameh claims that he was the first one who made the gaiters in 2000, and a German person spotted them, took a photograph of the gaiter, and made a business from it! If I were working towards an event, I would definitely try some trial and error on some old trainers to see if I could figure this out for myself, as it’s a great weight saving strategy.

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6. Hydration and Water bottles. Salameh always said “drink little and often, even if you don’t feel thirsty”. I was using 2 x 750ml Raidlight bottles (held in two front rucksack pockets) which would last each 10km stage, before we would then get a top up of water from the support crew for the next stage. Salameh had 2 x smaller water bottles (300/350ml) in his front backpack pockets, and had a beautifully simple disposable 500ml plastic water which he held in his hand as he ran. Very light, effective and this was sufficient for him. But it’s worth remembering he would be a maximum of 1hour between 10km checkpoints, so he didn’t need as much water as us ‘regular’ competitors!

7. Keep it simple. Salameh ran with no headphones or music. He says if you run for fun, it’s ok to have the music, but if you are running to compete, there is no need for music, just concentrate on your performance. It also think it allows you to really engage with the environment around you, which is a concept I really like, rather than having a form of escapism via your music taking you other places. Salameh had nothing fancy, no accessories which he didn’t absolutely need. The same with kit, keep it as simple as possible.

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It was one of the experiences of my running life, in fact the experience, running with Salameh. He is such a positive and happy spirit. It is worth remembering he is one of the world’s best ultra distance runners, so all of the above must be diluted down according to your experience and ability. But still, I know for sure that I learned so much from him, and for all my ultra distance runs going forward, I will be thinking about all those points as I know they will be a great help.

Wishing you all the good luck in the world with all your up-coming ultras ..!!!!


Wadi Rum Ultra 2017 , 260km, 5 days, starting 7th October.

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