Ultra running: two words that invoke images of athletes that have gone beyond what is generally accepted as humanly possible. Two words that also conjure forth a lot of questions. What do they eat? Do they eat regular athletes, absorbing their spiritual and physical energy? Do they sleep? When they’re running do they feel pain, freedom, elation, exhaustion; everything all at once?
So I got a little carried away there, but there is in truth a lot of uncertainty as to what drives and what makes an athlete capable of running 217kms.
We caught up with Nikki Wynd, an Australian ultra runner who has recently won what is considered to be one of the hardest endurance races ever completed by anyone, ever.
When did you first discover that you enjoyed running?
Well I’ve only really been running for the last five years…so yeah I guess since 2010. Before that I was a member at the gym and I played basketball, played tennis – and I ran a bit, but it was never anything really serious.
What was your first serious race then? If you started running in 2010 and now you are running races 100kms and over!
I had done a marathon, and I was doing one marathon a year; because you know, everything you have read says that you shouldn’t do more than one marathon a year.
And then me and some of my friends from the gym decided to do Oxfam Trail Walker, which is a 100km event that raises money for charity. You do it in a team of four – the four of you all have to get across the line as a team.
We did that in 2010 just for a bit of fun, and one of the guys suggested that we do a few races as training. So I guess that’s kind of how I got into ultra-running.
So if what they say is true, that you are only supposed to do one marathon a year, how does that compare to what you currently achieve in a year?
Over the last few years, it’s not been unusual to go out on a weekend and do 50kms training. Sometimes I would have races only a week apart – so one weekend I would do a 50km race and the following I would have a 60km race…I think last year I did three 100km races in five weeks.
This year I’ve probably done a little bit more…I don’t know if you would say structured…but definitely less kms and more quality training. I would always take a day or two to recover after each race, because you are always going to be a bit sore. I suppose what I’m saying is I felt like I was losing a bit of condition the more I raced, because sometimes I wasn’t taking quite enough time for recovery.
This year I decided I was just going to pick some key races that all led to Badwater.
How did you adjust your training going from running your first marathon to competing in ultra-events?
Initially – definitely for the first three years or so – for me it was all about volume; all about long slow runs, because I felt like I needed to build up that endurance base. Whereas over the last 12 months I’ve probably done less kms and more quality. So I would usually do three sessions a week, but not as long, like I probably wouldn’t go out and do more than four hours training each session.
And what sort of terrain do you tend to focus on?
With Badwater being on the road, I did the majority of my training – my long runs, my tempo runs, my speed runs – all on the road. When you’re going to be running 217 kms on the road in 45 plus degree temperatures, that’s totally different to doing a trail race. It’s a lot harder on your body: your muscles, you ligaments, your joints need to be accustomed to running on the road. I tend do that with all my running; depending on what my key race is, I will go and train on that sort of terrain. I always find that if I do 100kms on the road I pull up a lot sorer than if I did 100kms on the trail.
You’re training for the 100km World Champs coming up, is that right?
Yeah that’s right.
Are you doing anything different in preparation for that event?
I suppose my main thing – after Badwater which was three and a bit weeks ago – has been recovery. I’ve been doing a lot of stretches; hot yoga, massage – and I don’t need to work on my endurance, because I just ran 200kms, so I’m working on trying to get a bit of speed back. Less volume, mainly just good quality short, sharp speed sessions, trying to get that quick leg turnover and a bit of pace back.
Going back to Badwater: how long does a race like that take you, 24 hours plus?
27 hours 23 minutes.
Wow. Okay. I can imagine it plays on the mind being in that one zone for so long. What are some of the techniques that you use overcome your own mind?
I really just try to be in the moment. In a race like Badwater, I kept reminding myself how lucky I was…and I know it sounds crazy but I was telling myself how lucky I was to be there, you know I was going, “I’m the only female from Australia here.” It’s such a high profile race I just tried to enjoy being there. I broke the race down in my head I had certain check points I had to get to. I had my Garmin set on Australian time, so I was thinking about my son back at home; he was getting up and going off to school, and I knew after school he has footy training….So I just tried to be in the moment, but also to think about my friends and my family – people back at home. My partner was reading out messages that people were sending to me on Facebook and I just tried to draw strength from that.
Have you ever been in a situation where that hasn’t been enough, either due to injury or ‘hitting the wall’?
No…luckily (touch wood) no I haven’t. I think with this sort of racing, if you do the right prep, condition your body properly you can make it through even if you can’t win. You know I train hard, but I’m the first person to take a rest day. I’m really in tune with my body now, and I think, you know what, I’m fit and I’m healthy, actually missing a day of running is going to be so much better for me than running when I’m not 100%.
Especially with an event like Badwater. Every single person there has had to meet strict criteria: they’ve have to basically submit a resume to show their running history. I think if I have done the proper training, unless something freakish happened during the race that stopped me physically from going on, I would walk to the finish — I would walk across the finish line.
How do you look after your body, your nutrition over a race that long?
It’s really, really hot racing Badwater, so most of my nutrition and food intake was in liquid form. So the main thing was just trying to drink as much water as I could, and having a gel every hour or so. I was taking in electrolytes as well using tablets. Most of the solid food I had was watermelon, strawberries, oranges; so most of it was fruit.
What was it like being the only Australian female competitor at an event like that?
I love it, I love the long distance stuff. It was pretty cool going to Badwater because I had mixed weights there; I had an Australian guy who I ran with. We chatted before the start of the race and became good friends. He came third in front of me, and just knowing that he was doing really, really well motivated me to keep going. And for me it was pretty cool to finish fourth behind him. On the last climb heading up towards the finish line, he and his crew were coming down and he gave me a hug and they cheered me. It was really special to be able to share that with him.
Just finishing an event like that you’re in a pretty small group already so it must form a pretty tight-knit community.
Yeah and you know everyone is so supportive. There were 50kms to go and they were telling me I had won. But you still have 30km of running and a 16km hike ahead of you, and there are no shortcuts; no quick way to cover that distance, and so I just tried to stay excited, try and block out the pain and just get to the finish line, and it wasn’t until I crossed the finish line that I thought, “I’ve actually won this.”
I said to my partner on the last climb who was pacing me, “I’m never going to run again. What is going to top winning Badwater?”
So what encourages you to keep running? Why do you run?
I get up in the morning with my partner and we run together. You know you’ve got girls you go out and shop with, or you go out for dinner. Most of my girlfriends run. So we will go out and go for a run, and that’s how we socialise. I’ve met so many amazing people and gone to so many amazing places that I would never have gone to if it wasn’t for my running. So for those reasons I think it’s pretty special.