Our writer goes from champion powerlifter to ultra-distance runner in a wild race held in place labelled the cradle of ‘sky running’.
The village of Courmayeur at the foot of Mont Blanc looks like it’s come straight out of a fairy tale – the good type, when the Brothers Grimm were on their meds – but it was also a little intimidating. It wasn’t just the towering mountains that blocked every horizon, it was the other runners who had come to the cradle of ‘sky running’ – trail ultramarathons at altitude – for the Tor Des Geants. The vast bulk were grizzled Europeans who had mucked about running, climbing, skiing mountains for so long that they looked like they were carved out of rock. I felt like I didn’t belong, but then I remembered I felt that way my first time at a national powerlifting comp – me, who was a 51kg uni student who disappeared if I turned side-on. So on the back of my hand I wrote a reminder: “YOU TRAINED FOR THIS.”
A few years back, I hobbled home from the Commonwealth Powerlifting Championships with a gold medal in my pocket and a Commonwealth open bench press record in my name. Mission accomplished – but hamstring tendons torn.
The hamstring troubles began at least a couple months beforehand, but it had been hard to tell ‘standard’ five-day-a-week strength training soreness from an injury that creeps up like a ghost – a ghost I didn’t want to believe was real.
Seven months of different treatments brought little improvement and I became more depressed. Would my legs would ever heal? Then one day it hit me – I could live without ever doing another squat or deadlift in my life, but I needed to be able to run again. As often occurs in life, when someone is taken away from you, that’s when you want it the most.
To tell the truth, I was bored with powerlifting. I had travelled across the world just to lift the standard set of weights on a standard platform in some room or other. Running was different. Running can take you places that there is no other way to access – deep forest, remote beaches, from the tops of mountains to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. There was a whole world outside the weights rooms still to explore.
A course of PRP (platelet-rich plasma) injections eventually helped my hamstrings heal and I could run again – but strength is addictive, especially if you’re a small guy. I couldn’t get taller and I struggled to get bigger, but it felt good to outlift most guys in any gym.
I ran, but I made a return to powerlifting, just to prove that I could. I competed in Strongman, then trained to run from the top of the Grand Canyon to the bottom and back up with my wife. Then it was back to Strongman, then a tough 100km bush trail race, and back to Strongman once more.
Each time I tipped the balance back between strength and fitness/endurance, I feel like I managed to hold a little bit more of both. There’s a tipping point where your body flips over to an adaptation for one activity extreme over the other. It happens in the brain as much as in the muscles. Lifting for maximum strength requires you to focus all your energy and all your body tension into just seconds. You turn on and tense up with everything you have. In long distance trail running, you need to be relaxed, work on rhythm, and hold just enough intensity and attention to your surroundings and technique as you need so that you can hold it for hours at a time. Then there’s the sheer mental strength to push the body – just like the muscles, the brain gets conditioned to one extreme over another, whether that’s lifting a couple hundred kilos, running up a steep hill as fast you can with a pack for 2-3 minutes, or running in the bush for 10 hours.
That’s my BHAG
I discovered my big hairy audacious goal when I saw a video of the Tor Des Geants, a trail running race through Italy’s Valle D’Aosta, wedged up against France and Switzerland. The 339km course goes through ancient villages, forests and across 25 mountain passes over 2000m high, all in the shadows of the ‘Four Giants’ – Mont Blanc, Gran Paradiso, Monte Rosa and the Matterhorn. The single-stage race is often named one of the world’s toughest ultramarathons. Only 50-60% of competitors ever complete the race, which has 31,000m of elevation gain (850m every 10km!) and knee-killing descents. Runners average less than two hours sleep a day, and most withdrawals occur because of injury, illness (usually stomach or altitude sickness) or failing to meet cut-off times along the course.
I believe everything you experience in life, good or bad, is preparation for something, so I tried to focus on all the ways my powerlifting was an advantage, rather than my lack of running experience. Each requires meticulous planning, both for the event itself and how to build step by tiny step to what at first looks like a batcrap crazy goal. Operating at either extreme of the energy spectrum, both sports demand scrupulous body management – even niggles can become disastrous. The two sports demand a mental strength that pushes you through physical barriers. The big difference was in the training volume and the eating. Powerlifting is all about quality, for ultras it’s quantity. In powerlifting you recover to train. For ultras, you train to need less recovery from more volume. It’s a knife edge – and that knife is often caked in peanut butter and pizza. And cake.
The Strength to Run
Fortunately, I’d chosen an event where strength was a real advantage. Leg strength powers you up the ascents, but the strain on the quads coming down is enormous, too – the race has a notorious 2500m descent over more than 30km, and the bottom is littered with blown knee ligaments. Then there’s the upper body strength to carry a 7kg backpack and use hiking poles to climb, and the core strength to do all that on uneven terrain for some 20 a day.
My goal was to hold 85-90% of my maximum strength for as long as I could. It sounds a lot tell a powerlifter he’ll lose 25kg off his squat and he’ll act like the horseman of the apocalypse are at his door. Plus I’d always been a hard gainer, so even if losing another 3-4kg was guaranteed to cut hours off my time, it still wasn’t worth it to me.
The key was to put the ego away and do what I needed, not what I wanted. The first phase of training, I lifted heavy twice a week, but for faster reps in sets of 3-5 with weights that I could do for 5-8 reps. Conventional deadlifts gave way to sumo deadlifts because they worked the stabilising muscles of my inner thighs more and strained the lower back less. In the second phase, the workout time came down to 45 minutes plus core and agility work. I trained more like a bodybuilder to hold muscle weight. That meant short rest times, super-sets, slow negatives. In the final three months, resistance training came through agility work and circuit training.
In the end, training on and around inner Sydney was never going to be quite like time on 3000m+ mountains. It was like trying to simulate sex or death or Beethoven’s 7th Symphony with bike horns – never quite like the real thing. But I had a plan.
Build a base
Starting from no running, I began with 5km at a time, every second day for a week, creeping up the distance over four weeks. The runner in me had to put the ego away, too – every runner and his dog wants to tell you his or her total kilometres per week, but it’s almost irrelevant, especially training for trails.
On the toughest terrain of the Tor, speeds can drop to 2km/h or less, but when the going gets better, you need to be fast enough create a ‘time buffer’ – that is, be far enough ahead of the cut-off times to allow for managing illness, injury or fatigue, or just to beat a snowstorm to shelter. Training faster also simulates the ear-thumping high heart rate that comes with climbing in thinner air at altitude. My speed sessions varied between 7-15km runs or 400-800m repeats on light trails.
There’s a lot of rock-hopping, including at night, and punishing downhills. Gym prep for this included jumping rope and box jumps one leg at a time, lining up four beer kegs and jumping them one after the other, and running and climbing over rocks and boulders of the foreshore at low tide.
Get mountain fit
A weekday running session would be series of long hills (2-7 minutes each) for 60–120 minutes – then downhill as fast as possible without crashing. Running barefoot in soft sand worked the hamstrings, ankles and core more than a solid surface, plus the energy expenditure was greater than on stable ground.
Do long circuit training
To an extent, fitness is fitness – it’s transferable from one activity to another. So as a break from running, I would do circuits with long intervals (2-3 minutes) consecutively over 60-90 minutes. Typical stations included jumping rope, doing high box step-ups with dumbbells, cardio rowing, fast walk on treadmill at 12-15% following by running at 4%, walking or lunging carrying a barbell overhead, beer keg jumps, boxing rounds, and ‘poling’ – imitating the action with hiking poles with two handles attached to cables.
Long runs began on the road, more for the mental challenge and confidence gained by getting 50-60km under the belt. They then moved off-road to foreshore tracks and light bush for four hours at a time, progressing to increasingly gnarly and steep bush trails that peaked at 90km (13 hours). The aim was to run these at a pace that let me recover and return to normal training a couple days later
I needed to build resilience so I could back up day after day. The first step was to train 5-6 days in a row alternating training types, but as the long runs became all-day affairs, I would have a day rest before and after. A key test of my performance and recovery was four consecutive days of 20km on a hilly course. Pre-race, training peaked with three back-to-back sessions in Blue Mountains bush between a Friday night and Sunday morning.
Prepare for rare air
I went to an altitude training gym with a 6kg backpack, setting the altitude simulation to 500m more than the highest altitude of the Tor. Starting six weeks out from the race, I did 10 sessions, starting with weekly sessions of fast treadmill walking on incline for an hour, then alternating this with 400m runs, then finally doing longer sessions closer together at a steady pace.
Among the Giants
Over the first climb – 1300m in 8km – I could see that I had good speed going up, and I continued to overtake other runners on the ascents. Crucially, I hit the best possible scenario for my first 24 hours – 70km covered, even fitting in two naps.
I went through snow and 30-degree heat in the same day. I passed through everything from 2000-year-old Roman roads and bridges to hairy maintain paths, sometimes using guideropes or climbing metal hooks up rock faces. I waded through powdery dirt above the treeline, climbed through boulder fields, slid down talus fields and tip-toed over rocks spiked like daggers.
The terrain was brutal on feet and legs. The major checkpoints where runners could get support, sleep and get medical support looked like war hospitals, but with better food, and alcohol. No-one had ever seen this many bandaged feet since 18th Century China.
I realised the biggest risks to my race were injury and sleep deprivation, so I was playing it safe. I took time to look after any niggles, my feet and muscle stiffness, and to help digestion and maximise calorie intake, I ate when I was stopped. I took naps twice a day – 30-60 minutes in daytime, around 90 minutes at night. I’d come too far not to finish or have this turn into a death march – I was going to savour this.
I achieved my ultimate goal – not just finishing in the top 30%, but being well enough to finish with a sprint through the main street. For me, it was proof that you don’t just have to be a weights dude or a long distance guy. We are what we train for. Strength or endurance? Hell, why not have both?
Dom runs Strength for Running training through Iron Grip Gym, North Sydney