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What it takes to be… An ultra runner

Posted On By Chip

GAME CHANGERS / ENDURANCE

All-day training, over 150 kays every week and “hellish” hill sessions are all too familiar for record-breaker Galen Reynolds

BY MF STAFF

With a five-day aggregate time of 37 hours, 48 minutes and 6 seconds – beating the previous best by just over 10 minutes – Galen Reynolds’ effort at this year’s Berghaus Dragon’s Back Race cemented his status as one of the world’s premier ultra-distance runners. Originally from Canada with an ice hockey background, Reynolds has transferred his athletic dexterity into his training regimens, including a mixture of dedication and an upbeat attitude to compete against the world’s best in long mountain ultras.

Reynolds began running with humble aspirations: struggling to run more than a kilometre without rest, he simply wanted to get fitter. His is a tale of perseverance paid off. In the past seven years, he has run some of the most iconic ultras on Earth, including the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) and Montane Tor des Geants.

Routine

• “Leading up to an ‘A’ race, I’m aiming for 20 to 25 hours of running a week,” explains Reynolds. “The first run of the day usually takes place early, around 6am, leaving me from noon onwards to catch up on work and hang out with my family. Depending on the state of chaos my work and family are in, I’ll pop out for an easy run or bike in the evening.

“I look forward to full-day training sessions in the mountains all year long. These adventures are seven or more hours, point-to-point with food and water partially sourced along the way.

It’s an excellent opportunity to batter the leg muscles, take notes of any kit improvements or alterations needed and have a semi-legit excuse for not checking in at work.”

Being in some truly spectacular landscapes and mountain villages, while experiencing continually changing terrain and gradients, seems to help Reynolds’ training kays and hours fly by.

“Stepping into remote mountain huts or refugios (mountain huts dotted throughout Patagonia) in my basic running gear usually gets a kick out of the patrons and makes for easy conversations over a local meal.” 

“I look forward to full-day training sessions in the mountains all year long. These adventures are seven or more hours, point-to-point with food and water partially sourced along the way.”

Mindset

But training for endurance events in the great outdoors is rarely so sociable – a factor that Reynolds works hard to mentally cope with. “Any form of repetitive efforts over the same terrain are always my toughest training sessions – even worse if they’re on roads. While they double as excellent mental training, I always hate doing them and procrastinate terribly on these days. When I first started training, the most noticeable sacrifice was not having a social life, but now that’s changed to time spent with my family, sleeping and work. Not only does it affect the amount of time spent with my kids and wife, but also the quality of that time.”

After a big race, Reynolds concedes that he struggles to mentally recover. “I’m terrible company for about a week afterwards – about as useful as an annoying and needy house plant. When training ramps up, trying to balance work and family usually ends up costing me much-needed sleep. I typically don’t get more than five hours.

“On a macro level, to recharge the batteries I take a long off-season and don’t run for about six weeks, and I’ll pop on the bike trainer to help with the jitters, but tune out from the running world and catch up with the rest of my life.”

And some unique challenges help him maintain motivation. “Last year I had a 209-day exercise streak,” reveals Reynolds, “which by itself had enough momentum to get me out the door. I’ll also scrap scheduled sessions occasionally and do something like hunt Strava Segments to get the excitement going again.”

Nutrition

While some athletes turn to supplements or functional foods, Reynolds’ recipe for success stems from simplicity. “I just drink a glass of water before heading out for a run,” he insists. “All of my morning runs under two hours are done without eating in hopes of becoming a better fat-burner. After the run, I’ll make sure to hydrate, but I don’t worry too much about food, and usually don’t have a choice as my kids are running amok.

“For longer efforts, I’ll fuel as if it were a race, occasionally trying out new supplements. The dinner the night before will be of solid carbs and protein while keeping vegetables to a minimum (high-fibre foods can spell disaster for runners’ stomachs), with a large breakfast of a bowl of oats, berries and peanut butter 90 minutes before the run.” 

Reynolds breaks the tape at this year’s 315km Dragon’s Back Race, one of the toughest mountain ultras in the world.

During those runs, he aims for 40-60g of carbs an hour after the first 60 minutes.

“After the long runs, I’ll typically have a meal, but I’m not rushing to get in the ‘30-minute window’. I don’t have cheat days; I have cheat weeks. Two months before a big race, I cut out all the junk and eat plainly: no desserts, alcohol, sugar or anything processed. It’s just a lot of sweet potatoes and salads. After the big race, I have zero self-control and eat entire tubs of ice cream and massive quantities of cake, chocolate, chips – no restrictions for a whole week. By the end, I feel so unwell that it’s easy to flip back to a healthier diet.” ■