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Interview with Genis Pieterse

14-Apr-14

Your experience of ultra running

Q. How long have you been doing ultras?
A. In 2011 I started to exclusively run ultra-distance trails, with the majority of these being multi-stage events like the Marathon des Sables or Kalahari Augrabies.

I am really committed to trail running and to ensure that my training remain realistic only training off-road. Although I really love ultra-distance trail running, I feel passionate about multi-stage events and even more so when they are self-supported. 

Q. How did you first get started doing ultras?
A. I have never been a fast runner, even in my late teens, and early twenties I preferred the longer endurance distances to shorter sprints. So when I returned to running in my early forties after nearly six year of inactivity due to a persistent injury, I decided to only do what I like.

I was looking for more than just running. I was looking for adventure and a real challenge. It had to be something that got me out of my comfort zone, which I had to commit too wholeheartedly, and through which I can really get a sense of fulfilment and achievement, and for me that was ultra-trail running.

Q. What motivated you to start running?
A. I have always loved running, but having reached forty, and having been inactive for just more than half a decade, I needed to get fit, healthy and lighter. Running was, for me, the most obvious avenue through which to achieve all of these.

Q. When did you do your first ultra-race?
A. About ten months after I started running again, in 2012, I entered the City to City, a 50km road race between Johannesburg and Pretoria in South Africa. I didn’t actually enter the race for the race, but rather as a training run which I used to test my loaded backpack. This was a month before the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon, a spin-off race from the Marathon des Sables, with similar format run in the Kalahari Desert. I must have been the only person there with an eight kilogram pack. I loved the challenge the distance presented but made a final decision during that race that road running was not for me, and from then on I was totally hooked on trail running.

Q. Why do you keep running ultras?
A. I think that it aligns to my personality; the challenge both physical and mental is what keeps me going. I love to get to that point where logic dictates that it either impossible to do, or impossible to continue, and then to be able to reach beyond logic.

It’s something spiritual, not in a religious sense, but in a human victory sense. It says something for me about who I am, and how, I am not limited by how I feel or what I see, but only by what I decide.

Top tips for running

Q. What are the essential ingredients to being successful in ultras?
A. I think it is consistency, discipline and commitment. An ultra-distance event, whether it is a single stage, multi-stage or self-supported multi-stage, on-road or on trails, you need to apply a great deal of discipline in preparation and during the race. Without the ability to take charge of your mind and to be extremely disciplined in your actions the distance on its own becomes an impossibility.

But that is just one element and it is predominantly mental, on the other side of this coin, consistency is key. You have to train consistently, unlike marathon, half-marathon and shorter distances where seasonal rest is common, ultra-distances don’t afford you that luxury.

The final element, in my view is commitment. To participate in ultra-distances requires a great deal more commitment, and if you have aspirations to run in the top 3 or 10 of the field even more so.

Q. What tips would you give to someone doing their first ultra?
A. Forget about the distance, it is after all just a number which your mind really has no means of contextualising, so just get out there and do what you like. It is sort of like a Forrest Gump type of scenario, get up and run and continue to run, until you get to that place where you have reached the end. It’s only when you free yourself from the numbers thing that you get to enjoy it.

I am a very technical person, and break everything down to a mathematical formula, and from a survival perspective it’s great, but, I always force myself to take in the experience, I savour it and only when you get to that point does it become enjoyable.

Q. What type of kit do you feel is essential for an ultra?
A. Buy, not the “best” shoes, or the most highly rated shoes or even the shoes with the most awards assigned to them, but buy a shoe that works for you. I feel that, besides a strong mind, and a great sense of humour, the most important thing you can have is a really great pair of shoes that work for you.

Q. What is the one thing you never travel without?
A. As an ultra-trail runner it is my first-aid kit and water. The latter would be as important if I was doing road-running, but the former would not be required. However, trails present you with some challenges, surprises and if you don’t concentrate are going to hurt you for that, so the first-aid kit goes everywhere. 

The good times running

Q. What is your proudest achievement to date?
A. Completing the Addo Elephant 76km single-stage trail with my wife a month-ago. She was just amazing. Two years ago she had not run a distance further than 10kms, but wanted to experience all the wonderful things that you get from running ultra-trails. It was hard work, pain, two major injuries and commitment that saw her stand on that start line, and to experience this wonderful achievement with her 76kms later was just amazing.

Q. What has been your favourite ultra to date?
A. This is an unfair question, I love them all, but I do have a special love for desert races, and amongst those the Marathon des Sable ranks right up there. I recall having a chat with Rory Coleman after the 2013 Marathon des Sables while we sat at the hotel and he said something that is very true: “the MdS doesn’t have to be the toughest (and it definitely ranks among the toughest up there), it only has to be the best” and that it what it is.  

Q. Which type of ultras do you like best?
A. As I have said, multi-stage self-supported desert races are my absolute favourite. There is just something about the combination of difficult terrain, distance, extreme environment and your own ability to manage yourself through all of that.

The rough times running

Q. What has been the most challenging ultra to date for you?
A. Those in which I didn’t manage myself particularly well. It doesn’t happen often, but a man is a man and sometimes the mix of testosterone and adrenaline makes us do stupid things like starting to fast, or running to hard, or something that we really know we shouldn’t be doing. And that is what happened during the long-stage (76km’s) of the 2012 Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon.

I got to 50km’s and didn’t eat anything, thinking that the next CP at 60km’s is just around the corner and I am feeling very strong at that moment. So I pushed on into the night and crushed at around 53km’s. The remaining 23kms took nearly 6-hours to complete and was pure hell. The depletion made moving painful, mentally I really had to dig deep, especially when I became hypothermic during the night, but that is what it is all about. If we want the rewards we have to pay the price.

I said it in an article before: “if the possibility of failure is not continuously present then the victory is devoid of meaning”.

Q. What aspect of ultra-running is the hardest for you?
A. Travelling to and from the event, the really great races are spread across the globe and it takes more time for me to get to them and back home, then I actually spend participating. As races goes, my love for ultra-distances don’t consider individual aspects as difficult or hard. That said, I still get nervous before the start and if it’s a multi stage, that long-run, after you have already spent 100 plus kilometres on your feet gets me really anxious. So I think we can say it’s the mental aspect that is the hardest, getting focused, staying focused, and keeping your mind positive at all times. Its always a battle.

Salvation Time

Q. Who or what has been your biggest help in doing ultras?
A. The support of my family, which is the biggest help any ultra-runner can get. When we tell people we are going for a long run, we really mean a loooooong run. I am more fortunate than most, my wife started, liked it and now she is hooked. The wonderful thing of having a partner doing ultras with you is that you really get to spend lots and lots of quality time together.

I must be honest, I have the best life. To be able to do something you love with the person you love is just the greatest thing that can happen to a person.  

Q. Have you made any significant sacrifices to complete ultras?
A. Absolutely, firstly the type of ultras I chose to participate in isn’t cheap, neither is the gear so there are financial sacrifices, but I don’t mind. Other sacrifices are more personal like diet, committing time to train. The time must come from somewhere so it’s tricky and sacrifices have to be made.

Learning

Q. What have you learned by doing ultras?
A. That I am able to get through anything, the human mind and will (or spirit as some might prefer to call it) has an incomprehensible capacity to triumph. Every time I am out there I meet amazing people that push those barriers just a little further.

I had the opportunity to follow Roddy Riddle, his build-up to the 2013 MdS and then watched him run with Type 1 Diabetes and complete the race. I regularly meet depression sufferers that go out there and fight an amazing battle from sun rise to sunset, yet they don’t give up. Great people, blind runners like a fellow 2013 MdS runner, or the blind French runner I met at the Kalahari Augrabies last year. 

There is not a day out there that I don’t come across amazing people and those amazing people are more often normal people like you and me. My tent mates at the 2013 MdS, eight strangers whose lives become entwined through an event and a bond of dependency and giving is formed within minutes, normal people with great hearts, this is what I have learned through experience doing ultra-endurance races. 

Q. How do you feel ultras have changed you and your life?
A. I have become more relaxed, the running in both training and racing reduces stress levels and that is great. The discipline of training also forces you to make better, healthier, nutrition choices, so running ultras have really changed my life for the better.

Q. Any helpful sayings or beliefs that have helped your running?
A. I have a strong belief in that your mind can be your strongest ally or your worst enemy, so I guard constantly against allowing my mind to slip or dwell on the pain, tiredness or the really difficult stuff. I always force my mind to look for the small victories, the beauty and the wonderful rewards nature can give us after we worked really hard.

Q. How do you get motivated to do the training?
A. I am pretty disciplined, and have been for most of my life so getting up to train, or to remain motivated to train is not that difficult. I do, however, love the grind, by Nike. It encapsulates what, and why we are doing what we are doing, so well that I watch it regularly. I believe that if you find what you love the motivation comes all by itself.

Training and preparation

Q. How do you train for an ultra?
A. I train all year but my training goes through the following stages of four months each, so I have three of these cycles every year. I do try and time the cycles to a specific race.

Each cycle starts with some base training that focuses on core stamina, endurance and strength. I then move into an endurance training phase that focuses on building endurance. Lots of hill work that are effort based with technical terrain. The more difficult the better, speed is not important at this stage but balance, and strength is.

I then follow it up with some stamina training, lots of intervals and here speed is a little more important, but I adjust my pace to my race objectives.

The last phase is a short, pre-race taper and a little rest the week before the race. In that last taper week I don’t really train but I do make a point of walking 2-3km’s per day to prevent my muscles from becoming too tight. I also try and treat myself at the beginning of this stage by going for a sport massage.

As I have said before, consistency is far more important than anything else.

Q.  does your training differ for each type of ultra?
A. Because I do multi-stages, and in specific, self-supported desert events, my training remains very consistent throughout the year. I will often do a single stage ultra-trail run as my long run and see this as training, so I won’t amend my training for that race. I have also learned that you can prepare only so much, where I live in South Africa the heat helps to prepare me for desert conditions, as does the rugged terrain I train on, but I have no sand dunes or dry river beds to train in.

I remember landing on Heathrow on my way to the MdS in 2013, and while I stood on the airport light snow was falling. I thought to myself, how did my fellow UK runners prepare for the Sahara, yet they did absolutely great. So the best advice I can give is train, do what you can when you can but just train. Walking is better than sitting, so from that perspective anything is better than nothing.

I also believe that a training program is a guide and must be, within broad parameters, liquid.

Future

Q. What race are you doing next?
A. Three major events are on the horizon. The first is not an official race, but a personal challenge. If all goes well with sponsors, and in specific with securing a media partner for exposure, I will be the first person to run across the Mojave Desert in June 2014. If we are unable to secure partners on short notice, this expedition run will be moved to next year.

The second is the Namibian Desert Challenge in July 2014, which concludes my African desert list. It is the only major desert on the African continent that I have not yet ran. But more importantly it will be my wife’s first multi-stage 220km run and I am more excited about that. The last one is dependent on how well she deals with a multi-stage, but for now the Kalahari Augrabies Extreme Marathon in November 2014, is planned for.

 

Q. What do you hope to achieve with your ultra-running in the future?
A.
I am redirecting my efforts more towards ultra-expedition’s, doing what has never been done before. Crossing deserts, running over mountains, and then combining ultra-running with other adventure activities like climbing, canoeing etc. My aim is to expand my ultra-endurance activities into a multi discipline ultra-endurance expedition format.

Q. What would be your dream ultra-event?
A. A dream event would be any event where my physical and mental abilities are tested to the limit, and a little beyond. But there must also be a reward at the end of the hard work. That is why I love ultra-trail running; you work hard, but are rewarded with nature’s beauty so it makes the hard work and effort worth it. A dream race would get the combination of the following three elements just right. (1) Great physical and mental effort, (2) great natural rewards and (3) pushes me just past my comfort zone, a stretch assignment of sorts.

Existing events that falls within this definition includes the Marathon des Sables, the Kalahari Augrabies, 6633 Ultra, the Addo run, Ocean Floor race, the Spine, to name only a few.

 

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