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Photo credit: Flashworks Media

Q&A with Mal Law

08-Jun-16

Last updated: 18-Sep-16

By Luke Jarmey

With the recent release of FIFTY – The Movie, the film chronicling your epic 2015 50 peaks in 50 days’ challenge, we quite literally grabbed the popcorn, sat down and indulged ourselves in 90 minutes of ultra running brilliance. Simply put, we thought it was a truly epic feat of endurance, intertwined with a strong emotional narrative which left us chomping at the bit to find out more about your background, your running vision and what makes you tick.

Watch the trailer here.

Q. Though it all got wrapped up last year, I just want to offer my congratulations on the High Five-0 Challenge! How are you feeling a year on and how much did you end up raising for The Mental Health Foundation of New Zealand?

A. We’re actually now more than a year on from the end of the High Five-0 and having taken the film on tour around New Zealand and used that to gather more funds, we have taken the total raised for the mental health foundation to $520,000NZ. So I now look back on the whole thing with great pride.

But how I feel all this time on… well that’s a real mixed bag as I’ve been really struggling to recover from the ordeal that I put my body through. So chronic fatigue was an issue that reared its ugly head last year, which took me a little while to fully appreciate what was going on and why I couldn’t get back to running the way I wanted to run and that is still an ongoing battle for me. But I feel I’m really starting to make progress with that and very confident that I’ll soon be back on the trail!

Q. Wow that is quite some ‘sum’! Ok we’ll come back to that, but before we delve into the nuts and bolts of the challenge, let’s first rewind back a tad. I take it you were raised in the UK with that accent, but you seem fully integrated into New Zealand. When and why did you move there?

A. So I first moved to New Zealand in 1987 at the grand old age of 26. I came here on a one year working holiday and ended up going for a long hike in the Nelson Lakes National Park and so began my love affair with the New Zealand outdoors. And that one year working stint has now turned into 30 years!

Q. …the landscape is quite clearly jaw dropping, but what’s the trail access like for running? And for overseas runners coming for a trail running holiday, what spots would you recommend?

A. Yea the landscape in New Zealand is jaw dropping! And the access for running is by and large, very good. There’s a lot of accessible trail and there’s also a lot of trail that takes you way into the back and beyond and into the wilderness, if you so wish. So I think the great thing for anyone heading over here for a running holiday is the sheer variety of the terrain in a fairly small space. We’ve got everything from coastal running, to running around lakes, running through mountains, running through pristine native bush, volcanic landscapes, arid almost desert like landscapes, high alpine peaks… we’ve got the lot!

So it’s very, very hard to nail down a spot that I would recommend to people. But what I would say, is that if anyone is thinking of coming to New Zealand, then by all means get in touch with me and my email address is mal@runningwildnz.com. More than happy to help people figure out great places to run!

Q. Thanks Mal, that’s really generous of you and I heartily advise anyone heading to New Zealand for some running to get in contact. There’s nothing like some golden nuggets of local knowledge. I would also ask what the running community is like, but from the film, it’s evidently fantastic! Is that same community feel prevalent at most races?

A. Yea I think it’s an international thing that trail runners are great people hey, there’s just a spirit of comradery, a lack of ego, it’s a very community minded tribe of people, who are out there to look out for one another. And that’s very much the case here in New Zealand, as it is seemingly anywhere in the world. And for sure that community feel is prevalent at all the trail races in the country. A lot of them still retain a very old school feel, there is a bit more commercial sponsorship creeping in to events and we get more and more sponsored athletes turning up. But it doesn’t seem to have eroded the egalitarian spirit of the sport here in New Zealand.

Q. Great stuff, so taking a further look at your background with some of those classically generic but actually quite interesting questions; what inspired you to first take up ultra running?

A. Well I actually only took up what I thought of as long distance running, I don’t think I even knew the term Ultra Running existed, in my late forties when I decided to take on the first of my big charity fundraising challenges, which was running seven of our great walks back to back over seven days. This basically required the equivalent of nine mountain marathons over those seven days. So I was already in my late forties by the time I took it up and yea I took it up just simply, as I was looking for another challenge after many years of doing other kinds of endurance sport. I’d done some long distance mountain bike racing, a whole pile of multisport and adventure racing and I think more and more I was looking for the pure simplicity of running. There’s just that ability to slip on your shoes and sneak out the back door and off you go, without the need for lots and lots extra gear, equipment and support crew, which is the disadvantage of adventure racing.

Q. What was your first race? Your best result? And to date, for “over all experience”, what’s your favourite race? We’re a race listing site by trade, so we have quite the penchant for these details!

A. My first race, oh blimey, if we’re talking about ‘ultra runs’, actually my first official ultra race, was the last day of the 7 in 7 challenge, when I took on the Kepler Challenge 60km mountain run on the last day of that feat. Needless to say I wasn’t in full on race mode, I was a pretty slow back of the pack runner. But that was my first official ultra.

My best result, hhmmmm, probably a couple of top five placings in my age group, the old farts age group obviously! At, what was the North Face 100 in the blue mountains of Australia, now the Ultra Trail Australia. Yea so they’re probably my best results, and also one year I sneaked under the 14 hours to get a silver buckle.

My favourite race, probably… I’ll give you two races here, one is not officially an ultra, it’s a very tough mountain marathon and that’s the Shotover Moonlight Mountain Marathon near Queenstown, which happens every February. Just myself and one guy are the only people to have started every one of those so far! And my favourite ultra race in New Zealand, I think would have to be the Old Ghost Ultra, which started just this year and is an 85km run on a newly made trail on the West Coast of the South Island. Absolutely spectacular, with an amazing story behind it!

Q. You’re a man who collects extreme endurance challenges like stamps, so before we start sinking into the High Five-0, can you give us a brief overview of your two 7in7 Challenges and 1014km South West Coast Path run?

A. So the 7in7 Challenges were both done for the Leukaemia and Blood Foundation, as I lost my brother to leukaemia. They both basically involved running the equivalent of nine mountain marathons in seven days, huge undertakings and at the time for me, really pushing me beyond what was then my comfort zone. And between them, we raised over $260,000NZ for the cause. The first adventure I took on for the mental health foundation, was taking on the South West Coast Path. The UK’s longest trail, which I’m gobsmacked to read that Damian Hall (@Damo_Hall) just ran in 10 days and something hours! This blows me away, because back in 2012, when I did it, I established the then fastest known time of 16 days and whatever it was hours. So just ridiculous to think! But I learnt a lot on that one, from truly epic adventures and I carry all those learnings forward when we started planning the High Five-0.

Q. Incredible. We’ll be here all day if I ask you anymore about those. But for readers whose interest has rightly been piqued by this, check out Mal’s book on the Seven New Zealand Great Walks in seven days challenge; One Step Beyond. So moving onto the main event, what sparked the idea for the High Five-0? And how long did it take to go from concept to start line?

A. I think the idea for the High Five-0 challenge really just evolved over many years. Basically I’ve got a lifelong love affair with mountains and peak bagging, as well as trail running. And I think the initial idea was, back in my forties, I thought that possibly I could have a go at doing 50 peaks in 50 days for my 50th birthday! But I got quite a number of years past that, without that happening! And by this time I’d already fallen in love with long distance trail running and this whole idea of multi day adventures for charity. So it all came together, 50 just seemed like a suitably audacious, ludicrous number to put on the challenge,  a nice round number! So that’s pretty much how it evolved.

Having developed the concept of trying to do these runs all around NZ, from concept to start line was pretty much two years of flat out work and for the last six months of that, my wife was also very heavily involved in the planning and bringing together of all the logistics. So it was a humongous organisational affair to bring it all together!

Q. Whether we like to admit it or not, most of us ultra runners have a certain inner geek in us. Stats are like candy, so please throw some our way. What was the cumulative distance and ascent? What were the longest horizontal and vertical days and were these physically the hardest?

A. Yea I know what you mean about the inner geek! I’m one of those for sure! Longest horizontal day was over 50km and that was a day very late in the challenge, day 44. And that was when we had to run 48km just to the base of the mountain, which was the peak for the day and then we had to do this long horrible, hot climb up that peak. So that was one of my least favourite days!

Most vertical in a day was 3000m, so around 1000ft. So that was very early on in the challenge, day two. And no they weren’t physically the hardest days, the hardest days physically were early on, when I was suffering badly with my knee injury.

And cumulative distance was 1,659km and cumulative vertical gain was 82,000m.

Q. …any other random statistical nuggets from the challenge?

A. Calories burnt were approx. 300,000 and distance travelled by each support vehicle was 12,000kms.

Q. What really struck a cord with me in the movie, was the raw portrayal of emotion. The challenge undoubtedly meant so much to you, and it seemed not just for the competitive drive to finish what you set out to do, but also to honour the reason behind it all and the people who had backed you. For readers who haven’t seen the film, can you tell us about The Mental Health Foundation and your connection to it?

A. My connection with The Mental Health Foundation and my desire to raise funds for them and to promote good messages around mental wellbeing stems from the fact that I myself have had periods of depression. I know how much getting into the outdoors and in particular running and wild places helps that. So very keen to get people to appreciate the link between those two things and to use the outdoors as free therapy.

But also 20 years ago I lost my brother in law, who took his own life and unfortunately I was the guy that found him. So you know it’s long been an ambition of mine to get involved in the charity and do what I could to raise funds. Mental Health Foundation themselves aren’t the ambulance at the bottom of the cliff, they’re very much trying to build fences around the top of the cliff and keep people back from the edge. They do a lot of great work for a lot of programmes to promote mental well-being and enable people to understand how to live with better mental well-being. So they do great work and I’m a huge ambassador and fan of them.

Q. Its quite clear your knee took an absolute battering during the running. What actually happened to it? How did you manage it for the rest of the challenge? And how did it recover afterwards?

A. Yea the problem with my knee came about not through any particular trauma, not even so much through overuse I don’t think. But it turned out to be a trapped peroneal nerve and I put it down to the fact that I wasn’t doing enough stretching late in my taper, travelling to the start of the challenge and in the early days of the challenge. So a whole pile of angry, knotted muscle started tweaking on the nerve and got to a point where it was absolutely excruciating. So over the course of about 10 days I was running as much as I could but then getting one or two sessions a day with various health experts who I managed to beg treatment off along the way. And ultimately I think it was a combination of some good deep tissue massage and some dry needling that caused the muscles to release and after two weeks of suffering with it, it came right and I was able to run with it again. And it wasn’t an issue for the rest of the challenge. I just kept well on top of giving myself massages whilst we were travelling and getting on the foam role religiously every night; giving the ITB band and quads a good work out.

Q. A consistent high endurance output like that for 50 days, would have taken quite a toll on the rest of your body. What did your nutrition plan look like? And do you have any special ‘tips n tricks’ to help aid recovery on the go? (Multi-day racers take note!)

A. Yea my nutrition plan was basically just load in as many calories as I could with whatever took my fancy at the time. I was not using a lot in the way of sports supplements, the only go to sports supplement that I use was Hammer Perpetuem on the trail and Hammer Recoverite to help with recovery. I think I took two gels during the entire 50 days and so my plan was always to make use of real food and as much of it as I could. I basically found the more I went into the challenge, the more I was relying on fat and protein. My body was craving it! I was carrying sausage sandwiches, bacon and egg sandwiches, you name it, on the trail. Going at a low intensity the real food stayed down and again for recovery it was really a question of my Recoverite protein smoothie, bacon/avocado/lettuce/tomato sandwich… all that as quickly as possible at the end of the run! And then a very good home cooked meal, no fancy tricks, just good home cooked food.

Q. Give us a little insight into how you trained for it?

A. Well the training took two years and for the first year that I trained, I basically set myself a goal of running every day. A minimum of 5km every day and 95% of it on trail. And the idea behind that was basically to get myself accustomed, both physically and mentally to the idea of getting up and feeling a bit tired and having to run anyway. So I clocked up in excess of 5000km and somewhere around 175,000m of vertical. And then during the second year I concentrated much more on the vertical element, getting myself really, really hill fit and during the course of the year, clocked up basically the equivalent of an Everest from Sea Level every fortnight. I think in total I clocked up 260,000m of climb during the year.

Q. Aside from raising $514,125 NZD (!) what were the high and low points of the High Five-0?

A. The low points of the challenge came with the injury to my knee and the pain that put me through. That really took away a lot of the joy for a couple of weeks. And also the unexpected death in a helicopter crash of a very good friend of mine that happened during the challenge. Someone who was supposed to run with me a few days later and yea his death came at just about the physical low point of the challenge as well when I was suffering badly from the knee. So two weeks in, day 13 that all came to a head and I very nearly didn’t get out of bed to carry on; but I did.

The high point; many many high points, many many very memorable days spent with very special, wonderful people. But I don’t think anything can take away from the sheer exhilaration of seeing about 250 people lined up making a human arch for me to run through at the finish line on the last day. That day was an unofficial trail marathon, in Hauraki Gulf near Auckland. And that was a pretty momentous finish and very, very tearful experience!

Q. Finally, looking forwards. What’s next for Mal Law?

A. As for what’s next, yup that’s a plan to run around Wales next year with a good friend of mine. So we’re going use the new Wales coastal path, and the Offa’s Dyke track to a complete circumnavigation on trail, which is about 1,700km.

It’s called Chasing The Dragon (Facebook page).

Many thanks Mal.
Run Well!

 

Photo Credits: Flashworks Media & Rob Howard

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