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Essence of an ultra athlete

What’s the story? In this marathon, I accompanied our family friend Peter. His goal was to finish a nordic walking marathon within the time limit of 7:45, which is an unheard of feat. Why?
Peter, aged 68, used to be an excellent marathon runner – 2:22 personal best, to be exact. He used to train up to a sustained 190 miles per week (here’s one reason why we’re so goddamn slow …). And he ran his last marathon like 30 years ago.
Then what? Peter also used to be a heavy smoker. This is until 4.5 years ago, when he, prompted by severe pain in his legs at night, went to the doctor. The diagnosis: Smoker’s leg – or in medical terms “severe peripheral arterial occlusive disease”. Basically his main arteries into his legs were COMPLETELY blocked, with only one side artery providing a little blood. His diagnosis: amputation! You might wonder why, in this day and age, one can’t just put in a stent and be done. However, the issue is that over the long progression of this disease, very large amounts of blood vessels become so degenerated, that you just can’t put in enough stents. And even if you did a bypass, the issue is: bypass where to? His legs were a typical case heading towards amputation.
At this point, Peter could not walk even a few hundred yards without sitting down.
In his situation, there is one common course of the disease, without exception: people keep smoking, and get their leg amputated. It is also to note that this kind of disease is very painful, often making it impossible to sleep at night. Imagine your legs after a hard 100 – every night.
Peter, however, took action and attempted the impossible: he stopped smoking, and started an intense training program, walking as much as possible every day, and going to the gym as well, to try and improve the circulation in his legs. After about 2 years of excruciatingly intense training and 3000 km of walking, he was pain-free! The few secondary blood vessels had improved the blood supply, and new vessels had formed. His doctor was stomped.
Peter didn’t stop here – he set his goal to do a marathon, and to eventually be able to run again. After 2.5 more years, in his last checkup the doctor could not believe his eyes – he had never seen so much progress in building new blood vessels, and his leg had new life. As a matter of fact there are no documented cases of this ever happening, and Peter will be written up in a medical paper. What he did is a medical impossibility. Today Peter is walking far more every day than I run. Oh, and he also lost like 45 lbs as a little side project …
When he told me he would attempt to walk the Biel night marathon I said I would accompany him. His plan was pretty aggressive – he could sustain a pace of about 1 hour 45 minutes for 10km, which would allow him to finish in about 7:23. The longest he had walked however was 20km. His pace plan all in all was to finish with only 9 minutes to spare before the cut-off, relying on a mostly even split!
Walking with him was a lesson in both perseverance and humility for me. The night walking marathon is just a small discipline in the well attended (1300+ runners) Biel 100km race. Only 42 or so people started the night walk. From the very get-go, we ended up being the very last walkers (and people on the course), walking just before the “broom van” (besenwagen) – the sweeper. It was mentally quite hard for me not to run the 100k, and the reaction of some of the spectators was nothing short of humiliating and infuriating. I can sort of understand if kids or drunk people make stupid comments, but some of the snide remarks we got from regulars were just very upsetting. Fortunately we left the little town soon enough and walked before the sweeper van. The pace was a pretty stiff walk (I’ve also never used walking poles before, which was interesting). Despite the slow pace your feet and legs still hurt quite a bit, I have to say (actually my feet were worse than after Diablo 50k for sure!!!).
I pushed Peter a little ahead of his planned pace, which I think ended up being good because the course was about 500m long (according to both of our GPS watches, and it also felt that way) which, with 9 minutes to spare, is a very long distance! In the second half we started overtaking a few people (who ended up dropping missing the cut-off in the end). Sadly being the last people the aid stations started to shut down, and I could swear some were already closed when we passed – we didn’t even have enough to drink. At 12k left, I found we were running very tight, and I pushed Peter hard to his limits. At this point, he was suffering a lot. One may wonder why it is so hard to walk, but realize – there is only the fraction of the blood supply in his legs than in mine! In a great effort he managed to pull through and we finished just 1 minute past his original goal.
I have to say I am only full of admiration for Peter – in my view he is many times the ultra athlete that I am, and truly does what attracts me about ultras – to do the impossible. What an amazing accomplishment!

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