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On Sunday 25 November, so as to prove to my my brother-in-law that he could complete the Standard Chartered Singapore Marathon 2012 with the amount of training he had done, I ended up running 42 kilometres instead of my initial target of 25 kilometres (click here to read my account). The night before, whilst looking for inspirational material for my brother-in-law on YouTube, I stumbled across a TEDx lecture given by Robin Davie on his training and participation in the Spartathlon (a 245.3km race that is run in less than 36 hours from Athens to Sparta to commemorate the route the messenger Pheidippides is said to have taken in 490 BC to ask the Spartan king Leonidas for reinforcements against the Persians), which proved highly motivating (and provides some fascinating insights into the motivations behind ultra-distance running):

Having completed 42km without proper hydration or any carbohydrate loading and with the feeling that I could have run longer brought back to mind a bet I had made as a teenager (or was it as a very young adult?) about going running round Lac Léman (the correct name for Lake Geneva) on my roller skates more than two decades ago. Even though my brother has never reminded me of this bout of bravado on my part (my excuse was that it was made not long after I had cycled from Geneva to Lausanne and back again), it has remained somewhere deep in the recesses of my memory as a challenge that I have never dared to tackle.

This prompted me to find out whether any races round Lake Léman had ever been staged. Initially, I only came across individual runs or runs as part of small groups of two or three runners that had taken place only a few years back. I kept at it, doggedly and patiently, using several newspaper archives, until finally I stumbled across a reference in Journal de Genève to a race that was run round the lake in August 1906 and which opposed a Frenchman to local runners whom he had challenged to compete against him in such an endeavour whilst he was in Geneva for a short stay. Apparently, three Genevese runners picked up the gauntlet and the race was won by one of them in twenty-six hours and thirty minutes, everybody else having dropped out, including the Frenchman!

Tour du Lac Léman à la course à pied en 1906

This does not mean that it was the very first such race round Lake Geneva; it is only the first occurrence that I have come across. For sure, people had walked round the lake before that (e.g. Napoléon Roussel, Mon tour du Lac Léman raconté à mes enfants, 1844) and, starting from 1884 onwards (but I do not know until when), a bicycle race, called tour du lac, would take cyclists round Lake Léman. Apparently, a few more races on foot were organised (departing from Eaux-Vives in Geneva) on an intermittent basis until the early 1930s, when the future General Guisan (who would command the Swiss army during WWII) decided to resurrect the whole concept as an international competition, but one run over 200km and departing from Lausanne. WWII brought an end to this race. In 1952, the race was resurrected once more and it seems to have lasted well into the second half of the seventies, but I have found no trace of such a competition from that time. However, the race would not be confined to history and, phoenix-like, it would rise from its ashes again.


Almost 110 years after the first instance of a race run round Lake Léman that I have uncovered in the digital archives of local newspapers, a new edition (or should I say its latest incarnation) has been scheduled for 14-15 September 2013 (departure from Vevey), thanks to a French runner based in Switzerland, Jean-Luc Ridet, who has run round Lake Léman twice as part of solo endeavours. The race is called ‘Ultratour Léman 2013‘.

The pedigrees of the runners who have put their name on the provisional registration list (Ultratour Léman 2013 being limited to 70 runners) are highly impressive with races such as Transe-Gaule, Marathon des Sables, Spartathlon and even Badwater (one of the toughest races on earth – watch this documentary on a female runner from New Zealand, Lisa Tamati, who took part in this race through Death Valley) appearing sometimes under the same name!

If I were to register, be accepted and take part in Ultratour Léman 2013, the issue for me would not be of competing against such experienced ultra-distance runners but simply of making it to the finish line. I still have until the end of December to pay the registration fee and thus make it into the registration list. So why have I not already done so; in other words, what is holding me back? I would say that it is mainly the fear of injury caused by over training (in particular, stress fractures or torn muscles – a colleague of mine in London has had to to switch to cycling after not having properly recovered from some torn buttock muscles he sustained from intensive running some time ago) and the time required to do the training properly (several hours a week). However, from the list of arguments in favour versus against I have drawn up, the balance seems to be tilted towards going for it (and my objective would be to complete these 175km under 20 hours):

The pros

  • Improved cardiovascular fitness
  • Muscle building (something I have not done since my mid-twenties; this will be necessary to prevent injury)
  • Weight loss (back to the kind I figure I had until my early-thirties, i.e. no more belly fat at all)
  • Better time management (I shall have to be extremely focused and organised, as at some point I shall be doing runs to Lausanne railway station in the mornings and then from Morges to Vennes in the evenings as part of my training)
  • Sense of achievement (to cross the finish line of this race would certainly be a memory I would cherish for a very long time)
  • Experiencing the ‘zone’ regularly (as part of a spiritual endeavour)
  • Travelling abroad (Seville?, Rome?, Prague?, Singapore?, etc) or in Switzerland (New year indoor marathon in Zurich?, 100km of the Biel running days?, 31km of Sierre-Zinal?, half-marathon of Aletsch?, 20km of Collon Trek?, etc) to run marathon or half-marathon races

The cons

  • Time consuming, so less time spent with my wife and family and little time left for other sports (snow shoeing in winter and mountain hiking in summer); in fact, little time left for any other pursuits (reading, cinema, exhibitions/museums, etc), I would assume
  • Costly (new pairs of running shoes and orthopaedic soles, food/fluid supplements, travel expenses and marathon registration fees)
  • Risk of injury

Probably, one of the determining factors to ‘go ultra’ in 2013 is that I have been really taken in by the idea that there is a spiritual dimension to ultra-distance running. I have also noticed that several top ultra-distance runners are either vegetarian (Yannis Kouros, probably this century’s as well as the last’s greatest ultra-distance runner, is described as being ‘virtually a vegetarian’ by Robin Harvie, Why we run) or vegan (Scott Jurek; this is well-known, see, for instance, his Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness). As important, Robin Harvie in his TEDx lecture on running the Spartathlon uses the phrases ‘religious experience’, ‘otherworldliness’, ‘state of grace’ to describe the point he had reached during the Spartathlon (about 15 minutes into his lecture Running to the Edge – TEDxHull)

This reminds me of the following excerpt from an article I have found on the same race by Balazs Koranyi, entitled ‘Run to Sparta and win — a drink of water‘ (published on the website of Reuters, 8 Oct 2007):

Ultramarathoners say running is as much a spiritual experience as a physical one and if there were money involved, it may upset that balance. ‘Ultra is a vehicle for me to go deep inside‘, said Jurek. ‘Some people use art, some people use music for soul searching. For me, ultra is that experience, something is driving me beyond mind and body‘. Some have compared the experience to being high on drugs and say ultramarathoning is as addictive.

Maybe it is simply what Matt Fitzgerald in his book Brain training for runners (pages 40-41) describes as the immersion of the self into the very act of running (akin to the concept of the ‘flow’ expounded by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) taken to a further level:

During more intense running, especially in fitter runners who are performing well, thoughts tend to become focused on the sensory experience of running, sometimes to the point where runners feel they have ‘become’ the act of running. Athletes in all sports, as well as musicians, video game players, surgeons, and others describe a similar experience when they are doing what they do best or most enjoy doing. The state of becoming what you’re doing is popularly referred to as being ‘in the zone’.

Lastly, I have found it very interesting to learn, again from Robin Harvie’s Why we run, a story of obsession (page 244), that ‘Kouros has much in common with the Japanese monks who live high up on Mount Hiei, in a monastery founded in 1787, and have defined marathon running as a path to spiritual enlightenment through the renunciation of the flesh’.

To return to more down-to-earth matters, I have ordered the following books (but have only received one so far) as my own Christmas presents: two in English and two in French. Three are training manuals, the fourth being a compendium of ultra-distance race descriptions. So I hope that by the end of this month (based on the information collected from these books), I shall have managed to put together a training schedule for next year and therefore registered for Ultratour Léman 2013. Even if this proved not to be the case, you should still expect to read more pages devoted to ultra running next year on this blog!

Books purchased on ultra-distance running December 2012