Tell us more about yourself Derek, how and when you started to feel in love with ultra running and with sport in general?
I’m 58 years old, married and have 3 children. I have worked in financial services for over 40 years and ran my own advisory business for 21 years. I’ve loved sport all my life. As a kid I wanted to play tennis at Wimbledon but never had the talent required although I did become a professional coach running one of the Scottish National squads. In my mid 30s I took up karate which had been a boyhood dream as my hero was Bruce Lee. After 11 years I retired having reached 3rd Dan Black Belt and this is where the seeds were sown for ultra running.
I took up triathlon to keep fit and have a reason for learning to swim. 2 years later I did my first Ironman and that proved to me that “anything was possible”. I had read about the Marathon des Sables but thought you needed to be a top athlete with incredible endurance to survive in the Sahara Desert. My friends thought I was mad but it was all part of a plan to raise money for my favorite charity, Maggie’s Cancer Caring Centres.
What were the toughest races you’ve ever been?
Marathon des Sables was tough due to the extreme heat, max heat was 52 degrees, and the fine sand which got everywhere! I had 7 blisters on my feet in the first two days and had to manage the pain for the remainder of the race.
Grand 2 Grand is set in the Grand Canyon and is slightly longer than MdS and although not as hot, the altitude and the climbing made it challenging which in my opinion made it tougher than MdS.
The toughest race has to be the Tahoe 200, a continuous 205 mile race with 40,200 ft of climbing and 40,200 ft of descending. It’s a non-stop race and you have 100 hours to complete it. It takes place between 6,500 and 10,000 ft so altitude sickness can be a factor as was the snow! I managed to complete it in 85 hours which includes 7 hours of sleep.
The lack of sleep causes hallucinations after a couple of days and they can be hard to handle.
We can imagine that ultra means difficult moments during the races. How you manage to overpass them?
It helps if you have a WHY? The reason why you are putting yourself through this pain. You also need to be aware you are going to have dark moments where you question why you are doing this and possibly give up. But just take some time out. 5 or 10 minutes to reflect on why you are doing this and give yourself some praise for how far you have come to be in this race.
You should expect to be in pain – this is an ultra and it’s only natural to feel pain so when it comes, acknowledge it in your head and deal with it. During your training you will have had these moments so it’s not a knew experience.
It’s been said that pain is temporary but failure is forever. If you give up, unless for medical reasons, you’ll regret it very quickly and it will stay with you forever. Just keep moving forward no matter how slow. This feeling will pass and you need to keep a picture of the finish line in your head and focus on it.
From all the endurance experiences you’ve had so far, why multi stage? What makes these kind of races so special?
I love multi-stage races because it adds different challenges. You have to be self-supporting so you need to carry your own food and cook it. You’ll be sleeping with strangers and mentally this can be challenging as you are all tired and generally smell in a confined space. You have to learn to get on with them but on every occasion I have come out with lifetime friends – it’s the best part of the race. It’s also amazing how energized you feel after a nights sleep which means you can push yourself.
If you are to chose between 200 miles multi stage and 200 miles non-stop what’s gonna be?
Having done both I’d go with the multi-stage race for the reasons given above. You really do get the chance to meet like minded people, share food and stories round a campfire and that’s a special time.
The 200 non-stop race provides different challenges but the hallucinations and the risks of being exposed in the wild while “out of your head” is concerning. You also walk proportionately more, unless you’re a top athlete, and I prefer races where running is a large part of it although power walking is acceptable especially if there is altitude and heat.
What’s the mileage you often put into preparing a multi stage race?
I employ a coach and she delivers me to the start line in the best shape every time. The key is consistent running over a 9 month period including gym work and swimming. Back to back running is essential and nearer to the race that will involve 20/26 miles on a Saturday, repeat on a Sunday, 13 miles on a Monday with other running sessions during the week. These sessions should be different e.g. tempo run, slow heart rate recovery run, interval running. The max mileage for me, remember my age, would be 75 miles in a week.
What you must do is listen to your body. I get a sports massage every 2 weeks and am regularly at my sports therapist and chiropractor to either manage an injury or better still, avoid an injury.
Have you had a moment during a race when you were about to quit? What was you motivation to continue?
On the Tahoe 200 I had altitude sickness 24 miles into the race. As I came into the checkpoint I was rehearsing the reasons why I was quitting. My wife was at the aid station and she sat me down and took care of me. She ignored me saying I wanted to quit and a medic came over and told me to take some time out, eat plain food and re hydrate. After 15 minutes I felt better and left with the words in my ear “just get to the next check point” – good advice as the finish was 181 miles away!
If you don’t have a supporter with you, generally the marshals are amazing. Always encouraging and usually experienced runners themselves. They know what you are going through so talk to them and they will help you get through your dark moment.
Why Ultra Race Romania? What do you think sets this race apart from others?
I am so excited to be taking part in Ultra Romania. I like new adventures and obviously this is the first year the race has been run. I met Andrei in the Grand 2 Grand where he came 6th so I know we have an experienced multi-stage top class ultra runner involved in the design and running of the race. Not all races have this pedigree of organizer and I am sure it will be run with the athlete’s best interests in mind. He, and his team, will make sure the runners are well looked after and that the course is challenging, safe and that we have an amazing experience we won’t forget.
From the pictures I have seen the course looks amazing. I’ve never been to Romania before and the fact we will get to visit some of the wonderful sights will just add to the enjoyment of the race. Finally I love the fact that they are supporting a fantastic charity. It means we are really part of the community and making a difference through a sport we truly love.
When I started on this journey I never imagined it would lead me to ultra running around the world. I hope to be doing it into my 80s but appreciate I may have slowed down but I’ll still be moving forward and lapping everyone sitting on the couch!