It’s mind over matter for extreme athletes

Samantha Gash. Picture: YouTube screenshot

Samantha Gash. Picture: YouTube screenshot

Published Jul 11, 2014


In the world of long-distance running there are the marathoners, ultramarathoners and the desert runners who trek for days through drought, wind, heat and cold with supplies strapped to their backs.

Fitness experts say for athletes grappling with these extremes, success is more a matter of can-do spirit than physical prowess.

“The people who finish are not the most physically fit but the ones who are mentally strong, those who don’t entertain the possibility of not finishing,” said ultra-marathoner Samantha Gash.

Gash, 29, was the first woman to complete the Four Deserts Grand Slam, an ultramarathon series where runners slog across four 250km courses in deserts in Chile, China, Egypt and Antarctica.

Organisers of the series, which was founded in 2002, said 28 people completed the Grand Slam.

A self-described “sucker for new experiences,” Gash, from Melbourne, Australia, is featured in the documentary Desert Runners, which chronicles the Four Deserts Grand Slam.

What extreme athletes shared, she said, was ambition and a willingness to step outside their comfort zone.

Despite holding down a full-time communications job, Gash is training for a 32-day race in September along South Africa’s Freedom Trail, to promote awareness of the lack of female hygiene products available to young girls in that part of the world.

“I’ll wake up at 3am, run 24km, do an hour strength training, run another 15km at night,” said Gash, who also does yoga.

Truly addictive is how Connecticut running coach Tom Holland describes the extreme experience.

Holland is a veteran of several ultramarathons, including the “Run to the Sun”, a 58km jaunt to the summit of the 3 033m summit of Haleakala on the island of Maui.

“Freud said humans seek pleasure and avoid pain. We seek pleasure through pain,” said Holland, author of The Marathon Method.

He has seen elite runners put treadmills in the sauna to prepare their bodies to run in the heat. But regardless of how bad you felt at the finish, he said, the confidence gained lasted long after the race and translated into all other aspects of your life. “In a bizarre way you find out who you are,” he said.

Gregory Chertok, a New Jersey trainer and psychology consultant for the American College of Sports Medicine, warned that going to extremes could be dangerous.

“Several ex-runners have commented on mourning the loss of running like a family member,” he said. “There comes a point where you must ask ‘who is really in control, the runner or the running?’ “

Chertok noted a study published in the peer-review journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings which found that the cardiovascular benefit of vigorous exercise built up over about one hour. Beyond that, further exertion produced diminishing and possibly adverse effects in some people, he said. – Reuters

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