Words & Interview: Alex Melling
Time to talk endurance cycling. In this two part interview with Ian Walker we see how he made the change from endurance running to endurance cycling. We talked about the competitions he has entered from the world-renowned Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc and how that experience prepared him for the Transcontinental Race. We also find out how he is doing in the preparation for the North Cape 4000 race and what his future challenges will be.
How did you first get involved with endurance sport?
I stumbled across the Long-Distance Walkers’ Association and became aware that their big annual event is a 100-mile walk. Now, at that time, I was pretty much Johnny Couch-Potato. I basically did no real exercise at all, other than the occasional day hike or short bike ride. Over time, the discovery that there was such a thing as hundred-mile walking gnawed away at me. It seemed utterly impossible to walk all day, and all night, and then to keep walking as the sun came up and crossed the sky a second time… Ridiculous! But at the same time, the thought of being able to say I had done such a feat seemed amazing – it was so far beyond anyone I knew, and I wanted that.
“I had no choice but to throw myself
in at the deep end.”
The following year, in 2013, I got into the LDWA Hundred and somehow made it round, although not before doing astonishing damage to my legs and feet. The last 15 miles I was literally hobbling at about 1 mile per hour and it was pure willpower that kept me moving. I can still make myself cry on demand by picturing how it felt to walk into that school hall at the finish. ...And then I forgot all about it.
I kind of went back to my everyday life and stopped doing long walks. Until 6 months later, out of the blue and on the verge of my fortieth birthday, my friend Rick Barton sent me a link to an online video with an email saying, “Have a look at this bad boy”. The video was of Transvulcania, a 75km race up and down a volcano in the Canary Islands, with over 4000 m of ascent [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0p8rqaD1AGI]. “If you can walk 100 miles,” he said, “I reckon you can do this.” After watching the video my reply to him was “Okay, fuck it – let’s do this thing!”
“whilst a huge shirtless Spanish
man coaxed me to keep moving”
About, 7 months before the race, and I was doing basically no exercise again. So, I started running the next day. I did a 5k run, which was awful. But with such a short deadline I had no choice but to throw myself in at the deep end. I went from 5k to running a marathon in under three months; seven months after my first run, and 10 kg lighter, I stood on a pre-dawn beach in the Canaries with thousands of other runners being whipped up into an almost religious frenzy by the pumping rock music they play at the start.
The race was an electrifying, magical experience, particularly because La Palma is such a beautiful place to run and because the locals really get behind the event and give it a great atmosphere. I was hurting, but basically surviving, until 1 kilometre from the finish. At this point I had the mother of all bonks and spent an hour lying in a gutter whilst a huge shirtless Spanish man coaxed me to keep moving and I muttered feebly in high-school Spanish about the futility of all existence. I lost over 100 places in the race as I laid there watching other runners stride past, but eventually crawled over the line after gargling a gel brought me back to life a little bit.
The next day, when I eventually learned that I was in the top half of the finishers despite an hour of gutter-time, I started to consider that perhaps I was okay at running.
You competed in the UTMB how did you find that and for people who don’t know what is it?
The Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc is a 100-mile mountain running race in the Alps. You start in Chamonix in France, cross into Italy and then run through Switzerland to get back to the start. There is 10,000 metres of climbing in total, and over 2000 people run it each year. Chamonix has a festival atmosphere all week, and you bump into the top international names of ultrarunning everywhere you go.
What was it like? Amazing! Some people are quite negative about the event because it has such a large field of runners, and it’s true that you’re rarely alone on that course and it can feel a little like a procession. But the scale and atmosphere of the event, and the beauty of the landscape it runs through, easily compensate. I’ll never forget the sun coming up on the second day in Italy. As the light broke, I crested a mountain pass and gazed out over a huge cloud inversion that flooded the valley below. The shadows of the mountain peaks stretched across sea of cloud, pointing us on to the finish. Then I almost tripped over a Spanish guy who’d decided to take a nap on the path.
I was also really pleased with UTMB because, unlike most hundred-milers that I’ve run, I really nailed my pacing. I managed to judge my effort pretty well the whole way round and so was still able to run at a good pace through Chamonix to the finish, which was one of my big goals going in. That was despite the weather. We had everything from baking sun to extremely scary electrical storms that hammered all the mountaintops around the horizon just as I was ascending one of their neighbours in the night!
Would you recommend it to everyone or is it not for the faint hearted?
I think UTMB could be for everyone, as long as they’re strong enough to get around – which particularly means doing a lot of climbing training. The trails it uses are not too scary – it’s just long and tough. Much more difficult, and much nervier, was the Verbier-St Bernard X-Alpine race that I entered (and DNFed) a couple of months earlier. That was a lot more technical, and involved some pretty exposed mountain paths at times.
Describe yourself in three words?
Impetuous, tenacious, cheerful
To be continued...