Runner leaves milestone in the dust

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 17 September, 2013, 11:12am

As a tennis fan, Andre Blumberg had always looked forward to watching Grand Slam events on television. But four years ago another slam caught both his attention and his imagination.

This slam, the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning, involved completing four of the toughest and most iconic 100-mile (161-kilometre) trail races in the US over 10 weeks, including a total cumulative elevation gain of nearly 80,000 feet (24,380 metres).

He is tough and more mentally strong ... than almost anyone I know
Blumberg's coach Karl Meltzer

At the time only 200 people had completed the slam since it was established in 1986, and only one of those was based in Asia. "The slam had this aura about it. It was the pinnacle of ultrarunning and I thought it would be great to do it some day," says Blumberg, 43, an IT director and Hong Kong permanent resident.

Two Sundays ago, that day arrived. Blumberg completed the series' final race, the Wasatch Front in Utah, in 34 hours 57 minutes to join the exclusive club of grand slammers, which has a membership of just 254.

Blumberg took a total of 117 hours 19 minutes 29 seconds for the series, which kicked off on June 29 with the Western States 100 in California, followed by the Vermont 100, the Leadville 100 in Colorado and finally the Wasatch Front.

His time may be way off the fastest overall finisher - Ian Sharman, 33, from Oregon, completed the feat in an incredible 69:49.38 - but Blumberg's time is still amazing. Only 22 of the 31 people who attempted this year's slam finished. Historically, the completion rate has hovered around 50 to 60 per cent.

What's even more amazing is that when the idea of the slam first entered his mind Blumberg's body was a 105-kilogram mass of mostly fat.

"It was pretty much exactly four years ago, before I turned 40, when I realised that I was a fat bastard and would have medical problems if I didn't change my lifestyle," he says.

He went cold turkey on alcohol for 18 months and cut out big late-night meals. In January 2010 he started riding the stationary bike in the gym, for just 10 minutes at first, building up slowly to two hours. Within six months he had lost 32 kilograms.

Then he hit the treadmill. When he got tired of the gym he started running outside and discovered Hong Kong's wonderful country trails. He was hooked.

In April 2010 he ran his first ultra event, the annual 64-kilometre Round the Island race.

His next big project is to celebrate his 45th birthday in December 2014 by running 45 marathons over 22 days for charity, a total of 1,899 kilometres, from the south to the north of Thailand.

"The challenge I face is that after doing something big like the Grand Slam I feel elated and happy. But then I sort of fall into this hole and wonder how I can get motivated again," says Blumberg.

"It's not all about running longer and longer, though," he continues. "I like challenging events where the mental aspect becomes more important than the physical."

Indeed, completing the Grand Slam takes much more than just physical fitness. Many of those who failed to complete the slam were much faster and more talented than Blumberg.

Traci Falbo, 41, one of the five successful female grand slammers this year, says the toughest aspect of the Grand Slam is the mental strength you need. "There is such a short time between the races that it's hard to get revved back up to do another one," says the physical therapist from Indiana.

Determination is Blumberg's greatest strength, according to his coach Karl Meltzer. "Andre doesn't bow out to issues like some ultrarunners do," says Meltzer, a top American ultrarunner in his own right. "He is tough and more mentally strong and smarter than almost anyone I know. He sticks to a plan and that's why he is successful."

A good support crew and impeccable planning skills are also essential, particularly for someone not residing in the US. Competitors need to juggle travel demands, arrange support crew, come up with a race strategy, and organise their gear.

Many of the runners work in industries such as engineering, accounting, research and computer science, and it may be the traits associated with these industries, such as being analytical and disciplined, that may aid their Grand Slam successes.

Luck plays a huge part too - getting a starting slot in the Western States is usually what trips people up. The race, the world's oldest 100-mile race, uses a lottery system to select its 400 participants. This year's race had 2,295 applicants.

Blumberg was third time lucky. It took fellow grand slammer Will Jorgensen, 54, a contractor from Tennessee, six years to get his spot. He says it was worth the wait.

"My motto is if you're not living on the edge, you're taking up too much space," says Jorgensen. "Many people avoid anything uncomfortable and spend their whole life trying to keep things as easy as possible. Completing an ultra will undoubtedly make someone a better person, one who can set goals and do whatever it takes to achieve them."

Hong Kong trail runner Phillip Forsyth says Blumberg's achievement has inspired him to get back on the trails after taking a few months off due to work.

"I've seen Andre fly back and forth for the past 10 weeks, run 400 miles and still be totally focused on his work," says Forsyth. "Sometimes work is too easy an out for not getting on the trails; Andre's achievement has made me realise that everything is possible and nothing is impossible."

Blumberg's wife Patchanida Pongsubkarun says she was annoyed at first with her husband's obsession over training and raw food, and felt sidelined by his newfound lifestyle. But seeing how he's changed since they first got together more than eight years ago, she is now fully supportive, often doing the challenging job of crewing for him at races.

"He is definitely a happier person now," she says. "He has great stories about running and his transformation to share with others; that makes him more confident."