While Djokovic and co. fight it out at Wimbledon, there’s another Grand Slam taking place in the US that’s attracting a small but growing crowd – including the attention of Hongkongers.
It’s got nothing to do with tennis, though, but running. Lots of it. We’re talking four 100-mile (160km) races in the span of 10 weeks, traversing the toughest and most iconic trails in the US for a total cumulative elevation gain of nearly 80,000 feet (24,380 metres).
The series flagged off last weekend with the Western States 100  in Squaw Valley, California, and next heads to the Vermont 100  (July 20) in Windsor, Vermont, then the Leadville 100  (Aug 17) in the Colorado Rockies, and finishing off with the Wasatch Front  (Sept 6) in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains.
Hong Kong is represented by Andre Blumberg, 43, a German IT director who has lived here for 11 years. He is among the 31 brave souls  who’ve signed up to the challenge – officially called the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning  – this year, and one of the 28 remaining after the Western States. He’s also the only participant who’s not residing in North America (there’s a Chinese guy named Di Wu, but he lives in the US, working as a research associate at the University of California, Davis).
At the second hottest race of the Western States’ 40-year history – where temperatures reportedly rose to 47 deg Celsius in the canyons – Blumberg finished in a very respectable 26 hours 27 minutes 11 seconds. He was 144th among 277 finishers, with about a third of the field dropping out. American Timothy Olson won for the second straight year in 15:17:27.
The Grand Slam was established in 1986 and remains an exclusive club of few. Only 234 people (200 men, 34 women) have successfully completed the Slam, including 20 who’ve done it more than once. Most hail from the US; just 20 are from overseas, including only one from Asia (Japan).
Last year, 25 people attempted the feat and 15 completed it – a 60 per cent success rate, the second highest after 2004 (70 per cent). But most years, the success rate hovers around 30 to 40 per cent.
In Beyond the Marathon: The Grand Slam of Trail Ultrarunning, author Bob Boeder writes: “To enter a 100-mile race, you have to have a dream, a want, or a void. It’s not for everyone.”
But even when there’s a will, there’s not always a way in the Grand Slam. Luck plays a huge part. “The difficult part is getting through the lottery for the Western States 100,” says Blumberg, who returned to Hong Kong on Tuesday after the first Slam.
The race, the world’s oldest 100-mile race and considered the holy grail of ultrarunning by many, uses a lottery system to select its 400 participants annually – from a pool of runners who’ve met reasonably quick qualifying times in other events. As the sport continues to boom worldwide, it gets harder to get in each year. For this year’s race, there were 2,295 applicants.
Blumberg was third time lucky. So, after having dreamt of attempting the Grand Slam for a while, it was game on for 2013. “There’s this mystic surrounding the Slam,” he says, “and it’s the pinnacle of the sport.”
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, strategise their race and organise their gear. It can be as exhausting as training and racing itself. Many of the runners work in professions such as engineering, accounting, research and computer science – perhaps because there are certain traits, such as being analytical and disciplined, that aids Grand Slam success.
Blumberg’s wife Patchanida Pongsubkarun, and a running mate Kevin, who’s originally from HK but now resides in Los Angeles, rented a car and met up with Blumberg at six of the eight aid stations at the Western States. Though race rules allow competitors to have a pacer from the 52-mile mark onwards, Blumberg decided to run alone. He was among the few exceptions.
“I think it’s more fun that way,” he says. “And I think pacers are for people who are not quite sure whether they can achieve the feat. I always felt that it was a bit like cheating to have a pacer.”
Because of ample aid stations – stocked with food and ice sponges – and pacers, most competitors race light, carrying just a handheld water bottle. Blumberg however ran with a backpack that contained two 600ml water bottles, some powdered drink mix and energy gels. In some sections, he had a third bottle.
He has certainly come a long way since January 2010, when 10 minutes on a stationary bike in the gym was all he could muster. Then, grossly obese at 103 kilograms and with a suit size of 54, he had embarked on a total lifestyle transformation a few months before his 40th birthday. He went cold turkey on alcohol for 18 months and cut out parties and heavy late-night meals.
Slowly his rides progressed to two hours, and within six months he had lost 32 kilograms. Then he hit the treadmill, starting out slowly for 20 minutes, then 45, then 90. In April 2010, he ran his first ultra, the annual 65km Round The Island race in Hong Kong. Six months later he did his first 100km race, the North Face 100 in Singapore, finishing third overall. Last year, he completed his first 100-miler, the Ultra-Trail Mount Fuji in Japan, in 31:33:12.
Over this year’s Lunar New Year, Blumberg led a few others in his brainchild, the Four Trails Ultra Challenge . The event covers all four of the territory’s long trails – Lantau, Wilson, Maclehose and Hong Kong – over three days, a total of 298 kilometres and 14,400 metres in cumulative elevation. In 2012, the first edition of the challenge, Blumberg ran four trails in four days alone. Next year, the challenge will be the four trails non-stop, with a cut-off of 60 hours.
But that’s still a good half a year or so away. For now, Blumberg’s focus is the Grand Slam. Here, he shares his Western States experience and thoughts on the feat.
What was your overall impression of the Western States 100?
It’s quite an amazing event. I certainly had high expectations because of the hype around it, but I was still surprised because they allow 400 racers, but there were about 1,500-plus support staff. There’s a huge amount of pacers and crew and spectators. It’s quite amazing who turns up to the race.
The whole organisation is top notch and the aid stations are manned by different running clubs. You have an experienced runner at each aid station, so when you arrive, he or she follows you through the station asking you what you need. The stations were very well-stocked with energy gels, soup, blueberries, strawberries… it was really nice.
The race itself was stunning. A very nice course, absolutely stunning views. Just off the start at 5am, you go up Emigrant Pass, about an 800m climb. It takes about an hour to get up there, then you turn around and overlook Lake Tahoe, and see the sun coming up. It was just fantastic.
You had an awesome second half in the race, jumping from 237 place to 144th. How did you do it?
The whole mantra about the Western States is that the race starts at Foresthill School, the 62 mile or 100km mark. From that point onwards, you’ve basically broken the back of the race and you’ve been through the three canyons. The canyons are very difficult because they’re extremely hot and very steep. By Foresthill, the terrain gets easier and it’s more runnable, so you should preserve your energy and legs a bit to make up time in the second half.
For me it was never about this individual race; it was always about the Grand Slam. You have to finish all four races within the cut-off time – which is 30 hours for all except Wasatch (36 hours). But apart from that there isn’t a timing you have to hit – it’s either you finish or you don’t.
So did you go all out?
It’s hard to say. I felt that it was a good effort, but I didn’t redline, and certainly not in the first 100km. The race has two cut-offs: if you finish below 30 hours you get a bronze buckle, and if you finish below 24 hours you get a silver buckle. For me, given my limited training in the run-up, the silver buckle was never a target. But the first couple of hours of the race went quite well and I was just 10 to 15 minutes off the pace for the 24-hour cut-off, so I was briefly toying with the idea of pushing harder. But when the heat set in, I decided to forget it.
Why was your training limited?
I just didn’t have enough time to train. I did only around 80 to 90km per week in the last four months, which is actually very little. I guess life got in the way. Plus it’s always challenging in Hong Kong from May onwards because it’s so hot and humid. Anything longer than 3 hours for me is very hard as I don’t deal with heat well. My last long run was the Four Trails Challenge over Chinese New Year, and since that I didn’t do anything longer than 50km.
How did the trails compare to Hong Kong’s?
It’s a net downhill course, but there is still 5,500m of climbing and about 7,000m of descending. The course is not really technical; you don’t have stairs like in Hong Kong. You have a lot of switchbacks which, if you’re fit enough, you can run. The trails are also quite well-maintained, partly because they have this tradition whereby to get into the race you have to do trail maintenance and other race volunteering. So competitors go out and clean the trails.
The challenge in general is the heat in the canyons, and the downhills are really rough on your quadriceps muscles. In Hong Kong you don’t really have long downhill sections that’s not stairs. So how I got my quads in shape was to walk from Wong Tai Sin MTR up to Shatin Pass and run down, and repeat that three to five times.
What was the highlight of the race for you?
I think the overall atmosphere of the race was quite special, and it was both the race itself as well as the broader Grand Slam picture for me. Some Grand Slammers started a Facebook group sometime in January or February limited to those doing the Grand Slam this year, and we’ve been chatting on and off. But Western States was the first time we actually met.
Who are these Grand Slammers? What are they like?
Essentially, there are maybe three groups of Grand Slammers. First, the semi-pros, so the likes of Ian Sharman (fourth, 16:20:25), Nick Clark (sixth, 16:56:23) and Nick Pedatella (28th, 20:34:06), who regularly finish in the top 10 of super competitive races. These guys really have a shot at taking down the Grand Slam record time (74:54:16 total for 400 miles).
The other bunch of people is those in advanced age, 55 or older, but who have done an incredible amount of ultra events. These guys are not necessarily fast but they’re super determined, very very strong mentally, and have a huge amount of experience. One guy, Dan Brenden, has done the Grand Slam a record seven times.
The third group is everyone in between, which I would include myself. Professionals in the late 30s or 40s, who sort of have a bit of a mid-life crisis.
What’s the best piece of advice you got from the experienced Grand Slammers?
The consistent advice is not to focus too much on an individual race, but keep the big picture in mind. Pace yourself and not go out too hard for one event, and keep in mind that you have to recover well to toe the line again in another three to four weeks.
The other common piece of advice is, on the other hand, not to think about the whole enormity of the Grand Slam, but take it race by race, aid station by aid station.
Why are you doing this?
I guess I enjoy the physical and mental challenge, and I get satisfaction of being challenged and mastering a challenge. So it’s a bit similar to the Four Trails in Hong Kong, where it’s not just about the training. It’s also about the mental aspect and some luck as well. If you roll your ankle in any of these races, you’re out.
I read something the other day on the anniversary of the first Mount Everest climb, and there was a statistic that said 7,700 people or so have climbed Mount Everest. Fewer than 250 have finished the Grand Slam. Not taking anything away from climbing Mount Everest – it certainly is an achievement – but if you look at those stats, then to complete the Grand Slam is quite remarkable.
The other aspect is that to do a 100-mile race is a big event in itself. You normally don’t do too many of those in a year, especially not three weeks apart, so your body can recover. But for the body to recover is one thing – I’m blessed that my body recovers well – but the mental recovery I think is a bit underrated. I think in the past, last year in particular, I raced too much in short succession and I felt a little bit burned out as a result. My mind was tired and not motivated anymore to do events or go running.
The interesting aspect with the Grand Slam is you actually have to think straightaway about the next event; you don’t have enough time to process the past race. In some ways that’s actually sad, because the Western States was fantastic. But as soon as I stepped on the plane on Tuesday, I started thinking of Vermont, my race strategy, splits, crew support.
What’s your recovery secret?
I don’t have any secret. I think sleep is very important. I will try to get at least seven hours of sleep every night during the Grand Slam, and ideally up to 10 hours. Good nutrition is important, and also not doing too much in terms of hard training for the next 10 weeks. I’ll certainly not be doing any long training runs, probably 30km will be longest. This week, I won’t be doing much, maybe a walk in the park and some light jogging, and 10km at the weekend. Then next week maybe I’d go up to 15 or 20km and then it’s time to taper again. The race itself is the last long training run for the next event in three to four weeks’ time, so it’s quite different from how you’d normally prepare for a 100-miler.
Of course there’s the added stress of travel on top of it. All the other participants reside in North America; they’ve no time zone change or long-haul flight to catch. That’s the other aspect of recovery – mental stress. Going through immigration is always a nightmare in the US.
Does the thought of failure cross your mind?
Not really, no. I am very determined about it. I just want to finish the Slam, I have no target time at all. It’s just about getting it done. I know I can do it, unless I’m unlucky or have an issue in terms of injury or stomach problems. But I’m pretty confident that I can do it, I just need to execute it.
It’s a great journey. I got my leave approved, tickets sorted. It’s pretty rough to combined with work and other things in life. I’m looking forward to getting back to Vermont. Each of the four races is different and has different characters.
When you do complete this Grand Slam, seen as the pinnacle of ultrarunning, how will you get your kicks next?
Well, there’s the Badwater World Cup, a series of 135-mile races: Badwater (desert race), Brazil 135 Ultramarathon (mountain race), Arrowhead (snow race) and Europe 135.
The other idea I’m toying with is to run the entire length of Thailand from Hatyai in the south to Chiangrai in the north for my 45th birthday in 18 months. It’s about 1,800km, but I need to adjust the route so that it’s 45 miles each day over 21 days. Basically it’s about two marathons a day, one in the morning and another in the afternoon, with a nap at lunchtime.