5 secrets to running long distances, by obese Hongkonger turned ultrarunner

Andre Blumberg only began exercising in 2010 – and now he’s the city’s ‘Grandaddy of Ultras’, having just become eighth person in world to complete 1,000km feat. He tells us about his training

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 June, 2016, 5:01pm
UPDATED : Monday, 13 June, 2016, 10:39pm

In 2009, Andre Blumberg was partying at the legendary Spanish nightclub Space Ibiza, getting jiggy with his 100kg-plus physique and overindulging in food and alcohol.

Almost exactly seven years later, on May 28 this year, a much trimmer Blumberg crossed the finish line of Germany’s longest non-stop running race, the 320km WiBoLT Ultra from Wiesbaden to Bonn.

Impressively, he finished in third place with a time just over 67 hours. More amazingly, it was his fourth race of more than 200km in seven weeks, the four races making up the 1,008km Millennium Quest. He’s one of only eight people to have completed the Quest.

But even more unbelievable is that 45-year-old Blumberg hadn’t even run 10 metres a few years ago, much less heard of the sport of ultrarunning. In January 2010, soon after turning 40, he started exercising for the first time in his life, riding on a stationary bike for 10 minutes.

His rides got progressively longer and, along with an overhauled diet (including zero alcohol), he lost 32kg within six months. Then, Blumberg started running – further and further still.

How obese Hongkonger shed 40kg by going cold turkey on his unhealthy ways and hitting gym and trail

His ultra endurance achievements have earned him the unofficial title among Hong Kong’s running community as the “Granddaddy of Ultras”. In 2013, he ran four of the US’ toughest 160km trail races in 10 weeks, officially known as the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning.

Other major achievements: 20th in the 2014 Tahoe 200-miler (320km) in California in 80 hours 56 minutes; finishing the 217km Badwater in California’s Death Valley in 2014 in 41 hours and six minutes; and founding the Hong Kong Four Trails Ultra Challenge, which involves running all four of the city’s long distance trails (298km in total) in a maximum of 60 hours.

“I wouldn’t consider myself fit by any means,” says the German native, who has lived in Hong Kong for 13 years. “I just really feel the races of 100 miles and longer is where my sweet spot is and what I enjoy. The longer the race is the better I tend to fare.”

Here, he shares some of his insights on the long run.

The essentials

“Over the years and learning from many ultras, I have come to rely on certain kit,” Blumberg says. These include: wearing two pairs of socks to prevent blisters (Drymax socks worn over Injinji toe socks); applying anti-chafing cream (Gurney Goo from New Zealand); a strong and reliable headlamp (Lupine Lighting from Germany); and a good pair of trail shoes that suit his wide feet (Hoka Bondi B, Altra Lone Peak, Altra Olympus and Inov-8 Race Ultra 290).

During the race, he consumes mostly liquids, usually energy drink powder mixed with water. As the race wears on he likes soups and – a combination discovered on the Quest – pasta with alcohol-free wheat beer.

Recovery, especially sleep, is key

Getting between seven and nine hours of sleep every night makes a huge difference in recovery, Blumberg says. He also ices his ankles, uses a foam roller and does active recovery (low-intensity exercise like brisk walking rather than complete rest) to keep the blood flowing. Eating fresh and healthy food – Blumberg likes salad – and hydrating well can make a big difference in recovery speed as well. He also takes an amino acid supplement (both during the race and after) to aid recovery.

A strong mind is much more important than a strong body

Blumberg’s training sessions vary from hilly runs to quick sprints to slow long hikes. But with an average distance of only about 80km a week, including two weeks of 160km each, it doesn’t seem like enough training for a run of over 200km.

“It just goes to show that fitness is one aspect but not the most important one over long distances,” he says. “The mental factor is important, as well as having patience and having to manage the different aspects of the race – nutrition, hydration, logistics.”

In fact, Blumberg says he went into the Quest “undercooked” and gave himself only a 30 per cent chance of completing the challenge. His results have pleasantly surprised him.

Ultrarunning is like meditation

About 10 hours into a race, Blumberg finds he gets into “a zone where there isn’t a lot of conscious thinking. It’s a weird and interesting feeling and it’s hard to explain; your mind sort of leaves your body and you have a deeper level of awareness and being. You start thinking about the meaning and purpose of life. It’s almost like meditation or being on drugs,” he says.

“After the race, you don’t remember most of the stuff. It’s a bit like a dream – you wake up and don’t remember what it was about any more.”

Hallucinations due to sleep deprivation during long races are common. Blumberg recommends taking power naps of 15 to 90 minutes (he took three during the 320km WiBoLT race) to reset and re-energise the mind.

It’s just a hobby

Arguably one of the keys to Blumberg’s success is he doesn’t take his sport too seriously and seeks balance in his life. Running may seem like his profession but he’s actually the IT director of energy company CLP Group. Recently named chief information officer of the year at the Hong Kong CIO Awards, the judges praised him for his “well-balanced performance, led by solid business benefits, use of cost effective technology and people development”.

Running puts life into perspective

“Running has made me a better person,” Blumberg says. He doesn’t sweat the small stuff and has become more patient and persistent. There are many parallels between professional and ultrarunning success, he says.

“You set yourself a bold goal and challenge yourself, come up with a plan to work towards the goal under given constraints such as time and resources. You have to be diligent and persistent and not be demotivated by temporary setbacks and failures, but try again and move forward.

“Form the right habits and maintain a structured routine. Seek the right supporters who believe in your goal, and ignore the naysayers. Once you achieve your goal, enjoy and celebrate success. These traits all apply equally to work and running long distances.”

Which achievement – the CIO award or the Millenium Quest – meant more to him?

Blumberg is proud of both and it’s difficult to choose. “But at the end of the day, running is a hobby. Family and my professional life, in that order, will always have priority.”

Better late than never

Looking back at his obese party days, Blumberg has no regrets. Rather, he is grateful to have discovered ultrarunning at a relatively older age. The sport is generally not for youngsters, he says.

“The advantage of starting late is that hopefully I have many more years of running ahead, with my body being able to cope with the long distances. I have met many people around the world who started ultrarunning only in their 50s and 60s and practise it well into their 70s.”

Ultramarathon man: Blumberg’s Millennium Quest achievements

Over seven weeks in April and May, Blumberg ran a series of four ultramarathons – a total of 1,008km – in his native Germany to be one of only eight people who have completed the Millennium Quest since it began in 2014.

The challenge’s rules state that participants can take two calendar years to complete the four races, but Blumberg did them back-to-back. His total time of 174 hours and 58 minutes was the second fastest in the history of the challenge. This year, five people attempted it and only two finished.

April 8: JUNUT (Jurasteig Non-stop Ultratrail)

Course: 239km with 7,900-metre elevation gain on trails that wind through the Bavarian Jura.

Result: fifth place in 43 hours, 15 minutes

April 22: Hexenstieg Ultra

Course: 219km with 4,500-metre elevation gain across the Harz Mountains in northern Germany.

Result: third place in 34 hours, 7 minutes

May 14: TorTour de Ruhr

Course: 230km with 650-metre elevation gain along the Ruhr river from its source in Winterberg until it meets the Rhein in Duisberg.

Result: 13th place in 30 hours, 34 minutes

May 25: WiBoLT

Course: 320km with 11,700-metre elevation gain from Wiesbaden to Bonn, the longest non-stop running race in Germany.

Result: third place in 67 hours, 2 minutes