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Breaking Through Barriers
27October/2015

Breaking Through Barriers

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WORDS Jonathan Jackson

EACH YEAR OVER FOUR MILLION PEOPLE TRAVEL TO THE GREAT WALL OF CHINA AS TOURISTS. THEY STAND AT THE TOP OF THE STEPS AND LOOK OUT OVER THE SMALL VILLAGES BELOW, BREATHING IN THE FRESH AIR AND SNAPSHOTTING A MEMORY THAT LASTS A LIFETIME. Each year again, but on one particular day, 50-100 keen runners ascend to the Wall to test their mettle against the energy-demanding but life-affirming climb that makes up the Great Wall of China marathon – one of two separately held races on the Wall that pins man against nature.

This marathon is not for the faint-hearted; the climb up the wall, which makes up the majority of the run, is a head-pounding struggle as the steps vary, continuously breaking your rhythm. The very nature of this marathon makes it a difficult event to train for, however 2010 winner Andrew Terlich knows better.

“I undertook a fairly standard marathon training plan for the Great Wall,” Andrew says. He did, however, ensure that he integrated stair training into his regime.

“The main feature of this race was the incredible number of stairs on the course and the endlessly undulating terrain. I lived in Hong Kong at the time, which has a fantastic trail network throughout the national parks. Given how hilly Hong Kong is, these trails also have a lot of stairs, so I took advantage of that and ran the routes with stairs to build up strength.”

Andrew devised a four-month training strategy that built up to approximately 110km per week, one month out from the race. Though this isn’t a heavy training load compared to what many other ultra-runners undertake, it is an approach that Andrew says works for him.

“I’ve found heavier training loads have led to injury when I’ve tried that in the past,” he says.

Clearly his regime worked, although Andrew admits to being a little shocked when he won the race.

“I led the race from the 10km mark. The course had some switchbacks so I had the opportunity throughout the race to see the nearest competitors. I realised as the race progressed that I was continuing to build my lead. Entering the last 10km of the race, it was very hot and I was fatigued from all the stairs, so my legs were starting to cramp.”

It was at that point that Andrew ran past Tara and Tallinn (his wife and eldest son), which gave him the mental boost he needed.

“This helped me push hard towards the finish line, which I felt I needed to do as I was expecting to be challenged by other runners. The challenge didn’t come and I hobbled over the line with cramp, but with plenty of time to spare.”

It was a magnificent achievement but Andrew managed to top this in 2012, when he placed 32nd in the prestigious Marathon des Sables in the Moroccan Sahara Desert. This event has been labelled one of the world’s toughest endurance races.

“It’s 50 degrees during the day and five degrees at night,” Andrew says. “You carry all your own food and bedding for a week and with a full load of water, my backpack weighed almost 10kg. You run on rocks and sand (knee deep at times), and in some years, through water as well. On average, you end up running six marathons in seven days.”
This race is not just an extreme physical challenge; the mental challenge is extreme as well.

“I describe the event as an exercise in controlled starvation. As it’s a self-sufficient event, you want to carry as little as possible. In relation to food, it’s a balancing act between having enough food to replenish your energy reserves, while at the same time not overloading your backpack. I took just 2300 calories per day, which meant a significant shortfall. I ended up losing about five kilos over the seven-day event.”

“Sleep was also difficult in the night-time cold of the desert and on a very thin sleeping mat. Dehydration, fatigue and injury were big concerns as the race progressed. I could go on and on, needless to say, this was the toughest thing I have ever done!”

To prepare for a race like this requires the usual kilometres in the legs, but also a different approach to cope with the weight that you have to drag around. Instead of having a long run once a week, Andrew devised a three-day block where he would run 90km: 25km, 35km, 30km over consecutive days. To prepare for the extra weight, half of his training runs were conducted by carrying a pack weighed down with bags of sugar and flour. Then there is the sand and heat to consider.

“I’m lucky that I live near the beach. I did a number of training runs on the sand that helped me hone my sand-running technique. Living in Australia was beneficial; as my training was done during our summer (the race is in April). When possible, I would run in the middle of the day to acclimatise to the heat. This was a problem for a huge number of other competitors, as there were hundreds from France, the UK and the US that had to train during their winters.

“Other than that, there was a lot of planning around the contents of my pack. I spent a lot of time working through my nutrition plan, how I would maximise the energy content of my food whilst minimising the weight. Superfluous tags, clips and straps were cut from my backpack. This saved about 200g, which makes a difference over 250km; saving weight became a sport in itself. There was a debate in our tent about the merits of a toothbrush, whether one needed a complete toothbrush, half a toothbrush, or none at all!”

The penultimate stage of the race is a 42km marathon, followed by a final 17km dash across Morocco’s highest sand dunes to finish. Subconsciously Andrew had seen the 42km stage as the finish of the race.

“Completing that stage would mean I had covered around 230km, so 17km on the final day was a morning stroll in comparison. In previous days I had paced myself to ensure I was in reasonable condition for the next day’s run. But on stage five I threw every last ounce of energy at it and I was utterly exhausted when I crossed the line that day. About a minute after I crossed the line, the enormity of what I had achieved hit me. A flood of emotions came to me and I simply fell to the ground and started sobbing. Six months of dedication, planning and training had led to this moment in time where I had achieved beyond what I had hoped to do.”

The final 17km on the last day of the race was more of a celebration for Andrew. His wife Tara was waiting at the finish so he was able to share the moment. He also had a little more time to reflect on the next phase of his life, which was to leave behind the corporate finance world and start his own nutrition company based on the realisation that the nutrition of the energy bars marathon runners carry with them, isn’t overly nutritious at all.

On the back of this revelation, Andrew founded At One Foods under the premise of creating a product made with the right combination of all-natural ingredients. Through his own company Andrew has now changed his nutrition focus when he races. And he needs all the edge he can get as running his own business whilst maintaining his love for competition can be a precarious balancing act.

“I train as much as I can, but I really don’t manage to get in as much as I would like; nobody toes the start line thinking their training has been perfect anyway! Early mornings and night runs are common. I have a very understanding family. On a recovery or cross-training day I might go riding with Tara and the kids. When I’m not training or working I make sure that family time is just that, I’m fully committed to the thing that I’m doing at the time. Being a business owner adds another dimension, as you can essentially be at work 24/7. But quality of life is important to us and sometimes you’ve just got to prioritise effectively and that means that some things just have to wait.”

After taking a break from training and competing over the past five months, Andrew has lined up a busy racing period for the back half of 2015. This includes the new Skyrunning series starting up in Australia and New Zealand, which is a series of 20-80km races through some very steep and challenging terrain. He is looking at running one of these races before attacking the Blackall 100 in October, with the possibility of another 100km race this year as well.

Of those gruelling, but spectacular races such as The Great Wall of China Marathon and Marathon des Sables, the Tarawera Ultra in New Zealand is on Andrew’s hit list, as well as the Cradle Mountain run in Tasmania.

“Both of these races have incredible scenery and are in special places. This has always been important to me and is why I run on the trails rather than the road. It’s good for the soul,” Andrew says.

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