FIZKULTURA, Bulgaria w/ Dean Karnazes, Sean Conway and more!

Inspiration comes in many forms and ways. I have just been to Sofia, Bulgaria for Fizkultura – a one day event put together by Begach Running Club. The event is geared towards inspiring Bulgarian runners to embrace new challenges, it may be just to start running, or maybe move from marathon to ultra-running, or why not try something bold and new like creating their own running challenge.

My participation was facilitated by the Begach Running Club and the British Embassy – I was joined by ‘the beard!’ The crazy, inspiring and distinctive looking adventurer, Sean Conway

Arriving in the early hours of Friday morning, Sean and myself were working right from the off with a breakfast at the Embassy and an improvised individual presentation – good job this ‘on-the-spot’ request didn’t phase us… some years back, I’d have immediately melted into a ball of nerves; not now!

Sofia is without a doubt Eastern European in feel and architecture. There are bold, brazen and striking monuments everywhere to remind us that Russia is not far away. But I was surprised. The centre had a distinct feeling of wealth with a multitude of high-end shops, plenty of bars and a huge selection of hotels. A backdrop of impressive snow-capped mountains made me feel relaxed.

A drive to the mountains and a leisurely lunch (in an incredible restaurant) provided us all with an opportunity to bond. It’s here that I had a little more time to get to know Sean and extend my introduction to Irina Daniela from Romania who is slowly but surely inspiring Romanians to run and notably empowering women to siege their futures by foot power. Irina recently ran a sub 3h for the marathon and in doing so has shown what is possible for the women of Romania. She’s a striking person – tall (too tall for Sean and myself), great figure, long dark hair and striking features. It’s easy to see how she will inspire those around her. She’s a bundle of energy and enthusiasm but Fizkultra is her first big ‘gig’ out of her homeland. Website here.

Sean by contrast looks like a lion under a mane of ginger. He’s a small and a slight figure who brims with confidence and an accent that’s hard to work out – South African, Irish and British public school make an interesting mix that is captivating to the ear. He casually talks of his up and coming challenge of cycling ridiculous daily distances in Australia to set a new world record. He has a simple motto – to be the first or the fastest – it works for him! His list of achievements is impressive, but more on that later. Website here.

It was early evening before I finally met Dean Karnazes. Dean, aka ‘Marathon Man’ is someone who I have emailed and spoke too on many times but this is my first face-to-face. He taps me on the shoulder. I turn, he grabs my hand and pulls me in close in a tight embrace and says, ‘Ian, finally, good to see you man!’ For once I feel tall, Dean is my height and we are both taller than Sean and if Irina had not been in our presence, for once I may well have been the tallest – just! However, Dean looks incredible – he’s ripped, chiseled, has a Californian tan and he’s swearing shorts. His legs bulge with muscles and I suddenly realize that the reality of meeting Dean didn’t disappoint. This guy, for me, helped change the way the sport of ultra has grown in the last 10-years. It was his book, Confessions of an all Night Runner’ that suddenly made ‘others’ aware of the crazy sport of running long; ultra-running! Website here.

Dinner took place in ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ and we joke, discuss love, life, running and politics. Bed soon arrives for Dean, he has no idea what day or time it is. Jet lag has hit hard and he leaves early. Our trio relax with our hosts and a late-night walk back to our hotel is followed with a night-cap in the bar. I felt at home with my two new friends and like all good new friendships, 12-hours have made them both feel like lifelong friends. We laughed the night away till bed finally called.

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Dean kicked off the day 0945. Short clad, the audience welcome him with rapturous applause and he quickly goes into a 30-minute presentation that gives an overview of his running. Of course, it’s an impossible task – he has achieved so much! Despite the launch of his recent book, ‘The Road to Sparta,’ Dean takes us back on a journey to his first book as Fizkultura coincides with its release in Bulgarian. Many of you will know those early stories of taking the shoes out of the garage on his 30th birthday and then running 30-miles. His first Western States, Badwater 135 and running a marathon at the South Pole. It’s classic ‘Dean’ and the audience lap it up.

Irina power dresses and looks like an air hostess wearing a suit, shirt, scarf and ridiculous high-heels. Sean and myself refuse to stand close to her… The style of dress was important, Irina’s background was in banking and she wanted to show everyone that it has been possible to still be a business professional and a runner. “My Story’ was about dreaming, having no limits and empowering herself, other women and yes, men, to wear run shoes and find out what is possible. The story of how she achieved sub-3, one of the fastest female performances for a Romanian and how her dreams may well lead to Olympic selection.

Antoniya Grigorova, Bulgaria’s top female ultra-runner, talked about her plans, planning and training in preparation for running the longest trail in Bulgaria: Kom-Emine. A journey of 600km. A professional athlete she provided an insight into the mind, the training and the nutrition of what the journey will take.

Lunch was followed with the lion roaring. Sean was in fine form and told the story of his world’s longest triathlon with great skill and humor. He was a natural on the stage and it’s fair to say the audience loved him. His presentation was interspersed with still images and small videos that documented the journey – and what a journey! A bent bamboo bike, a Sunday roast dinner blended into liquid form for lunch, skinny dipping in an icy river and his face being stung constantly by jelly fish while swimming.

I followed Sean and what an act to follow. My talk was always going to be a visual one as I planned on taking that audience around the world with a selection of races and images from Running Beyond (here). Of course, I had to provide some context on my journey and my opening dialogue provided a glimpse on how I got to where I am today.

Boyan Petrov is a legend in Bulgaria. An Alpinist, he talked us through the training, the planning and the equipment required to climb 8000+m peaks without oxygen. He’s one of the few climbers to make 3 x 8000m peak in one year, something he has done twice. He also discussed the dream of climbing all 8000+m peaks – more people have been to space than done this!

The day concluded with Dimitrina Sivkova talking about trauma prevention and getting back in shape.

It was an incredible day of challenges, feats, adventure, goals, inspiration and living a life with barriers or restrictions. The takeaway was, ‘make dreams happen!’ Dean concluded his talk with a famous quote, it’s not new but it’s apt and it somehow summed up exactly what Fizkultura was trying to achieve:

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!”

Despite tiredness and fatigue, an evening dinner in a vegan and vegetarian restaurant provided us all with an opportunity to discuss the day – we were all motivated. We of course were reminded that the following day, Sunday, there was a race in a local park running a 600m loop and two events, a 12-hour and 6-hour race called Project 360. A small selection of runners would start at 0630 looking to log mileage and a qualifying time for Spartathlon. The main event would start at 0900 with a 6-hour event that would allow runners to do as little or as much as they required. Travel plans scuppered any

Despite tiredness and fatigue, an evening dinner in a vegan and vegetarian restaurant provided us all with an opportunity to discuss the day – we were all motivated. We of course were reminded that the following day, Sunday, there was a race in a local park running a 600m loop. A small selection of runners would start at 0630 looking to log mileage and qualifying time for Spartathlon. The main event would start at 0900 with a 6-hour event that would allow runners to do as little or as much as they required. Travel plans scuppered any participation plans for me but I went and cheered on with Irina for an hour and of course, we just had to run a loop with ‘Marathon Man!’

Watch Dean in the video HERE

I love the fact that despite jet-lag, bust days of presenting and travel, Dean rocked up to the start line and run for 6-hours. He personifies his name.

I must say, I was sad to leave Sofia, my new friends and a great, developing running community. Dean, Sean, Irina and myself were there to inspire others but we left inspired. We were each individually energized by our time in Bulgaria. Sean will be bashing out the bike miles for Australia, Irina will be looking for the speed and endurance for a fast marathon, Dean? well, Dean will just keep running and running and me; travel, photography and telling stories. I love to do that and the story of Fizkultura and Bulgaria is a special one – a personal one!

Thanks to:

A huge thanks to the British Embassy, Elenko Elenkov, Begach Running Club and the many new Bulgarian runners who hosted, entertained and looked after us – Alexander, Milen, Vladi and so many more.

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MDS to TCC – Jo Meek Interview

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Who would have thought it, the 2013 Marathon des Sables turned out to be a great year for British performances. Danny Kendall placed the highest ever overall placing with 10th and Jo Meek placed 2nd lady overall. It was a stunning performance by a relatively unknown. Armed with a new belief in her ability, Jo will has now planned to switch from the heat of the Sahara and test herself in the heat and humidity of a Costa Rican rainforest at The Coastal Challenge. I caught up with Jo at the end of August and we had a chat about MDS and her expectations for TCC.

IC I bet April and the Marathon des Sable (MDS) seems such a long time ago?

JM Yes, it does seem ages ago. Considering I am walking now in late August in the pouring rain. It’s wet and miserable… it doesn’t seem that long ago in regard to memories. I just watched the video that was available for download and it brought it all back.

IC So sitting at home, watching everyone running in the sand with a tear in your eye?

JM Definitely no tear, I think I am happy not be running in the sand. I am still surprised how I adapted especially considering I am now at home running on the road again.

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IC Amazing eh that you can be in that environment, the sand, the wind, the bivouac, no washing, you are eating dried food and you adapt and then post race when we got in a luxury hotel, you said, you wished you could go back, you loved it didn’t you! You loved being in that environment. It was preferable to the clean hotel.

JM I did. Yes, I actually think I could be quite a ‘skanky’ person really. I am far happier roughing it than in luxury. I guess it sounds romantic but I like being at one with nature, eating, running and sleeping. Perfect. But I guess the other memory is the one from those clean white cotton sheets; that was quite special.

IC I have to say, the first shower, all that fresh hot water and then all the sand starts to escape from all the nooks and crannies. As you say, no more sleeping bags and a lovely comfy bed, it is quite a pleasure.

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JM My roll matt was about the size of A4 to keep it light and small, so my hip was pretty sore after a week in the bivouac. I have to say the cushioning of a bed was welcome.

IC The Bristh performed really well at MDS. No disrespect to you but we had no idea who Jo Meek was before MDS. We knew Laurence Klein was outright favorite and we knew Meghan Hicks was back, she had performed well previously but outside of that it was all unknown. On the first day you were up at the front and then continued to perform at the front of the race for the whole race. You had this great battle with Meghan. Laurence had a convincing lead but it all fell apart on the long day when she had to drop with dehydration. This opened it up for you and Meghan. Meghan had a great long day but I remember standing on the finish of the final day, it was the marathon distance, you nailed it. You said the marathon was your distance and you wanted to stamp your authority on it. You placed second overall, many look at MDS as one of those iconic mult- day races, how did you go from a relatively unknown to getting second. What was it in you that enabled you to focus and become so efficient in the sand?

JM A few things really. I am very good at setting a training plan and sticking to it. When I race, I always race. I don’t just enter to complete it. So, looking at the conditions I set myself up in a heat chamber and did training that was specific. I didn’t want heat to be an issue so I acclimatized. What was interesting over the six days was that I became less scared of what the heat could do. On the last day I thought, what have I got to loose. I do think back now and wonder could I have gone harder but it was an unknown. I didn’t know what would happen so I played cautious. Meghan taught me a lot without her realizing it. I followed her on a couple of stages and I watched how she tracked across the sand looking for the hard sand, even if it was out of the way. She would deviate and look for the harder and faster sand. Also her style, it’s a definite technique to sand running. You don’t want to be a toe runner.

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IC For sure, you need a flat foot.

JM Yes, you also want to shuffle. You don’t want big strides. A little like being in the army again. I learnt lots. I learnt also from training. I had done some awful ultras that were definitely worse than MDS. One race, a 40-mile race across Exmoor and the weather was awful… they said 40 but it was 43-miles I am sure. The last 3-miles were awful.

IC That can be good, a bad training experience. If you have had some tough and hard training and the race works out easier then that has to be a good thing. It’s a real positive.

JM I had no doubt that I wouldn’t finish the race. I had said that I wanted the podium at MDS but I had no idea what I based that on.

IC To put things in perspective you are a 2:46 marathon runner. Ability and speed are there. Many would die for a 2:46 marathon but also you are in the army. Does the combination of those two things make a good MDS runner?

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JM I think the marathon pace and training was key in terms of the speed. I didn’t have the same endurance as Meghan over the ultra distance. Many of the days were shorter in terms of ultra distance so I knew I had that potential. In terms of tent life and conditions, maybe the army helped but that is me… I like that. The army helped with discipline; eating, drinking and so on… it was feet first, food and then wash. You need to look after yourself.

IC Give us an insight into your background, you are a roadrunner really?

JM Yes, but I do like cross-country. I came second in the Nationals. Essentially I have done road running. I started in my teens to loose weight and then just kept going. I wouldn’t say I have natural talent in terms of speed but I have something that works, particularly over distance.

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IC How long have you been running?

JM 18 years, maybe 20!

IC So you have a great base of running and plenty of experience?

JM Yes. I always thought that maybe I should do ultra earlier and I thought, no rush! Particularly with how you develop with age and aerobic capacity. It seemed like the correct time for MDS. As you know, you don’t just enter MDS you have to enter years in advance.

IC Post MDS you really wanted to improve your marathon time. You put yourself on that path and recently you run a half marathon but you were disappointed with the performance. Many factors can affect a race, a conclusion you have arrived at is that you are now going to pursue trail and ultra running. So, you are going to another multi stage in early 2014 but this time you are going to a Rainforest. It’s a race that I was at earlier in 2013, The Coastal Challenge in Costa Rica. Also known as the Rainforest Run. What’s the attraction?

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JM I am always very attracted to a country that is hotter than the UK. That is a no brainer! It’s the challenge, the opportunity to compete in something so different. This race I don’t need to carry all my kit, so, unlike the MDS I will be able to just run but admittedly for repeated days. It will be interesting and it should mean I can go faster.

IC The race is very different to MDS. Some things carry over such as the multi day. As you say, you don’t need to carry all your kit but you do need safety kit, food, water and just essentials. But you are correct, all your clothing, tent etc is moved for you and then food is provided. It’s a hot and very humid environment and even when it rains it is not a problem, it is so warm. All the daily campsites are in beautiful idyllic places. It’s such a wonderful environment. It’s a great combination of providing daily challenging runs but with just a touch of comfort. It’s perfect for those who may want an introduction to multi day racing.

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JM In some ways it will feel easier but in an evening you will be able to eat as much as you like and so will the competition, in theory you are all the same come the following day. But at MDS it is about survival and balance. It is more about balancing and economy and how you ration your food and water.

IC The race has so much more elevation than MDS and in particular, the terrain is much more varied. You have single track, double track, rocky sections, forest, dense forest, beautiful beaches and then some tough climbs and descents. The next edition of the TCC celebrates its tenth year so it may have a little more climbing than normal, we shall see? The variety is amazing. If you are lucky, you’ll see wildlife. You hear it but don’t always get to see it.

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JM I’m so excited. I can’t wait. I have some road races to do in the coming months and then I will start my TCC training three months out. I will use a heat chamber again. The heat chamber I used for MDS prep was stuck on 80% humidity so I have an idea of what conditions will feel like and I know what my sweat rate is like.

IC Costa Rica is very humid. It is almost 100% but it is not unpleasant. You really do sweat all the time, particularly when running. You need to be on the ball and balance your hydration.

JM I like it harsh and hard conditions. In some ways, the harder the better.

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IC How do you prepare for a multi day race? In some ways you had to guess for MDS and that worked! So, what do you take away from that experience and what will you do in preparation for TCC. The longest stage is around 50k and not 80k so that will make a difference. As we have said humidity and terrain are the key differences and you won’t need to carry a heavy pack.

JM I will do far hillier off road training. For MDS I had to train with the weight too, however for TCC I will just use essential kit and I will do plenty of back-to-back training at a faster pace. I will try to replicate the race really. In some respects it won’t be too different from my marathon training. The key will be the back-to-back runs..

IC We have so many different ways to look at training. Some runner’s just head out of the door and run on feel. No time set, no distance set. It all goes on feel. Are you like this or do you have a plan that has everything planned out?

JM I work full time so I must have a plan. I don’t have the luxury to say go out and run for three hours when I feel like it. I have commitments. I get up at 05:30 and I do what I can and then I add to this at lunchtime or the evening if required. I make every session count so I fit in threshold running, speed work and so on. I need to be very specific. At weekends I have more time and if I need three days consecutive I take a day off work.

IC Do you do core stability, stretching, strength and core.

JM Oh yes, I am a proper geek when it comes to this. I am a physio too so I have no excuse. I stretch everyday, I do two strength sessions and I do two core sessions per week.

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IC Wow, you are the perfect example for all of us. So often I ask this question and I get a blank answer. We all know we should do it but few of us apply it!

JM I am disciplined and I see the benefits. You have to be disciplined but it still doesn’t stop me getting injuries.

IC Ah well, injury can be caused with so many factors.

JM For me it is usually over doing it or being tired.

IC Yes, distance and speed increase injury risk. Slower and longer has more impact but you don’t overstretch muscles or tendons. Listen to your body and all will be good.

JM I never listen to my own advice… I am lucky, we have a gym at work so it makes strength work easy. If I didn’t have that available it would maybe be harder. I have been strict with this for four to five months and I can feel the difference.

IC TCC is still months away, are you planning on doing any trail races for late season in the build up?

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JM Yes, I love to race. I will enter races, from experience, if I enter races too far in advance I get injured, so I have entered a couple of marathons on the road for training and speed. In December and January I will look for options. Of course, options are reduced and conditions will be a little different to Costa Rica.

IC Late and early season events do crop up specifically designed to help people get ready for MDS so you will have some choice. Final question, many may be reading this and they are going to MDS or they may be tempted by TCC. What advice would you give to these people?

JM It very much depends on what you want to get out of it? I shared a tent at MDS with people who wanted to just complete, they wanted to enjoy the race and that is what they did. Set an objective and train accordingly. Ultimately it is all about fun and enjoyment.

IC If you had to give three tips. Three lessons you learnt at MDS that you would take to any race.

JM Good question. I learnt specifics like running in the sand but I guess the need to watch and keep on top of nutrition. Start eating early and don’t wait. Also, keep any eye on hydration and drink to thirst and then finally enjoyment is key! You must enjoy it.

IC I am sure you’re going to really enjoy TCC and Costa Rica. Many thanks for the time and insight into your progression and have fun in the Rainforest.

JM Thanks, as you say, really looking forward to it. It will be a real adventure.

 Links and information:

  • Marathon Des Sables images available HERE
  • The Coastal Challenge images HERE
  • Entry for the Marathon des Sables is available through the UK agent HERE
  • The Coastal Challenge website HERE

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*Please note I will be at the 2014 TCC reporting on the race and capturing images at the invite of the race organisation.

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