Version 2 in 2020: 1554km/966mi. in 44 days of walking and running
Are you coming along with us and swim to the moon?
In a spontaneous but also impulsive response, I would immediately react positively to this crazy question: a new adventure and you always learn by doing! Many of the hurdles you encounter along the way you cannot foresee, you will have to solve them on the spot along with a good dose of perseverance. Gradually it will become clearer how you can better plan any impulsively executed parts for a next time. But then it will no longer be spontaneous! Being adaptable to unforeseen circumstances can be an important factor.
Because of the fact that almost all running competitions have been canceled due to Covid-19, ultra runner Marek Vis organized the “Devil’s Challenge” for the 2nd time in 2020.
It is an online series of distances ranging from 1 to 100km (0.6 to 62mi.), which everyone walks for themselves. You have 55 days to run or walk 444, 666, 777 or 999km (276, 414, 483 or 621mi.) respectively and you note every distance walked online on an XL overview. You may walk further than the noted distance, but then you still note the particular distance that is reserved for the relevant box.
Walking less is of course not allowed and you can only complete one distance per day. Each run or walk must be completed in one activity between 0:00AM and 11:59PM. For Belgium, this is more difficult to achieve with the actual different curfews in Flanders and Wallonia. Your distances can be checked on request with a photo on your GPS watch, Strava, Garmin Connect, Polar or similar.
By default, everyone runs the “green series” of 444km/276mi., with respectively 1 to 21km/0.6 to 13mi. (in steps of 0.6mi.) and then 25,30,42,50 and 66km or 15.5, 19, 26, 31 and 41mi. You can determine the order of distances by yourself.
The “yellow series” completes this with distances of 34, 38, 70 and 80km/21, 24, 43.5 and 50mi. It has already been done by many runners including myself in the spring. The total is then 666km/414mi.
In the “purple series” the distances are 34,39,75,85 and 100km/21, 24, 47, 53 and 62mi., the total will be 777km/483mi.
In the “red series” the distances are 32,35,38,46,55,75,84,90 and 100km/ 20, 22, 24, 29, 34, 47, 52, 56 and 62mi., bringing the total to 999km/621mi..
Theoretically it is possible to cover all distances, a total of 1554 km/966mi.
Physical reaction because of stress
Due to a severe personal crisis, I did no longer feel like running in the months of August and the first half of September and I got a physical pain response because of the stress. I have already experienced this before. This was the case in 2017. A intense pain in the knee suddenly came up on a slight hill down, while I was pacing someone in the backpack of a race. I had not done any heavier training during or before the race. After much searching on the internet, it felt like a torn meniscus. But an MRI, physiotherapy and a few other specialists did not yield any result.
There you go as an instructor who teaches others to run injury-free!
Luckily after 6 months the pain was suddenly over! In a very short time I was able to pick up ultra running again and since I have completed all races, except one with shoes that were way too much cushioned and gave me shin splints, which is never an issue as a ChiRunner. I don’t have a definitive explanation, but the stress part is the only connection I could find.
This time I got an intense lumbago, also due to sitting and working at the computer a lot. I may done a side plank too intensively and torn a muscle in the flank near my ribs following up with a side stretch. As a result, I then got this lumbago. The lumbago moved over to the the psoas, hip and above the left buttock. Sometimes I couldn’t go for a walk without taking any paracetamol. I hate it when I have to resort to painkillers.
Dryneedling by my physiotherapist (which is incredibly painful by the way!) in the hip and buttocks helped somewhat, along with stretching exercises for the shortened psoas.
The double dip for runners
If you suddenly start to significantly reduce the number of kilometers as an ultra-runner *, you might experience a double dip: your body is used to producing more ‘happy feel substances’ such as serotonin or dopamine, due to the many kilometers. If you suddenly stop running, you can experience a double mental breakdown.
Spontaneous reaction to the second Devil’s Challenge
When the Devil’s Challenge version 2 came to my attention, a number of intuitive ideas immediately surfaced:
1 I just have to run more in order to get rid of my pains, because sitting still or “recovery” doesn’t lessen it!
2 I can exceed the maximum set distance of 999km/621mi. by just covering all distances, with a maximum of 1554km/966mi. I have a body strong enough to handle this! Moreover, I do not want to take a resting day, so I will do it in 44 days, simply because I can. Also I do have the time for it in this Covid-19 period. I allow myself to walk a distance as an alternative rest day, otherwise there is a risk of overtraining.
3 I am someone with a lot of inner fire and enthusiasm, but sometimes my organization skills could be better. Something as simple as ticking a box every day structurally, just as you could eat a chocolate from an advent calendar during this period, can help me change certain habits and overcome procrastination (the proverbial “swallow the frog of the day”).
4 It ties in nicely as an experience with a project to run 1,000km/622mi. in 20 days for a charity purpose in 2022
5 Doing this challenge must add value to my life and above all not be a kind of personal flight!
I decide to start from point 2 in a conservative manner, by focusing first on running the longer distances up to 66km/41mi. on the 444km and only then followed by the 666km long distances list.
At least then I know that I am going to finish that particular series and from there I will continue. On drained energy days I can walk a shorter distance as an alternative rest day. Symbolically I want to save the shortest 1km distance for the last day!
Despite the sometimes severe pain in the back and hip at the beginning, my theory appears to work on point 1. Little by little the pain is getting less. But it is progressing very slowly!
In week 1 I exceed by far my most training kilometers ever run in a week, around 333km/208mi. I remain hungry for more kilometers. Only during a few ultra races have I covered more kilometers within a week. In week 2 I start my first 80 and 70km, again a 300+ km per week. In week 3 I do another 300 + km and I cover the first 100km of the purple series.
An average of over a marathon per day without a resting day. I just do and am only later amazed and satisfied that I can do this!
From week 3 onwards I get a question from Belgian colleague Dries Brouckaert if I intend to run all distances. On the xls file we can see of all 481 participants what distances they covered so far. I see that Dries is the closest follow-up and that we surpass all other runners in the total distance covered. We appear to be the only ones who have taken up the plan to cover all 44 distances. We continue to encourage and support each other via Whatsapp. I have a lot of respect for the fact that he can keep this schedule with family and busy travel schedule for his work! It later appears that Belgian walker Lucia van Lierde also walks all distances without a resting day. That’s a total mental challenge, because it takes much longer to cover the same distance! She walks 100 and 85km on the last 2 days!
Until week 3 everything is actually fine and the pains disappear very slowly! But by week 4, I start to feel an overtraining and heaviness. Annoyingly, often there is a delay mechanism: The previous day you felt as if you were flying, the next day during a quiet and easy run you feel as if you were hit by a cannonball. There is also one day with storm rains, up to a point where the rainwater penetrates into your underpants.
Fortunately, the resting heart rate is also a verification point, because the rate increases with overtraining. In order not to cross the edge, I include walking days.
A nice additional advantage is that after a while I can walk fairly easily for a long time on a flat surface at 7.5 km/h or 4.7mph. But you have to remain concentrated, because you only have to drift away into your thoughts for a moment and your speed drops considerably right away.
A second serious factor to take into account is that an overall fatigue can worsen the quality of your sleep, which makes the endeavour even harder.
As an alternative, I cover some distances walking on a treadmill. By walking my back problems stay in check, I can do my administration work by putting a plank on the arms of the treadmill and cover the distance of the day. At around 4km/h I can do everything including writing and studying, at 5km/h I can no longer write by hand, but I can type and I can still do that up to 6km/h. From 6 km/h, acquiring knowledge becomes a bit difficult. From 7km/h I can only watch series. I don’t sweat up to 5km/h. After a whole day of walking in front of the computer, I hardly suffer from “rectangular screen eyes”. Because of walking on the treadmill I experience less appetite for in-between snacks. It is a win-win solution, except that walking a long distance on the treadmill is extremely boring (for me starting around a distance of 50 kilometers)!
Drink station or not?
I usually run in an 8-shape or double loop iduring the first weeks, where my own house serves as a drink station. This allows me to run faster because I have to carry less weight in water and food. In-between I am able to make a couple of phone calls. But if you divide a 100km into 3 parts, it becomes mentally harder to start again for the next round, even if the last round is much shorter than the first 2 laps. Moreover, you always mainly run in your own familiar surrounding, it will eventually bore you to death, no matter how beautiful the place where you live. This is why it is much more interesting to cover longer distances and draw one long circle that you cover by using a GPS device. Encountering beautiful new surprises in your area are guaranteed: streets, paths, ruins, crazy buildings, pieces of beautiful nature, deer, wild boars, badgers and house cats in a deep forest etc. You were not aware before that this exists in your own backyard. But depending on your average speed, going further means a (much) heavier backpack, making you even slower. Graveyards over here often have free accessible water taps. The Devil’s Challenge concept is a wonderful way to profoundly explore known and unknown areas in no time!
My “biggest moment of excitement” is filling out the kilometers in a tick box that I traveled after a hard day of work, no matter how crazy it seems! The only thing I’m missing: “ping-sound” when the particular distance is entered! It seems a bit like an advent calendar, only without chocolates and this time you are filling up the the box.
Strava and Facebook
I have a love-hate relationship when posting on Strava and Facebook: I love to share and support each other as runners, but I hate the competitive element when it is about showcasing your own ego shamelessly, even though I am sometimes guilty of it myself (like now?).
New physical dynamic
The whole different dynamic of this experience is new to me. Due to the many kilometers, I lose 6 or 7 kg/ 13 to 15lbs, depending on the moment of measurement because of extra water loss. This makes running uphill in particular considerably easier! But the lack of rest is starting to play up and actually reduces my average speed again. Provided I cannot maintain the same weight, I do not see the point to repeat this challenge in the future, because the average achievable speed drops considerably due to a general fatigue that resembles to a burnout. Running is starting to look less and less like running. I notice that I have intuitively looked up this fine line, but I fortunately did not cross it!
Physically I also end up in a different area, some feelings I don’t really recognise. Is it pain, discomfort, old age, rheumatism, too many kilometers or simply not being used to it? I keep observing and injury = stop. A little inconvenience is part of this game and you just have to keep challenging your own body to some extent in a society that revolves around safety and comfort. At the same time, I discover that I can easily keep running longer and longer before the legs are about to protest.
Speaking of comfort, below are a number of keywords that pass along in my head, heart and body while running.Many words contradict each other and that just makes them more interesting in my opinion. Several more will pass at a later stage and comments about your own experiences are welcome:
Pride, curiosity and looking forward to more action, a whiff of vanity, a little bit of competitiveness, a lot of perseverance “for nothing?”, Dopamine and serotonin that give a heavenly feeling, empty of the tiredness of the long run, “What is this nonsense that takes up so much time?, “Is it still far?”, emptyness (which is an absolute silence, so a kind of meditation), listening to and monitoring new impulses and experiences of my heart and body and storing these in my own system.
Intuition, experience, sharing in friendship with other runners, enjoying the environment, feeling blissful that I can and can do this, shying away from the outside world when it is raining cats and dogs, opening myself up in good weather conditions, sinking in again with into myself on long straight (and boring) stretches of tarmac.
Self-preservation, economy mode, going all out, one with nature and environment, pain and discomfort, feeling as if you are flying.
I am sooo happy to have completed this adventure, but also sooo happy that I don’t have to do it again!
I especially thank my head, arms, torso and legs for keeping up with being tormented repeatedly and I also thank the runners who completed shorter and longer stretches with me. I have also been able to discover a nice area in Brabant Wallonia in Belgium.
I finish the last long distance of 75km in style in Southern Limburg in the Netherlands in one loop without using a drink post, with a backpack of about 7 kilos and 1750 hight meters/5.741ft. Because of the different posture caused by the backpack, I have a muscle pain for 4 days. Even turning around in bed hurts.
Addendum about ultra runners and speed
* The average ultra runner is quirky, which makes this sport so beautiful! Everyone is looking for his or her own solutions to find out what works and that can be very different in terms of training, foot care, nutrition, etc. With marathon runs, the training sessions are (still) much more defined.
I am and remain an student of Stans van der Poel, a Dutch who has developed her own method on effort testing, high level sports and medical fitness. When it comes to speed, there are only 2 main factors: talent and weight. Talent cannot be bought or trained and explains why some runners end up on rank 1, 2 or 3 when they first participate in a competition. Weight loss can be influenced though and beats all training schedules. For every kilogram/2.2lbs of responsible weight loss, 6 minutes are being shaved off from a marathon. This does not mean though that training is actually nonsense! But many runners forget to take into account that by exercising a lot they get a different life hygiene and a different metabolism, which makes them lose weight. However, they then attribute their progress to exercise and not to weight loss. For the last half percent that makes the difference between the first and the last Olympian however, you have to do your outmost best and work really hard. But that’s one area that even a local champion usually does not enter.
For myself I apply this knowledge into being able to run at the same relatively slow pace for a very long time without getting my legs to protest, keeping my weight as low as possible and build my workouts around it. At least a fast 10km per month and regular interval training to prevent slowing down. I also keep trying things out, for example, in preparation for an ultra, I ran 20 km every day at heart rate 128 for a month, which helped me a lot. By the end I almost lost the weight of my own backpack.
Within this framework I put records into perspective: if you come from a rehabilitation after an accident and you can run or walk 5 km after hard physical and mental work, then that is a much greater achievement than someone who breaks a record relatively easily on mainly talent. Just look at the Olympic Games for the disabled, which in terms of spectators are nothing compared to the Olympic Games. But we apparently need champions.
The phenomenon of time also has a relative function for me. While running an ultra I am occupied with time, but during a break at a drink station I again take the time to chat with the volunteers and thank them as if time does not exist. Also, sometimes I prefer to view and photograph nature instead of worrying about my average speed. Sometimes a sports watch therefore seems a stupid gadget, while the GPS function takes you to places that are much more difficult to get to if you also have to run with a map in your hand.
Main pictures: Isabelle Belanger