Ultra runner Louis Supple finished off his dream project of completing four ultra marathons for charity in some of the most extreme environments on the planet this year. He ran the Ice Ultra in Arctic Sweden in February, having already competed in the Sahara desert, the Himalayan mountains and the Amazon jungle.
He shares experiences from his adventures, explains how he benefits physically and mentally from endurance sports and gives his best tips for anyone looking to complete an ultra marathon.
Supple got hooked on ultra marathons and adventuring in his mid-20s.
After graduating from university, he realised how much he missed doing something physical.
He watched James Cracknell’s documentaries, and particularly the one on the Marathon des Sables fascinated him.
“Going through the Sahara desert for 250 km would be a real challenge. I’d have to train properly and take it really seriously just to complete the race,” he said.
He decided to sign up for the multi-stage marathon without telling anyone.
At the time he had only completed one half-marathon.
“When I told my friends and family everyone thought I was completely mad,” he said.
However, Supple exceeded everyone’s expectations and finished just outside of the first 200 out of the about 1300 who competed in the Marathon des Sables in 2015. That same year the London analyst completed the Everest Trail race in the Himalayas.
In 2017 he ran the Jungle Ultra Marathon in the Amazon rain forest and this winter he placed fifth in the Arctic in -40 degrees.
“The multi-stage marathons are all different and difficult in their own way.” he said.
Ahead of the Marathon des Sables and the Jungle Ultra, he had some sessions at the Silverstone racetrack, where there is a Porsche human performance centre with a heat chamber.
“It’s basically a radiator making it really hot and a treadmill. They monitor your heart rate and your human performance stats.
“You don’t want to go to the jungle or the desert and have your body go into shock. You need to be eased into it gently.”
The Everest Trail race was harder in terms of acclimatising due to the high altitude.
“Your tolerance for altitude depends on your genes, I think.
“If you are over six foot and not 70 kilos you are quite a big runner for the long distances. I had a few days where it got really bad,” he said.
Running in the rain forest in 95 percent humidity was especially tough.
“It was raining the whole time and I had to sleep in a hammock. I could not really recover between days, and the terrain was very difficult because it is up and down and there are a lot of river crossings so it’s very slippy on the foot.
“A lot of the vegetation is also lethal, and the bugs are constantly biting you,” he explained.
“It also had a more lasting physical effect on me than the previous marathons. I was ill for two weeks when I got back.
“My toe nails fell off because they were so bruised from going up and down.”
The Ice Ultra was similar to the others in terms of it also being self-sufficient, but the necessary equipment had to be really specialised due to the cold. In order to prepare and try to normalise the burning sensation that comes with running in sub-zero temperatures, Supple had to spend his Christmas training in the same conditions. He was suffering through the 230 km wearing snow shoes and goggles under the Northern Lights in -40. Only half the starters finished, yet he somehow managed to make it across the finish line.
He described his motivation for pushing himself as two-fold: Human performance and mental willpower.
“I want to reach my full potential, physically. I enjoy running but I did not necessarily do the ultras because I am obsessed with it.”
According to Supple, there are also tremendous benefits mentally:
“It teaches you discipline, resilience and independence. Things that you can apply to other areas of your life.
“And the solitude aspect of it, that time alone with your thoughts puts everything into perspective.”
It leaves him with a better understanding of what is most important to him.
“And then there is the nature side of it,” he continued. “I really enjoy going somewhere unique. A stunning part of the world you don’t get to go to every day.
“Nature is so much more powerful than you contemplate in the city.”
“The individual glory of you achieving it by yourself, which you don’t necessarily get from a team, is also part of what makes it special. You really learn about yourself through pushing yourself. You have to be slightly selfish, because no one asks you to run through the desert for six days.”
While describing ultra running as intrinsically selfish, he stressed the importance of having a support network from other runners in such physically and mentally demanding efforts.
Having accomplished his goal of competing in four extreme climates, Supple is searching for a new challenge.
“I am very intrigued by other endurance events out there, like rowing the Atlantic.
“I think that would be something I would feel is really pushing myself and something I might not be able to achieve. When you’re in the middle of the ocean, if something goes wrong, I would be totally reliant on myself. With the ultra marathons, the only way I would not be able to finish would be external factors.”
Supple works a full-time job and has to be very disciplined with his training regime. His best tip for anyone looking to sign up for an ultra marathon is to set a goal, commit to it and not overthink it.
He said: “Lots of people talk themselves out of it, saying I haven’t got the right kit, I haven’t even run a marathon, it’s not the right time.
“If you want it badly enough and are willing to put the hard work in: do the early morning training before work, go for long runs at the weekend, be careful about what you eat, then an ultra is not beyond your reach.”
“For a multi-stage ultra marathon I would do a couple of really long runs on the weekends; half marathon to a bit more to get the endurance in the legs. Before or after work I would do some medium-distance runs at an easy pace combined with some tempo training to improve my sprinting.
“In the build-up to an ultra I’d do a marathon. But it’s also important to train your strength and core, so you have the necessary muscle mass to keep you going day after day, ” he said.
All photos courtesy of Louis Supple