In the latest edition of Outdoors Fitness magazine, there is an interview with the person dubbed the fittest man alive – Dean Karnazes. Now please don’t think for one minute that I am going to be disparaging about Dean and all he has done and continues to do. But I recently bridged the psychological gap between me and what I think I’m capable of and Dean Karnazes who seems to specialise in doing things that seem utterly impossible. One of the endurance challenges he is most famous for is his recent run across America: 2,900-mile in 75 days. I was reading the interview and I started thinking about my friend James Adams. He’d just run across America, competing in the LANY (Los Angeles – New York) race and covered 3,200 miles in 70 days. And I used to go running with James when we were at the same running club in central London….
After returning from his incredible feat and amazing adventure, James and I met up for a beer. I had a few questions for him and I really wanted to know whether he had metamorphosed into a Karnazes-like figure.
How do you get into that sort of running?
I started by asking James, on the record, about his running history. James told me that at school he was typically sporty, but not exceptionally so. He was typical of so many students who arrive at university with very little thought for sport but in 2000 he applied for and got a place through the London marathon ballot. At this point James had never run any long distances and was actually worried as he stood on the start line, that he would be pulled out of the race for not being a proper runner. He finished in 4 hours 35 minutes. That was obviously a good experience because James returned in 2003 and 2004 to the London marathon, running both times in under 4 hours. By the time James had run his third London marathon, he had moved to London where he joined the Serpentine Running Club, which was the club I became a member of and where I met James.
After his first few marathon experiences, James became dissatisfied with just running 26.2 miles. By early 2007, Adams was already thinking about much longer races. He had heard about the Badwater Ultramarathon and decided that he was going to make that his next challenge. He and I both ran in the Tring to Town 50 mile ultra along the Grand Union Canal towpath in January that year, but for me that was an event in itself. For James it was just a training run for something much bigger.
The attraction of ultra-distance running.
I asked James what he thought the attraction of ultra is. He told me that he found ultras easy and that he enjoyed running in races where there is no real time pressure. James went on to say that he loves the point-to-point quality of the majority of ultras and, most impressively for me, he said that knowing that a 50 mile run was a relatively easy undertaking made the world somehow feel more accessible. James went on to tell me about how he left his house in west London one day and ran… to Reading, before catching the train home. I guess that is what you do when you are dedicated to the ultra distance. I went on to ask James whether he thought he was competitive. He told me that he isn’t motivated by beating other people and that indeed he rarely knows, until he’s finished a standard distance race, whether he has gone quickly or not (although it should be pointed out that his marathon PB is a fairly handy 3:07).
Next I asked Adams for his top tips for people considering running beyond 26.2 miles and the answer I got was as I expected – very little about nutrition and training, and a lot about listening to as many experienced ultra runners as possible and then making up your own mind, finding your own way. James suggested that it is important to enjoy the social aspect of ultra running and he also emphasised the importance of fitting running into your life, not the other way round (for example James reckons he runs around 50 miles per week and much of that is to and from a demanding full time job).
Whilst James’ greatest achievement to date has to have been his run across America, he has completed ultras all over the world and in a vast array of conditions. I asked him what he preferred – desert, canal towpath, mountains? James said that he really enjoys running in the heat and believes that has much to do with the evolutionary process that have created humans as we are – designed to run long distances in hot and arid conditions. For James then, his run in the Spartathon was a real highlight. You can read about that race here.
The dream race.
So with so many incredible races under his belt, I asked Adams what he would design if he were to create his own event. James started, in his usual self-effacing way – by telling me that he is terrible at organising things which he thinks comes across in the blog he wrote whilst running across America (you can make up your own mind by reading it here). But if he was to organise an event, one idea would be for a Spartathon-length event (153 miles in case you are wondering!) finishing at the Olympic stadium as the London Games were starting (I’ve passed that idea on to Lord Coe, but had no response so far…)
Then James fixed me with a look and told me about the event he’d really like to set up; a race where the entrants do not know how long the course is. James suggested that the distance would be bracketed, say between 100 and 150 miles, but the actual distance would be known until the runners saw the finish line. That is a crazily challenging concept that only a man who has run across America could dream up!
Footwear for a 3,200 mile race
My final question to James was about the kit he used on his 3,000+ mile run. And James had saved the biggest surprise for last. He told me that he ran almost the whole way in Newtons. He took 8 pairs of Newton Gravity shoes and even sold the ‘emergency’ other brand of shoes that he had taken, on eBay when he got back. What surprised me even more is that Newtons haven’t even offered James a free pair in exchange for being allowed to make some publicity from this amazing effort!
And then there we were – me and my old mate James Adams, in a pub in Camden – chatting over a beer. He isn’t much changed from the chap that I used to run the ‘three parks’ route at the Serpentine Running Club with all those years ago. James is just very down-to-earth, easy going and friendly and someone who happened to cross the entire United States of America on foot faster than Dean Karnazes. I hope one day that I’ll get to meet Karnases and, as happened with James, I’ll let him buy me a beer and tell me his tale!