The popular image of scientists is that they spend their lives in a lab, squinting over bifocals and not being great at Tinder, but Dr Andrew Murray is one of the new breed of physiologists who practice what they research. This accomplished ultra-runner and his Cambridge University team published a study in May 2017, proving that Tibet’s sherpas have a genetic superpower for higher performance at 8,000m. ‘Sherpas have spent thousands of years living at high altitudes, so it should be unsurprising that they have adapted to become more efficient at using oxygen and generating energy,’ says Murray. This may help provide ways to fight oxygen-deprivation from heart disease, lung disease and cancers.
But Murray is no slouch himself – he’s won both of the Genghis Khan Ice Marathons – so what has he learnt on the outer reaches of human endurance that we could apply to our own, defrosted efforts?
RISING So, this marathon’s name obviously refers to the location in Mongolia – but why ‘Ice’?
DR ANDREW MURRAY ‘So I’ve now done the Genghis Khan Ice Marathon twice. I did it in 2016 and 2017. The conditions are cold, even for a Scotsman. The temperatures were between -27ºC and -36ºC, and you’re running not on land but on a frozen ice river.’
RISING Describe the challenge for us?
AM ‘So I think there’s the standard distance of a marathon, and anyone that’s stood on the marathon start line knows that no run or no marathon is easy. So there's that, and the conventional challenges of putting one foot in front of the other, avoiding hitting the wall, making sure that you don’t get lost or make any navigational errors.’
RISING What’s the toughest thing about running when it’s cold enough to freeze Gareth Bale in his tracks?
AM ‘At -35ºC, it’s a good deal more difficult to make sure you don’t get frostbite than it would be at zero. So, you are layered up with lots of small layers. It’s quite difficult to breathe because you’re having to wear tight clothing all round your face – it's a question of cutting a hole in that that's big enough to breathe through, but the hole not being big enough to allow you to get frostbite of your lips. I wore a pair of ice shoes from Merrell that were a size too big to accommodate an extra pair of socks, and had these spikes on the bottom as well, because it's extremely slippy.’
RISING It’s a wild part of the world and then you have to navigate your own way – we heard wolves were kind of tracking the event?
AM ‘Whilst we didn't actually see too many wolves, certainly they're about – it’s an unusual characteristic of a race, just kind of the prospect of lots of wolves being around. But we had a lot of huskies actually providing support for the actual runners themselves.’
‘In an aeroplane, you really don’t want to run out of fuel and it’s the same running at -35ºC’
RISING So the huskies were your chaperones?
AM ‘Yes, kind of. So it’s just very difficult to get vehicles up ice rivers. The terrain itself is almost impossible for even the most robust vehicle to get up. So having huskies around was highly reassuring, and they can drop off food or water and stuff like that. Again, eating can be a challenge. If you think about it, water freezes extremely fast at that sort of temperature, so carrying it with you, you need to just make sure you keep it in your warmest pocket possible and just have systems and processes such that your food and water keep themselves warm. The first year I made the mistake of putting energy gels in a pocket rather than in my gloves – they froze solid.’
RISING How about your mindset? Does it differ to a regular race, given that the environment is more extreme and you have to be more respectful of that?
AM ‘Simply put, you don't want to hit the wall at -35ºC. So most people would aim to be a little bit more cautious in the way that they go out and to sort of treat the distance with the respect that it does deserve. So I think there’s more that can go wrong, and if things go wrong at -35ºC, it can be a catastrophe. You want to have a reserve.
‘It’s a bit like the difference between riding a bike and riding in an aeroplane – with an aeroplane, you really don’t want to run out of fuel and it’s kind of the same at -35ºC. Running out of fuel and running out of energy would be an absolute disaster and indeed could be fatal. Although obviously the support crew is terrific, the implications of blowing up or having trouble in extreme temperatures can be much more severe.’
RISING It must be tempting to push harder when it’s cold though – do you see people getting the pacing a bit wrong?
AM You do get folk really struggling towards the end, because it does feel a fair bit further. If you're slipping around on ice, it’s very different than if you're running on firm footing. So I mean people tend to run much slower times. They tend to be more conservative. But they all tend to arrive with a big fat smile on their face at the end.’
RISING Is this the kind of thing that only very experienced athletes should be considering?
AM ‘So, it’s the sort of thing that's not to be underestimated, but also the human body should not be underestimated. So I’d recommend that anyone really pushes their own boundaries and pushes their own limits, but really gets the preparation right in advance.’
RISING You’ve worked with lots of athletes as a scientist – does this help when you tackle your own races?
AM ‘I’ve spent a fair bit of time looking at the science of it, which is helpful for looking after athletes but it's also quite nice for myself from this perspective, because I kind of know exactly what's likely to happen and what you're up against.’
RISING So what advice would you have for anyone training for a marathon or long-distance challenge?
AM ‘I think the crucial things in terms of training for any marathon; there are three. You can throw away your fancy watches and all these weird and wonderful training tools. The most important thing by far when training for a marathon is to train hard and train smart. Make sure that you’ve done adequate training for the race that you’re up against. The second thing is to make sure that you've got plenty of fuel in the tank, so it’s about eating well on a consistent basis. That keeps you well from a health perspective, but also makes it far more likely you'll be able to run a marathon.’
RISING And what’s the third essential ingredient for endurance?
AM ‘It’s about sleep as well. I mean the Kenyan athletes, the ones that won the London Marathon recently, they’re not only incredible athletes, but they’re incredible sleepers. Some of these sleep ten hours per night on average. It’s amazing.’
‘Fermented mare's milk – when you're thirsty at the end of a race, you'll pretty much drink anything!’
RISING The first year of the ice marathon, you ran another 110km back from the end of the race to the modern-day capital of Ulaanbaatar – did you miss the huskies or something?!
AM ‘For me, the whole point of going to these places is to spend a bit of time and have general genuine cultural experiences. I do like big-city marathons and doing other types of races as well, but nothing beats the wild. Everything's different. So, you’re not really staying in a five-star hotel, but you are staying in a five-million-star hotel – you've got these big heated tents that you stay in and if you pop your head out, there’s stars absolutely everywhere, it’s incredible. There were some other delights to be sampled, including fermented mare's milk – when you're thirsty at the end of a race, you'll pretty much drink anything!’
RISING Were you impressed by the locals living their lives at -35ºC?
AM ‘You know, although it's cold, the warmth of the people was pretty incredible. They welcomed us and kind of made us feel a real part of what is an incredible existence. I mean it's a fantastic place to visit, but a very difficult place to live; -35ºC for a few days is great, but it would be less pleasant for months at a time.’
RISING What advice would you have for anyone considering entering an extreme-environment running race?
AM ‘With the Genghis Khan Ice Marathon, or other runs in other parts of the world, like the Sahara Desert, the Gobi Desert, the Indonesian Jungle; they all require additional considerations. So it’s about getting used to the environment. If it’s in sand or on ice, then you'll have to train to run further than a marathon because it feels about half as far again, and it takes a good deal longer. It’s also about getting used to wearing that sort of footwear and clothes, so getting out there a few days early to acclimatise, those are the main things. It’s as much a science competition as it is a running competition.’
WHAT NEXT? Often the first challenge adventure runners face is that all those miles spent training on perfectly flat roads have left their ankles ill-matched to the lumps and bumps of the trail. So on your next run seek out the off-road, even if it’s turf in a park, to start challenging your stabilising muscles – your knees will thank you for the lowered impact too.
Advice is for information only and should not replace medical care or recommendations. Please check with your Doctor before embarking on exercise or nutrition regimes for the first time.