Csaba Németh and the UTMB

Csaba Németh and the UTMB

Csaba Németh finished fourth at this year’s UTMB® (Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc®) mountain ultra-marathon running race. On the following interview ask him about the race, the nature of the sport and the secrets of ultra-marathon running.
 
A: Congratulations on your performance and the fourth place you achieved on the UTMB 2011 race. Can you tell us a little bit more about the race itself? What exactly is it about and who are the competitors?
 
N.CS: Thank you for your congratulations. The competition was first held in 2003, and as the name implies, it stands for the Mont Blanc ultra-marathon running race that leads across three countries - France, Italy and Switzerland. The race is designed for the classic, traditional type of long distance running. The route leads through places that are more appropriate for running and also have a spectacular view. In the beginning, the distance was about 140-150 km but this year it exceeded 170 km. The altitude difference, but is also very important, was 7500 m back then, which by this year has reached 9,800 m. During the early years not many people entered the race, but it has outgrown itself now. One of the reasons for the growing interest is that long distance running has become very popular in Europe. I can compare this phenomenon to the growing popularity of Northern rock climbing among mountaineers.
 
The competitors are looking for new challenges while returning to nature and at the same time getting an opportunity to assess themselves in relation to nature. However, running is less ’risky’ compared to climbing. When you climb, you either succeed or not - there are more levels of difficulty. Another reason for the popularity is the long distance and the high-altitude rise, all of which take place around Europe's highest mountain making it the hardest of the hardest. This entices more people, so from 2008, the maximum number of runners has been set to a limit of 2500, consisting of the runners that are drawn from the 6-7000 competitors originally entering. To qualify for the race it is necessary to take part in the so-called qualifying races and collect a specified number of points. Thus, the selection of the runners is filtered, so if a runner achieved better and better results during former UTMB races or was considered an elite runner, then sort of an automatic qualification for next year's race would be guaranteed for him.
 

 
 
A: I came across an interesting statistic on the Internet: 44% of the UTMB runners are aged between 40-50 years, which is a pretty high number. Is the experience gained over the years an important factor in the competition?
 
N.CS: It can be said that it is not a sport for young people. Of course there will always be extreme cases like for example this year's winner Kilian Jornet, winning the race at a pretty young age. But there are only a few of these people in the world. This really requires self-knowledge, experience and the kind of determination that usually only middle-aged runners have. Young runners with less experience tend to give up easier but in most cases they do not even enter for long distance races.
 
A: It must be a really daunting challenge to be outdoors in the field for 20-30-40 hours while running in cold and warm, rain and wind. How important is the selection of special clothing and good shoes? Could inappropriate clothing affect one’s performance during the race?
 
N.CS: It is very important to carefully choose the clothes, to suit. Earlier, the amount of clothing one could take to the race was defined by weight (set to a maximum of 2 kg), but it is now defined by the required pieces of equipment: jacket, foil, waterproof underwear, waterproof gloves, warm hat, etc. You must always take these along with you as your equipment can be checked by the organizers randomly at any time during the race. Since there is no weight limit, weight is an important factor for each given product: the lighter and the more practical, the better. It does make a difference if a jacket weighs 200 grams or 100 grams. Runners will choose the latter, because in case there are lots of clothes, these extra weights are added up together. Of course you can play with the size of the clothes. It is advisable to use the smallest size possible of certain pieces of equipment. For example, an XSS-size woman's windbreaker is perfectly suited for the task as the rules do not define the type of jacket that is used. As I mentioned, these multiple extra grams are added up, might even reach up to half a kg during the race. Half a kg is indeed a considerable amount at let’s say, a 20-hour run. The majority of runners would take all the items listed above of course. Playing with weight and technical materials is a method applied by forefront runners.
 
A: Does the same apply when selecting food and beverages as well? Do you need to take special food / drink because of the extra effort?
 
N.CS: According to the rule, you can only take refreshments within the refreshment zones, if you have chaperones. In addition, you can use the refreshment points. Each of these offer the same, relatively good selection of food and beverages, however, running in the forefront you need more special supplies. During the many years of training and races you learn what your body can take, when and how much you need to eat and drink. That is why forefront runners take along their own food and drinks with them, because they are not familiar with the food available at the race, therefore it is uncertain how their over-strained body would absorb it, or if their body would be able to take it at all.
One other requirement is having 1 litre of liquid with you at startup, or upon leaving a refreshment point. We usually leave these behind after leaving the points because they only give extra weight while running. The consumption of isotonic mixtures is very important. We often fill our flasks with fresh water from mountain streams and we mix the water with isotonic powders brought with us. We also use nature-given possibilities on many occasions when we need to gather strength to overcome an energetic deadlock. Fruits and herbs give much help in these situations.
 


The North Face® Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc® by UltraTrailMontBlanc

 
A: What is it that you must keep in mind while running? What do you do when you have a muscle cramp or feel starved?
 
N.CS: Ultra-running is a bit like a three-legged chair, standing stable. Should one leg become loose, the rest could fall with it. The three legs represent three separate parts, which are: the energetic state (nutrition, hydration), the physical frame state (legs, muscles and knee joints), and most importantly – seemingly the smallest though – the mental state.
Energetic state: this is a regular exercise we take at workouts and races to determine how long it takes to bring ourselves together when we feel starved: 5-10-15 minutes? These are things that can be best practiced by gaining a good deal of experience.
Physical frame state: when you feel something hurts, and it gets more and more difficult to take, you can ease the pain by using kinesiology patches or compression products.
Mental state: This is the hardest part in running. Should you fail in this part and start thinking negatively with no energy in your heart anymore, it means there is no turning back. You cannot influence your thoughts by telling yourself to think positively while your every bone hurts. Thus, you need to gain power from other sources, namely the psychic, spiritual factors: finding things you can draw strength from, actually discovering what faith you have, what motivation drives you, what it is you want to achieve.
 
A: Does one need to get specially prepared for such a long race that leads through a route with such big differences in altitude level?
 
N.CS: They say the best training is the race itself. There are many similar competitions that prepare me for the main event, in this case, for the UTMB. The main stages I completed this season were: the Transgrancanaria (123 km), the T-100 in Hungary (100 km), the Zugspitz Ultratrail in Germany (102 km), the Lavaredo ultra trail (90km) and finally the UTMB. These sessions were built up in a nicely cascaded way where one can learn something new at each stage – at best. At worst, all is going well at each stage, but fails right at the main race. I experienced this during the preparation in 2008, completing each stage but not the UTMB. Success makes you drowsy, failure keeps you awake. Failure is a useful thing, one can always learn from it. This year, for example, I learned from the Transgrancanaria, the T100 went well, on the Zugspitz I was nearly outrun, then my legs cramped on the Lavaredo and I made error after error. Despite the fact that I had won the Lavaredo three times in a row in the past, this year I finished fourth. But it was not a problem, because I felt that I was going to do very well at the UTMB. Of course I hated it right there at the Lavaredo, but afterwards I felt grateful for being able to draw a force that I could use at the UTMB and beat those who had finished before me in the past.
 
A: Ultra-running seems rather a ’lone wolf’-type of a race from the outside. Do you ever talk to each other during the race, do you have time for this at all?
 
N.CS: It is mostly at the beginning of the race that we talk, we get less and less communicative towards the end. Actually, we have conversations for two reasons, one of which is a tactical one: we size the others up, checking if they want to talk or not, how tired they are, how much they are out of breath. The other reason is keeping up human relationships: it is often only at the tournament that we meet and talk a few words to each other about what’s up, but these chats usually take place before or at the beginning of the race. During the race when it gets really ’harsh’, eye contact is the main form of communication as we try to assess the condition of the others. There are no friendly chats at that stage as you turn more and more inwards.
 
A: What does the runner feel during the race? How do you keep yourself occupied during the long hours?
 
N.CS: Running is similar to a metronome: the rhythmical movement of your legs becomes somewhat monotonous, you get tuned in to an internal system, which gets further enhanced by nature’s own beauty. Sometimes you get astonished by seeing something beautiful, and these wonderments affect you, they enhance your state of mind. You are constantly gaining strength, getting into sort of an euphoric state that lasts for hours. And all this works like some kind of a self-reinforcing process: the more strength you gain inside, the more frequently you notice these things.
The whole race can be described as a very deep experience. You become a part of nature while not even realizing anymore how fast or slow you move. There are no limits, no time, no space, you just go on and on. No fatigue, no panting, no sweating, there is only your being that exists. You become one with nature, where timelessness prevails. You only notice the sun setting down, then rising and setting down again. You experience the whole thing as a long moment - and this is why you want to live it through again and again, to preserve the magic of that eternal moment. When something very beautiful or very good happens to us, we people often think that this is the moment of our lives, never to be repeated again. But that is not so. That moment will always be there, holding that special thing that we are looking for. Maybe a little differently, but we can find it again and again. You just have to go and look for it...
 
Marco Olmo & Csaba (2010)
 
A: How is your relationship with the other top runners? Do you keep in touch after the races?
 
N.CS: The relationship is relatively good, even though I myself am not the pally type. I am much more inclined to see the problem in the difficulty they have in accepting me: they do not know much about Hungary. They often receive false information and it takes a long time for them to learn exactly who I am, even though there are sixty countries present in cross-country field running on an international level, and Hungary stands among the top ten. I consider it a small anomaly that while we're in the top ten at this race, the Hungarian flag is still not raised among the flags of other nations. This is a bit of a sore point. In the same situation, we would never leave out the flag of a country that is represented at the race, especially with such remarkable results...
It is also interesting to compare the attitude that runners of different nations have towards running. In this respect, I have become most amazed by Japanese runners. Respect towards other runners is planted into them by nature, they are extremely disciplined and very able to fight, they go to the very extremes. I raced with lots of Japanese runners, and if I could choose I’d prefer a light-hearted American or a European competitor as an opponent. The Japanese are unbelievably humble, this is the sign of respect towards the others. When they outrun you, they bow and apologise, then run ahead. In 2009, I ran in behind a Japanese runner who outran me not long before the finish. He waited for me in the finish where he hugged me and apologized for beating me. This is how we and everyone else should behave at competitions I believe.
 
A: An interesting analysis of this year's event: before reaching Courmayerur, the first 6 runners were practically together. But from that point on, the forefront speeded up and Carlos stayed behind. What happened?
 
N.CS: Yes, there was a crucial point around halfway. The leading three runners were Spanish, one of them was experienced and the other two were less experienced UTMB runners. Kilian was the one keeping the squad together (this was sort of competitive tactics on their part). This pace was too strong for me, we were already an hour better than ever before at any UTMB race I did. I had two choices: either going with them to reach a good result, or changing back to a pace that gets me safely to the finish. I chose the latter. At this point there were four of them still, and I trusted they would take each other apart. And so it happened, because Heras did indeed fall out during the race.
After leaving Fuoly, there was a critical stage, difficult to take psychologically: the route was rearranged during the race, thus we had to leave out a mountain, but take on a much bigger mountain instead. The Spanish runners probably made a mistake there and that is why Carlos stayed behind, and I have to add that I almost gave in, too. Then I got over the impasse after leaving Trient, firstly because I heard that Miguel Heras gave up so I'm in the fourth place and secondly because I knew that the next runner behind me was about 30 minutes away. By this point I was certain that I can make it to the finish and keep my place too, provided I run without problems during the remaining time.
 
Forrás:Traxpace
 
A: Do you have chaperones waiting at the specified points during the races? What are their tasks?
 
N.CS: This is a double-edged thing: if there are no chaperones, I can personally do better, because I do not have anyone to complain to. I am just as much of a ’weak man’ like anyone else. Everyone loves it when others feel sorry for him. Even if I have no trouble, I can come up with something to complain about. However, without a chaperone, I begin to work much better because I swallow my worries. Problems have a special behaviour once you begin to feel concerned about them: they remain attached to you. If you ignore them, they move on and find themselves someone else. However, such a race is impossible to be taken without a chaperone as you need supplies (food and drink) that you cannot take with you. Absolute confidence is crucial, because a long distance runner is not easy to handle: can have all sorts of different problems, and who would be there for him to let it all out on? Of course the chaperone. So it is not easy to find appropriate chaperones, maybe even harder than finding a good training partner. The chaperone is the person that says the correct sentence at the correct time – or, if needed, does not say a word at all.
 
A: Since 2008, the global economy has undergone quite a heavy downfall. Have you managed to find a sponsor during this period of recession?
 
N.CS: Well, this is a very difficult question. It is difficult to find a sponsor, regardless of the crisis. We are a small country, big brands do not have big sales here, and they pay no attention to cross-country races on a national level. That is what makes it so difficult to find a sponsor here at home. Training partners and even the family help very often. Paying an entry fee of 100 to 140 Euros is not a problem in Western societies. A French amateur runner prepares for the UTMB from a budget of 4-5 thousand Euro, while here we only get a fraction of this amount for the same purpose. The interesting irony of fate is that it was the head of a football team – Videoton FC – that discovered me and started to support my work.
 
A: The route of the UTMB leads through beautiful landscapes. I guess you are amazed by the view?
 
N.CS: No matter how hard the competition is, we always rediscover the beauty around us. It acts as some kind of a channel, through which we get energy. Five or six of us run in the front and each of us notices the nature-given beauty around us. If one of us gives the signal, we may also slow down just to admire it. The experience gives incomparably more to the race than the achieved place. The stars at night, a ray of sunshine reflected in the dew drops scattered on leaves, the twitter of birds signaling the approach of dawn - all are wonderful. Everything is alive around you, melting into a balance with you, taking up nature’s frequency.
 
A: What possibilities are there in our little country to get prepared for a race like this, or similar to this?
 
N.CS: Basically, it is possible to get prepared for a safe and stable performance. But if you want to achieve better results, higher mountains are required for training. Here at home we can reach the top of the highest mountain in 20-30 minutes, while it takes 1,5 – 2 hours to do the same for the ones in the race. For example, I do 80-90% of my training in the Bükk Mountains. Also, one must not forget the fact that in Hungary, one has no potential danger to face: no bears, no wolfs, no poisonous snakes either...
 
A: What can a runner do, should he decide on taking up ultra-running? Is there an organization or a company where he can possibly get help?
 
N.CS: Officially there is no such association, but there are some groups built on acquaintances. If you want to deal with ultra-running, you need to get used to two main factors: regularity and gradualness. You need to be enduring and consistent. You can get somewhere with 3-5 years of practice, but it takes more than one year to get prepared for a UTMB races, otherwise it ends in failure, or, God forbid, with an injury. There are forums on the Internet about cross-country race also. You can ask questions there and they are happy to answer them. Self-organized associations are also formed and they arrange running sessions so it is always possible to find a partner. This is a good team: we enjoy running together, spending some quality time in the woods where there is no traffic, no urban civilization. This is a unique, friendly and helpful companionship with real values.
There is an alliance of ultra-marathon runners, which includes both the field running and asphalt running groups. They have indeed taken up sponsorship so there are field running championships and cross-country running teams. They also have a short-distance and a long-distance branch. A young runner cannot start ultra-running right away. He would start with 5-8-10 km distances, then take 30 km and finally 50 km and above. I visited many schools to hold lectures and interestingly, the kids were very open to cross-country running. They do not want to circle around on the athletics track, but would rather go out into the nature. A kind of longing for freedom is triggered in them as they leave the regulated world behind and step out to nature where everything is free: the nettle stings them, they can run through brooks while getting wet and muddy. They do not do such things all week, not even at gym class. A young body needs this exercise very much, just like a piece of bread.
 
A: Do you have a mascot? Or a movement / activity you have to perform in order to achieve a ‘successful’ result?
 
N.CS: This is not something I usually need. I do not believe in coincidence, I believe that all things are the results of our own decisions, so since I'm not superstitious, I have no mascot. I’d rather say that I sometimes bargain with myself. This is an internal thing. I know what to do, also know that this may not be the best for me but still act upon it because I feel that would lead me on the right path. You must learn to listen to yourself. You will never deceive yourself. The voice that speaks in your heart wants the best for you always.
 
A: Do you have a role model?
 
N.CS: There is no one I would specifically mention here. It is man that can win over himself and be able to renew himself again and again, continuously pushing on his own limits and realising eventually that there is no limit. Perhaps my role model is man without limits.
 
A: What are your plans for the near future? Have you already made plans for next year?
 
N.CS: I would have done some more races this year, but unfortunately it was the lack of time and money that prevented me from entering them. This is a difficult period of time that feels like a large empty space. Fulfilment is not always followed immediately by renewal and redefinition of new targets. The next challenge should be allowed to come by itself. Then you accept it even when it is not yet spoken out loud. You can only really be motivated when the challenge comes from within, one that you can accept deep inside. It is most likely that I will not enter the UTMB again. Over the past eight years I entered the race five times and I made it to the destination without errors each time. No one else in the world has done that so far, no one was among the leading eight runners in five races out of five without giving up at least once. So I did it without giving up, and in fact, I have not given up at any of the races I entered during the past decade. I feel that there is no more I need to prove there.
Anyway, this is not the only race in the whole wide world. I would like to see other parts of the world as well. It is also possible that I will take up some sport other than cross-country running. Sometimes I switch sports when I feel I have enough. This happens when the original motivation is fulfilled, as shown by my rock-climbing experience in the past. Whether or not the same could happen to running, I still do not know for sure.
What I still miss though regarding the UTMB is the possibility to show it to my children so they can witness what their father could do and be proud of me. This may happen once, maybe in five or ten years. I have enough time on my hands, there is no hurry. Eventually, things always turn out for the best...
 
 (Special thanks to utazom.com for the possibility to make this interview.)