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‘Push the limits’: Australian ultrarunner on pace to break daily marathon world record | Marathon

Erchana Murray-Bartlett is incredibly awesome for someone who just completed her 63rd consecutive daily marathon. When we speak on the phone she is near Rockhampton in central Queensland, not yet halfway through an attempt to travel 6,000km from the tip of Cape York to Melbourne.

Murray-Bartlett hopes to complete 155 marathons in as many days, raising money for the Wilderness Society. She aims to break a world record (106 consecutive marathons, established earlier this year by the Englishwoman Kate Jayden).

“I’ve always dreamed of traveling the whole country,” she says.

Like Ned Brockmann, who this week completed a 4,000km 46-day race across Australia, Murray-Bartlett is driven by a desire to “push the limits of my physical abilities”.

Murray-Bartlett has competed in international marathons over the past few years. Surprisingly, preparing for his trip across the country required less training, not more. “The level I was training at for road races was too intense for what I was doing, so I had to back off,” she says. “I focused more on strength training and put on some weight to make sure that at the start line my body was healthy.” To support herself, she consumes between 5,000 and 6,000 calories a day.

“Everyone has the genes to be a long-distance runner”

For the majority of Australians who don’t run, attempting even a single marathon – let alone 155 in a row – seems like quite the feat. But a lack of physical ability isn’t much of a barrier, experts say.

“A lot of people would say that any healthy, active person could probably run a marathon,” says Professor David Bishop, who leads the Skeletal Muscle and Training Research Group at Victoria University.

“If you go back to our early genetics, basically everyone has the genes to be a distance runner. 50,000 years ago, our survival depended on our ability to walk and run long distances to obtain food and catch animals.

In the 2009 book Born to Run, journalist Christopher McDougall details the ability of members of the Rarámuri, an indigenous group in Mexico, to cover distances of up to 300 km in a single session, at high speed and with seemingly little effort. wounds. Are there certain physical or psychological characteristics that make ultrarunners like the Rarámuri or athletes like Murray-Bartlett better at running long distances than the rest of us?

“Some people clearly have a family trait of endurance exercise,” says Dr Adrian Elliot, a physiologist at the University of Adelaide. “Even in an untrained state, they are faster than everyone else.”

There are distinctive physical differences between elite endurance athletes and recreational athletes. “The size of the heart is much larger, the ability to pump blood is much greater, their ability to maintain a high work rate or energy output for an extended period of time is far above anyone else” Elliot said. These factors mean that the aerobic capacity of marathon runners can be 50% higher than that of other regularly active people.

“Many elite endurance athletes grow up in an environment where they exercise a lot – not necessarily intense – at a very young age. At the same time, they generally reside in areas of moderate to high elevation,” adds Elliot. He cites Kenyan and Ethiopian runners as examples.

Another factor that limits a person’s running ability is their lactate threshold, or lactate inflection point – the maximum exercise intensity an individual can maintain without significant lactate buildup. in the bloodstream. It’s different from ‘hitting the wall’, the term used to describe the feeling of exhaustion athletes can feel as they deplete their body’s stores of glycogen – a form of glucose that is stored in the muscles and liver. .

“Lactate itself isn’t waste, it’s actually a fuel source,” says Dr Alan McCubbin, member of Sports Dietitians Australia and senior lecturer at Monash University. It is produced by muscles even at rest, but production increases during exercise – possibly at a rate that exceeds the body’s ability to use it.

Athletes running multi-day or multi-month events probably won’t run at the pace they would run a single marathon, McCubbin says, meaning “probably, in most cases, they run them a little below this lactate threshold.

Australian ultrarunner Erchana Murray-Bartlett holds her muddy hands up to the camera and smiles while standing on a wet dirt road
Each day of his record attempt, Murray-Bartlett starts his marathons early to beat the heat, finishing before noon. Photo: provided

Even a single endurance event, however, exacts a noticeable toll. “There are very few organ systems in the body that are spared during ultra-endurance exercise,” says Elliott.

Immediately following a run of a marathon length (42.2 km) or more, some runners show features similar to those seen in heart disease. “They have blood markers associated with heart damage, the heart itself doesn’t seem to pump too, they develop fluid buildup in the heart or around the heart,” says Elliot.

There are similar effects on other bodily systems. “Liver enzymes associated with liver damage are elevated, we see enzymes associated with muscle damage that are significantly elevated, the immune response is enhanced… If you scan the bones of athletes after an endurance event, you see stress indicators, most commonly in the knees and ankles,” he says.

These changes reverse over days or even weeks, but the challenge in Murray-Bartlett’s case is very limited recovery time. She completes each of her daily marathons in around four hours, with an average pace of between 5m50s and 6 minutes per km. “It’s definitely not my racing pace, but it’s a pace I can just ride at, and it never really takes my breath away, it tires me out over time,” she says.

The first month of the trip was “borderline hell,” says Murray-Bartlett. “I had three injuries in my first three weeks – my calf, my quad and my shin.” Now, she says, she has adjusted to a level of daily fatigue and the injuries no longer plague her. “I try to get a massage when I’m in every major city…and stretch where I can.”

Mind over matter

For Lucy Bartholomew, a professional Australian ultrarunner and running coach, endurance events require mind rather than matter – a phenomenon researchers have also observed. “What draws people to ultrarunning I think is the mental aspect…it’s a very immersive and empowering experience to spend so much time alone,” said the 26-year-old.

“You discover your body’s potential to sustain a tremendous amount of movement over a long period of time, and really, the limiting factor is your head,” she says. “I know 100-meter track runners who train more than me as a 100-mile, 100-kilometer specialist.”

Bartholomew ran his first 100km race aged 15, alongside his 50-year-old father. On her 21st birthday, she won Ultra Trail Australia, the largest trail race in the southern hemisphere.

A physical factor makes it advantageous for Bartholomew when competing, especially in hot weather. “I sweat a lot, but I don’t sweat my salts,” she says. Tests showed she had low electrolyte loss through sweating – a trait that varies widely among endurance runners. “I’ve never been cramped in my life, which a lot of ultra runners tend to [experience].”

Each day of his gigantic attempt, Murray-Bartlett starts his marathons early to beat the heat, finishing before noon. This leaves her free to spend each afternoon visiting schools and local conservation groups.

She aims to raise $10 for every kilometer she runs in total. “We have nearly 500 native animals that are on the endangered species list,” she says.

“It’s just something that’s close to my heart, and it wakes me up every morning and motivates me to lace up.”


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