What Does it Take to Complete some of the Toughest Ultra-Marathons in the World?

What does it take to complete some of the toughest endurance races in the world?

This week we have an interview with Alan Li. A man who has completed a huge number of ‘bucket list’ events. These have included the MdS (Marathon des Sables), UTMB (Ultra Trail Mont-Blanc), TDS (Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie), UTMR (Ultra-Trail Monte Rosa) and many other races with abbreviated names!

In this article, Alan tells you:

  • Tips and advice that can help you achieve your goals - Including the importance of having A, B and C goals for races

  • His top kit and nutrition recommendations

  • An overview of some of the toughest events around


JamesRunsFar: Hi Alan. Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with me. First, could you give us an overview of your endurance background, please

Alan Li: My endurance journey started off with the most unusual of circumstances.

A leg break from football meant I was immobile for 6 months. I fell out of love with football and so I quit the sport, disposing my boots and shin pads. I was always active, and growing up in Tottenham, London, sports was a way to stay out of trouble.

I played football, badminton and ran a little.

Now that my passion for football was gone, something had to be substituted in to keep active.

I was good at running and ran a few half marathons and 10Ks. So I thought ‘what if I took the running further?’

Alan Li’s first adventure race was a 100 mile stage race in 2013. Since then he has completed the Marathon des Sables, UTMB, TDS, UTMR, the Dragon’s Back race and the Tromso Midsummer Sun Marathon

Alan Li’s first adventure race was a 100 mile stage race in 2013. Since then he has completed the Marathon des Sables, UTMB, TDS, UTMR, the Dragon’s Back race and the Tromso Midsummer Sun Marathon

There’s that saying “bad things always happen in threes”. Well this was my patch.

I was made redundant at work, my relationship was in a very bad place and that, along with the leg break, meant that I needed an escape. 

In 2013 I signed up for my first adventure race, the ‘Himalaya 100 Miles Stage Race’. I considered that was far enough to run a way from my problems.

This race opened up my eyes to multi-stage racing. Being in the mountains and how much camaraderie there are with smaller setups.

So, how do I trump this adventure?

Marathon de Sables 2015! The race where we first met, along with fellow Sky colleagues Matt Hill and Jerry Nathan. 

After the MDS, I had an addiction to keep pursuing longer and harder challenges. Slowly ticking the big races off my ‘Bucket List’.

JRF:  You recently took part in the TDS, a race which is part of the UTMB series of events. Can you tell us how that went?

AL: This year was the debut for the new TDS course. An additional 20km and 2000 meters had been bolted on to the original route.

The previous TDS has always been considered as being harder than the UTMB itself.

It’s got technical ascents as well as descents. With the UTMB, a lot of the climbs are gradual with much more runnable patches. 

Having already done the previous edition of the TDS in 2016, I knew that I had to save my legs as there’s two big descents at the beginning that could potentially be quad smashers.

The plan therefore was to go super steady for 2/3rds of the route before really pushing the final climbs in the last third.

It all started well enough, not getting too crazy, I kept up a good rhythm as planned.

It was in the evening where things started to go badly. I started to feel sick every time I tried to push on the climbs or any form of running.

Dry heaving and retching was pretty much what I had to deal with all through the night.

In the end, I conceded defeat to my A and B goal, 30 hours and 32 hour finish. And I focused on my C goal - to just finish.

I had worked out with all the running from the first section of the race, I had banked enough time to walk the rest of the 90km to meet the 42 hour cut off.

I napped at checkpoints - 40 minutes at one and 20 minutes in another - to see if I could recover from the sickness.

It did me well, as I wasn’t hallucinating sinister silholuttes, dancing skeletons or rocks smiling back, as I did in 2018 UTMB. I even wanted to try out the full race experience by taking a nap on the route as the weather was warm enough.

But, I couldn’t find a comfortable spot and eventually the sun rose. 

After eating and getting warm tea in, I left the checkpoint at dawn, and to my surprise, I started to feel better.

My nausea had gone and I managed to start stringing in some runs. It was my ‘second wind’ which I was very grateful for as it was a reward for the perseverance.

The added bonus was I spent 5 days training in the area we were about to pass so I knew the terrain, gradients and flats very well.   

I descended as fast as I could down Col du Joly into Le Contamines (112km to 121km)

And just kept my running where it was runnable.

Once into Le Contamines checkpoint, I braced myself for the last two big climbs of the race by feeding and stocking up on enough liquids.

The weather had been very kind up to now. Racing in the mountains with an overcast sky and no rain is a dream.

However from there on, the weather was now getting very warm.

With 8km to go on road, I felt the heat reflecting off the tarmac making it impossible to keep running.

In the end, I ran when there was shade and walked where it was exposed. 

The last stretch, running through Chamonix town centre is special.

Everyone gives you a standing ovation, cheering in all the runners. You suddenly find an extra gear and everything that was hurting suddenly disappears. 

I crossed the line in 34 hours 33mins.

It was tough. But if it was easy, everyone would be doing it. 

Alan completed the TDS this year, which he said may be harder than the UTMB itself, due to the sheer number of technical ascents and descents

Alan completed the TDS this year, which he said may be harder than the UTMB itself, due to the sheer number of technical ascents and descents

JRF: How did you train for the TDS?

AL: Terrain and altitude is the most challenging aspect when living in the flatter lands of London. 

There needs to be a bit of creativity when training indoors to simulate being in the mountains and the types of terrains to deal with.

For my indoor workouts, I focused on balance, upper body strength, core, stretching and mobility work

During the weekends, it was a trip to run on the undulating trails or long hikes and hill repeats on the mountains in Wales. These ‘Vert Hunts’ usually ends with 2000-4000 meters. 

JRF: How did the TDS compare to the UTMB?

AL: It’s insane!

The first version of the TDS was hard enough, but this totally eclipses that.

The climbs are long and very technical with little respite.

Checkpoints are quite far apart, there was about two checkpoints that were 10 miles apart.

At points I almost ran out of water and felt relieved i stock-piled some food to last me to the checkpoint. 

The TDS was the go-between for CCC and UTMB, but now,  due to it’s additional distance and elevation, I would personally recommend UTMB as the follow up to CCC as it’s more runnable and less technical. 

JRF: What’s your motivation for taking on these huge challenges?

AL:  One of the reasons why I took up ‘adventure running’ was to pass on tales to my next generation. For example, cousins, nephews/ nieces and eventually my own ultra-ankle-biters.

It’s also a good way of breaking up the monotony of life - the 9-5 routine, the commute, the bland lunch, the daily chai tea etc.

These challenges and races enable me to take micro adventures out in the weekends and also see parts of the world where I would never visit if it wasn’t for these races.

It also forces bonds and life time friendships as there’s mutual respect of the meaning “suffering together” in the ultra community.

Alan’s motivation for taking on so many events is to pass on tales to future generations and see the world. He also loves to be able to make friendships in the ultra-community through ‘suffering together’

Alan’s motivation for taking on so many events is to pass on tales to future generations and see the world. He also loves to be able to make friendships in the ultra-community through ‘suffering together’

JRF: What’s your proudest achievement?

AL: I guess my biggest achievement is being able to get my adventures and stories heard.

This has now grown and exceeded my expectation and have interests from the running community globally.

I’m currently in collaboration with a magazine based in Russia to have my story published and distributed.

JRF: What’s your favourite race? And why?

AL: I get asked this a lot and I’m going to give the same ‘diplomatic’ or ‘philosophical’ answer.

Every race I prepare for, I’m at a different stage in my life. So the race is always going to pose a challenge or different approach in how I prepare.

I look at each race as a journey, appreciating and cherishing every challenge. Whether it’s an injury, kit issue, family life or work commitments.

It’s similar to asking someone to name their favourite child. Each race, I guess, has it’s own personality.

However, if the question was “what was your most memorable or special race?” I can say it’s the ‘Tromso Midsummer Sun Marathon’.

It’s run during the Midsummer Sun festival in the north of Norway where it’s daylight 24 hours a day.

The race starts at 8pm in the evening and post race celebrations are through the night - in daylight.  

JRF: What are your top kit and food recommendations?

AL: Top kit has to be my adventure watch, the Suunto 9 Baro GPS watch

I can plan routes for navigation for the trails and sync directly to the watch.

Battery life is great as I can get over 100 hours without charge. Ideal for multistage races and races that are over 100 miles.

Top food, I would say ‘Maurten’. I use the gel and Hydro Gel 320 when out training, adventuring and on those long races.

For real food, I carry savoury cashew nuts, dried mango and dates. 

Alan’s Top Kit Suggestions

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JRF: What are your 3 top tips that you can give to JamesRunsFar readers for improving their ultra-running and achieving their huge goals?

AL:

  1. Nutrition - Get used to eating on-the-go and eating fast. My general rule of thumb is to sip liquids every 15 minutes and eat on the hour (weather and distance dependent)

  2. Know the Terrain - Train on the terrains where possible. If not, find out the terrain and use similar terrains and conditions. This is also useful for testing kit. For example, windproof jackets, gloves and shoes.

  3. Feet Management - Don’t let blisters or lack of feet management end your race. Learn to condition the feet prior to the race and practise taping your hotspots on your feet.

JRF: What do you reward yourself with at the end of a race?

AL: Salty chips, a pint of lemonade and a pint of Guinness.

I tend to go for savoury foods as I tend to feel sick from seeing or tasting any sweet products after a race.

JRF: What’s your dream race, if money, travel and other things weren’t a factor?

AL:  I’ve been slowly ticking off my ‘bucket list’ races, but there are a still a few on there like the Comrades Marathon and Tor de Geants.

The challenge is being limited to 2-3 big races a year due to family and work commitments.

Now I’m done with UTMB point-hunting, the big one is the ‘Western States Endurance Race’.

I’m in the third year of the ballot, so I’m trying to enter one qualifying race a year to carry over the multipliers. 

Alan has ticked off a lot of ‘bucket list’ races. But he still has the Comrades Marathon and Tor de Geants to check off.  His next challenges are the London Marathon and the Lakeland 100

Alan has ticked off a lot of ‘bucket list’ races. But he still has the Comrades Marathon and Tor de Geants to check off.

His next challenges are the London Marathon and the Lakeland 100

JRF: What’s next?

AL: I’ve got a bit of down time away from training and I’ll be using this time to heal and recover.

My season started in December last year for the ‘9 Dragon’s Ultra’ in Hong Kong. Then it was straight into Wales to train and prepare for ‘The Dragon’s Back Race’, a five day mountain ultra. 

I’m still doing a micro amount of mileage through leading runs for ‘ASICS London Run Club’ and local community run club ‘Loven Bakery Run Club’.

I also use this time to plan my 2020 calendar - Confirmed so far are London Marathon and Lakeland 100.

JRF: Where can people follow you?

AL: In real life, on the tube to work, training on the river path of The River Lea, the Welsh mountains or coastal paths in the weekend.

On social media channels, Strava ‘Alan Li‘ and Instagram ‘@ultralan

JRF: Thanks so much for taking the time to give us such great advice and insight. And I hope your future events go well. I look forward to following your journey.


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