By Greg Gibson
The scene would resemble something out of a war; the darkness of night split by the pierce of torchlights that dance up and down to the rhythm of running feet. Adrenaline-filled bodies each set for a monumental task, bodies to be exerted to the limit. For at least one of these combatants, the comparison to war would no doubt cause discomfort, as there was no conflict, no danger caused by anyone other than themselves. There were battles, however, make no mistake, but they were to be fought within, not without. This eerie, unusual scene was taking place in peaceful rural northern Victoria with the hustling feet belonging to dedicated amateur runners.
It was 2am on the 25th of October 2015 in Wangaratta, and for Marcus Volz and his fellow runners, the 100km Ned Kelly Chase had begun. With the race underway, great stretches of track lay ahead, along with the question that must be part of the attraction for each competitor in any ultra-marathon: will I finish?
To even contemplate participating in such an event, one must be supremely fit, so in that context, that question is a fascinating one. The answer to it will no doubt involve what unfolds ahead, but must always be linked with what’s come before, and for Marcus, the race was three and a half years in the making.
His Mum, Dawn, was a bike rider, riding “for enjoyment, but has some achievements under her belt. She did some Great Victorian Bike Rides, and did one from Sydney to Melbourne, I think over two weeks. When Mum puts her mind to something, she doesn’t back off.”
On the transition from basketball and some riding to running: “it came from wanting to get fit. I was in my early thirties, I wasn’t that fit, and I thought I’d just go out for a run, and struggled big time. I still remember the first run that I did. It was on a run that I have literally done hundreds of times since, and I made it about a kilometre, my lungs were dying and I had to stop.
“Perhaps a year before then I had transformed my diet completely, I wasn’t overweight, but I was on the edge of it on the body mass index. I’d cut out all the crap, which was the first step to where I am.” That first run was “shocking. I made the rookie mistake of trying to run it flat out, and made it the 1km and had to walk it out.” The intended distance was 2kms. He tried it again the next day, only this time slower, and completed it.
At this point, the goals were all about health and fitness. The circuit of 2kms was extended to 5kms after a month or so of running, though at a pace that Marcus concedes was very slow. This run was done again and again until on one occasion, at the end of one of them, he felt good and so continued to run it again, thus completing his first 10km run. “I started doing 10kms a couple of times a month, and then the next step was a half marathon.”
None of this was in any form of organised running, simply within the confines of his own fitness goals. “It was 21kms on a run, not as part of an event. I thought to myself, let’s just see if I can do this. By that point I was quite well in tune with my body and my ability and I knew what pace I could go to do it.”
“At this point, my running changed from doing it for fitness, to doing it because it’s challenging.” Asked if there is anything obsessive in what was and is driving him, he said, “There is quite a bit written about running and addiction. You go to these ultra-marathons, and you see some people that look like ex-addicts, and then you discover that there are quite a few here. I think that my running is driven by a combination of factors, but I don’t think addiction is one of them. I think the main reason I would have stepped up from 10kms to a half marathon is the challenge. You just think, ‘Can I do this?’”
A few months after his own personal half marathon, he completed the half marathon at the October 2012 Melbourne Marathon, his first organised event. “This experience is totally different when running with a big group of people. It’s a different beast, there is a community aspect to it. That connection with other people that seems to come through.”
By the next October he had completed his first full marathon, at the same event. “I didn’t know straight away after the half that I was going to do the next year’s marathon, but I did know that I wanted to complete one at some stage in my life. I decided to go for it about four months before that 2013 marathon. I did a bit of research on it and discovered that a typical training plan is about 16 weeks. I was just in time to lock in a plan, so I did, and ran it extremely slowly and conservatively.”
When asked if he hit the wall: “I definitely did not hit the wall and had plenty left in the tank at the end.” Most would seem happy about this, but Marcus comes across the opposite, annoyed that he didn’t run it hard enough, that it didn’t hurt enough. “I was deliberately way too conservative.”
This appears to be the motivation for his return to the Melbourne Marathon in 2014. “I was extremely happy that I’d finished, that was my goal, but I knew that I’d run it [the 2013 marathon] too conservatively. My primary goal was to finish, and I really didn’t want to jeopardise that at the time. Finishing without struggling was [a bit strange] because I’d been warned that everyone hits the wall, that the last ten kms is a killer, but my pace had improved in that time because I knew that I was definitely going to do it so I ran faster.”
The second marathon was completed almost 40 minutes faster, and he still hadn’t hit the wall. He “was more tired at the end, but still felt like I could probably keep going if I really needed to, which probably dovetails into where we are now.”
At this point it is worth noting that Marcus is a well-credentialed, intelligent professional. An engineer in the mining industry, he is highly educated. Quiet, thorough, determined and meticulous by nature, he’s approached running with the same virtues in play. The step from marathon to ultra-marathon would take these virtues, perhaps with the exception of quiet.
Feeling unfulfilled by marathon running as a distance, and recognising that for him the 50km races he had heard of were too insignificant a distance more than the marathons he had already completed, he recalled a conversation he’d had some weeks before the 2014 marathon with a friend at a wedding. The friend was living up near Wangaratta, and had informed him of the 100km Ned Kelly Chase. The seed had been planted, a truer test of his will, perhaps. A greater opportunity to hit the wall? Further chance to strategize, plan, and see through to fruition? Whatever the reason, he decided to go for it in around March of 2015.
He enlisted the service of an online coach, who provided a plan that detailed dietary requirements, a weekly training program, and timing of long distance events in which to compete in the lead-up to the main event, information on recovery, as well as much experience-based advice. A basic weekly training program would look like the following:
- Monday: 8kms at an easy pace, or rest day
- Tuesday: 14km interval training (training with alternating periods of high and low intensity)
- Wednesday: 15kms at an easy pace
- Thursday: 14kms tempo running (faster paced)
- Friday: 8kms at an easy pace
- Saturday: 8-10kms at an easy pace
- Sunday: 30-60km long run (typically 35kms)
On two occasions in his preparation for the Ned Kelly Chase he ran competitive 50km events. The first was the Tan Ultra, which is thirteen laps of the Tan in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Melbourne. He completed this having, in the week before the event, suffered from the worst case of gastro or food poisoning he had experienced. His online coach had proved invaluable in this instance, talking him through how to approach the race, even simply providing him with the confidence through experience that the race could still be completed despite the illness.
The second event was a trail run race in the Glasshouse Mountains north of Brisbane, the 50km event at the Glasshouse 100. “I went into this event thinking I was going to get killed. Bek [his wife] couldn’t come, so I didn’t have a support crew and I was up there on my own and I thought, this is really going to break me. I didn’t even have all the gear I need until the day before the race, and I thought it would really break me.
The tracks were well maintained, the country flat, his body ready. The structure of the race is for the competitors to run two different 50km tracks out from Wangaratta, one after the other. Basically, 25kms out in one direction, and then back to the starting point, and then 25kms out in a different direction, and back again. The main difference with this race being that each competitor was to choose their own starting time, with a view to arranging to complete the race at 2pm. The concept behind this being that everyone would finish at the same time. Marcus allowed himself twelve hours to finish.
As Bek drove him to the starting line in the dead of night, they drove past a pub with revellers lined up outside awaiting approval to enter. As he was setting himself to run 100kms, others around him hadn’t even finished getting in when going out, let alone decided to go home.
Despite his preparation, he didn’t feel great. He’d had a poor sleep, and felt somewhat overwhelmed. He’d never started a run so early, but there he was surrounded by others ready to go, and they “just took off, and that was a good feeling. We’d finally started.” Headlamp on, backpack and belt with food and drink supplies, they set off at a good clip.
“I went out faster than I would’ve anticipated, mostly because the others in the group were doing so. I wanted to keep up with them. I actually thought that they were being a bit sneaky, significantly overestimating their time, so that they could get the bulk of the distance out of the way before the heat of the day set in, as it was set to reach around 30 degrees Celsius in the afternoon. I thought it best to join them, and I got to the 25km mark running at about the 5 and a half minute per km pace. It’s slower than any run I would normally do, but in the context of a 100km race it felt fast.”
“At about the 30km mark, the headlamp was getting annoying and I moved it up. It was a bitumen track, and I could no longer really see it and then after only a few minutes I rolled my ankle. I felt this shock, this kind of what have I done moment, but I was pretty quickly able to determine it was manageable. I could feel it in the days after, so it was there, but I knew it wouldn’t stop me.” He still had 70kms to run.
Unfortunately at around this point as well, his stomach started playing up. He had just taken his first gel, which he describes as “disgusting, sticky packets of this gooey mess that in any other context would be considered the worst thing you could eat for your health. It’s the type of thing you really want to avoid, but it’s precisely what you need on these runs because it gives you a boost almost instantaneously.”
His body, he believes, didn’t really know what was going on having started running at 2am, and so then, at around 4:30-5:00am, he got that “dreaded feeling that he really needed to go to the toilet quite urgently. Not super urgently, but enough that I just kept my eyes out for a toilet, but there just weren’t any, and I asked people coming in the other directions if they knew where one was, I asked people at aid stations, and no-one seemed to know.”
“Fortunately I was fully prepared for this, so I had to make an emergency departure from the course for a few minutes. I knew what to expect, even though it was my first time, and then once that was done I was back.” He felt great after that for the next 10kms, and he passed the 42.2km marker which they put in to notify runners that they have run beyond the normal marathon point, and “no way did I feel like I’d run a marathon. I think it’s the mindset of these organised events. If you go into an event knowing you’re going to run 50 or 100kms, something changes. So at that marathon point I totally didn’t feel like I’d run a marathon.”
“I felt great up until 50kms when I’d gotten back to the starting point. It had gotten light and the elites were heading out, and they were just smashing it. It was a good feeling. I caught up with Bek and Mum, which was good. There were 50km runners who were just getting briefed before their run and they all stopped to applaud as I was running past which was a good feeling.” It’s important to be aware that he had been running on his own from about the 30km mark, “solitary running except for those coming in the opposite direction.”
By this point, things had for the most part gone to plan. His plan had been to run at a comfortable pace that he could maintain, and despite having set out at a faster pace than he had expected, and then having overcome his bowel issues, he had accomplished that. He’d felt a tremendous “rush” at the start, heading into the unknown. “There is something weird and enjoyable about running in the dark. And the country sky, you can actually see the stars out there, and it is completely different to in the city where it is blocked out by lights. The first 25km out was really enjoyable because it was a really unique experience coupled with the adrenaline.” He then felt great when he’d hit his zone and moved toward and beyond the marathon distance.
“I hit the 60km point feeling energised again because of that personal feeling of accomplishment, and knowing that every kilometre I go from here is 1km further than anything I’ve done in the past, and that kept me going for perhaps the next 10kms. Feeling ok, but gradually, constantly fading.” He wasn’t feeling great, but he was feeling “optimistic that I would finish the race. Maybe it was at that 60km point that I felt that I would get through it, even if it meant walking, I would finish the race.”
The fatigue though, was constantly worsening. At the 70km mark he saw his Mum and Bek again. “There was an aid station there, and I caught up with them, probably stopped for the longest time I stopped at any aid station. A couple of minutes, restocked all my supplies. I thought, at the 75km mark I’m turning and then there is another 25kms back. So in 10kms I’ll be back right where I am now. 10kms feels like a lot, but there is another 20kms after that, so I think that 5kms out and back I was starting to feel mentally challenged. Whereas up to that point I had felt physically fatigued, but not mentally. That point was where I mentally started to waver a bit.”
Pressed to explain this: “It’s not major. I’d been told that it’s going to get really bad. You get to this low point where you feel mentally exhausted, or question ‘Why am I doing this?’ ‘This is crazy, why would anybody do this?’ ‘My body is exhausted, I want to stop, I want to walk.’ ‘I don’t want to do this, this is crazy.’ Those sort of things.” He did think something along those lines, but “not in any serious way. Any of those kind of thoughts were being overridden by the thought that I was going to finish it.”
When he’d gotten back to the aid station, he’d completed 80kms and was feeling a “bit shaky”. “It wasn’t exhaustion, it was more a constant fatigue that was gnawing at my ability to sustain a good solid pace. At the 80km point it, in fact between the 80 and 90km points it felt a bit like trudging. Just getting it done. I think this was physical.” Soreness or lethargy? “Both. Your legs are just wrecked, you have no strength and you are sore but you have to keep running. I didn’t really feel that bad until the last 10kms, but the 10kms leading up to the last 10kms was just kind of – do the work, just get it done.”
It’s late morning, and the temperature is in the mid-20s. He’d been vigilant with his eating, but it was getting harder to eat the supplies in his camel back backpack. By the 90km mark, the fatigue had built up to the point where “it was hard to keep moving. And I think that had triggered the mental drop. I was still optimistic, but it was more just the feeling that I want this to be over. I’ve got 10kms to go, and 10kms is nothing, but I’m running so slowly [about 6 and a half minute kms], I’m pretty much shuffling. You do the calculations in your head and you realise it’s still a long time. That realisation hits you.”
“One person had been on my tail for a while, and she overtook me with about 5kms to go. That competitive element was at play there because I didn’t want her to overtake me, but I later realised she was one of the 50km race competitors.”
“That last 10kms was the hardest 10kms I’ve ever run. It kept kicking down, the time got slower. 5kms, 4kms, 3kms.”
Asked if this was the wall: “I wouldn’t say it’s … I don’t know. It didn’t feel as bad as how I’ve heard the wall being described. I think I had enough fuel that I wasn’t relying on fat stores to drive me. I think that’s what the wall is, when you run out of carbohydrates and burning fuel and start tapping into your fat supplies. I’d had enough food, I think, throughout the day that I didn’t experience that. I just got a deep-set fatigue.”
The worst moments were when stopping at aid stations, or, more accurately, starting from aid stations. “When you’re moving, it’s not as bad as just trying to get going. There was an aid station with 5kms to go and I stopped to get a drink, and then just taking off was a huge challenge.”
“The first time it felt real that I was going to finish was when there was about 2kms to go and there was someone going in the opposite direction, a volunteer I think, and she just said ‘congratulations’. That was really nice to hear, it was a nice moment. It was so close to the end that I needed that pick-me-up.”
“I didn’t [pick up the pace]. This was one race where I didn’t have much left in the tank at the end.” Crossing the line was “a peak experience. When you work towards something – achieving a goal – for that period of time, it was amazing. I guess I’d built it up in my mind to be … you construct it up in your mind to feel like something, and it feels a bit different to that, but the fatigue was there, which slightly overpowered the euphoria of having finished, a little bit.”
Does that not make the moment feel a bit more like the achievement it was meant to? “It was definitely one of the best experiences that I can recall. That experience of crossing the finish line … Mum and Bek were there, I saw them as I was coming up to the finish line. Mum was a bit of a mess at that point. She’d been tearing up for some time, apparently, but Bek was just her usual self. Extremely bubbly and happy and excited.”
He’d finished in 10 hours, 24 minutes and 53 seconds, roughly an hour and a half ahead of schedule, finishing the race in 12th position out of 45. Nine did not finish.
Bek herself recounts the day as “intense”. Re the preparation, she was happy he’d had the coaching he’d received to give him the knowledge to achieve what he did, but it was clear that the fact he had been running every day had taken somewhat of a toll. Still, in the end, “all of that went into the big day which was pretty amazing to witness”, particularly when considering “everything he’d gone through, and all the mini goals he’d made along the way. Having the ability to track him [online] meant that, for example, I could see him pass the 60km mark, and I knew that was a personal best for him.”
It must be a strange experience for the entourage, getting up after 1am, seeing someone off on the big adventure they’d planned and prepared for and would complete within the day, but then heading back to bed. She was “nervous, excited. I was nervous because I wasn’t going to see him for the next 50kms and it was going to be dark and I didn’t want him to get into any trouble, because I’m not there to help him, I was also excited because I was like, ‘It’s only 50kms, and that’s easy for him.”
This meant a sleep for four hours to see him at the half way point. “He was looking tuckered out. I wouldn’t say he had a spring in his step.” With her now awake for the next 50kms of the race, it felt all the more intense. “We met him around the 75km mark, and I was thinking ‘you’d better bloody make this’” she laughs. “Dawn was having a bit of a mini freak out and I told her, ‘Nah, he’s got it, he’s done all the training, he’s got it.’” It’s an emotional rollercoaster for all involved. “I think I was convincing her as well as myself.”
“I wasn’t ever worried though, he has the determination and mindset. He just can. If he wants to do something, he just does it. Nothing stops him.” “We next saw him at the finishing line … but we were watching the dot on the phone of his progress and we were wondering what was slowing him down. The last 10kms was the longest, as that dot was just so freaking slow moving.”
She’d turned the phone off, having been unable to watch it anymore, and then “he came up around the bend, and his Mum lost it. A blubbering mess. Proud, happy blubbering mess. I didn’t turn into a blubbering mess, but I was very proud.”
When that is complete, my expectation is that there will still be that question hanging out there like a juicy piece of fruit just over a cliff face: could he complete a 100 mile race?
This seems to be at the heart of the story, as both Marcus and Bek pinpoint as the motivation behind the whole exercise. Answering the question of, can it be done? Testing his resilience, preparation, determination, and all of the strong character traits that haven’t, as yet, been pushed to break. My take, is that Marcus will, at some stage be compelled to test himself against himself. When and how, will play itself out.
Marcus is my oldest friend. We met when we were doing orientation for Preps in 1985. We don’t see as much of each other as, well, certainly I’d like, catching up for the odd Tigers game, or poker event. Interestingly, I was only informed that he was even contemplating such an achievement when I texted him in October to wish him luck for the marathon, something I assumed he’d do. To say that I was blown away by such an ambition is an understatement.
Marcus is, as always, nonplussed. He doesn’t see it as that big an achievement, in fact, he is at pains to point out that in the context of ultramarathon running, his achievements are insignificant. The winner of the race he ran in completed it in 7 hours, 54 minutes and 38 seconds, about 2 and a half hours faster than Marcus. He is genuinely embarrassed that I would request so strongly to record his story. I, however, am not looking at this accomplishment in context of general ultramarathon running.
I am looking at this in the context of the life of Marcus Volz; a man that had basically never been running three and a half years before completing a 100km ultramarathon. A man whose previous experience with competitive endurance could be narrowed down to his ability to be actively a part of a poker game for hours at a time without ever playing a hand. He knocked over two marathons, and two 50km ultramarathons along the way, winning one.
While the concept of the fastidious, organised, clear minded Marcus Volz dropping his strides and going to the toilet in the bush is one that amuses me greatly, it is also one that helps prove the point of just how determined he is. His story is extraordinary, even if he doesn’t think it is. It is inspirational too. Not necessarily inspiring in regards to running ultramarathons, but inspiring in that it challenges one to question what they are capable of, in anything.
Be it work, or any form of hobby, anything you may want to do, just how far can you push yourself? How far can you go? How good can you be? That’s the crux of it, I think. There are these stores of oneself that remain untapped, go unchecked, and most of us don’t actually try to test them. Marcus, like his fellow ultramarathon runners for which he has so much respect, is actually trying to find out just how much he is capable of. I wonder if 100 miles will be enough.
Whatever the result, whether you think it’s madness or otherwise, you have to applaud the pursuit.