A candid discussion about running, ultramarathons and the link between peak performance and fitness training with Marian Vasile, Global Leadership & Talent Partner Personal Health at Philips, Netherlands, also a successful ultra-marathon runner.
Paul: I am very pleased to invite a dear friend, someone I admire truly: Marian Vasile, who is an ultramarathon runner. And because I was so fascinated with this sport, I decided to interview Marian to share some knowledge and wisdom that I have gotten from observing the sport. So, Marian, how are you today?
Paul: Super. Again, thank you for taking some time with me. So, let’s start with a quick definition. You are an ultramarathon participant. Can you tell me the difference between a regular marathon and an ultramarathon? And what makes you prefer the second one instead of the first one?
Marian: Classical question, Paul. Technically, everything that is higher than 42.2 kilometers, becomes an ultramarathon. Many distances are preferred in the ultramarathon world, and we can talk about 50 kilometers, 50 miles, 100 kilometers, 100 miles, even longer.
I think the most usual distances for ultramarathons are the ones between 100 kilometers and 100 miles. You will see that 100 miles are very common in the U.S, whereas in Europe, the distances vary, so there is no specific rule about them. What happened in the last decade or a couple of decades? You also have time-based races, so they are no longer based only on distance, but certain times. So, you have six-hour races, 12-hour races, 24-hour races. They are not usually done outside in the wild, in the mountains, but they are usually done on flat surfaces. So, you can get the highest mileage possible in a set period of time.
Paul: Okay, so when did you get the idea of participating in an ultramarathon race, or how did you get started?
Marian: It didn’t start as a means to an end, that is running an ultramarathon. It started from my desire to run or more precisely from my desire to lose some weight. I wanted to somehow complement and find amore efficient way, or diet to drop some kilos. Quite a lot. And then slowly, I started to investigate the sport. I started to like it, and then I ran my first marathon, which was a road marathon. And then slowly, I grew into finding out about amazing events through the mountains, through the desert. And then I simply signed up. I started to run them, and I started to experience this nice world.
Paul: I’m fascinated by the distances and you’re saying there are either time races or distance races, correct?
Paul: Now, tell me how much do you train for these competitions? How many hours per day? And what should we expect? Are there any requirements for someone to be able to run an ultramarathon?
Marian: It’s a fair question. I want to go a step back with a wider perspective. First of all, you cannot do this type of race as you might imagine. You cannot do it every other week. Yes, it is a fact they really hurt your body. You really need the time to recover. For me, at this moment it’s finding the sweet spot in, like three, maybe four races maximum per year.
But even with three or four races, you cannot keep your level of fitness to the highest level. What I normally do, I choose two of the races throughout the year to be my “A” races, or my top races. They are usually in July and August, and I use all the other smaller races to simply train for these big events.
When you train, you need to choose carefully and look at the date of the event. What works for me throughout the year, is maybe around 70 to 80 kilometers per week running. And I do a couple of big blocks of training with longer distances and higher intensity, like 5 to 6 weeks before the race. And that means 120 – 130 kilometers per week for 3-4 weeks. So, I use these peaks to boost up my fitness and my endurance level.
Paul: So, about 70 kilometers per week, 5 to 6 weeks before the race, you’re saying?
Marian: No. 5 to 6 weeks before the race, I increase that. So, they go up to 120 – 130 kms. A normal week for me for example, now, in March, with no immediate running event on the horizon. I normally run 80, maybe even 90 kilometers per week.
Paul: And you’re able to be consistent with that? Every week you would run between 70 and 90 kilometers.
Marian: Something like this. I usually take a break in the wintertime between two or three weeks where I simply don’t do anything. I give my body the rest it needs. And then I start over. But these 70 to 90 kilometers, I don’t even see them as part of a training schedule. It’s part of my daily routine, which I almost need. It’s not like I do it with a purpose.
Paul: And you break that down by five days.
Marian: Usually by five days, usually weekends like Saturdays and Sundays. I use them for longer runs. It’s kind of complicated, actually, during the week to have a set schedule. Sometimes I run in the morning, sometimes I run in the evening or even at noon if I have the time at lunch. But then on the weekend, it’s easier because I know I can wake up really early in the morning. Five o’clock I go, I do my long runs, and at nine o’clock, when my family wakes up, we are ready to roll for the weekend.
Paul: It is making sense for me now. You are a business professional and executive – Global talent and leadership partner at Philips. You mentioned you run in the morning. You also run in the evenings. How do you recover from your busy work life?
Marian: I think the recovery comes into play pretty much after the races. Sometimes a couple of days or maybe even a week when I need to sleep more or rest more. Normally on a daily basis after my daily training, I don’t feel I need a special time for recovery. Yeah, I do some stretching. I do some exercises, whatever, but it fits in the overall time frame. So, it’s not something particularly special.
Paul: Is there a link there, I mean in the peak performance in both work and passion? How can you relate these two things?
Marian: It’s a very good question. Looking back, I see clear correlations between the two of them. And I’m not going to repeat this classic such as: “hey, you can do anything, and you can achieve anything”. This is not something I truly believe in. But what I spotted between these two activities is, for example, I give always my best when I’m able to manage the stress and it’s valid for the job and for the running.
And, as I say, “manage the stress and not be without stress”, so, of course, there is a certain amount of stress in the running, but also in business. It’s about how you manage it. And, if I look at my races, if I look at my business, I really look at them as two big problem-solving exercises. It’s something I really take step by step.
An ultra-running event or a race is for sure an opportunity if you want to go through every physical and mental states. There is also a funny saying within the participants: – Hey, if you feel good enough during the race, don’t worry, it will go away. That is perfectly true and it applies to business.
What I’m used to thinking during races and work, is that it’s about finding balance at the end of the day. Make sure you maximize the periods when you feel well or you do well at work, for example, and you want to push with higher achievements, and make sure you also recognize the period when you know things will go bad. It’s exactly how it happens also in business. I think everyone has gone through that.
It’s exactly how it happens also in races. And the question there is, finally, how do you push through? This is where problem-solving comes into play. You need to pick the options you have at hand, whether in running or in business. Make the right choices to reach out to the perfect solution, and you may not have too many at that moment.
For example, in running, you need to decide when to take a break, during the race, when to eat something, or even smaller things like changing your socks that can make or break one race. Same in business. Make the right call. Let somebody go. Hire someone else. They go hand in hand. To me, it helped a lot. I’m not going to say that running helped me in business, but it’s also the other way around. It’s a nice mixture.
Paul: Are you able to manage work-related stress because you run?
Marian: For sure. That is a big issue, because running is for me my daily activity to clear my mind, and I try to run with a clear mind, or I try to solve different issues. And I try to run them through my head while I do my training. It helps. I always say that if an issue at work cannot be solved during a long, long run, then it must be really a tough one.
Paul: Tell me more about the competitions you took part in. Which one was the best experience for you, and which one was the most difficult?
Marian: Usually the best experiences are the ones that were also the most difficult because you managed to push through. I got a couple of good results in races that are not that well known. But I got top 10 finishes in some races in Israel or Italy.
It doesn’t matter at the end of the day. Regarding the difficult ones – I ran a race, for example, in Oman. At the end of 2019, which was without a doubt the most brutal experience I have gone though. The terrain there, the mountains are simply outstanding in terms of beauty. You feel so humble in front of them, but the trails were so difficult. It is only stone, razor-sharp edges… it was really, really hard also with huge differences in temperature between the day and the night. So, it was a long race – one hundred thirty kilometers which lasted 37 hours.
So, 37 hours while I only slept 20 minutes. It was one of the most exhilarating feelings I had when I finished that. It’s hard to put into words. It’s a mixture of being proud yet somehow feeling sorry for yourself because you’re hurting with every single inch of your body. But it is also realizing a great achievement. It is not only about finishing it, but also how you finish. I do not make a goal to finish a race within a timeframe. I am not at that level. What I want is to finish a race and feel that I am at 100%. But literally, 100 percent, so when I cross the finish line and I know that I have got nothing but literally nothing in me, I’m happy.
Paul: Ok, I do not imagine you have much left after thirty-seven hours and sleeping 20 minutes?
Marian: No, I did not. But then, to your point, there is a saying among runners that the most difficult race is the one you do not finish.
I had races where for some reason, I did not finish because of the injuries. And that’s something pragmatic. I am mature enough to know that I need to stop. If I don’t know if I sprained my ankle and I’m in the middle of the month, I’m going to quit. That’s pretty clear. But then there were a couple of races where I know I didn’t finish because I didn’t have the right mindset. What happens is during most races, your mind starts playing tricks on you. You will always think…15 hours into the race, you will get the best reasons in the world to quit. And they are extremely solid. At that moment, it’s finally the race between what you feel, your body, and your mind. What do you do? How do you push through? And I come back to problem-solving. You need to find the right motivation at that moment to move on and finish that race. And again, it happened to me a couple of times where I was, let us not say weak, but convinced by my mind to quit.
Paul: Which is normal, right? You cannot always be on top of things?
Marian: Yes, but I want to link it again to what I said earlier. There are races where there was a clear and balanced moment in my life; I was either stressed at work; my mind was not clear or there was something that wasn’t right. It always happens like that. It only works out well when I try to manage the stress.
Paul: Does Ultramarathon competition give you the feeling that you have a special power?
Paul: Do you feel like an Olympian or can you relate the ultramarathon to Olympians?
Marian: I can relate on a different level. I can relate in terms of how I train for that. I think the training for that event really gets me the superpower of an athlete. The discipline needed; the stamina needed for all the training – that makes me feel a bit special. But I do not think it’s me that has it only. Everyone can have it.
it’s a matter of how decided you are. If I look outside here in Amsterdam it’s raining a lot – actually pouring with rain and I say, hey, I’m not going to go run today, it’s raining but…I will. I know for a fact I will. So, I enjoy equally the race, but I also enjoy training. From this perspective, I do think that the discipline required to prepare for an ultramarathon is like a discipline applied by an Olympian.
Paul: What do you think you need in terms of your body and mind to be ready for an ultramarathon?
Marian: You’ve asked the right question, but let’s cut the elephant into small pieces. You need your body, so you need to be physically fit. No doubt about it. We are born to run as humans, but we are not born to run that long. Let’s make that very clear.
I can train my body for 70 to 80 kilometers. This I can. I know for a fact I ‘ve finished 80 kilometers races. Knowing that I have everything under control. But then what goes beyond that, you need to run it through your mind. And you need the decision to finish, you need to convince yourself that you can do it and you need to be able to convince your body to keep going. That is, you need both: you need body, and you need mind. And this is how it goes, at least for me.
Paul: Wonderful. We are going to stop here because we’ve got lots of interesting insights. I noticed that when you were running, you would put on Facebook some passages about how you felt after the race. The documentation of these races – is there a reason for that? Is this because you wanted to remember or just because you felt good and share how you felt?
Marian: I think it’s a bit of everything. I really feel good when I finish, but I told you I feel good when I give 100 percent of what I did. I had races where I quit, and I still felt good about myself. I live in a small bubble, if you want, of ultrarunners. We share this. It’s what makes the difference between those who run road marathons and ultramarathons and there’s a funny story at the end of our road marathon. When you meet one of your fellow runners, the first question will be: what was your time? Because they want to relate, to compare. At the finish line of an ultramarathon, the first question you get is: how was it? Time is not that important. Time is absolutely out of the scope. How was it? How did you feel? How did you experience it?
And if you take 1000 people finishing an ultramarathon, the UTMB, for example, you’ll get 1000 stories.
Paul: UTMB you mean the Ultra-Trail Mont-Blanc, right?
Paul: I saw pictures and you’ve sent me nice videos. A lot of people participate. Do you go up Mont Blanc mountain?
Marian: No, that race particularly goes around the mountain.
Paul: I see.
Marian: The main race there is 171 kilometers. And you get almost eleven thousand meters of elevation gain.
Paul: How many times have you run UTMB?
Marian: I’ve done it three times.
Paul: Wow, that must have been impressive too.
Marian: Yeah, it’s something else, because the event is built around the community and the mountain. So, there are very few sections of the course where you are alone. People simply reach out, they come out to cheer you. And the race is amazing. It starts in France, it goes through Italy, Switzerland, and then it comes back so it’s really nice.
Paul: Well, I was impressed when you first told me about this, and now with a lot more inspiration I am even more impressed than ever. I really appreciate your taking the time Marian. Continue your fine work at Philips and continued best success for your next ultramarathons. We will be rooting for you and waiting to read your Facebook passages, seeing you live, or hearing more about your success stories.
Marian: Thank you, Paul.
How cool is UTMB? Check out this video which Marian Vasile provided me: