Last updated: 06-Nov-18
By Ian Corless
The human body is an amazing thing! So amazing that we can ask it to do incredible things… we can cycle, swim, jump, fly (with help) and we can do the thing that arguably is the most natural; run!
We were born to run. Way back in the day, we needed to run to find food and we also needed to run to avoid being eaten. I love the dichotomy of the situation and I think back to a famous quote:
‘Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up; it knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the lion or a gazelle-when the sun comes up, you’d better be running.’
As time progressed, running became a past time and something to be done for fun! Yes, for fun… imagine it, running for pleasure.
Some years ago, running long intrigued me. By running long, I mean longer than a marathon. I would look at people who would run 50km, 50-miles, 100-km, and 100-miles… I would think, bonkers!
I then met William Sichel. William is a small diminutive man with a quiet and controlled voice. He’s a thinker, someone who has a mind of iron and the strength of ten. His story is remarkable and on all occasions that I have spoke with him he has inspired, confused and confirmed that ‘some’ runners really are what I originally thought, bonkers!
I am not even talking about his incredible story of surviving testicular cancer in 1997 and how just 2-months after life saving surgery he was able to resume ‘normal’ training. Believe it or not, 1-month later he was selected to represent GB in the World 100km Championships and 4-months after the ‘op’ he placed 45th in the world with 07:27:56. That is some comeback!
William started running in 1994, a multiple world record holder and a specialist in what I personally like to consider the extreme end of ultra running…
And 1000-miles are just some of the appetizers on offer. William has run the iconic Badwater-135; which takes place in Death Valley and he ran under 30-hours for Spartathlon, a 152-mile journey in Greece steeped in history.
Now in his 60’s, one would assume he is slowing up… oh no! He’s only just beginning.
Are you sitting down?
Take a breath!
Just this year, William completed the Sri Chimnoy Self Transcendence 3,100-mile race in 50-days, 150-hours, 06-minutes and 04-seconds.
Like I said, bonkers!
I caught up with the Scottish pocket rocket (again) to TRY and understand how one even contemplates such an epic journey.
IC: It’s a pleasure to chat once again. What an epic journey! One simple question…. Why?
WS: Good question! I ask myself that quite often. I’ve known about this race for a long time. As you know, my interest in ultra has always been against the clock. I have never been a trail runner. I was aware that the longest race on a measured course was the Sri Chimnoy 3100-miles. I dismissed it to be honest… I never thought I would find 2–months free to do the race, as I am self-employed. As I approached 60-years a seed was planted. I thought it would be nice to do something different. Something special; something major and maybe something that would REALLY test me! My thoughts went back to Sri Chimnoy. A series of events combined that made the Sri Chimnoy possible, so, I seized the opportunity! I made the decision 18-months before the race so that I could plan and make logistics work.
IC: You have raced with the Sri Chimnoy team before, yes?
WS: Oh yes, I have raced Sri Chimnoy events since 1994. Just never one this long! They didn’t need to screen me, so, it all clicked together nicely.
IC: You put things into place from a practical perspective but physically and mentally this is something else. We all ask questions about the distance you run. Especially this race as it all takes place on a small loop. Sri Chimnoy is about ‘Self Transcendence’ is that what it is for you?
WS: the man Sri Chimnoy created the whole experience. He set up the foundation. The first race was below 3000-miles but 3100-miles is a significant number in Hindu philosophy. I am not a disciple of Sri Chimnoy however 12 of the 14 runners were… they do the races year after year. They describe themselves as running Monks. One man had done the race ten times. It’s a specialized ultra race. It’s not for everyone. As for Self Transcendence, I am not really qualified to say what is…
IC: I have the quote, ‘Self-Transcendence gives us joy in boundless measure. When we transcend ourselves we do not compete with others, we do not compete with the rest of the world but at every moment we compete with ourselves.’ I get it. I remember Yiannis Kouros talking about his inner self leaving his body and running at the side of himself or in front. I guess it must be a spiritual journey, was it for you?
WS: At this race, you have chanting while you run. I was asked if I minded the spiritual aspect of the race. To be honest, I didn’t mind it. I think we all find something spiritual in a run like this.
IC: Tell me about the mental aspect.
WS: I believed I could do this. Mentally these races are exhausting, so much more about the mind than the physical. I found the mental stress intolerable at times.
IC: I find it intolerable just thinking about it!
WS: Yes, I had lots of mental anguish. I had committed to doing this. Although I may have wanted to stop at times I felt as though I couldn’t. I rarely glanced at the board that showed days or mileage. I didn’t dare look at it. The undertaking was enormous especially when an event can last 52-days. I explored new depths mentally.
IC: To clarify. The objective is to cover 3100-miles or as far as you can within 52-days. That basically means you must do more than 2-marathons a day. However, you have a restriction that you are not allowed to run from midnight to 0600am each day.
WS: Yes, that is correct. As a runner you are provided with a room near the course so that you can maximize recovery. I had a room on the course; I was just the other side of the road. This was fantastic. I could just walk to and from the race route. It was a real plus!
IC: That is a serious day at work. Commuting must have been fun. Did you mentally think of it as a job, you were going to work each day?
WS: Exactly, yes I treated like a job. I would say to myself, you are on a 52-day contract and you must run 60-miles a day. I talked to myself throughout to keep myself sane and motivated. I amazed myself how much I talked and repeated mantras to motivate myself.
IC: The course is only 0.5 miles long. Crazy! It’s in New York and that basically means you are trying to cover 109 laps per day. For goodness sake, it’s Central Park, the middle of New York. How on earth do you get yourself prepared for this?
WS: You change direction everyday. However, the first shock was the difficulty of the course. The course was very busy at times with people going about daily life. I live in a very remote part of Scotland; it’s quiet, so, to be thrown into a city and this many people were intimidating. On one section of the route we had 12-lanes of traffic. It was noisy.
IC: Jeez, it’s sounding worse and worse.
WS: The course also had undulations. I had to have a routine and I needed to be prepared. I would ask the other runners for information. Although I have 20-years of running experience, this race was new for me. For 2-weeks I was a sponge. When to rest? When to run? When to walk? And so on. I would walk the bends, walk uphill and I would run the downs and the flat. I noticed clockwise provided an advantage. It was extremely difficult.
IC: How did a day work out?
WS: Well, it worked out different to what I planned. I planned 10-min run/ 10-min walk. Within 2-hours I had to throw that out of the window. The course undulations wouldn’t allow that. So I ran slower and steadier and walked the corners and uphill. Because of the urban nature, the first 2-hours and final 3-hours were the quietest time, so, I had to maximize the time. The first 2-hours were hopeless as you are too stiff and sore. I would sleep for 4-hours 45-min or so each night. I had a routine. I would have a 1-hour break mid afternoon, otherwise I would just keep moving. I would drink each hour and eat on the move. I tried many different scenarios but this final strategy is what worked. It’s trial and error. No one strategy works. You become obsessed because everything has a cost. If you stop for a massage, it would mean I miss 2-3 laps etcetera.
IC: I find it mind blowing you were effectively on your feet 17-hours a day. When you ate did you eat on the move?
WS: Yes, all my meals were from a small plastic cup whilst moving. I didn’t sit down for a meal for 2-months. Experienced runners could still jog and eat but I couldn’t. After 3-4 weeks I felt I was growing into the event. I was training myself to perform better. I started to run longer. I actually ran up to 68-miles per day. However, I did get a calf strain after 14-days and that lasted 6-days. I became a machine.
IC: You fell behind the cut off pace for a while due to the calf strain. How did that impact on you and how did you pull that time back?
WS: I picked up a calf strain on day-14. I was told it was a form of cramp due to depleted sodium and potassium. It reduced me to a walk for 6-days. I was only covering just over 40+ miles per day. It was so stressful; I didn’t know what to do really? We had plenty of medical support but ironically I missed treatment for 3-nights more my own fault really. I eventually got this rectified and with my crew I got regular treatment, which got my back to running again.
IC: How far behind were you?
WS: On day 19 I was 71-miles behind the target pace. I was aware of this but during the race I didn’t know this… it wouldn’t have been helpful. I needed to blank this and work on my mind. I adjusted and went into mental lockdown. I lived in the moment. I focused on each step, each minute detail and I said to myself, just run the greatest distance possible each day and repeat. Lap by lap, day by day I started to adapt and I found that at night I could speed up. After 9pm I could run, I could speed up and I could move quickly. This is coincided with the course being quieter too. The race and the other runners had written me off; they all didn’t think it was possible to pull back such a deficit.
IC: You had a great crew?
WS: Oh yes, from day 14 I had crew that could look after me so all I had to concentrate on was running. It was significant.
IC: How did you pull back that time?
WS: As I said, step by step.
IC: You talk in such a calm and measured way that I feel as though I should understand. It blows my mind. What you have done doesn’t intimidate me; it terrifies me. I personally don’t think I could do it for just 1-week. Do you think that anyone who tackles this or anything really long like this is naturally gifted? You can’t train for something like this.
WS: No you can’t train for something like this!
IC: I guess 20-years running helps but do you feel you are gifted?
WS: I have obviously got something! The race director told me after the race that my performance was the best performance. I actually negative split the race and he said, ‘You are not supposed to do that.’ I must be gifted physically or mentally or maybe a combination of the two. Avery small number of people has ever done this race or anything like it. For the Sri Chimnoy disciples, they are motivated by different factors. This underlies the ability; they have a different motive. It’s highly specialized. My goal was to finish within the time limit. I didn’t want to go back and finish the job. This was a once in a lifetime journey and that is a great motivator. I didn’t race the other runners; I just had a strong desire to compete.
IC: Had you not had a bad 6-days and lost 71-miles do you think you could have improved on your 6th overall?
WS: I think I may have made the podium. But who knows. An event like this as highs and lows and that is part of the package. No guarantees. I was almost too fast for the race… the weather impacted on me. It was hot and I would over heat because of my pace, so, I had to slow down. I taught myself to run slower and more economically. It’s all part of the learning process.
IC: Do you have any security issues; you were running in Queens after all?
WS: It’s a good question. Throughout the whole time I saw no issues (other than one gang fight) and the race did have a cyclist go around and around after dark.
IC: The nature of the event. It’s all about repetition; repeated laps, repeated days. Do you feel like you are in ‘William World?’
WS: Yes. Totally! Only two of us didn’t use MP3 players, I was one. I had to go into a world of mental lockdown for 18-hours a day. It’s the only way of coping. It’s an extension of what I have done in 6-day races. I also don’t talk much. If I talk I distract myself and that can’t happen. It’s what works for me.
IC: How does time feel? Silly question I guess but do you notice every second, every minute and every hour?
WS: I found that the urban course offered variety. Day was very different to night. Hundreds of people would be around every day so the day had a routine. It would be quiet then you have school children, an ice cream van would arrive, the roads would Eb and Flow. Daily life would go on and then at night it would become quiet. It all helped time pass.
IC: I think of Paula Radcliffe counting foot strikes, did you have a mantra?
WS: I use mantras all the time. I exhausted all my mantras in this race due to the length. They stopped working so I had to create new ones. I would think about breathing, I have always found this useful. I would think about my breathing cycle. I called this my energy ball. I would inflate my energy ball within my stomach and I found this method lasted days and days. It actually lasted the final 2-weeks of the race.
IC: Wow, It’s a whole new level. I guess what you have mentioned almost falls inline with Sri Chimnoy. Did you speak with them and ask what methods they used?
WS: I had little time to chat! My week of walking allowed some extra time but the race is a religious experience for them. As I said, the Sri Chimnoy chant was played while we run. It’s such a personal thing.
IC: Like a pilgrimage?
WS: Yes, for sure. I said previously they are running Monks. In many respects they are not interested in other events.
IC: Do you find short distances difficult now?
WS: I don’t do them…! Where I live doesn’t provide access to short races like a marathon. I have run marathons in the past but since ‘94’ I have run ultras. The shortest race I have done in the last 10-years was a 24-hour race!
IC: You have a very unique training regimen and we should point out that it’s not one that people shouldn’t follow without experience and knowledge. Can you please provide and insight.
WS: I don’t run much in training these days. I run in races. It’s a progression. I have been doing this for 20-years. I have found as time passed, particularly when I raced long distances that I could cover 1500-1600 miles in races. I found that all round conditioning was the most important. I have a great record of no injury. Since ‘95’ I have used weight vest training, I started with 2% of body weight and now I use 20kg weigh vest. It’s a core of my training but not one that should be copied. It’s a very slow and gradual process. I also do plyometrics, I weight train twice week, I do flexibility and yoga; it’s a whole package. I do run but considerably less than many would think or expect.
IC: Do you have any regrets spending 50-days running?
WS: No, it was a one off! I have no regrets, it was planned a long time ahead and it was done in conjunction with family and friends support. The outcome was what I had hoped for, so, no regrets!
IC: Looking from the outside, many will say, How can you give up 2-months? How do you finance it? What sacrifices do you have to make?
WS: The entry fees are very cheap! The race is sponsored by the Sri Chimnoy organization and every day has a different sponsor. The fee was only $1300 and that includes everything for 2-months. It’s incredible. I worked hard on sponsorship and that worked well for me, the package of support was a huge help. From a business perspective, yes, my business suffered but we had planned for this and I made adjustments. This is why I say it was a once in a lifetime experience. In a way, all this builds to make the event what it is. It’s part of the process. It focuses the mind. It’s part of the journey and ultimately what the self-transcendence is about. I had incredible support from friends who funded their own trips to come and support me. I am forever thankful to them.
William never ceases to amaze me and without doubt he is a shining example not only as a person but also as an athlete. He is a shining light that shows age is no barrier to excellence. He may well be recovering now, but rest assured, a crazy adventure will soon be on the cards and once again, William will be flying the flag an pushing the boundaries of what we all may think is possible in sport.
William Sichel reached 3,100 Miles in 50 Days 15 hours 06 minutes and 04 seconds.
This will set a bunch of new records at the Scottish M60, Scottish Overall, British M60, and British Overall and World M60 levels.
William has now run further in a single, measured race than any other Scot, any other British athlete, and/or anyone over the age of 60 – ever.
He has become the first Scot, the first Briton, and the first person over the age of 60, and the oldest person ever to complete the 3,100-mile distance within the official time limit.