Q&A with Lucja Leonard on the Genghis Khan Ice Marathon

Last updated: 06-Nov-18

By Luke Jarmey

When Andrew Murray initially told us about the Genghis Khan Ice Marathon, which will be held for the first time in January 2016, we were intrigued. So, we were really looking forward to delving into the details of this fascinating event with Lucja Leonard.

Q. First things first though, who is Lucja Leonard?

A. I am a lover of the best things in life – sexy husband, Dion, my gorgeous cat Lara, running, travel and adventure! I’m a 30 something year old Dutch-born, Australian-raised, wannabe-Scot, living in Edinburgh. I am a hotelier by day, ultra runner and adventurer by night and any spare time.

Q. What’s your running experience? Do you race at all?

A. I started running in 2008 so a newcomer to the sport. I hated running and exercise as a kid and now I’m addicted. I started racing in 2013 and am now hooked on racing. I try and do at least one event a month, and 3 or 4 big events a year.

Q. In our recent interview with him, Andrew described you as being ‘ridiculously tough mentally’! High praise coming from an endurance athlete of Andrew’s stature. What’s been the hardest race or adventure for you and why?

A. Very high praise indeed and I take that compliment with a lot of respect coming from an accomplished runner/adventurer such as Andrew. My hardest race to date would have to be the Transgrancanaria, 125km long with the ascent of Everest over the distance. It was my first ever mountain race, as well as the longest distance I had run in one hit and it was tough. I took 29h30min to complete so was out on my feet with no sleep through two whole nights and a full day. I surprised everyone, especially myself, with the pure grit and determination I showed to finish it. I certainly managed my inner chimp. Now of course I want to go back with more experience under my belt and give it a good nudge.

Q. Tell us about the Genghis Khan Ice Marathon?

A. The Genghis Khan Ice Marathon inaugural event will be held on the 27th January in Northern Mongolia, the least densely-populated country on earth, where runners will be running a marathon distance, not on land, but along the frozen Tuul gol river at temperatures as low as -40 degrees. It is open to anyone that has an adventurous soul and wants to get involved. At this stage there are seven runners taking part. It is considered one of the most beautiful, yet savage places on earth, not only due to the tough conditions but the area is also heavily populated with wolves.

Photo credit: David Scott.

Q. Along with Andrew Murray, who else are you running it with?

A. We have got a fabulous crew led by David Scott from Sandbaggers, the creator and organiser of the whole event. I am really excited to be running with my close friend and ally in adventures, Marina Ranger, the youngest of the group at just 25. She is keen to jump into any adventure, along with a superb group including Lenka Istvanova, Shona Thomson, Maurice Donohue and Doug Wilson. It looks like we have a pretty balanced team of women and men all with a range and wealth of experience and personalities, so it is going to be an exciting week in an exciting country.

Q. How did you become involved?

A. I was approached by Andrew and David as they were hatching up this adventure and knew I was keen to get involved with them after their recent Namib adventure. That was where Andrew and Donnie completed their record breaking run through the highest sand dunes in the world across the Namibian desert earlier this year.

Q. Can you give us an idea of the terrain and range in weather conditions you might experience?

A. The one thing that stands out to me is ‘minus forty degrees’! I’ve never been in any climate that cold before. I normally prefer my races in hot, desert climates. The weather should be a beautiful dry cold with stunning clear blue skies and sunshine. We are going to be running across a frozen river, which will be interesting in terms of traction. I guess the traction depends a lot on how the river freezes. It could be slick ice, which means we will need to wear ice grips over our shoes like Kahtoola microspikes (a bit like putting snow chains on your car tyres) to help you grip to the ice, or if it freezes rough, then there will be a naturally grippy surface. 

Q. We heard huskies are being used for transport and to scare off the wolves. Please elaborate?

A. The area we will be running in is heavily populated by wolves and not many people so the husky sled teams are there to keep them at bay and also in case of any emergency. In those conditions, if something happens to you and you need help, speed is of the essence before hypothermia or frostbite kick in.

Photo credit: David Scott.

Q. Physical preparation must play a huge part for these sort of events in such extreme terrain. Can you give us an insight into your training regime for the Genghis Khan? Are you able to do any conditioning for the cold?

A. It is really important to be prepared physically but also mentally for an extreme challenge. It might sound exciting and fabulous, but the reality of running in -40 degrees is not for the faint hearted, or so I am led to believe. With my experience of running in the opposite extremes of +40 degrees, I have learnt that you need to be as fit as you can be physically so that you are not causing yourself stress with that. Then, you can focus on listening intently to your body’s vital clues and managing your mind, so that you can not only complete the challenge in one piece, but enjoy it fully and not suffer as much. I will be training intensively to be fully prepared to run the distance strongly and ‘enjoy’ getting out of my bed in the freezing temperatures over winter in the dark to ensure I am fully acclimatised. This will be the first winter I am hoping for as much snow as possible for my training. Normally I’d avoid the snow and opt for the treadmill on those occasions, but not this winter – bring it on! 

Q. The heady concoction of mercury-solidifying temperatures and high-intensity aerobic output, places a huge strain on the body. To combat this, you’ll have to be smashing the calories. Have you got a nutrition plan lined up? Or is just cram in whatever’s going?

A. Well I do love my food so fuelling up before the event will not be a problem for me and I will focus on the weeks leading up to the event to be eating healthily and look to increase my carbohydrate intake in the week prior. Any excuse to eat carbs is enough for me to indulge, but I will try and shy away from just cramming in whatever is going. I know when I get out there and have to push my body, any poor fuel will cause me unnecessary suffering. During the run, I plan on sticking with gels, which I will keep in my sports bra next to my body to prevent them from freezing. I imagine running at those temperatures, there is not going to be much I can carry with me that won’t freeze. I’ll energise with them and I can guarantee that I will be really looking forward to a delicious hot meal afterwards, and will not be worrying about the nutritional value of that!

Q. What sort of gear will you be using? Any specialist items to keep you as snug as a bug in a rug?

A. I will be looking to layer up with easily removable layers. I know I always start out cold, but you have to dress for the 2nd or 3rd mile not the 1st and still be prepared for the 20th mile, where speed might decrease and you get cold again. I am proudly sponsored by X-Bionic so will be looking to wear a full length body cover from them, including specialist winter socks and a balaclava to keep all the extremities covered so there is no chance of frost bite. I suffer from Raynaud’s, so running in the cold is not ideal for me. Gloves are of the utmost importance. I am still deciding what to go for, but eying up the Montane Prism mitt or the Extreme glove. This is really worrying me as I have had my hands seize up so badly after only an hour or two out in Scottish winter conditions, that I have been unable to feed myself or even open my door to get inside. I got caught in a snowstorm in the Lake District and had to sit in a warm cafe for half an hour before I could physically press the button on my key to open my car door. That was pretty scary! I’ll be using normal trail shoes but with the Kahtoola microspikes over the top. I’ll be sure to have plenty of kit to throw on me when I’m done. I find running in the cold really affects my internal body temperature and I can take some time to warm up properly, so layers upon layers to throw on afterwards.

Q. We read somewhere that David Scott is organising some extreme wild golf when you’re out there! Had you heard of this and if so, what exactly constitutes ‘wild golf’ in Mongolia?

A. Well it’s going to be pretty wild if I’m playing! Me and golf sticks don’t have a great history so my swing will be pretty wild. Yes, it’s one of the adventures David has planned to get us immersed in the local culture and acclimatising to the conditions. Holes will be cut in the ice and we will all compete for the coveted title of Wild Golf Champion, there’s not many people that can claim that. 

Q. Finally, what charities are you supporting for the Genghis Khan Ice Marathon?

A. We are supporting two fantastic charities, SAMH (Scottish Association for Mental Health) and RDA (Riding for the Disabled Association) more details and gratefully received donations  can be found here.

Cheers Lucja and best of luck to you and the team!

"It is really important to be prepared physically but also mentally for an extreme challenge. It might sound exciting and fabulous, but the reality of running in -40 degrees is not for the faint hearted"

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