Written by Christopher Kelly
May 18, 2017
Christopher: Hello and welcome to the Nourish Balance Thrive Podcast. My name's Christopher Kelly and today I'm joined by Prof. Nick Ashill. Hi, Nick!
Nick: Hi, Chris! Pleasure to meet you.
Christopher: I'm absolutely delighted to have you, Nick. Nick is an ultrarunner from New Zealand and Wales, I've got down here. Would that be right to say that? You can't really be from two places, but I believe you call both those two places home.
Nick: I do, born in Wales, so when it comes to rugby, I would support the Welsh, but 25 years of my life in New Zealand, married a Kiwi and all four daughters are Kiwis as well, so hence the Welsh-New Zealand description of me.
Christopher: Blimey! That must be quite a dilemma when you watch the rugby. What do you do when Wales are playing New Zealand? That must be awful.
Nick: Well, it has been awful in my lifetime. The last time we actually beat them was back in the -- I could tell you 1952 and I'm still waiting.
Christopher: You're still waiting. I love that. Nick is about to run from Los Angeles to New York to raise money for the Pulmonary Fibrosis Trust. That's absolutely amazing. Can you tell us a little bit about why you're planning on doing that, Nick?
Nick: Yeah, sure. It's been a project in the making really for the last two to two and a half years. It's something that I've always dreamt about doing even as far back as ten years ago, but the catalyst was the passing of my mom in February 2015 from this illness called pulmonary fibrosis. So when she was diagnosed, we were told very, very early on that sufferers of IPF, as it's commonly referred to, live anywhere between two and three years, although there are some people who live a bit longer, and that diagnosis was correct. She sadly passed on in early 2015 and that was the catalyst for making this decision to do this run.
The Pulmonary Fibrosis Trust in the UK is a phenomenal charity that does some incredible work in providing financial, emotional, and practical support for individuals and families dealing with the illness. So the money that I'm raising is not specifically directed at research. It's more on the practical and emotional support within the home, so that was the catalyst.
Christopher: Okay, and what makes you think you can do it? Tell me about some of your previous marathon or ultrarunning experiences.
Nick: Well, that's a really good question because I have to say that I've got no idea if I can do it. I'm a very, very stubborn individual. I completed the MDS like a lot of other people have done in the past in 2014. And my body, having lived in the UAE and particularly Dubai for the last nine years, I've trained in some extreme temperatures. And for some reason, despite the fact that I was born in Wales in the Northern Hemisphere, my body likes heat and humidity when running, so it was an incredible adjustment. I did reasonably well in MDS and certainly would like to do it again.
Christopher: Okay. What does MDS stand for?
Nick: Sorry, Marathon Des Sables. It's an annual even that takes place in the Sahara Desert run by crazy Frenchmen. I'm sure you won't mind me describing them as that. It's usually around 1300 to 1400 runners, 267 km to 270-kilometer race over a period of five days with an 80-kilometer overnight stage. It's a little bit unusual in that everything that you need to get through the race with the exception of water and a tent, you actually have to carry. I weigh around 65 kgs with an additional 8 kg to 9 kg on my back and it made a significant difference, so that was a real test certainly physically and mentally.
Other races I've done, I've done London to Brighton 100K a couple of times and also a wonderful endurance race, extremely emotionally charged in South Africa called the Comrades, which I'm sure you've heard about as well.
Christopher: Yeah. The only thing I know about it is that Tim Noakes talks about the Comrades a lot, so can you tell us about the Comrades?
Nick: Yeah. It was an event that myself and two other colleagues from the university that I work at did in 2013, so it's a 90-kilometer race with a cutoff of 12 hours, so if you miss the 12 hours, you are essentially disqualified. Each year varies. There's what's called the downward race where the first 50 to 55 kilometers really up and down and the remaining 35 to 40 kilometers is all downhill, and then they alternate, so the next year, they go in the opposite direction. So we did it. It was a downhill race for the last 35K to 40K and that really crippled, absolutely crippled our quads at the end of it, extremely demanding.
It was a time when I focused purely or purely believed in a carb-based diet, so I can recall during Comrades stuffing down huge quantities of baked potatoes, pasta, bread, and other high-carb products.
And of course in the last 12 to 18 months, that's changed drastically for me in terms of my diet and also my performance as well.
Christopher: You say "of course", but I have no idea. Why would you do that? What made you make that change?
Nick: Well, you're probably not going to expect the odds that I'm going to give on that one. The catalyst is my wife who has a strong nursing background, but she's a homeopath as well and has a Masters degree in the Health Sciences area, so she's been a big I guess ambassador brand, ambassador for Keto diet for quite some time. I started it four years ago and dipped in and dipped out, dipped in and dipped out.
I've had issues in keeping my carb intake low, but having made the decision just over two years ago to do this race, I wanted a system that not only was going to work well in terms of filling my tank for such a huge journey of 5400 kilometers, but I was also going to raise my performance. So I looked into it in a lot more detail with her help and was more serious and committed to keeping that carb intake very, very low. So that was the catalyst, I have to say, was my wife.
Christopher: Okay, that's brilliant. Yeah, I've definitely been pushed into some things that I wouldn't have thought of if it hadn't been for my wife, and so I'm very grateful to her for that. How did you do it? Did you just rip the band aid off quickly and go straight to a high fat, low carb diet or did you make the transition gradually?
Nick: Well, I took very much the former approach. In the past, I've loved bread. I've loved pasta. I've loved potato, probably less sweet potato. That's completely reversed now, so I really, really did take the plunge very, very quickly. Now, that had a number of -- well, not immediate, but relatively quick effects. My running weight when I started was around 67 kg to 68 kg, so I'm about 5'10". And within three or four months, despite the K's that I was doing and my calorie intake, my weight was dropping and it kept dropping and it kept dropping. I want to say dropping. It's been stable really for the last 12 months, but it dropped to around 62 kg.
Christopher: Oh, wow!
Nick: So from 67 or 68 to 62 despite the calorie intake, but my energy levels went up significantly and I found that I was able to maintain running longer distances. My recovery time between those distances was a lot less and that's something I noticed relatively quickly. And the truth is I don't miss pasta, I don't miss bread, and I haven't had a huge temptation to go back to it, probably the result of the fact that I've been maintaining this way of eating with my training now for a little over 12 months.
Christopher: Okay, and have you done any of these big events without the carbohydrates?
Nick: The answer is no, I have not -- well, not big events, no. I've done a series of half marathons and marathons, but not a big endurance race, 100K or 100-miler or anything on this scale. The answer is no, so I'm really in unchartered territory to some extent.
Christopher: I would say so, yeah, so 5400 miles in a hundred days. What the heck does your training look like? Are you going to complete the 5400 miles in preparation for the 5400 miles? It's completely absurd, isn't it? So what does the training look like?
Nick: Well, when you start with an event like this and you think how is it feasible to train, the first thing that you do is you tap into people who have done it in the past or certainly people who've attempted it and obviously people who've been successful, so that was the first port of call. The response of those individuals, everybody have totally said exactly the same thing, which initially wasn't very, very assuring. That answer was, well, you can't. You can't train for it.
So what did that mean for me? I made the decision if I go back to the training I did for MDS and other 100Ks and 100-milers, I've put a lot more time in terms of training over the last 12 to 18 months into my core, but also a lot more variety besides running, so spending time on my mountain bike in the hills around the UAE, spending a lot more time in the gym. And certainly the weakest spot within the triathlon was my swimming. I've actually spent more time doing that as well.
So I feel a little bit more rounded in my approach to something like this. That was a decision-taking right at the very, very beginning combined with changes in nutrition of course and diet. The K's that I've been putting in, although I've been tapering down now for the last two to three weeks, but certainly from the end of November last year to end of March, I was averaging around 350K a week. And trained for MDS, I really never got over about 180 kilometers a week, so that's been a huge change. I was really worried about that initially, but again, coming back, I believe it's the Keto diet.
My recovery times between runs each day have been really good and a lot less, and what I mean by that is I'm doing 40K to 50K a day, which is what the plan is starting a week Sunday, on Sunday, May 14th, so I have to average 50 kilometers a day to complete the 5400K run in 108 days. That's my plan. So I'm not going to break any world records. That's recently been done a couple of months ago, which stands at 43 days with a slightly shorter route. My objective is to finish it.
Christopher: Okay. I'm just trying to get my head around these distances that you're describing. Is that 350 kilometers per week? That's 217 miles, so that would be in my mind a solid week of on the bike, on the road, not even mountain-biking. That's absolutely astonishing.
Nick: Yeah, it is. I've got to be honest. I'm really lucky that I've been able to spend the time to be able to do that given the nature of the work that I do being a professor in academic. I'm lucky that I have some flexibility in my work hours, but what this essentially meant is that I'll start at anywhere between 5:00 and 5:30 in the morning and then I'm finishing around 10:00 or 10:30. I'm going to work and then I'm coming home. I'm eating a lot of calories during the day and then I'm going out for another run, so that training is based on an average of two runs a day.
Christopher: Blimey! And then during the run across America, you're going to be doing more than a marathon a day, so 50 kilometers is 31 miles.
Nick: Yeah. That's the target that I have. Again, those individuals that I spoke to that have been successful also acknowledge that there's going to come a time when the number of rest days will lead to increase, and I don't know what those are. I'm going to listen very, very carefully to my body as I progress, but certainly I envisage a third half the way through the run, the rest days could well increase to two days, but the issue then of course is that my average kilometer per day has to increase. I've got a deadline of September 4th. I have a little bit of flexibility there and that's largely dictated by the fact that I have to come back to work.
Christopher: You'll have to phone in on Monday morning. "Sorry, I can't make it. I'm still running across America. I'll see you next week."
Nick: Yeah, exactly. It might be a little bit like that, I think.
Christopher: And what's your greatest concern? What do you think is most likely to go wrong? As someone that doesn't know running very well or at least not ultrarunning very well, I'd be worried about an injury, but maybe I'm wrong about that. What's your greatest concern?
Nick: Well, I've been extremely lucky. I've been very much injury-free. The only injuries that I have had in the last five to eight years haven't been related to running at all. It's coming off my mountain bike at high speed and that's --
Christopher: That I do know.
Nick: Yeah, and I wouldn't want that to happen again for sure. The injury issue with running, again, I can't predict, but I know my body well. I feel comfortable that I've taken care of it to be relatively injury-free. I had a couple of issues with blisters in MDS, but I don't know of any runner that didn't have issues with blisters in MDS. That's another concern, although having said that, the last six to eight months, despite a lot of my running work in the desert, I've spent a lot of time on the road and I've been free from blisters.
I have to say the biggest security issue I have is not necessarily the run per se, but it's with security. I have a support crew of two individuals in an RV, so naturally we have to manage the logistics of that RV supporting me on a daily basis. There are some remote parts because we're following the historical Route 66 for the first 3000 kilometers, so there are some very, very remote parts of Arizona and New Mexico. So I do have some security concerns about safety in some of these more remote parts. We just have to be very, very diligent, and these issues have been flagged by a couple of other runners who have taken roots more south because most runners take a route further north San Francisco over to New York following Interstate 80 or roads parallel to Interstate 80.
So I'm taking a route a little bit longer further south and of course doing it in the summer, so high temperature and humidity as well, but my body likes that.
Christopher: What's the potential danger there? I've never ventured to these parts of America. In fact, I'm very naïve to most of America apart from California.
Nick: Well, it's being really clear on logistics. It's knowing that the nearest petrol station is 100 to 120 miles away, things like that. It's knowing that if my body -- which I hope it doesn't -- if my body overheats excessively, it's finding quick and efficient ways to get my body temperature down. And if you're in the middle of nowhere confronting that, we've got to manage and think about all sorts of contingencies and ways to do that, which we have, so that's good.
Christopher: And I know you've been talking to Tommy, Tommy Wood, about your --
Nick: Yeah, he's been great.
Christopher: Oh, that's awesome. In particular, the hydration, what did Tommy say about hydration?
Nick: Yeah. Obviously it's really critical in terms of what I'm doing. He's recommended a number of products, which I've trialed for the last five or six weeks since I've arrived here in the UAE. I've also partnered with another company here in Dubai, which is a relatively new company to the rehydration market. It's a brand called Fitness Fuel. So I got Tommy to have a look at essentially the raw material in this particular product and my body actually likes it, so I've gone ahead with bringing these individuals onboard with I guess Tommy's expert blessing on the composition of the products.
The carbs are a little bit slightly on the high side, but he said given the duration of the daily run and the kilometers I'm putting in, it should be fine. I've estimated that we will go through literally thousands and thousands of gallons of water over the duration of the run, and another major logistical issue is actually working out at what point we can actually refill the tanks in the RV as well, and that hasn't been an easy thing to work out. We've recently got there, so that's positive as well.
Christopher: And so, there's no hydration plan. It's just you're going to drink water to thirst.
Nick: Yeah, although I'm very, very conscious of the dangers of drinking too much water in high temperature as well, so that's something I'm really, really conscious of. I've never been in that situation. Again, it's just a question of listening to my body.
Christopher: Cool! So tell us about the nutrition part. What are you going to eat in between the runs and during the runs?
Nick: Yeah, a lot of calories, that's for sure, a lot of calories. Something that is part of the Keto, which I literally throw into absolutely everything that I eat whether it'd be for breakfast or midmorning snack -- sorry, two midmorning snacks, lunch and in the afternoon, is coconut oil, and I have coconut oil on literally everything that I consume. My intake of avocado has probably quadrupled over the last 12 to 15 months, so it's coconut oil, avocado. I'm certainly eating a lot more -- well, I had a lot of it before, but a lot more white meat, both the chicken and fish.
My intake of broccoli is tripled, although again, having spoken to Tommy and other nutritionists, I'm very, very conscious that that can actually take me out or take me well beyond the minimum carbs that the body needs, so it's a combination of all of those things. They will be the key ones. Fruit intake has not changed. It hasn't decreased. Also, the other thing that I'm eating vast quantities of are sweet potato, butter, and goat's cheese.
Christopher: Okay. Yeah, that makes more sense. I don't think you'd be able to eat enough broccoli in order to have any effect on anything.
Christopher: It's just a vehicle for the coconut oil and butter, I'd say.
Nick: It certainly does help take it down, yes.
Christopher: That's awesome. And then tell me about supplements. I know that you've talked to Tommy about some supplements maybe for gut health. We know that as a normal part of the exercise response is you divert blood away from the gut and that can create lots of GI distress especially in runners, and decreasing inflammation in the gut might be a really good target for you on a daily basis.
So have you tried any of the supplements? We said Tommy recommended Thorne and Tromandin EnteroMend and then PharmaNAC, which should improve your glutathione status and probiotics. Have you experimented with any of those yet?
Nick: The answer is yes, but very, very recently as in four or five days ago, so I'm still working through that, but I hear what you say and I certainly acknowledge the importance of that particularly on a run of this magnitude. I'm getting no negative reaction in terms of the body. I'm not quite sure of the potential negative symptoms of taking these supplements. Are there any?
Christopher: No, I don't think so. I think you probably will only notice it once you get into your daily routine. I've done nothing even approaching what you're trying to attempt. It's not even like a pip-squeak of a miniscule or even close, but I've done multiday events before and on day three, you feel less like you've been hit by a truck, just that general level of systemic inflammation, but the gut stuff I think is definitely going to be challenging.
Nick: It's really, really important, exactly. I think it's really good that Tommy and also the brand that you represent have offered help and support should I need it in any stage and I can guarantee that I will.
Christopher: And then of course electrolytes, so Tommy recommended magnesium and then also zinc. We always joke that when people come in to our clinic, we need to hose them down with those two minerals and that's absolutely going to be the case. You should be losing some of those things in your sweat. I'm not sure, so your sweat rate is going to vary on day to day, but you probably won't be able to get enough of those two things.
Nick: Yeah. Well, both have been a mandatory part of what I've been doing for such a long time. Magnesium spray, if I go back let's say to three or four years ago, I have this constant niggle on a multistage race of day three or day four with just cramping, but it's all gone. I have to say, even though at that time my zinc and magnesium intake I felt was reasonable, maybe the cramping is a result of the change in diets or a combination of a change in diet with the zinc and magnesium that I'm taking. I'm not sure, but the cramping has completely disappeared.
Christopher: Oh wow, that's amazing. So I don't feel like I have any good answers for this still. We've certainly experienced many, many clients that have had total resolution of their cramping, but I'm not sure I have many good explanations to something we don't understand.
Nick: Absolutely right, but I know that I've just ordered a new stock of magnesium and zinc and that's on its way to the address that I've given Tommy in California as well, so that box of goodies should be waiting for me a week Thursday.
Christopher: Awesome! So what would be a way for people to find out what this was really like for you? Is there going to be any filming or photos or anything like that?
Nick: Yeah. There are a number of ways in which people can find out and follow what's going on. There's obviously the main webpage, which is www.nickrunsamerica.com, and then via the website. There is obviously a Facebook link. There's a Twitter account and there's an Instagram account as well and we will be regularly updating the website and other social media platforms pretty much every day or every second day depending on the connection we could get in the RV.
We're also filming it. My eldest daughter, she's 25 and is coming along as a support crew from Melbourne, Australia. She's a photographer and an artist, so she's going to do a lot of the photography and video as well. We have a couple of action cameras that we're going to be utilizing as well. So the idea is to collect and utilize all of this material at the very end. Working at a university, I have access to undergraduate and postgraduate film students, so I've got a couple that have agreed for a project next semester to generate essentially a documentary from it.
Christopher: That's awesome! That's amazing! What a fantastic position to be in.
Nick: Yeah, it is nice, so we're going to make sure that we get some really, really good footage as we progress through all the different states.
Christopher: That's awesome. Well, I wish you all the best. I think it's an amazing thing that you're doing. Nickrunsamerica.com, I will link the website in the show notes for this episode. Tell me about your target. $35,000 you're trying to raise. Do you think you're going to get there?
Nick: I'm optimistic. Like many endurance racers or any general marketing efforts to raise funds for charity, I think any effort will get far more traction when the event actually starts.
So I think once it kicks in a week Sunday on May 14th, as I get more and more visual exposure through the different towns and cities, that will really help. What's really, really good even though I'm raising funds for a UK charity, the Pulmonary Fibrosis Foundation, which is the American equivalent, have actually come onboard in terms of supporting me and that support is in the form of me, which is fantastic, and my support crew visiting a number of pulmonary fibrosis support centers along the way across the United States. So what that means is I can actually meet individuals and families that are dealing with the onus and share my experiences. I'm sure they're going to share their experiences of the onus as well, so that's very much part of the story that I want to tell over the 108 days.
There's a level of complexity here. I live in one part of the world. I'm raising money for charity in a different part of the world but the event is taking place in another part of the world, so it's managing those three balls. At times, it's quite difficult, but we're nearly there.
Christopher: Yeah, I bet. I can't even begin to imagine how hard this has been to organize.
Nick: Yeah. I'm still not there yet even though I've got nine days to go.
Christopher: Well, Nick, I wish you the best of luck. All the links to everything that Nick has been mentioning will be in the show notes for this episode and you can come to nourishbalancethrive.com/podcast and then from there, you'll see the show notes for each episode. And if you drill down to this particular episode, you'll see all the links that Nick has been talking about. Yeah, I wish you all the best, Nick. Thank you.
Nick: Many, many thanks, Chris. I really appreciate it. Thank you.
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