ULTRA RUNNING: Marathons weren't extreme enough for John O'Regan, so now he runs in 24-hour races, up skyscrapers and across deserts, writes Seán Kenny
IN A pale laptop glow John O’Regan is flicking through a jumble of photographs. It’s all the usual stuff. Oh, you know. Children’s birthday parties. Dad running through the Sahara. A trip to Eurodisney. Dad amid the crags and crevices of Everest. Nights out. Dad running through the Andes.
O’Regan is an ultra-runner. If it’s longer or steeper or hotter or colder (ideally all four) than an ordinary marathon, he’s there. On October 17th and 18th he will compete in a 24-hour race on London’s Tooting Bec track.
He came late to all this. In 2001, at 31, he decided to run a Dublin marathon, coming in at a shade over four hours. Nothing special about the time, but the experience set his nostrils twitching at the scent of possible adventure.
He grew up in flats in Ballybough, enclosed by great grey slabs of concrete. An uncle would take him fishing in the country at weekends. He loved the space, the air. He became interested in survival skills, began skirting nature’s rough edges. Then when he knew he could run a marathon, a new possibility opened up.
“My plan was to use the marathon as a test run. I’d read about a race through the Sahara called the Marathon de Sables. I signed up in 2001 to do it in 2003. I spent the next two years trying to source as much information as I could on training, nutrition and physiology.”
He hauled himself through six days and 151 miles of the Sahara race, sand clutching at weary ankles, boiling and blistered.
“When I came back from the desert, because I’d done something that everyone saw as so extreme, people were saying to me, ‘You’re a great fella’. And I started to believe it all,” he says.
“I stopped training. It was as if that one thing had given me a free pass for health and fitness forever. It was only when I started training again that I realised how much I’d lost by not training. But I managed to get back to where I was.”
Oblivious to the notion of half-measures, between 2004 and 2006 he ran three ultra races in polar regions. The intensely low temperatures create a basic imperative: you run to fight the cold.
“The cold gets you but you’re wearing the right clothing and you do acclimatise to an extent. It’s not as bad as people say it is. The trick is to be comfortably cold when you’re active, so you have to generate heat. Before racing you’re told to strip off as much as you’re comfortable with.”
Not that it was all raw survival. One day while he and a few fellow runners were waiting for other competitors to arrive for the Antarctic Ice Marathon in 2006, they held an impromptu race in a state of almost total undress. O’Regan beat an American called Antarctic Mike to the finish line (Antarctic Mike is a whole other story. He trained in a freezer for that race). The Dubliner came second in the race proper.
“I went to the North Pole in 2004 and I started thinking it’d be nice to get to the South Pole. Now, I didn’t get to the South Pole, but I set my sights on getting to Antarctica. And then I thought, ‘I’ve run an extreme race on one continent on sand in extreme heat, now I’m racing in extreme cold.’ So, I set myself the goal of something different and it just went on from that.”
More lately he’s been making molehills out of mountains. Last summer he was joint winner of the Inca Trail Marathon to Machu Picchu. This is an event that is comparable in scale and difficulty to running a marathon and climbing and descending Carrauntoohil three times from sea level. His worst moment was at a point named Dead Woman’s Pass, the kind of place vultures stop off for dinner.
“I was struggling there, but you stop and look behind you and you can actually see what you’ve achieved straight away, looking down. What you’ve done is usually a lot more than what you still have to do. Sometimes it’s hard to believe you’ve run up all that. That still does it for me, seeing what you’ve achieved like that.”
Then there was Everest. A litany of frightening numbers: 5,364 metres of altitude, a 13-day trek to the start line, 16 hours’ running. He and the explorer Mark Pollock did the race as a team, with O’Regan leading the way. Pollock is blind. O’Regan was his eyes. There was no past or future on Everest, he says; everything was stark present tense.
“If you’re looking at a 30-foot drop into a crevice, at that time you’re not going to be thinking about what’s going on at home, your mortgage or whatever. It’s just raw survival. Your head is totally cleared. All that matters is the next couple of steps. It’s nice having that detachment.”
On his return home he was a shell, body and brain hollowed by the mountain. Eventually he was able to resume training.
A fresh challenge necessitated a new kind of training. Each year hundreds of New Yorkers are race up the 86 stories of the Empire State Building. This year, by invitation, O’Regan was among them.
Dublin being skyscraper- deficient, in preparation he had to make do with Liberty Hall. It took a few phone calls, and gales of laughter, but he had permission. He started spending his lunch breaks pounding the tower’s echoing stairwell.
“Every so often somebody on the stairs would stop me and ask ‘have you got permission to do this?’
“It got to the stage where I just stopped telling people what I was doing. I’d just say, ‘I’m just keeping fit. Like step aerobics, you know’.”
The Empire State Run-Up was on February 3rd and the start line was crazy, a claustrophobic scramble of elbows and legs. Jostling teeming chaos. O’Regan was shoved hard against a wall just before the narrow entrance to the stairwell.
“Even though I knew I’d get pushed, it’s hard to plan to be the aggressor. My throat was dry and my heart was pounding before I even got onto the stairs. When I got to the top I was coughing constantly. It was like climbing a mountain; it was that extreme.”
His current challenge may top everything. A 24-hour race is a thing of brutal simplicity. You just run. You run for a whole day of your life. Or you run until you implode under the strain, until your legs won’t support you any more and you collapse like a bike whose stand has been kicked away. That often takes less than 24 hours.
Forty men will run in London. The man who runs furthest wins. There is no cinematic setting this time, just 400 metres of orange-red track underfoot and in front and behind. All going well, he aims to complete around 500 circuits. That’s 200km. Round and round and round the bend.
“It’ll be a mental challenge. I have run for very long times before, but the scenery kept changing or I’d be with other people or part of a team. You’re going from checkpoint to checkpoint and there’s always something to keep you going.”
His preparation for the 24-hour race hit a rut in August when he was diagnosed with overtraining syndrome by a sports doctor. One day his legs just went to lead. He had been pushing the boundaries. The boundaries were pushing back.
“You’re on a plateau. My carbohydrate resources were depleted. Your performance starts to dip, so the curve goes down. You feel you’ve to train harder; when you train harder it depletes your stores even more,” he explains. “Performance suffers more and eventually you just burn yourself out.”
He had to stop training for a week. He used the time to pore over the minutiae of performance, glean any detail that might help.
“Running can be hard, but not running can be harder. But I wasn’t not running because of an injury. I wasn’t running because I was getting advice on how to get back to where I was. Rather than waste that week I was reading and reading, trying to come up with a plan for the race.”
He hits London with a head full of numbers, of splits and heart rate, of calories and millilitres per hour, when to stop and precisely how much to eat and drink. He knows as much as he can about a thing as unknowable as 1,440 minutes of near-constant motion.
He aims to run, as ever, with the cool unwavering precision of mathematics. Keep it linear. No peaks. No troughs. Just a mantra of numbers: nine minutes to the mile, 160 heartbeats per minute.
He has completed ultra races on all seven continents. Been there, run that, soaked the T-shirt. And he still feels he can stretch himself further. “With some of these races, I’ve gone into them knowing I was going to finish. There are one or two I have in mind where there’s a higher failure rate.”
He seems to be ageing well. Now 39, he ran his best marathon time – just over the three-hour mark – last year. “My times keep getting faster and the distances keep getting longer. People in work, they say, ‘Aw, your knees! You’ll have to get a hip replacement!’ If I do, I do. At least I’ve used the ones I have. They’ve been telling me that for years and it hasn’t happened yet. I’ll give it my best shot.”
JOHN O'REGAN (39), works as an operations planner for CIÉ. Since 2003, he has been competing in ultra races – events of enormous length usually held in extreme climactic and/or geographical conditions. O'Regan has won two major ultra races – the 2008 Inca Trail to Machu Picchu marathon and the 100-mile Yukon Arctic Ultra in 2005.
Among others, he has completed the Marathon des Sables, a 151-mile race through the Sahara desert, and the Tenzing-Hillary Everest Marathon, where he assisted blind explorer, Mark Pollock.
He will complete in a 24-hour race on London's Tooting Bec track on October 17th and 18th. The objective of the race is to run as far as possible, involving 24 hours of almost constant running, with short occasional toilet and food breaks.