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The most brutal pastime known to man

I’ve just returned from sixty minutes on a medieval torture device called a pushbike. This unforgiving piece of machinery (I’ve fondly nicknamed ‘the Rack’) must rank as the most uncomfortable form of transport known to man, and is right up there with crossing treacherous mountain passes by donkey.

But, hey, any fool can put up with sixty minutes of discomfort once in a while. How about a slightly different proposition? How about an extended workout so formidable you’d need a good six months to get over it? To be more specific – 3,430.5 kilometres of roadwork, covered in twenty-three days, with only two days break along the way for rest and recuperation.

The 2011 Tour de France starts on July 2nd. And, you know what? I’m sort of glad I won’t be there. Those of us inclined towards endurance sport have a tendency to be selective. Four – five hours hours per day for nearly three weeks, on a strip of perforated plastic that grinds remorselessly at the pelvic bone is not, quite frankly, my idea of fun.

But how extreme do you need your weekend pastimes to be? The professionals do this stuff for a living and because, in most cases, they happen to be genetically adapted for such gruelling sport. Most of us are out there grinding away in our spare time, without a hope of a podium finish. So why bother at all? Better to flake out in front of the TV and save your energy for the lawnmowing stint on Sunday.

There is, however, a breed of person for whom no form of suffering is too great. The thinking behind this tendency is unclear, but modern psychiatry may well hold the answers. Basically, it goes something like this. Why run a marathon when you can run ten or twenty? These people are unstoppable. They eat tarmac and gorge on road signs, halogen lights fixed to headbands as they romp through the outer darkness. Eddie Izzard syndrome without the eyeliner.

Take the ironman. Once upon a time this revered distance used to be enough. Naval commander John Collins came up with the idea as a bet between drinking buddies to see who were the fittest athletes in the World. No-one thought it could be done. After all, 2.4 miles of swimming, 112 miles of cycling followed by a marathon was a fair old jaunt by anyones standards. That was back in 1978. Now thousands conquer the distance every year, earning a medal and the right to brag about it for the rest of their lives.

But the ironman, like its cousin the lowly marathon, is simply not enough for the likes of some. Those who prefer their roadwork a little more extensive have to look further afield. But rest assured, if it’s punishment you’re looking for there’s work aplenty. Diehard fans of swimming, cycling and running can enter a double, triple, or even a deca ironman to keep them amused.

Think about it. Ten times the original distance over a period of eight to ten days, depending on the organisation running the event. That’s an awful long time in the water, on your trusty medieval racing device, and, of course, on your poor, blistered feet.

Mark Kleanthous is a veteran triathlete with countless triathlons and marathons under his belt. His website Ironmate regularly attracts hundreds of visitors looking for tips on how to get fitter and faster in one of the toughest endurance sports on earth. Having been through the whole ultradistance thing himself, Mr Kleanthous is well placed to offer a few sobering thoughts on the subject.

Asked for his views on the triple ironman, Mr Kleanthous was less than ecstatic. He would never attempt the distance again, he said. The experience took him six months to recover, and for the first few weeks he could barely walk up the stairs. Competitors in the mind-draining deca ironman tell a similar tale.

Perhaps there is a lesson to be learned here. Running a marathon is an achievable goal, if you are prepared to put in the training and endure a certain amount of hardship on the way. You might even cross the finish line with a smile on your face. Even the ironman, once thought to be impossible, is attainable. With the right combination of training and mindset, the average punter can triumph in less than 17 hours.  Elite triathletes get the whole thing done and dusted in less than nine.

But three, four, ten times the distance? Be serious. What was once a journey of discovery for endurance freaks has become a kind of physiological war zone. What happens during these monstrous feats? The body shuts down. Muscle cells are cannibilised and tendons snap. Blisters and sores turn into a bloody mess, for grim-faced assistants to hastily patch up ready for the next session.

And health? Forget about it. The benefits of enduring these distances for days on end are negligible. Complete bed rest and an IV drip might be the best you could hope for. Oh, and you might want to install a stairlift for the muscle seizure that sets in soon after.

I salute the tenacity of the ultradistance athlete, and fully understand the attraction to extremes. But who in their right mind would want to put themselves through such appalling conditions in the name of achievement. Better to stick to something relatively easy – like the John Collins recipe for a good old workout. Swim 2.4 miles, bike 112, run 26.2, and sleep for a week ….

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