How MH Squad Running Coach Leon Went From Couch To Ultra

There’s a lot to prepare for as you tackle your first ultramarathon. You need the right kit, making sure it’s comfortable over the long haul, a feeding strategy, and equipped to handle fluctuating temperatures. But do you know what to do when a tropical storm threatens to raze your tent at a flooded campsite? This was not on my list. But there are things you learn about yourself when everything goes out of plan.

Why would anyone decide to sign up for a 250km race in an unfamiliar area? This is a fair question and a question asked of me. The best answer I can give is that I don’t like being too comfortable in any space.

I’m a personal trainer, Men’s Health Squad coach, and half of The Lean Machines nutrition and fitness team. So, I’m not new to intensive training. But I don’t like to categorize myself as an athlete. If you only do bodybuilding or CrossFit, you will only be good at bodybuilding or CrossFit. I wanted to feel ready for whatever life might throw at me.

Keeping fit may be part of my job, but ultra running is definitely not. From the beginning, I knew my education had to fit into my life, not the other way around. Besides having a business to run, I also have a wife and daughter. I didn’t want to compromise the time I spent with them.

On the way to the race, I switched from running maybe one 5k or 10k a week to running seven times a week with two lifting sessions, along with three or four weightlifting and conditioning sessions. The run was 80% low and slow, with a long run on the weekends to practice my fueling technique, plus a few inclines and intervals to build capacity and lower body strength. I had to walk a few miles on the treadmill to get closer to my family (luckily I have one at home)—a fair tradeoff for hours of staring at my own exhausted face in the mirror.

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In my busiest week, I ran just over 200km for seven days in a row before I started to slow down. I’ll admit: it wasn’t fun. By the end of the sixth day, I felt broken. I felt relieved while telling my wife about my marathon the next day. At that point, I wondered what I had signed up for, overcoming race-related concerns.

@aaronrolph

Heat On

Sri Lanka Ultra X takes place over five days in Udawalawe in the south. The trail crosses 10,000-year-old rainforest and past rivers, waterfalls, and tea plantations, with a total elevation of 680 m, or half a mile vertically. We run between 40 and 70 km every day, we set out shortly after sunrise.

On the first day – around 45km, less than a fifth of the way – I began to realize how difficult it would be. The temperature, which was predicted to stabilize at the already sweltering 30°C, peaked at a stifling 49°C. The terrain was completely different from what I was used to in training – a mix of rough dirt roads and woodland.

Until that moment, I had believed that the best way to deal with the nagging voice of doubt—that cries out for comfort and rest—was to ignore it. But during a success of this magnitude, that voice could not be silenced. Instead, I tried to correct the situation and reasoned: ‘I will stop, rest, not just for the next 10 km.’

If I had known how hard it would be to get a good night’s sleep, I probably would have been less excited. Imagine the heat created by six runners crammed into a tent with the still suffocating 25°C in the evening and humidity around 95% – you get the idea. I probably managed eight to 10 hours all week. After running, I would pull myself aside to zip and write in my diary. For those 10 minutes, I wasn’t really there anymore. Moments like this really helped.

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Running in this kind of humidity is like wearing a face mask; Sometimes it feels like you’re drowning softly. But I continued. By the end of the second day, I was sitting in the fourth row. By the third day, the initial excitement I felt was beginning to wane; mental exhaustion was looming and it became a condition to deal with it. Still, I managed to maintain a relatively consistent pace—although I was worried that I was pushing too hard too soon and was about to fall off a cliff. Apparently that wasn’t my biggest concern.

@aaronrolph

Breaking point

After the 50 km course on the third day, we were camping at the edge of a picturesque lagoon before this day, which will be our longest running day. I was almost looking forward to it. Then, around 17:00, a storm came. Normally, these tropical storms are loud and heavy, but dissipate after about five minutes. It just kept coming. After about half an hour, our tent felt like it was going to break. Then the zipper landed in front of the tent and one of the Ultra X crew members poked his head in and told us to pack our bags – there would be an emergency evacuation. Half of the tent was floating when we got on the trucks.

We were placed overnight at a local temple and informed that the next day’s race would be cancelled. It affected me a lot. All my mental preparation, all the work I’ve done to get myself into the right headspace – a day without running could throw me off balance. When I was out for a full day, I would only travel 190 km. This was not enough.

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I probably learned more about myself on day four than I’ve learned in the last 10 years. I knew two things: I wanted to run and finish 200 km every day I planned. After the trucks dropped us off at our final camp, I grabbed my bag and put on my running kit. When I tied my fuel pack, I noticed another runner walking with a cold beer. Others were eating or sitting by the campsite’s swimming pool. I set out to go up and down 10km on the asphalt road.

Other runners saw what I was doing and gradually began to join in. When I finished (I finally achieved 12 km), we had formed a 20-man conga line. We channeled our disappointment and turned it into something positive. When I settled into camp that evening, I realized that I no longer cared where I finished. I’d go deep when I could have chosen the easy option. And I had unintentionally helped others find the same fortitude and determination. It was the warmest sense of accomplishment I’ve ever experienced. It was very healthy.

@aaronrolph

Crossing the finish line on day five was a blur of emotion: excitement, exhaustion, relief, pride. For the most part, I felt happy that I approached my education this way. The process is where the real energy and power lies – it’s just a victory lap.

Tackling challenges that go far beyond your comfort zone gives you freedom. At the beginning of this year, I had no idea that I was good at ultra running. Now, I’ve been offered a world championship place for finishing third. There is so much potential for people to find new passions and talents. You just need to find your unique motivation.

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