Is Stuart Gibson the fittest man in Australia?

The technique for ultra-running is all about conserving energy, The technique for ultra-running is all about conserving energy,
Images: Joseph Feil

The Glasgow-born, Melbourne-settled ultra-runner sprung to the attention of the athletic fraternity in April this year when he bagged a stunning 11th-place finish at the Marathon des Sables. For the uninitiated, this race traces a 243km line through the Moroccan dunes of the Sahara Desert. Runners have to carry their own provisions. By mid-afternoon, temperatures nudge 45 degrees, at dawn it drops to zero. In his debut race, Gibson finished in 25:31.45. Since then he’s obliterated the race record at the North Face 100 (a 100km gallop through the Blue Mountains), finishing hand in hand with defending champ Andrew Lee in 9:54.19. This month he’s off to Gibraltar to contest the World 100km Championships. A week later he’ll be back home for the Eureka Tower Climb, looking to run the 1958 steps of Melbourne’s 279m-high tower in eight minutes.

So, is there a fitter man in this wide, brown land? If there is, we can’t think of him ... Here’s why.

The game

“I represented Great Britain at the European Championships a decade ago; 1500m was my distance. But I sustained a significant Achilles injury and just fell out of the sport. I came to Australia five years ago and slowly started getting back into my running. Nothing serious, just a few half-marathons. Then I managed to get an entry into the Marathon des Sables and thought, ‘Right, this is a chance to get myself pretty fit again.’ So I slowly built up ...

“I really think ultra-running is going to take off over the next few years. I reckon the sport at the moment is where mountain biking was ten years ago. There’s a vast amount of people who have run a marathon and want to know what they can put their body through next – ultra-running really captures their imagination. I reckon it’ll become a true mainstream sport in five years’ time.”

Clocking the kays

“My training is all about mileage. Over the five months leading into a big event like the Marathon des Sables, I probably average 140-to-150km a week. About four weeks out from the race I’ll peak at 180km. Ninety-five per cent of that running will be off-road: trail running in the Victorian high country or sand running down in Wilsons Promontory. You know, it’s not just running down the promenade – it’s tough terrain, tough on the ankles. I’m running on fire trails and single tracks, a mixture of walking paths and mountain bike trails.

“I still work during the week, so Monday-to- Friday runs tend to be shorter, high-intensity; 20km, which will take around 90 minutes over a strenuous course. On Saturday and Sunday I do my big-mileage stuff. These are my four-to-five-hour runs. Obviously I’m running at a much lower intensity, down to 8-to-10km an hour.

“The key to ultra-running is getting the body used to running very long distances. We talk about four hours as being the magic mark. When you’re training for a standard big-city marathon, no one tends to go over the three-hour mark in their training. But ultra-running has different demands. Once you go past that four-hour mark, your body’s using different energy systems. If you haven’t tested your body beyond that barrier, it’ll really break down. So, for instance, on a Saturday I might go out for a three-hour run, come back to the car, take on some food, then go back out for another two hours.”