Budapest Telegraph

Ultra-triathlete Ferenc Szőnyi takes part in the toughest running race there is

Friday Aug 14, 2015

Balázs Gabay | Source: Magyar Nemzet

La Ultra demands almost superhuman performance from those bold enough to take part. The runners cover 333 kilometers within 72 hours up in the Himalayas. The elevation is 5700 meters and oxygen is scarce. As the very first Hungarian in the history of the race this year Ferenc Szőnyi has been invited and due to his records he didn't even need to qualify. This is not very surprising given that he had previously completed a triple deca-Ironman.

When asked about the race he said "the distance is not that tough, the real challenge lies in the circumstances". One might call him a braggart for speaking of La Ultra, the toughest ultra-marathon in the world like this, but he rarely bothers doing things that seem doable without having supernatural powers. The 51-year-old ultra-runner still holds the world record of deca-Ironman, he was the fifth person in the world to do the double deca and he came in second in the triple [which was won by another Hungarian, József Rokob]. Just to make it clear: Ironman (long-distance triathlon) races organized by the World Triathlon Corporation consist of a 3.8 kilometer swim, a 180 kilometer bicycle ride and a marathon (a 42-kilometer run). Now take this ten times for deca Ironman, twenty times for double deca and thirty times for triple deca, where athletes swim, ride and run an Ironman in thirty consecutive days.

It is safe to say that Szőnyi has been through practically everything that falls under the "humanly possible" category, so there was nothing else to be done: he accepted the invitation and will race in La Ultra on 16 August. "Me and my two aids leave for the Himalayas on August 4 and arrive in Ladakh, the northernmost corner of India two days later. We'll see how well the acclimatization goes. The race starts on August 16 and we will have to cover the distance in 72 hours."

In fact the plural 'we' means only six people as only so many entered for the three times 111 kilometers race. The 222 and 111 kilometer 48 and 24-hour races are not much more popular either. Those taking part in the ultra-distance race may rest eat or drink whenever they see fit. Ferenc Szőnyi is planning to sleep 2.5-3.5 hours and even though he wants to rest actively during the night, he takes massage, nutrition and proper regeneration very seriously. Apart from some food, a headlight, some clothing and lifesaving equipment, he doesn't take anything with him. The route of the race follows the "road" which is actually much more like a path.

As Szőnyi puts it, "La Ultra is all about the circumstances". The first stage starts at 3,200-meter altitude and the athletes run as high as 5,600 meters all the way up to Khardung La, reaching the highest road in the world still accessible by car on the way. On the second day the next peak to conquer is Worry La then finally Tang La, where one of the toughest marathons of the world is held. The entire elevation during the race is 5,700 meters which sounds pretty terrifying.

"I've been thinking a lot about how I could possibly simulate the circumstances I will have to face in India but it can't be done in Europe. Ten years ago I climbed in the vicinity of Mount Blanc so I am familiar with thin air at 5,000-meter altitude. I've been preparing for the race for about half a year and I've just come back from the Dolomites where I ran at the altitude of 2,000-2,500 meters but this is nowhere near what is waiting for me in India. I trust my pervious experiences with ultra-distances, my endurance and my competition skills. I've rarely given up races: I just take a deep breath and go ahead. If I manage to run the 333 kilometers I might have the chance to win the La Ultra."

Ferenc Szőnyi is the first Hungarian to run the La Ultra. He didn't even need to qualify as he had completed both Ultra Milano and Spartathlon last year. He says he is as excited as if this was going to be his first marathon.


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