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Article: A Life in Pain

A Life in Pain - Blake Mill

A Life in Pain

Paul Janssens' Interview

In the elite world of Ultra-Trail running, three races stand out as the ultimate test of human endurance. The 'Grand Raid de la Réunion' (162 km) is a race at altitude around Reunion Island in the Indian ocean. The 'Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc' (166 km) punishes contestants around the entire base of Mont Blanc. And the 'Marathon des Sables' (251 km) is the equivelant of seven consecutive marathons across the Sahara desert.

Few human being are insane enough to tackle one of them.

Paul Janssens, endurance athlete and Blake Mill fan, has done all of them. Repeatedly

What bought you to running Ultra-Trails?

Paul: I started running when I was a young man in the army. I hated it. Probably because I was forced to! It wasn’t until years later that I was tempted by friends into running for fun. Then one thing led to another. I did a 5k, then a 10k, then a marathon. And at some point I found I was entering my first Ultra-Trail. There was never a plan. It was just interesting to see how far you can push a body. One day I was thinking ‘it looks like I can go further’, the next I was lining up in the Sahara desert to run 251 km. I’ve since run a lot of endurance races. Once you start asking questions of yourself it’s hard to stop.

Of the three benchmark Ultra-Trail which is the hardest?

Paul: They all differ. The 'Grand Raid de la Réunion' is brutal because of terrain. You climb over 9643 metres during the 162 km of the race. That’s lot of climbing. And because the entire 57 hour race is done in one continuous go, a lot of that terrain has to be tackled at night. You survive by stopping for 15 minute ‘power naps’ every now and then.

The 'Últra Trail du Mont Blanc' is flatter, but faster. And the first time I did it, it was shortened because of atrocious weather. Unbelievably there was a snow storm in August.

And the 'Marathon des Sables' is a sheer human adventure. Very long. Very demanding. Incredibly hot.

What have been the most memorable moments?

Paul: The 'Grand Raid de la Réunion' stands out. During the second night I started hallucinating. I was joined by an old man who pointed out I was running on an old Roman trail and it was covered with vivid pictures. It was so incredibly real I actually took my wife back to the spot after I’d recovered from the race. I was genuinely shocked there were no pictures.

And there are moments of incredible beauty in every race. The moonlight shining over the Alps. The bleak variety of the desert: sand giving way to mountains.

What are the worst moments?

Paul: It’s undoubtedly when you have to give up. Those are terrible moments. You start to realise you’re in trouble. You do the obvious things. You eat. You hydrate. You keep pushing forward hoping things will get better. It normally takes 5/6 hours but at some point you just have to accept that you’re fast becoming a real danger to yourself and have to give up. It’s only happened a couple of times in all of hundreds of events I’ve entered, but it destroys me when it happens.

Do Things Ever Go Seriously Wrong on These Races?

Paul: To a limited extent. There was a guy who managed to get lost on the long (86.2 km) stage of the Marathon Des Sables. The route was pretty well marked out. And if you managed to go more than about twenty minutes without seeing some form of sign, you knew you were lost and it was time to start re-tracing your steps.

None of which stopped this guy from turning himself 180 degrees in the wrong direction and then running all night. Mind you, it was night, and that stage took a terrible toil on everyone. The race organisers had to wait until first light and then send out helicopters. Luckily his GPS transponder did what it should and they managed to find him.

What are you doing next?

Paul: I’m planning to kayak around a good chunk of Greenland this July (2018). It will be my first chance to get up close to an iceberg.

Dragging the above stories out of Paul wasn't as easy as you might expect. He is about as modest a guy as you could ever hope to meet, and seemed generally unaware how extraordinary his adventures are to the rest of us. We wish you all of the very best with your future endeavours Paul, and are proud you've chosen to wear our shirts.



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