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Ultra running- not for the faint hearted Interview with George Major

Updated: Jun 21, 2018

Finish line of ultra marathon in Hong Kong

George moved to HK from London in 2014. Since living in HK he has restarted running after a long hiatus and has become an accomplished ultra runner. He has completed numerous races, ranging from vertical kilometres to 163k. (“I’ve lost count of how many.”)

And these races are not easy- I found this out when I joined George on the Lantau 2 Peaks race in 2015 - there were no flat sections, loose scree and slippery descents throughout. The route accumulated over 1,600m of elevation in 23k of racing. The weather was also a challenge - I had expected humidity, but had not planned to be running in the mountains during a typhoon! There was no crowd support, only one aid station and a very unceremonious finish line to mark the achievement.

George is now part of the Hong Kong Sports Clinic running team. In this interview I ask George about his experiences in ultrarunning. I wanted to learn about his nutritional, mental and supplementary training strategies ahead of my next race- The Scafell Sky Race - a 40k trail run with 3000m of ascent.

NB warning- pre race preparations may include graphic images that some readers may find disturbing

How did you get in to ultra distance running?

I used to race cross country as a junior, but had barely run for over ten years before moving to Hong Kong. I always enjoyed hilly courses and Hong Kong has no shortage of hills. The trails here are so accessible - you’re never more than a couple of kilometres from the trails, even in the heart of the city. Plus the social scene around running in Hong Kong is great. If you’re so inclined you can race almost every weekend and the trails cover mountains, beaches, forests…

What is your biggest achievement/race to date?

It’s hard to choose one, but the HK168 was my biggest endurance test to date; I find pacing a real challenge and this was one occasion that I got it just right. I still had enough strength to race the final section and take a few places, ending up in 4th. Also, Lantau Vertical in 2016 felt really good. It’s a race to the summit of Lantau Peak (934m.) The final 1,500m of running climbs about 500m vertically, it’s tough. I hit my goal of going under an hour on my third attempt at the race.

What motivates you to keep running when it is dark and you already have over 50 Miles in the legs?

Usually, a long way into a race, I’ll be concentrating on getting enough food down without causing stomach problems. I’d say that the important thing is to keep it fun to stay motivated, but that’s easier said than done. There’ll usually be a point in a race where finishing is easier dropping out and finding your way back to the finish line to pick up your gear. If I’m having a tough day, I’ll focus on reaching that point.

What supplementary training do you alongside your running?

My team provides weekly strength and conditioning training, I try to combine some yoga into my routine to help with mobility and stability.

What is your nutritional strategy - what do you eat and drink when you are running?

I find this the hardest aspect of running an ultra. First off, I aim to begin on an empty stomach. I’ll either have a very small breakfast or no breakfast if it’s an early start. I’ll have a relatively light dinner the night before and a big meal two nights before a race. My current strategy during a race is to try to take on some sugar or carbohydrate after every hour of running, usually in the form of a gel. Small regular amounts of food are less likely to cause issues. A few times, I’ve got into trouble by not taking enough electrolytes, I find Salt Stick are good as it allows me to moderate my salt intake independent of other nutrition. Late on in a race I’ll get to the point where I cannot stomach another gel. Often, the aid stations at ultras will have Coca Cola, so I’ll try to have a small amount at each station. But my go-to drink is a Japanese sports drink called Pocari Sweat - although I water it right down, otherwise it’s a bit too salty for mid-race. I’ve experimented with varying my mid-race intake to a greater or lesser degree. Learning to take on nutrition pre-emptively is important; if you bonk or get dehydrated, it’s pretty hard to get things back on track.

What does a typical training week look like for you?

Apart from strength and conditioning sessions, I do a weekly track session; I’m stronger on the hills but always getting overtaken on flat sections, so I’m always keen to do more speed work. My local trails lend themselves well to hill repeats and, if I’m not preparing for a race, I’ll try to run-commute as regularly as possible too. Fitting in long runs is tricky, so when I can, I try to make long runs into a day-long adventure, visiting a new peak or a favourite beach en-route.  

I remember you saying you were working more now on your running biomechanics and strength work- can you tell me more about this- and has this helped your performance? Having a proper gait analysis - something more detailed than what they do on the treadmill in the shoe shop - identified a whole load of weaknesses. I used to constantly have tight calves, which I ascribed to doing a lot of hill work and tried to fix with more calf stretches. Learning more about physiology showed me how all the parts of the body are linked and effect each-other. I was overlooking hip mobility issues and lack of flexibility elsewhere that were causing the tightness that I felt in my calf. In our S&C classes, we also work on balance and core strength in a way that is very focused on improving running form.

What do you do to recover from a big race?

It takes a day or two for the adrenaline to dissipate before I can really relax; even after an all-night race. Usually, if a race has gone well, I’ll feel pretty psyched-up and will want to run too soon after. A few times I’ve raced the week after a big run, feeling good at the time but really undermining my long-term recovery. It’s a mistake to avoid.

I’m a big sceptic of miracle diets and superfoods that promise to boost recovery and overall performance. There’s no secret about what a healthy and balanced recovery diet looks like. Although throwing in a celebratory beer and burger is important too.

What is you next challenge and what races would you like to do in the future?

I’m preparing for the 9 Dragons 50/50 ( ) a two-day back-to-back 50 miles and 50k stage race. Last year was the first edition; I did the 50k stage and finished in a good position, so I’m returning to do the double. The course is deliberately brutal in it’s hilliness, technical trails and tight time cutoffs.

After that, I’m keen to do some shorter races so I can enjoy running flat-out for a change.

Does your preparation and race execution change much depending on weather conditions?

Heat and humidity are big factors in Hong Kong - so it’s vital to carry enough water. Hong Kong’s trails feature a lot of slippery wet rock, and it’s hard to find a shoe that is reliable in those conditions. Overall, I try to use minimal gear and carry as little as possible with me.

Any kit you would recommend? Ie trainers you have found work best for off road

I used Salomon S-lab Ultra shoes for a long time; I haven’t found a show with better grip and while they’re very minimal, the fit and support are great. But, they wear out very fast and are expensive. I’ve found Brooks Mazama perform similarly but last longer and cost less. But really, everyone’s feet are different, so it’s just a matter of finding out what works for you and what doesn’t. My shoe collection can get out of hand, I think I have about ten pairs of road and trail shoes on rotation at any time.

Is there any advice you would give me for the Scarfell Skyrace?

Do some training sessions individually targeting uphill strength and confident downhill speed. Learn as much as you can about the course before you arrive. And make sure you enjoy the view from the top.

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