FRANCE beckons for Keith Whyte. On Saturday, the Ennis man will go toe-to-toe with the world’s best ultra runners at the European 100km Championships in Belves in the South of France. Temperatures are likely to hit a stifling 26 degrees. The competition will be equally hot. Whyte though can feel at home in such illustrious company. His form over 50 miles in 2012 catapulted the Ennis Track athlete to the top of the European rankings and number two in the world.
Along with Dan Doherty, Whyte is part of a two man Irish team. The 33 year old hopes to better his time of 7 hrs, 16 mins at last year’s championships. Preparations have gone as well as expected. Last month Whyte breezed to victory in the 39-mile Connemara Ultra Marathon in a time of 4 hrs, 25 mins.
He says, “I used that as a training run. I didn’t really race it as such. I used it to gauge my fitness levels. I won that fairly comfortably and I’d plenty left in the tank afterwards. I’m feeling strong. The legs are fresh and I’ve a lot of high-mileage training done. I’m just easing back now just to be a little fresh coming into it.”
He adds, “The Europeans is probably as competitive as the Worlds. Most of the top runners are Europeans. You’ll have all the top guys at this. The French are using it as their National Championships, the same as Germany. They’ll have all their best guys out so a top 15-20 finish would be great. I’d like to get a bit closer to the Irish record if I could – 7hrs, 5mins. 7hrs, 16mins is my personal best and I reckon I’ve improved a bit since then. Hopefully I can get a bit closer to it.”
Whyte has also adapted his training schedule in recent months to allow for the effect heat will have on his running.
He says, “I’ve been doing a lot training indoors in the gym. I’ve been putting on a few extra layers just to get used to the heat and feeling uncomfortable. There’s no point training here in nine or 10 degrees and going of and running in 26 degrees”.
“I started training back in December and over three months I did about 120-130 miles a week. That’s running everyday, twice a day, most days. That’s just to build an endurance base. Eight weeks out from the race you’d kind of knock the mileage back a bit and increase the intensity, doing more speed sessions and hill sessions. I did a lot of my long runs wearing a bag-pack filled with sand. I’d put extra kilos on and try and keep the intensity of the pace”.
It’s taken many miles to get to a point where Whyte has ascended to the elite of world distance running. He caught the running bug six years ago after giving up cigarettes. He ran the Dublin Marathon in the colours of local charity, the Clare Crusaders. It snowballed from there. Running became more serious. Whyte competed in 10km, half marathons and full marathons. But he wanted to go further. Whyte recalls, “It was in ultras that I felt more comfortable running. I was able to last longer and keep going over longer distances rather than being fast over shorter runs.”
Whyte quickly adapted to the demanding requirements of 50km running.
He explains, “My first ultra distance race, I hadn’t really done any savage mileage. I was just coming of marathon training. To be honest there isn’t much difference between marathon training and ultra training. It’s just that your weekly long run is that bit longer than you’d do for a marathon. Its more about being consistent with your mileage, not necessarily going off running 50 miles a week and doing a 50 mile on a Sunday. It’s more about having an overall high-mileage week. I wasn’t going off running 50 miles on a Sunday. I might have done 80 or 90 miles during the week and then maybe 25 on a Saturday and 25 on a Sunday and doing them at a high intensity and with resistance as well. It’s more about maintaining a high mileage and being consistent with that.”
Distance running of that kind not only imposes savage physical demands on the body, it also represents a formidable test of an athlete’s mental toughness.
Whyte admits the focus required to keep going through a punishing event such as ultra-running was hard earned.
He says, “Its something you have to get used to. With marathon running, a lot of people hit the wall at 20 miles but you’ve only got six miles to go. In 100km or any other long distance ultra running event, you could hit numerous walls. You could hit a wall after 40 miles and then realize you’ve another 20 odd miles to go. It’s about pushing yourself; getting through the next mile, getting to the next aid station. There is a lot of digging deep to it. What I try to do in a 100km race is use the first 50km as a kind of warm up just to settle into a rhythm. From 50-80km, I try to keep things steady, not hit too many bad patches and then give it a final push for the last 20km”.
Insight has come with experience. Whyte now takes a forensic approach to training and preparation.
He explains, “You’re always learning. In the first one you don’t know what to expect. In each and every race you learn something new. There might be other factors that you hadn’t considered before, placing emphasis on different aspects, like training for heat, getting your hydration levels right, fuelling, things like that. Pacing is important. At the start you might go of very fast with the adrenalin running but you learn just to ease into it, especially running for that long distance”.
Competing consistently at events around Europe can be a costly pursuit when travel and race expenses are all factored in. To that end, the father of two was over the moon to tie up a sponsorship deal with footwear giant Skechers.
Saturday’s race in France is Whyte’s main focus at the moment. But the former CBS student is already eyeing up his next challenge.
He says, “I’m thinking of maybe another challenge later in the year, maybe stepping up the distance a bit more. There are 100 milers and 24 hour running. I won’t chance 24 hour running but I’m half thinking about doing a 100 mile run. There are a couple of ranking events throughout the year. I’ll see how training goes and maybe look at doing that.”