Keith Whyte: ‘I’m just going outside, and I may be a while’

Ennis athlete Keith Whyte embarks on an Antarctic expedition today when taking part in the 100km ice-marathon on Union Glacier which is one of the remotest parts of the continent. A case of ultra-running taken to its ultimate, writes Joe Ó Muircheartaigh who spoke to one of the world’s best ultra-distance runners ahead of his landmark date with the ice.

IT was Captain Lawrence Oates who left his tent in 1912 with the parting words of “I am just going outside, and may be some time”.
Keith Whyte will be leaving his tent today (Thursday) and he will be some time — over 11 hours in fact as he goes into the unknown, in the very same way that Captain Oates did over a century ago when being part of Robert Falcon Scott’s team that raced Roald Amundsen to the South Pole.
Neither Scott or Oates lived to tell the tale, but Whyte’s tale from his own epic voyage is already one of triumph.
For putting both feet forward to toe the line for Ireland in the remotest distance race of all and in the most inhospitable climate on earth.
For Whyte, whose running story started seven years ago this is a remarkable achievement — one that came as a bolt out of the blue just a few weeks ago as he began the process of putting the miles back into his legs after competing in the World 100k Championships in Doha.
“I had taken a little bit of a break since the World Championships,” reveals Whyte. “I had been keeping fit, but not really training that much, but this was too good an opportunity to turn down when the call came.
“It was the least that I expected as after the Worlds,” continues Whyte, “but I came home from a run on New Year’s Day to the news that there was a message on my phone to give the organisers of the Antarctic race a call.
“I rang back and they asked me to take part — it took me two seconds to say yes. I jumped at the chance because I’ll probably never be in Antarctica again, never mind race there so it was a once in a lifetime opportunity that I couldn’t say no to,” he adds.
So began the latest chapter in Whyte’s remarkable athletics career. His journey to Union Glacier began on Monday with a drive from Ennis to Dublin before the first leg of the flight to Madrid for a connection to Santiago in Chile where he gets to stretch his legs for a few days before flying on the Punta Arenas on Cape Horn ahead of the final leg of the journey to Union Glacier on Antarctic.
“It’s about 35 hours flying in all,” reveals Whyte. But that’s nothing compared to the 100k that lies ahead on the snow and ice, not to mind the journey over the previous six years as an athlete that led the organisers of the ice-marathon to extend the invitation to compete.
Whyte’s journey to become one of the world’s elite ultra runners began in 2008 when he ran his first Dublin Marathon, having linked up with the Clare Crusaders – not with ultra running in mind, but just fitness.
“For me starting out running was just about getting a healthier lifestyle,” he reveals. “I was only off the cigarettes and it was just about being healthier and there was no real competitive side to it at all. I just did it for charity to try and get fit.
“Then when you start running, it gets addictive and you just carry on from there. I just came on from year to year. It’s gone on from one thing to another, from running my first marathon to running in European and World Championships, to having high rankings in the ultra distances,” he adds.

“I don’t know how you can prepare for something like this,” he admits, “because it will be minus 30, minus 34 degrees. It will be running on snow and then wearing so many layers, when I’d be just used to wearing shorts and a singlet.

That addiction has brought Whyte some great highs like winning the 100k British and Irish Championships in 2012, the same year that won ultra-marathons in Dingle and Longford and saw him ranked European number one for 50 miles and number two in the world.
In 2013 he set a new Irish 100k record in Belgium when covering the distance in 7:03, only for his 2014 campaign to be mired by injury and ultimately illness that affected his performance at the World Championships in Doha in November.
“2014 was a bit of a roller coaster having been diagnosed with osteoporosis,” he reveals. “I was picking up injuries like stress fractures and not really knowing what was wrong and why I was getting them. It was a relief finding out.
“Having it, I need to know my limits — my bone density is very low and I’m running on brittle bones. Running high mileage events takes its toll on the bones so I have to make sure I’m recovering right and not overdoing things. I have to make sure I’m not hammering my bones.
“It was disappointing in the World Championships because injury got in the way. I had a big call to make about competing because of a groin injury” he continues. “Doctors said not to run, but I couldn’t accept that all my hard training was going to be for nothing. So what did I do? I took lots and lots of anti inflammatories and pain killers and numbed the pain and I ran,” adds.
“It was nowhere near as fast as I would have liked but it was a case of damage limitation,” Whyte reflected in his blog post after the race, before adding that “there’s always another day”.
Little did he think that day would come around so quickly and that from one race to the next would involve he would involve going from the heat of Quatar to the cold of the Antarctic.
“I don’t know how you can prepare for something like this,” he admits, “because it will be minus 30, minus 34 degrees. It will be running on snow and then wearing so many layers, when I’d be just used to wearing shorts and a singlet.
“This will be completely different, with all the jackets and lairs, ski masks and goggles. There is a mandatory kit list, so you have to wear at least two base lays on your legs, a base layer on top, a fleece and an outer jacket, along with ski mask and goggles. It’s one of the remotest areas of Antarctica and I don’t think there’s anything there at all,” he adds.
Good wishes from throughout the ultra-marathon running circuit were with Whyte as he boarded the flight in Dublin on Sunday and embarked on what he expects to be “one of the greatest experiences of my life”.
Running on the ice for the first time after applying all the layers and putting down the night before the race on the ice.
“Camp will be set up and we will be staying in tents,” he reveals, “and then we’ll just go outside and take it on. It’s on a 25k circuit so we will be doing four laps of it. I think it fairly flat, even though it’s fairly mountainous around the place.
“It’s going to be a lot slower — I’d normally run around seven hours, but out here the course record is over 11 hours. It will be the longest time I’ve run — under foot conditions will be very heavy and with all the layers it will be very energy sapping.
“I’m going to go out and do what I normally do in a 100k road race, but try to adapt to different conditions. You have to switch off. It takes me a couple of kilometres to get into a rhythm, but once I get going I’d switch off and every now and then give a quick body check and run through the various muscles and figure out how I’m feeling. You need to be able to switch off,” he adds.
Whyte is being tagged as the pre-race favourite — it would be great to win, be the greater achievement is taking part, jumping down the phone of his mobile in Ennis on New Year’s Day and committing to the greatest challenge of his athletics career.
“I don’t pay much attention to favouritism,” he says.
“It’s flattering, but I think they’re going on the 100k times and I think I have the fastest time in the field. There will be others who have run in arctic conditions, whereas it will be totally new to me.”

All competitors are now at Union Glacier, Antarctica. The race will start at 13.00 GMT today (Thursday, January 15).


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