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The man of steel

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Carlos Sá is the most renowned ultra runner of the national scene. A sporting career that although triggered very early, at the age of 12, on regional roads and tracks, curiously never reached the marathon. Years later in 2010, after almost a decade devoted to mountaineering, he decides to run his first 100km ultra marathon in Spain, which he ends up winning. Four months later he won another 160km race in France, and since then he has never stopped. This year, he added to his brilliant history, the trophy of one of the toughest tests around the world, the famous "Badwater", USA.

What is an ultra runner?

Carlos Sá: It is an athlete who travels distances above the typical marathon which is 3.195 meters. An ultra runner travels long distances which are divided into several sections. The ultra trail in which you run in a natural environment, but can also be done in a road, as in the case of "Badwater" which is a test in the U.S., of 217km nonstop running.

How does an athlete prepare for this kind of event? What is your daily workout?

CS: We have to train for many hours, more than an athlete who is dedicated to shorter distances. Training physically but also psychologically, as we run for more than 24 consecutive hours, and must be endowed with a higher than normal will to achieve.

Is this event in particular a 24 hour event, without rest?

CS: This Death Valley event in the USA was a 217km non-stop event. I won the race, travelling this distance in 24 hours and 38 minutes. The longest numbers of hours I have been running were 26 hours and 40 minutes and I won that race too. Now, imagine the last ranked athlete who takes twice as long. There is a load managing all of this, the whole physical effort that has to be worked within this genre.

What is the importance of a test as the "Badwater"?

CS: The "Badwater" is one of the most extreme events on earth. It takes place around 855 meters below sea level, is where one of the highest temperatures on our planet is measured. I had to cross it with temperatures above 50 degrees Celsius. What is an ultra runner looking for by putting himself in a situation like that? I often say that I'm looking for my limits, only I haven't discovered them yet. It is this desire that must overcome in my activities. This can be explained to the general population as a relentless desire to want to better themselves in their own day-to-day things that are not going well, as in employment or education. So, we should give a lot more of ourselves to achieve our goals. In the ultra marathon we look for this, always trying to go further. If we can run 100 km without stopping, why not run 130 or 200 km and overcome ourselves? This requires a lot of training, eagerness and will power. These are values that are reflected in our mind and in our humility as runners.

What was the biggest difficulty you experienced in this particular event?

CS: At about 5 hours of the event, at 15 hours, we had the highest temperature of that day, about 54 degrees Celsius. The road was around 76 degrees, meaning that the tar then starts to accumulate all of that energy and then release the heat to us above. All that coincided with a large elevation, a wall of 1500 meters. Now, imagine what it's like running up from Covilha to Serra da Estrela , or from Funchal to Pico do Areeiro, but with twice the distance, with the heat and wind blowing down the mountain at a speed of 70 km/hour. This happened all at once, and created not only physical problems for me, but also very large psychological problems. I had to overcome that moment, not missing a beat, with will power, but also thanks to the support team. I got a great result in a climate so extreme.

Is special equipment is necessary for this kind of events?

CS: Yes, this type of event is in large part preparation, as we could never complete it without that. First, a team of 4 people accompanies us, they constantly give me food and water. These events cause a huge dehydration. They constantly bathe me with ice water every 300 meters, to cool my body temperature. Imagine again that the body has to have a balanced temperature between 36 and 37 degrees. With 38 or 39 degrees people already feel dizzy or feverish. We who are exposed to an environment with far higher temperatures, with a body unable to free the heat produced by exercising the muscles, have to be cooled. The work of this team was to bathe me with cold water, and put ice on my head and neck. It is also necessary to cool the glands that we have in this area that are responsible for transporting large amounts of blood to the brain. The body does not tolerate a change of more than 1-2 degrees, and we must also take into account that a large amount of energy is being spent. Without this work it would not be possible to do this event, and the organization does not allow you to enter otherwise, they are equally or more important than my physical performance in this test. The equipment is also essential. Outdoor Berg developed a sweater, it even won an international award, with a technology that releases a chemical that basically helps release more perspiration, giving a sense of freshness. It helps lower body temperature up to 10 degrees Celsius, it seems that is not much, but it gives me a great comfort.

And the shoes?

CS : The rubber soles can handle more than 100 degrees Celsius , but at the end of an event these sneakers are ready for the trash. They already suffering a huge wear, and it are common for athletes to change them to cool down the feet, which is also complicated. In a normal race, in a normal environment, most people get blisters. Think about what it is to run with these high temperatures, where we are subjected to a range of factors that are difficult to explain. There is also a lot of science behind all of this to comply with all the rules and make a success of these goals, not only for me but also for Portugal.

Is there any requirement on the part of the organization of Badwater ? Any exam that is required and if failed prevents a person from participating?

CS : Yes, in almost all ultra marathons, which are events of a very large physical demand? We have to present a series of tests, such as X-rays, showing that we are able to start this activity. The organization of this event in particular "requires" or advises that the support team includes a doctor. I am lucky to have a friend that volunteered to be part of the staff and he was very important for the worst phase of the route that I mentioned a little while ago, due to several problems that were happening at the same time, I ended up unable to digest food, and was breaking down completely within a few hours. He eventually gave me medication and accelerated the reactivation of an organ that was forgotten, the stomach. Our brain controls all vital signs such as heart, but other organs are "switched off", that's what happened.

The medication you mentioned is approved by the organization, to avoid doping cases?

CS : Yes, certain medication is allowed. At the end of the race there are doping tests like any race.

You, Carlos Sá were the first Portuguese to win this race?

CS : Yes , and I think also the first to participate. People are invited to "Badwater" by the organization. We pay an inscription anyway, but they make a selection, first in the U.S. and then some elite people around the world. I was part of that group, I was fortunate to be invited and be winner on my first experience. I left people in the U.S. rather surprised.

What is your next challenge?

CS : The next challenge is to recover from a fantastic and emotional season, and to try achieving as great results in 2014, with good planning.

Are you a full-time athlete ?
CS : Yes, for two years now. I am also connected to sporting events I help organize .


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