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From Running Leafy Lanes To The Amazon, Sahara And Himalayas

Bored with jogging around leafy Hertfordshire, Dr Mark Hines stepped up to conquer ultra-marathons in the lethal landscapes of the Amazon, Arctic, Sahara and Himalayas – to succeed he had to fuse stamina with science and unlock the physiological secrets of the human body

You need more than courage and resilience to complete extreme challenges. You also have to be humble and smart enough to undertake a cool, calm analysis of the limits and potential of the human body. Experienced adventurers understand that turning a grand plan into a reality requires intelligence, self-knowledge and a thirst for research, planning and analysis.

This is why Dr Mark Hines – an exercise physiologist and biomechanist – is so good at conquering extreme ultra-marathons in the most dangerous and challenging environments on Earth. Hines’s scientific expertise is an integral part of his success and a reminder to adventurers worldwide that extreme expeditions require extreme levels of research and preparation.

Hines has taken part in the 740km Yukon Arctic Ultra in -40°C temperatures, the six-day, 251km Marathon des Sables across the Sahara desert in 50°C heat, the grueling 254km Amazon Jungle Marathon, in 99% humidity and the Ultra a 222km, oxygen-starved slog across the high-altitude peaks of the Himalayas. Wherever in the world he travels, science provides the invisible scaffolding around which he builds his success.

I trained in England at night when I was tired, the conditions were bad and it was dark and cold

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Q: How has science shaped your extreme running adventures?
‘It all started for me back in 2009 when I ran the Yukon Arctic Ultra from Whitehorse to Dawson City in Yukon, Canada. The race is aimed at skiers, bikers and runners and follows part of the 1,000-mile route of the Yukon Quest – a famous international sled dog race. I started to see ultra-marathons as a way to explore the world and myself. My exercise physiology background gives me a better insight into why I might feel a certain way, or what any behavioural cues might be indicating. I certainly appreciate the seriousness of conditions such as hyperthermia, hypothermia and severe dehydration.’

Q: How did your knowledge of physiology help you survive the freezing Arctic environment?
‘For a cold race like the Yukon Arctic Ultra, with 17 hours of darkness a day, I trained in England at night when I’m tired, the conditions were bad and it was dark and cold. That meant my body got used to the exact nature of the challenge. I also ran on hard roads because it helped to toughen up the feet and joints for the demands of travelling over hard ice.’

‘Hydration is important in the cold because the human body doesn’t have the same responses as in warmer climates: you are less aware of your thirst and the body doesn’t seem to control osmolality (sodium concentration) as well. So you have to drink regularly, even if you’re not thirsty. And because the cold has an effect on memory and cognitive tasks, it's useful to pack things into pockets in your pack or sled so their location is memorised. My dry bags were clearly labelled and colour-coded so I never had to 'think' about where things were. I would create habits for eating and putting up the sleeping kit so it was all done automatically.’

Q: How did your research help you endure the brutally hot temperatures of the Sahara?
‘When I went to the Marathon des Sables I saw people turn up with a 10kg rucksack for a race in the desert, and they'd never even worn a rucksack in training. It’s not just the shoulders which suffer, it also increases pounding through the joints, so you need to condition your body by running with a rucksack.’

‘Test everything from your running shorts to your underwear to see if it causes any problems in the heat. During exposure to a hot environment your sweat changes in terms of how early you sweat, how hot you need to be before you start sweating, and the sodium concentration of your sweat. So get out there early and you will need less salt as your body adapts to the heat.’

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Q: Is there anything you can do to manage the humidity of jungles like the Amazon?
‘Humid conditions are the hardest to exercise in as you generate heat from muscle contractions but all of your normal systems for cooling down fail. The normal transfer of heat to the outside of your body doesn’t work as it is hotter on the outside. Sweat needs to evaporate on the skin and that creates an energy exchange, which brings a cooling effect. But in saturated air of humidity up to 100% that sweat doesn't evaporate so you just lose fluids with minimal cooling.’

‘It’s better to run at a reduced pace and stay in control of your body temperature, rather than overheating. I saw people hospitalised in the Jungle Marathon, and one guy had a coma induced because he got so hot it started causing brain damage – his control centres for managing temperatures stopped working.’

Q: How does the lack of oxygen in the high-altitude Himalayas affect your body?
‘Cerebral oedema (an accumulation of fluids in the brain), pulmonary oedema (an accumulation of fluids in the lungs), acute mountain sickness, hyperthermia, hypothermia, frostbite, hyponatraemia, rhabdomyolysis and dehydration are the biggest problems at very high altitude. During the middle of the day the temperatures soar above 30°C and at night they plummet to below zero. Hence the problems are similar to those in the hot and the cold environments, coupled with the unique problems of very high altitude.’

Q: Can you train to perform at those high altitudes?
‘For very high altitude, it can be useful to spend a month or so at high altitude to allow the physiological adaptations to take place, such as increased red blood cell count. However, during that time at altitude, you cannot train as well as at sea level, so your fitness actually drops. The best approach is some combination of exercise and rest at high, moderate and low altitude. At very high altitude like in the Himalayas the challenge is to keep making forward progress, despite severe limitations in physical capacity.’

Visit www.markhines.org for more information. Mark’s books on the Marathon Des Sables, the Jungle Marathon and the Yukon Arctic Ultra are available on Amazon

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