Ultra-running has the ability to leave no stone unturned when unearthing talent. Having been inspired by seeing his sister, Caroline Wostmann, win the Comrades Marathon, Chris Cherry decided to up his own running ante, and give the “Ultimate Human Race”, a bash. He certainly has “it”, having finished 23rd overall in 2018.
You’re listening to 32Gi Sports Nutrition; I’m Mr Active, David Katz. A great chat we had last week with Grace Thek from Melbourne, Australia, an up and coming triathlete, ultra distance triathlete. Unfortunately she didn’t have the greatest result at Asia Pacific 70.3 Champs over the weekend, picking up food poisoning just before the race.
Still attempted to do it, but didn’t get through the run in the end, but a fine athlete. I’ll put a link up if you want to hear that podcast from last week. This week as we continue to look at some inspirational athletes that are out there, it’s a great pleasure now to welcome Chris Cherry onto the podcast. Chris thanks for joining us.
Chris Cherry: Thanks David, thanks for having me.
How Caroline Wostmann’s success inspired me
DK: Christ, first of all, a lot of people won’t know this but you are, of course, the brother of Caroline Wostmann, of course Comrades and Two Oceans champion in the past. That went a long way, didn’t it, seeing her win those two, to starting your journey with ultra-marathons?
CC: For sure, I’m so proud to be Caroline’s brother, I don’t mind if people refer to me as that. She was the one who showed me that a normal person could break through the, I guess the elite barrier. I think many of us see the elite guys as untouchable and seeing her go from just my sister to a superhero, was just so close to home. So inspirational and encouraged me to try something along those lines myself and see how far I can get.
DK: We’ve done some great chats with Caroline over the past couple of years as well around those wins, I’ll put those up as well. But Chris, in school, after school, did you ever think you had the ability to run this fast?
CC: I still don’t see myself as fast. I think fast is more the short distances but I did do cross-country at school. I played squash and people will tell you in squash, I could run forever! I might not have always hit the best shots but I stayed in the rally just by pure grit.
Comrades, I don’t know. It wasn’t something I would have expected would become a passion. I think that only came about when Caroline did well and then I started thinking, maybe there’s something in the genes and maybe it’s worth a try. Here we are, three or four years later after getting into the long distance stuff and just loving the journey.
90km at 4min/km splits = fast
DK: Chris, you say not fast and yes, it’s an endurance event and yes, it’s an ultra-event, but what were your split times if you broke it down this year with your 6:03?
CC: It works out to about four minutes a K. The second half was a little bit tougher. Four minutes a K, I suppose if you’re looking at the shorter distances, it’s not that fast. To be honest, even with my shorter distances, I can’t run that much faster than that. I guess with Comrades I was sort of pushing my limits.
DK: It’s the kind of race where you do do that, but I think for 98% of people out there, running 90km at four minutes a K is pretty extreme, so give yourself a little bit of credit.
I want to take you back now, you ran your first Comrades in 2015. You did just under eight and a half. The year after that you took a good two hours off. What was the difference? What did you do differently between that first one where you were feeling your way a little bit as a novice and then coming and running a sub 6:30?
How to knock 2-hours off your Comrades time
CC: I could try and pinpoint a few things. I think probably the biggest thing was just being a bit more experienced and expecting the pain. The first Comrades, I guess I was ambitious; I’m ambitious every single year. I trained a bit with Caroline and a group that she had set up at Wits.
I went in there on my first one with a goal of silver. People laughed at me and I just thought, let me go for it anyway. The last 20km were just the hardest 20km of my life. The second one I definitely trained harder, built on that preparation.
I had a long cycle trip from Johannesburg to Cape Town, which was just for fun. My wife and I and a few other couples over two weeks. Also included a bit of strength work. But then I think probably the most telling thing, something that I wasn’t planning.
I was doing a long training run with Caroline and her coach, also my coach now, Lindsey Parry. During the long run he just told me about one of his Comrades where he learnt the lesson that you can’t out-train Comrades. Basically what he meant by that was that you can train as much as you want, but it’s always going to hurt, so prepare yourself for it.
I went into that Comrades, I think, a bit more ready for the pain. So when the pain came, I do think I was better trained so I could push through it, but I was also a bit more mentally prepared to push through it.
DK: Chris, that’s a fantastic bit of advice, and Lindsey Parry, of course the Comrades coach, he has a world of experience when it comes to not only running that race, but ultra-marathons in general.
Key to ultra-running success – know your body
I also had a chat with Grace Thek last week and asked her, because as Ironman athletes and 70.3, there’s a tendency and an ability to over-train and over-race. Is that something that you also quite sharply look at? Yes, it’s Comrades, yes, you need lots of mileage, but it’s something that you try to manage, that not over-training?
CC: Absolutely. I think in my first few years of this long distance stuff, I’ve always tried not to go too far beyond what I’ve done in the past but in the last few years, going that little extra distance has come quite naturally. I’ve set out the plan for the next season and this is the mileage progression and every week ticking that off.
This past season was actually the first year where the plan just didn’t happen. There were times where I had little niggles that I had to work through and just generally at times wasn’t feeling great, revisiting my diet, sleep, pulling back on the training.
It really was, I think, a lesson in getting closer to the art of training as opposed to just the science of it. You can real manuals and listen to podcasts that tell you to do XYZ, but if it’s not working for you, it’s not working for you!
I really learnt that this year, that I need to get more in tune with my body and learn how my body copes with certain things. I do actually feel that at times I was on the verge of over-training and just following a bit of intuition and with Lindsey’s advice; we managed to avoid that entirely.
Finding the right nutritional plan for you
DK: That’s a fantastic bit of advice for anyone, because you can follow the best strategy in the world, and the best coaching plan, but you’ve got to understand how your body works. Talking about that as well, you mentioned a little bit of nutrition. Is that process happening as well year on year? Are you developing/changing your strategy? Has your nutrition vastly changed from 2015 now to where we are in 2018?
CC: Yes, it has. Generally I try to eat quite healthy. My wife and I are quite extreme in that sense. I’ve tried veganism, I’ve tried Banting, I’ve tried various different things, some worked better than others, but I think the underlying principle is to just find what’s best for my body.
Over time that does change. About a year ago, around this time, after Comrades, is always my time to revisit things, I set up a chat with Mark Wolff. He was just so generous with his time and advice and really helped me tweak a couple of things in my diet to try and get closer to that optimal race weight for endurance events.
Chris’ Comrades nutritional strategy
DK: Looking at that, where you found yourself this year, a phenomenal run, we touched on it, I think I said 6:03, you were 23rd overall at Comrades, the down run ending in the stadium for the first time. So it was a bit longer, it was a little bit of an unknown for everyone, obviously you had a great run. How did you deal with your strategy in terms of nutrition, what was the key to success for you this year?
CC: During my training I generally, I try not to over-supplement. I’ll rather make my own shakes and do certain things. For my speed workouts I use the 32Gi Endure and the Race now and then. Of course I love the vegan bars which are all natural ingredients.
On the race itself I pretty much fuel with a liquid diet. I find when you are pushing your limit, to actually stomach solid food gets quite challenging. Pretty much throughout the race I was having 32Gi Race. I did have a couple of hydration tablets, but I did learn a bit of a hard lesson, rather get the fizz out of them before the race. Then also just at a couple of key points I had the 32Gi protein shake, the Recover and then also the 32Gi caffeine shots.
DK: Is caffeine something you look to reduce? I know Mark always talks about there’s huge benefit to it, but in that week before, the problem is we also have lives, we work hard, we rely on caffeine. Were you able to cut it down before an event like that, to maximise the impact on race day?
CC: I have such a love/hate relationship with coffee in particular and I find that it’s one of those things, I love pouring cappuccino, but there are times where life stress in particular picks up a bit and I just start getting this buzz and I can feel the cortisol, the stress in me.
This particular year, as I was saying with my training, there were times where things weren’t quite going right, I actually pulled out completely from caffeine and coffee for about three months before Comrades, and I actually found that that helped me just handle a couple of stresses, work related and training in addition to that. Yes, I didn’t have caffeine for at least a week, a bit longer than that this particular year.
The Ultimate dream for the “Ultimate Human Race”
DK: Chris, we talked about not realising you had the ability to run at an elite level and the beauty of ultra and having seen Caroline do it, of course she’s gone on to win a few Gold medals. You’ve got 6:06, now you’ve got 6:03, your times have been phenomenal, do you see that as something that can happen in the next couple of years, dipping under six and possibly challenging for a Gold medal?
CC: It’s a dream. I don’t want to come across as arrogant, but I guess this year, I feel like I’ve crossed the barrier of belief in that before the elites were very much untouchable. I feel like now, I feel a bit more comfortable in that space.
With all due respect to those runners, Gift Kelehe, David Gatebe, all of them, they really are phenomenal. But I’ve realised that they’re also human and they go through the same challenges that I’m going through. Something you can’t do is force improvement, but I guess I’ll just keep picking away and hopefully, God willing, my body can come along for the ride.
DK: Chris, I really do enjoy stories like your,s and of course as you said, again, I mean we harp on it, but Caroline was this inspiration, not only for you, but we’ve seen so many runners come through and just get these incredible times and they’ve developed this understanding or ability as an ultra-marathon runner.
If we look at the likes of Ryan Sandes, same thing, didn’t realise he had the talent until he started running long. It’s been fantastic to see, it’s great to have you out there and we’ll be following your journey. Thanks for your time and we look forward to seeing how you go in Comrades in the next couple of years.
CC: Thanks very much David, really appreciate it.