England’s Robert Young goes by the moniker Marathon Man UK. But his latest venture—an attempt to break the 36-year-old North American transcontinental running record—is the marathoning equivalent of “make mine a double.”
That’s because Young will need to run, on average, a distance greater than two marathons a day to have any chance of eclipsing the Guinness World Records mark set by American Frank Giannino Jr. in 1980. Giannino, a shoe salesman, ran from San Francisco to New York City, a distance of roughly 3,100 miles, in 46 days, eight hours, and 36 minutes.
“You’ve got to be over 55 miles a day if you’re going to be anywhere near the target,” says the 33-year-old Young, who sets off from Huntington Beach, Calif., on Saturday, May 14. “If you’re not over 55 miles a day, it’s game over.”
Simple math dictates that Young must cover more than 67 miles a day to give himself a chance to complete the 3,100-mile route in 46 days.
“I would be very happy to get anywhere near the record,” says Young, when asked what he thought his odds were of setting a new mark in late June in New York.
Young is no stranger to ultra-distance running, although he is a fairly recent convert. While watching the London Marathon with his partner in the spring of 2014, Young, a recreational runner, made a bet that he could run a marathon on 10 straight days. That bet soon blossomed to 20, and then 50. Soon afterwards, he began entering ultra-distance events.
In early 2015, he participated in the Trans-American Footrace (Race Across USA), a series of 117 straight marathons from Southern California to Washington, D.C. He finished on June 2, winning the event with a combined time of 482 hours, 10 minutes. A month later, he broke American ultra-runner Dean Karnazes’s record of running 350 miles without sleeping, reaching a mark of 373.75 miles.
The North American transcontinental record attempt raises those stakes exponentially. The latest to try was renowned ultra-runner Lisa Smith-Batchen, who started on April 24. However, the 55-year-old Smith-Batchen was sidelined a week later with severe stomach pains, and had to undergo emergency gall bladder surgery.
Young says he’s approaching the transcontinental run, which will cross portions of 14 states and two mountain ranges—the Rockies and the Appalachians—with great respect.
“I’ve been very lucky so far to do quite well in all the running I’ve done,” he says. “I’m not surprised that the record hasn’t been broken, because it’s a phenomenal effort.”
Asked what he felt were the keys to challenging Giannino’s record, Young admits he takes a contrarian approach. While Smith-Bratchen acknowledged that she spent more than a year planning for her attempt, Young appears far more relaxed.
“A lot of people come into this over-planning, or over-thinking everything,” he says. “With that planning process, you completely do your head in. By planning everything, I actually think it creates a bigger problem. For me, I think it’s more of an attitude of ‘Ah, let’s just go run.’
“The one thing I am 100% committed on is my shoes and my socks, the recording of the data, and ice to cool my body. That’s all I’m very, very strict about. Everything else, I don’t really care about. I think the happier you are, and the more you can go with the flow, that puts you in a better mood.”
Young’s pre-race fitness plan followed a similar, low-key mindset.
“I personally think it’s doing everything completely the opposite to how everyone else has tried doing it,” he says. “Everyone else has gone into the race fully fit, race lean. I think by doing that, you can only deteriorate in fitness straightaway. Whereas if you go in slightly underfit, slightly overweight, I think as you climb over the mountain, or around it depending on the route you go, you’ll gradually get fitter.
“As you get fitter, and lose weight, hopefully you then start to hit 100% of your race peak. And then you’ll start deteriorating. So hopefully, the deterioration process that you go into, because of the period [of time] that you’ve taken to get to that point, will get you over the line a lot more fit, and you’ll have a faster race.”
Young will toe the start line in California at more than 190 pounds, and expects to shed about 30 pounds within the first three weeks of the run. In keeping with his low-tech approach, he doesn’t adhere to any rigid dietary regimen. Several Race Across USA colleagues had dietary plans that proved inadequate once they got several weeks into the race, he says.
“As soon as I would finish a run, I would eat three burgers, and a chocolate milkshake. That’s three to five thousand calories right there,” says Young, who estimates he’ll consume between 10,000 and 15,000 calories every day. “It’s all trial and error, all the way along. But for me, it’s all about calories, and how many calories you can put into your system.”
At night, Young counts on cold therapies, massage, and compression provided by his sponsor SKINS to keep his legs fresh.
Pace will also be a key factor. Clearly, Young takes after the tortoise, not the hare, with a sure-and-steady technique that eats up miles.
“What a lot of people do is race the entire run all in one go, every single day. Therefore, it completely ruins them,” he says. “You have to break it down into training runs. You run early morning to breakfast. Then you have your breakfast, run from breakfast to lunch, and have your lunch. Then run from lunch to dinner, have your dinner. And then maybe throw in a few more miles, if you wish to.
“You’ll cover enough miles during that process. And it’s almost like you’ve gone in for a working day.”
The first two weeks are crucial to allowing Young’s body and mind to adjust to the effort.
“It’s about repetition,” says Young. “Your body is fully adapted to running at the three-week point. The week beyond that, your mind is fully adapted.
“If I’m able to hold [a 60-plus-mile pace] for 15 days, I think my body will be able to adapt to running that kind of mileage, and I should be able to continue to do it.”
The record attempt is simply another in a string of challenges that Young says he hopes will inspire children, and the next generation of athletes. Abused as a child, Young was sent to a foster home at 12, and entered the British Army at 17.
Today, he runs for charity, and the funds raised during his transcontinental run will benefit the U.K.-based Dreams Come True (similar to the Make-A-Wish Foundation), the Tyler Robinson Foundation for cancer patients and survivors, and the California-based 100 Mile Club (which addresses childhood obesity and inactivity). At the Peace and Sports Awards in Monaco in late 2015, Young was named an “International Champion of the Year.”
“I’m not gifted in running,” he says. “I have a talent to keep pushing on. That comes through years of pushing through everything in life. It’s like anything in life—If you keep throwing barriers up, then you’re going to keep stopping yourself from reaching the goals you really want to do.
“It's about finding the right thing, what you’re good at. And then keep digging and making that the best thing that you’re good at. That’s all I’m doing.”