The Ice Man Runneth: In Conversation with Scottish Ultrarunner Dr. Andrew Murray
When he's not working as a GP, Andrew Murray likes to run marathons – but not the common-or-garden variety. The Scot has just returned from Mongolia, where he secured his second successive win in the Genghis Khan Ice Marathon.
Credit: Dr. Andrew Murray
This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.
Among the many races named after their distance – the 100m, the 800m, and so on – the marathon stands out as something different. Considered a stern test of human endurance, it also claims a backstory stretching to 490 BC and the Persian invasion of Greece. According to legend, a Greek messenger was sent from the battlefield of Marathon to Athens to announce that the Persians had been defeated. It is said that he ran the entire distance without stopping, a decision that he presumably regretted while slumping to his death moments after delivering the good news. When the modern Olympics began in the 1890s, the distance of this journey – approximately 40km – was used for the marathon event (the current distance of 42.195km was settled upon in time for the 1920 games).
The marathon thus has its roots on the arid, dusty roads of southern Greece. It is an event where small obstacles can become insurmountable problems, given the considerable physical challenge that runners face. And so a marathon that takes competitors into temperatures of -30 degrees, through snow and across frozen lakes, represents one hell of a departure from the original.
Yet that is exactly the test that competitors sign up for when they tackle the Genghis Khan Ice Marathon. Tracing the journey made by the 13th-century Mongolian warlord, the event presents a series of unique challenges. The winner of the past two runnings, Andrew Murray, suggests one potential concern is "hitting the wall at -32 degrees, which I imagine would be a horrible experience." Fortunately, it's something he's yet to face himself.
Murray is an accomplished ultrarunner and all-round sports enthusiast. Talking to VICE Sports shortly after retaining the title he won in 2016, he is keener to stress the importance of regular exercise to a person's physical and mental health than big up his own achievement in Mongolia. Murray speaks from a place of authority on this matter, as his job away from ultrarunning is as a general practitioner.
Murray is also something of an advocate for Mongolia. He calls the event "a genuine cultural experience" where the appeal is not limited to the competition. It's about "getting to stay in remote and rural areas, getting to spend time with nomadic populations, and having the unique opportunity to run the mountains, river valleys, and frozen rivers."
"I run to see stuff, to meet people, to experience new things – that's what it was about for me," he explains.
Despite the obvious social and cultural positives, the Ice Marathon is still a serious sporting pursuit. As the name suggests it's a full marathon distance, with half marathon and 10km options also available. The terrain includes frozen rivers, snowy trails, mountain valley tracks, and roads. Given the huge commitment, fitness and bravery that it takes to run this race, it should be no surprise that only a relatively small group covers the full distance.
"For me and the majority of those doing it, because there's a small group there is that genuine sense of cultural experience," says Murray. "You don't get that with big races. I view it as an adventure, as well as an opportunity to see old friends."
Travelling first to the Mongolian capital, Ulaanbaatar, where Murray was met with temperatures of 30 below freezing, he then headed away from modern civilisation and into the Terelj and Terkhiin national parks. "This is where you can hear the huskies, see the local habitation, see the sides of the mountains," he says.
"Then there's the marathon itself," Murray continues. "With it being at the time of year it is [late January], I hosted a couple of Burns Night suppers – one out in the middle of nowhere and another back in Ulaanbaatar."
Murray ran this year's race in 3 hours 30 minutes and clocked in at 3:07 the year before. For context, the current men's record at the London Marathon is 2:03:05, set by Eliud Kipchoge on his way to winning the 2016 race. That is, of course, not a like-for-like comparison. "I think the difference was that the snow was a bit thicker this time," he reflects. "It felt like I was running it at roughly a 2.35 or 2.40 pace, in terms of the exertion and effort required. So it felt like running a marathon and a half. If you're running through snow and on very slippery surfaces, even if you have the best shoes in the world it takes longer."
The equipment used is absolutely crucial on an event such as this and can be the difference between completing the race and requiring an emergency rescue. Murray says: "You want to wrap up with lots of thin layers, like an onion, rather than wearing big bits of kit and your sweat freezing up. Another thing is quality footwear. I always buy a size too big so as to fit a few pairs of socks. Sometimes you're wading through snow but others you're on sheet ice, so you'd spend a lot of time on your backside without the right footwear. I wore the Merrell All Out Terra Ice, which have the advantage of being Gore-Tex, with little spikes in the bottom so that you can make progress without spending too much time on your arse."
Challenging as the place can be, Murray clearly feels real fondness for Mongolia. It is a country that we learn very little about in Britain, with its most famous son – the aforementioned Genghis Khan – having ruled almost eight centuries ago. The images of the marathon's route are spectacular, though Murray is equally enthusiastic about the locals he has met.
"It's a place that I love going to," he says. "The capital itself is the only place that's a modern city, with infrastructure, the internet and so on. If you go out beyond Ulaanbaatar it's unusual to meet many people. You get the feeling that it's what things would have been like a hundred years ago.
"We made a documentary for Mongolian TV while we were out there and it was interesting just to hear the intrigue about Scotland – 'you've got all these cool castles, you've got weird food like haggis, you all wear skirts'. The curiosity goes both ways.
"I was racing in Mongolia during the summer a few years ago; I had the chance to compete in a 250km stage race out there and the generosity of the locals struck me. I had to carry my own kit, but frequently people were coming out of their gers [domestic huts, known in some countries as yurts] offering me goat or cheese to eat. I saw that there were a lot of things that could be done to support their country. So I teamed up with Dave Scott of the Yamaa Trust and we raised about £80,000 by running from John O'Groats to the Sahara Desert, which is a distance of about 3,000km. Since then it's been great to have the opportunity to go back a couple of times and see some of the projects that have been instigated."
Away from ultrarunning Murray somehow finds time to work as a GP, an exercise medicine consultant, and even squeezes in a family life.
"Part of what I do is try to help people recognise the value of the great outdoors, as opposed to pills and operations, to make them better. Regular exercise is one of the best things you can do for your health. If you go from being a couch potato to exercising regularly you'll live on average seven years longer and usually be happier. It can also help prevent a number of chronic diseases, like type 2 diabetes, heart attacks and strokes. You're a bit more likely to get athletes foot and some blisters, but you'll live longer and you'll be happier with it.
"I also work for various sports organisations, doing research that looks at the science and medicine of sport and performance for the University of Edinburgh," he adds.
From what we have learned about Murray, a picture has formed of a man whose sporting passions are very much at the extreme end of the spectrum. He is, after all, the two-time winner of a race that some people would run a marathon to avoid. So we put it to him that he's probably not all that bothered about more pedestrian sports – golf, for example.
"I actually really like golf!" he responds with surprising enthusiasm. "It's outside, so you get lots of fresh air. I also like to just go for a walk with my daughters. What I don't like is sitting watching TV all the time."
Murray's commitment is admirable, and a final word from him is required to demonstrate how seriously he takes his own mantra.
"After last year's marathon I had a spare day, so I also ran another 115km back to Ulaanbaatar. But this time I just ran the standard marathon and relaxed the day after."
Just the standard marathon. No big deal.