Could you complete a triathlon – 3.8 kilometres swimming, 180 kilometres riding a bike, and finally 42.2 kilometres running? In other words, swim eight lengths of the Empire State Building, ride a bicycle from London to Manchester, and finally run 77 times around the Colosseum in Rome? That sounds almost impossible, right? Not for everyone.
Rait Ratasepp, a graduate of the University of Tartu, recently participated in the Deca Ultrathriathlon of Switzerland, where he had to complete the triathlon distance not only once but ten times! The competition lasted ten consecutive days, meaning one full triathlon distance per day, ten days in a row.
Such a competition requires an enormous physical and mental effort, even from a well-trained endurance sport professional. The word “ultra” itself refers to both “extreme” and “supreme”. Rait finished second at the deca ultratriathlon – covering the entire distance took him 108 hours, 48 minutes, and 57 seconds, which, by the way, beat the previous world record.
Facts about what happens to a person’s body while going through such difficult physical challenges has been an interest for many scientists. Among others, Rait has been observed by scientists from University of Tartu, especially from the Institute of Sport Sciences and Physiotherapy.
Rait is the first Estonian to make it to the absolute top of an ultra-endurance sport in the world. His results push the limits both in Estonia and the world. But, as Rait says himself, it’s much more important to push the limits inside yourself and for yourself.
Lawyer turned athlete
Rait is mostly known as an athlete, but he’s active in the field of justice as well. In 2009 he received a master’s degree in law from the University of Tartu and has worked at the Tartu County Court and at the law firm Varul. Rait believes that working and studying simultaneously is the best combination in the field of law: the practical experience is something that gave him an advantage over many other contestants with the same degree.
Still, judicial work can be quite challenging. “The heavy responsibilities and high expectations that came with this work quickly started to test my ability to cope with stress. I already liked to do a lot of sports, but now it became one of the main methods for me to get rid of stress. It’s better to face stress when you’re physically strong”.
After four and a half years of working at the law firm, proving his worth, and acquiring valuable knowledge and experience, Rait felt the need for change. “Although the field of law is still really close to my heart, I needed to take some time off for a while to give my other hobby – sport – a chance”.
When a friend told Rait about the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc contest in the French Alps, Rait immediately knew that he wanted to participate. In August 2013 this thought became a reality. Rait completed the 119-kilometre-long race, including more than 7,200 metres ascending, in a single day and night. Simultaneously with the ultramarathon, Rait also discovered triathlon. At first, making it through a full triathlon was challenging enough, but soon it was clear that he was able to tackle even longer distances.
Rait admits that only a very few people understood his decision to move from the judicial field to sports. “Indeed, I had a really prestigious occupation and the best working conditions, as well as a really good salary. Deliberately giving it all up seemed baffling to many. But I didn’t let the opinion of others influence my decision. By now it’s been many years, and looking back I regret nothing. Currently, I am in control of what I do with my time, and I’m able to participate in two of my favorite hobbies – sports and law – in a way that one doesn’t harm the other”. Rait considers devoting himself to sports to be one of his main achievements – he listened to his inner voice while taking this bold step.
An ultratriathlon requires physical and mental preparation
How can one prepare for such a tough ordeal as completing an ultratriathlon ten times over? “Getting ready, both mentally and physically, begins really early. I knew my plans for a year before they happened. All the demanding sports camps, smaller competitions, and trainings were dedicated to making me physically and mentally ready for the main competition of the season”, says Rait. Before the deca ultra-triathlon in Switzerland, Rait completed a penta ultra-triathlon in Estonia (completed a triathlon distance five times) and a tetra ultra-triathlon in Germany (completed a triathlon distance three times).
“I never train or take up any challenge against my will. Previous experience has made me more confident that I can get on well with physically and mentally hard conditions. In fact, the main goal of the preparations for ultra challenges is persuading yourself that you can actually do it. I like it when getting through every training feels like a challenge on its own”, says Rait.
Rait passed the deca ultra-triathlon with a total time of 108:48:57. He passed each of the daily full triathlons with quite similar times: in nine days out of ten it was under 11 hours.
But what happens to a person’s psyche during such a demanding physical effort? Aave Hannus, a researcher of sport psychology at the University of Tartu, explains that while participating in a performance that needs great endurance, an athlete has to be engaged in active self-regulation. He has to control his or her thoughts, emotions, and actions. There are two strategies being used for directing one’s thoughts. One way is to direct the attention towards regulating one’s technique, rhythm, tempo, strategical decisions, and relaxation. The other strategy is all about turning the athlete’s attention away from himself or herself, i.e. performing arithmetic operations by heart or concentrating on observing the outside world. Research hints that having one’s attention directed at oneself might be the more efficient way, as tempo and effort suffer when the concentration is engaged with things outside the athlete and the sport.
Rait is often monitoring the way he moves in comparison to the other participants during a competition. “In tough competitive situations, seeing other people doing the same thing gives the motivation to go on. I can see from their faces that they are having a hard time as well”.
Rait and his health is being observed by Silva Suvi and Martin Mooses, scientists from the Institute of Sport Sciences and Physiotherapy at the University of Tartu. The scientists admitted that initially even the idea of passing a penta-triathlon in Estonia felt quite far out. “But as it seems, Rait is so well trained that this competition wasn’t too harsh on his physiology”, says Mooses, a lecturer of physical culture. In fact, one of the reasons why they even dared to start observing and analysing Rait was his excellent physical condition.
Rait has participated in many studies by the sports scientists of Tartu, all the while actively searching for ways to co-operate so he can be more aware of his health and improve the results. “It gives me a possibility to get to know more about myself and understand how my body reacts to extreme situations, adapts to them, and gets better after them”.
Rait was accompanied by a five-person team at the deca ultratriathlon in Switzerland. One of the team members was the aforementioned Silva Suvi, a doctoral student in the Institute of Sport Sciences and Physiotherapy at the University of Tartu, who kept an eye on Rait’s health data which she used for case analysis. On the days of the competition, she measured his heart rate variability, blood glucose level, lactate threshold, and took blood tests for determining cell-free DNA, as well as urine tests to determine its density. Every morning, Rait also filled out a questionnaire to evaluate his level of exhaustion, mood, and sleep quality. To get an account of energy gained and spent, Suvi kept analysing Rait’s nutrition.
Input from the other teammates who were present included giving food to Rait while he was constantly on the move, preparing the next day’s equipment each night, forwarding the course and emotions of the competition to the fans in Estonia, massaging and stretching Rait’s muscles at night, providing food, cooking, counting the rounds during competition, marking down the results, etc.
Nutrition plays a vital role in performance
Eating right is really important during such a physical effort. “Since the effort lasts for so long and is so extreme, it’s necessary that the energy lost and compensation of it with food and water are in balance. Otherwise, many blood samples will be affected negatively and there could be a decrease in the athlete’s capacities”, Suvi says. An organism deprived of energy starts to decompose its own proteins – muscles – to regain energy.
At the ultratriathlon in Switzerland, Rait consumed 8000–10,000 kilocalories each day on average. For comparison, the daily consumption of an average man is supposed to be 2,400 kilocalories on average. “In 10 days and nights, I ate and drank 89,100 kilocalories, an energy amount that would be enough for 38 days for a person operating under normal conditions”, Rait says in summarizing his nutrition.
In addition to the amount of calories consumed, the proportion of nutrients is important as well. Rait considers the eighth day of competition to be the hardest, because of the concurrence of many circumstances, one of them being insufficient intake of protein. “On the eighth day, I received an unpleasant surprise. While already on the bicycle path, I discovered that my legs had just lost all their power. The calculations of energy loss and consumption that Suvi had performed every night ruled out speculation that the exhaustion was brought about by energy deficit. At the moment I am inclined to think that the constant protein deficit of the first days culminated on the eighth day, manifesting in the overall feeling of powerlessness. I have to add that when the mistake was corrected on the eighth day, my power was back on the ninth and tenth days, and I felt great”.
Pushing the limits inside yourself and for yourself
Rait says that one of the charms of an ultratriathlon is to be able to survive the hard moments. One should keep away negative thoughts and not let the hardships bring him or her down. “After the hardships comes an easier and more pleasant moment, when you feel the power in you again, knowing that you have once again pushed the limit of your abilities further”.
Many people must wonder what inspires Rait to participate in such endeavours. “It’s really hard to explain why I do that, in addition to the fact that I just like it. If there is this click in your head and you get the proof that you are capable enough, you start to see things differently. You don’t feel that you are torturing yourself; instead, you start believing more in yourself. So, if you do believe that you can do it, there’s no obstruction anymore – you just need to prepare correctly”.
For Rait, mountains are the most fascinating thing when it comes to ultrasport, especially ultrarunning. “I like to run in the mountains when competing. The power that comes from being in a valley and looking up at these mountains that are kilometres high… And after a couple of hours you are up there, looking down. All the difficulties you have to experience are those that make you stronger and more self-assured”.
Rait tries to take the maximum from each ultra-experience and collect as much data as possible, so the data could later be analysed by himself and together with specialists, extracting the knowledge needed for next ventures. Rait usually chooses a couple of main goals for every year, then tries to prepare himself for those. “If you see each competition as the most important, then there can’t be many of them. If the number were great, then you probably wouldn’t be successful in all of them”.
“For this year, the ultra-challenges are over, and soon the preparation period for the next year’s competitions will begin. Although it’s still too early to announce anything with certainty, thoughts of the next challenges have started to form. If the thoughts will become reality, then next autumn I’d meet a challenge that makes my previous ones pale in comparison”.
Kaija Pook is an author and the editor of the UT Blog.