Feel like playing a game of chase? The eighth annual Wings for Life World Run, is set to take place just a couple weeks from now, on May 9 at 6 a.m. central, with thousands of runners across the globe attempting to outrun a virtual “catcher car” that gets faster as the miles progress. Your 9-minute mile pace will get you about 13 miles before you’re caught; the 2020 global winner was able to complete 43.44 miles before getting caught.
The run supports a great cause (all the proceeds raised go towards finding a cure for spinal cord injury) and this year has attracted some big names here in the Houston track world, with UH alumni and sprinting sensations Cam Burrell and Elijah Hall signed on to run, along with another H-Town Speed City grad who’s making a name in the world of ultra running (i.e., extremely long distance running): Calum Neff.
In January, Neff broke the 30-year Canadian 50k national record right here in Bear Creek Park. He’s also set three Guinness World Records (fastest marathon pushing a stroller, anyone?), and this will be his eighth year competing in Wings for Life—he’s run it via the app in Houston and in person in California; Quito, Ecuador; and even the Florida everglades … maybe you can even keep up with him for a quarter mile or so at 5 minutes and 30 seconds per mile.
Neff lives in Katy with his wife and three daughters and trains year-round in Houston—yes, even in our humid summers. Though he can race up to 30 times per year (in, uh, Normal Times when there are actual races), Neff also coaches locally via his company, Hardloop Endurance, training elites and newcomers alike.
Here now, he lends a few tips and ultra-marathoner-tao to those of you preparing for the Wings for Life run and summer training. Spoiler alert: Neff spoke to us while on a work trip to Norway and naturally he’d just happily run up and down a mountain.
Embrace the Houston weather.
“One of the biggest factors of Wings For Life is that everyone has their own conditions,” says Neff. “So you might have somebody in Europe where the weather is actually quite nice, but in Houston it’s awful. So that’s a big, big factor, but last year I just decided to have fun with it.”
But there’s a benefit to humidity, says Neff. “We call it poor man’s altitude,” he says. “There is an actual physiological aspect—like athletes go to altitude to train because it increases their red blood cell content, which is really the special formula for endurance running. But humidity has a similar effect in that it increases your blood volume. So you have more blood, which in turn has more red blood cells.”
Embrace the Houston terrain.
During last year’s Wings for Life, Neff ran west from Katy on a circuit of his own making with his sister following in a vehicle to offer him nutrition and hydration as needed. This year he’ll run east toward downtown, through both George Bush and Terry Hershey parks, two of his favorite spots for running. “That’ll connect me all the way to Beltway 8,” he says, “and then a little bit of road running to get into 610—I think it’s Memorial that I’ll stay on for the most part.”
But keeping it simple at Eleanor Tinsley, Memorial Park, or other greenspaces with paved or dirt loops, which can offer runners easy access to their nutrition and hydration, a must for racing and summer training, too. “That’s really good option just to kind of have that really short loop where you can come around and refresh yourself as needed,” Neff says.
Find your zen.
“Just like any race, pacing is still very important,” says Neff. “This one can be a little bit more difficult to figure out because you don’t know when you’re going to get caught, but you need to kind of estimate—how far do you think you’ll make it?”
From there, settle in and find the flow state: “When you talk to an NBA star or a skater or a swimmer, anybody that has that moment of where they just really excel and it goes right, it’s like an out-of-body experience, you know?” says Neff. “It’s hard to describe, but it’s the flow state—that state that every athlete dreams of having.”