Lithuania is a country of 3 million people located in the southeastern shores of the Baltic Sea. I’ve never been to the country but as a young basketball fan I used to admire the great Lithuanian players such as Arvydas Sabonis, Sarunas Marciulionis, Arturas Karnisovas and Rimas Kurtinaitis. If you’re a basketball fan you know that basketball is like a second religion in Lithuania. The Lithuanian national team won three consecutive bronze medals in 1992, 1996 and 2000 Olympic Games and they were always (and still are) one of the top teams in European Championships.
So when I learned that I’d have a chance to meet with Gediminas Grinius, the 2016 Ultra Trail World Tour Champion, I thought apart from running together we could also talk about it so I refreshed my basketball memory a little bit. Actually, in the past there were a few times such as the Maxi Race World Trail Championship in Annecy, France when we were at the same location but this was the first time we met in person. So, when I finally met him in Cappadocia I was surprised to find out that Gediminas is one of those rare Lithuanians who’s not interested in basketball at all! However, what’s more important is that he’s interested in running and he’s definitely one of the top trail ultrarunners of our time.
Suunto ambassador Gediminas had his first success in the international trail ultra scene when he finished in top 10 at Zugspitz Ultra Trail in 2013. Then in 2014, he finished 3rd in Lavaredo Ultra Trail and 4th in Grand Raid Reunion but even more importantly he finished 5th in his first UTMB. In the last two years he cemented his name as one of the top trail ultrarunners.
It was just announced that Salomon Cappadocia Ultra Trail was added to the UTWT calendar and a few weeks ago I asked Ceylan Mergen, Amer Sports Business Development Manager of Turkey, if we could expect some well-known Salomon and Suunto runners for next year’s race. She told me to expect a few surprises and we didn’t need to wait long for the first one.
Gediminas will run the race in 2017 so he spent the previous weekend in Cappadocia to get a glimpse of what to expect. Over a two day period I ran with him for about 4 hours on the race course and spent a lot of time together. Just as I expected, I found out that he’s not just a very fast and strong runner but also a really humble and kind person. Just don’t call him “Jedi” or something and you’ll get along with him really well. I’ll give you a hint: “Gedi” is OK but “Gedas” is even better!
Aykut: Hi Gediminas, welcome to Cappadocia! First of all, I’d like to once again congratulate you for a great season of ultrarunning. This year, you finished top 3 in some of the most competitive ultra trail races such as UTMB, Lavaredo Ultra Trail, Hong Kong 100 and Transgrancanaria. As a result you became the 2016 Ultra Trail World Tour Champion. You’ve just spent a weekend in Cappadocia. Was this your first time in Turkey?
Gediminas: Yes, it’s my first time. Actually, I was supposed to visit Turkey a few years ago with my family but unfortunately at the last minute I noticed that I forgot my passport so it didn’t happen. This time I was more experienced and remembered to take it with me!
Aykut: We’re glad you could make it this time! So, how would you describe your overall experience in Cappadocia?
Gediminas: It was an amazing experience. The people, the food, the hot balloon ride, the running and of course the location was perfect. Cappadocia is a UNESCO world heritage site and from fairy chimneys to cave houses there is so much to see. I just wished I had more time to explore the area.
Aykut: Yes, when we were running the race course on Saturday morning, I remember you joking about buying a cave house there so that you could run as much as you want. But I think you still saw a lot of great locations in quite a short time. I guess being able to cover long distances in a short time at remote locations is one of the benefits of ultrarunning. And of course, there was also the balloon ride. You told me it was your first time in a balloon and you seemed to enjoy it a lot.
Gediminas: Yes, it was definitely a marvelous experience. Being able to see the whole landscape from the air was amazing. Since it was my first time, I was a little bit nervous before the ride but as soon as we took off I felt safe all the way. The views were mesmerizing. The pilot was very professional, the weather was perfect and it was a very smooth ride. It was one of the many highlights of the trip for sure.
Aykut: OK, let’s talk about running. You obviously had some great results in the last few years but unlike some of the other top runners your running background doesn’t go far back to your childhood days. We all have different reasons to start running and yours is quite interesting. Please tell us how and why you started running long distances.
Gediminas: I was in the Lithuanian military and as a part of a NATO mission I was stationed in Iraq for 7 months. This was in 2007. During that period I had to experience some bad situations. So, when I finally came back home I was showing signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and my relations with my wife and children started to deteriorate. I got some help from the doctors and psychologists and one of the advice I was given was to start physical exercise. So, I started running as a therapy and then I noticed that the longer I ran the better I felt. Eventually I managed to overcome my problems through running but at that time I was already hooked so it went on from there.
Aykut: This is a great story of how running can help when a person is dealing with some serious life issues. So, at what point running started to become competitive for you?
Gediminas: My first race was the Vilnius Half Marathon back in 2007. Then a few years later the Lithuanian Athletics Federation was looking for applicants for the national ultrarunning team. We are a small country with a population of 3 million. I applied and got selected so I started to train more seriously after that.
Aykut: Even though you’re very successful at the moment you still have a regular job where you have to sit in front of a computer for long hours. I guess you need to be a little bit more creative in order to find long training hours, right? How do you manage this situation?
Gediminas: That’s right. I’m still in the military but now I have an office job as an analyst in the Lithuanian military. I try to create time by running to and from work every day. If I don’t run to work that morning, my wife gives me and our two sons a ride and we first drop the kids to school. After that she drives me to work. At the end of the work day, I put my running gear on and run home.
Aykut: How far is your workplace from your home?
Gediminas: It’s at least 25 kilometers but I usually make it longer and run as much as 35 kilometers. It’s a mixture of paved and unpaved roads. It also has some elevation gain but not much.
Aykut: So, you don’t have big mountains close to where you live but you obviously do very well in long mountainous races. What’s the secret?
Gediminas: The secret is hill repeats. Like you said, we don’t have big mountains around my location so I do a lot of repetitions on small hills. I also try to strengthen my leg muscles as much as I can.
Aykut: OK, let’s talk about numbers. What’s a typical training week for you in terms of mileage and structure? I guess it depends on a lot of factors such as periodization and the type of the race but give us a rough idea.
Gediminas: Yes, like you said it really depends on the time of the year and the race that I’m training for. But I’d say my weekly total is normally between 120 to 250 kilometers. I have to say 250 km/week only happened once and the typical volume is somewhere in between. My training regime also changes according to the race I’m preparing for. For example, if I’m training for UTMB my focus would be about vertical gain and hill repeats. For a race such as the Salomon Cappadocia Ultra Trail, my main focus would be tempo runs and speedwork.
Aykut: How about cross training? You mentioned strengthening exercises. Any cycling or swimming during the season?
Gediminas: Yes, during my off season or on my recovery days I try to cycle a little bit but that’s about it. It’s not always easy to cycle during the winter months in Lithuania so spring is a good time for me. Other than that I do strengthening exercises twice a week which consists of jumps, squats, steps etc. to imitate climbing.
Aykut: When I follow the progress on big races, one thing I always notice is that you start slower than most of the top runners and then begin to catch them after midway. For example, when you finished second in this year’s UTMB, you were barely in the top 10 in the first half of the race. But as the race progressed you caught people one by one and finished in second place. The same case is true for most of your other races. Every ultrarunner wants to be strong in the second half but in most races it just doesn’t work out that way. I think this type of approach requires a lot of discipline and self-confidence. How do you define your approach?
Gediminas: Yes, that’s exactly my strategy. I found out that it fits me because I don’t always have the speed of some top runners so I have to be smart with my pacing. I try to conserve my energy as much as I can in the first half and then really start to race in the second half. In some races, I find out that I still have some energy left at the finish line so finding the right balance is not always easy but I’m working on that.
Aykut: Well, you obviously seem to do it better than most runners. I guess that’s one of the main reasons why you’re more successful in longer ultras, right? Would it be fair to say that 100 mile is your favorite distance?
Gediminas: Yes, I really believe I’m most successful in 100 mile races.
Aykut: As ultrarunners, we’re obsessive people and we always try to get better at what we do. What do you think your strengths are and what can you work on to improve?
Gediminas: I believe my strengths are patience and finishing strong. Since I don’t have big mountains to train, I’m not very good on technical terrain so I have to work on that. I also need to improve my hiking skills on steep climbs.
Aykut: Training for ultras requires a lot of work. In your opinion, what are the elements of a good race preparation?
Gediminas: I’d say that 70% of ultrarunning preparation is physical training and 20-25% is mental. The rest is planning and course knowledge etc. Of course, when you go for a 3-4 hour training run, you’re not only doing physical training. You understand what can go wrong in the race and learn how to deal with them. So, in a way that’s mental training, too.
Aykut: Agreed. I always think that the longer the race the more important the mental aspects are. Doyou agree with that?
Gediminas: Yes, I do. For example, running a marathon is all about lactate threshold and VO2Max etc. If you do the necessary physical training you can achieve what you want most of the time. Similarly, if you’re a fast runner you can finish a flat 100K around 7 hours so it’s still not a very long time. But when you think of mountainous 100 mile races, most of them can take more than 20 hours even for the fastest runners. With that timeframe other factors come to play which I call the limitation factors. Extreme heat, cold, stomach and foot problems are some of those factors. You need to be mentally strong to deal with them.
Aykut: You put it nicely. When I first started running I thought the more experienced runners didn’t feel as much pain as the novice runners. Or that they don’t experience the extreme lows during the races. But as I gained more experience, I understood that no matter what the experience level everybody goes through really tough times in long races. In the end, the way we handle those lows determines the outcome of the race. Having said that, I’m sure you also feel the same pains and lows as much as any ultrarunner. What’s your mechanism to deal with those issues and where do you find your motivation?
Gediminas: Yes, like you said we all experience those emotions. The way I handle them changes from race to race but there are some thought processes that help me in all my races. I usually think about my family because I’d like to be a good example for my kids. I put a lot of effort in my training and make sacrifices so I’d like to give my best effort during the races. When my brain tells me to stop I try to come up with counter arguments. For example, when I was in UTMF I tried to convince myself that I was a samurai warrior fighting the bad guys. In Western States 100, I thought about being a horse. At the end of the races, I use the hunter and hunted mentality. I try to convince myself that the runner behind me is trying to hunt me so I try to catch the next runner to be the hunter.
Aykut: Running an ultra is definitely a series of mind games, isn’t it? OK, let’s change the subject a little bit. What’s the primary source of nutrition you use during the races?
Gediminas: I mainly use gels in most of my races. I only recently tried solid food during Transgrancanaria because I got really hungry but that was a rare occurrence so I’d say gels are my main source of nutrition. I found out that my stomach is quite strong and can handle them pretty well. When it comes to training I don’t eat anything up to 3-4 hours. It has two sides to it. I believe it teaches your body to utilize more fat but on the downside it may have a negative effect on your recovery.
Aykut: Well, I can concur that you have a strong stomach. We tried to surprise it with different local cuisines but it didn’t seem to affect you at all! Of course, at this point I should also note to the readers that you’re a pescatarian and you weren’t interested in the Turkish kebabs. Were you a pescatarian before or did it start when you begin to run ultras?
Gediminas: Yes, I eat fish and eggs but not red meat or chicken. I should point out that it’s not because of an ideology or something. I just think that it’s just better for my metabolism. I first started it back in 2001. Then, when I joined the Special Forces, it was mandatory for me to eat anything including all kinds of meat. That period ended around 2003 and I’m having this diet since. So, I didn’t do it to be a better runner because obviously there are a lot of great runners who have different diets. You just need to find what fits you best and I found out that this was the best approach for me.
Aykut: It’s hard not to notice that you have a number of tattoos on your body. Tell us what they mean for you?
Gediminas: Yes, I have tattoos on my arms, legs and left shoulder. I had my first tattoo on my left arm just to have the experience and it went on from there. The names of my two sons are written on my right arm and it’s definitely my most important tattoo. Now, I made a habit of having a tattoo after some of my special races to remind me those experiences.
Aykut: Hmmm, so maybe this means we can expect a fairy chimney tattoo after Salomon Cappadocia Ultra Trail, huh?
Gediminas: Sure, why not?
Aykut: OK, I’ll make sure to remind you of that after the race! Speaking of the race, you’ve been to lots of big trail ultras and iconic courses. This weekend you had a chance to see some sections of the Salomon Cappadocia Ultra Trail course. And as we mentioned earlier, you’ve also been to a hot balloon ride where you had a chance to see the whole landscape from the air. From what you’ve seen, how would you describe the location, the race course and the overall experience of running the Cappadocia trails?
Gediminas: I have to say Cappadocia is unlike any place I’ve seen before. The nature does really amazing things and I encourage everybody to see these natural wonders up close. The course itself is stunning. You go through caves and see unique rock formations while running on singletrack trails in a magical environment. I think it’s quite a fast course compared to more mountainous races but you still have to respect it. I found out that the ground was quite soft in some sections. It makes it trickier to keep your balance and you need to expand more energy to maintain the pace. Overall, I’m very impressed with what I saw and looking forward to seeing the whole course.
Aykut: You mentioned your two sons. Are they interested in running or any other sports?
Gediminas: Yes, I have two sons who are 9 and 11. My big son is interested in swimming. On the other hand, the 9 year old is already a great runner. If I were one of the top brands, I’d have signed him up already! Kidding aside, it’s their choice. If they want to be involved in sports, I’d support them 100%.
Aykut: OK, let’s talk about your race schedule, then. Which races will you run in 2017?
Gediminas: I’ll run the Tarawera Ultra Tral in New Zealand, Madeira Island Ultra Trail in Portugal, Lavaredo Ultra Trail in Italy, UTMB and Salomon Cappadocia Ultra Trail. From those races, Madeira, UTMB and Cappadocia will be my focus races.
Aykut: That’s a great looking schedule with traveling to some amazing locations. Tell us a little bit about your short and long term goals?
Gediminas: To be honest, my most important short term goal would be spending more time with my family. Ultrarunning is a demanding sport and with all the training, travel and races, it’s getting harder to spend more time with my family. I also would like to be a good running coach and inspire more people with my training camps.
In 2018, I’d like to break the record for the Tahoe Rim Trail FKT. (Author’s note: Kilian Jornet holds the supported record since 2009 when he ran the 170 mile trail in 38h, 32m). I think the trail has changed a little bit since then which made it somewhat slower and longer so it’ll be even more challenging but I like challenges. So, I’m looking forward to it. For 2019, my biggest goal would be breaking the U.S. Grand Slam of Ultrarunning record which is the total time for Western States 100, Vermont 100, Leadville Trail 100 and Wasatch Front 100. (Author’s note: Ian Sharman holds the record since 2013 with a total time of 69:49:38).
Aykut: Those are some great goals. You also mentioned the trailrunning camps above. Finally, give us a little bit more info on that. How did it start and what are your expectations in the future?
Gediminas: It actually occured to me when I was running. I thought about what else I can bring to the ultrarunning world. So, I wanted to share my experience with the ultrarunning community. One day, my dream would be to quit my job and do this professionally. I’m aware that it may sound like a dream but I’m a dreamer and I’m going to put 100% of my effort on this.
Aykut: That’s definitely a good dream. And I guess as ultrarunners we’re all dreamers in some way because otherwise we wouldn’t run these crazy distances, right? With that said, I’d like to thank you once again. It’s been a great pleasure knowing you and running with you. We’re looking forward to seeing you again in October 2017 for Salomon Cappadocia Ultra Trail.
Gediminas: Thanks Aykut for having me! And thanks to everybody I met during the weekend. I will definitely come to Cappadocia in October but I have some “weird” feelings that it could even be much sooner! So stay tuned!