Andy Pumphrey's incredible ultra journey...

Friday 31st May 2024

Dan Allen, after completing his first ultra marathon a couple of weeks ago, decided he needed to understand what it is that might motivate a fellow 60 year old to complete 162 races of marathon distance or longer. He interviewed Andy Pumphrey and wrote this article to celebrate Andy's amazing achievements.


At the age of 45, Phoenix member Andy Pumphrey ran his first race since leaving school and ached for a week afterwards. The run was an early iteration of Brighton and Hove parkrun in Hove Park. Andy went along as a favour to the organisers who were trying to bump up numbers.

But despite his subsequent soreness, Andy was bitten by the running bug. Now 62, he has since clocked up an astonishing 162 races of marathon distance or more, including 85 ultramarathons, among them some of the world’s most iconic events such as UTMB and Tor des Geants.

UT4M finish line...not the first parkrun!

He’s raced in Switzerland, Corsica, Corfu, Maderia and the Canary Islands, as well as France and Italy and many more places besides. Closer to home he’s completed the Ultra-Trail Snowdonia as well as the South Downs Way 50-mile and 100-mile ultras ‘multiple times’.

Not bad for someone who during that Hove Park jog all those years ago questioned whether he would make it to the line.

Andy only took up running because a shoulder injury forced him to give up competitive kayaking, a sport he excelled at, once winning gold at the World Masters. He says he’ll never be as a good a runner as he was a kayaker – a measure of his achievements on the water.

Go Phoenix!!

As a novice runner, he slowly upped the distance but felt he’d reached his limit after running the Steyning Stinger, a hilly, cross-country half marathon. ‘I thought, how does anyone do a marathon? I said to myself, I’m never, ever going to do this again.’

But as the post-race pain receded, he sensed he could run further. The Prague Marathon followed, along with several more 26-milers in the space of a couple of years. A first ultra was the obvious next progression and for his debut Andy opted for the 45-mile Country to Capital, from Wendover in Buckinghamshire to central London, which he admits left him in ‘a real mess’.

But he finished it and soon signed up for a new race around Mont Blanc – not the signature UTMB; that would come later – but a gruelling 50 miles up and down the mountains of the Mont Blanc range.

He didn’t realise it at the time but that event marked a turning point. Andy was finding his feet as a long-distance runner.

‘About seven or eight of us went, me and my friends,’ he says. ‘Some of them were quite serious ultra runners and I thought, how am I going to keep up with them? But I ended up beating them all. I couldn’t believe it – I came in almost an hour ahead of the rest of them.’

He was learning more about ultra running with every race and one of the lessons he learnt was that mountains have a tendency to deceive. When you think you’re nearing the summit, you’re probably not. ‘That’s something you’ve got to learn to live with. Mountains are lot higher than you think they are.’

But he was also discovering that he was pretty good at going up them. And that was a skill that would be tested to the limit in the race he regards as his greatest success.

Tor des Geants is a monster. Starting and finishing in Courmayeur in Italy, the 330k race has an overall height gain of 30,000 metres over 25 mountains. For obvious reasons, it’s known as the Race for Masochists. And just to make it a little harder, the night before he lined up at the start, in 2018 at the age of 56, Andy tripped and broke his nose. Not the best preparation but, he says cheerfully, his two black eyes and taped-up nose brought a good deal of sympathy from the ‘brilliant’ spectators on the route who assumed he had fallen during the race and was bravely battling on.

He finished in 130 hours and spent just six of those hours sleeping.

Gruelling though it was, he says the race was the best experience he’s had as an ultra runner. ‘I’ve never done anything better than that.’

Amazingly, at the finish he felt he could have carried on. ‘After 130 hours, your body starts to get used to it. I think I could have done another couple of days.’

Tor de Geants

Running huge distances over difficult, often remote terrain carries major risks. Earlier this year, racing in Corfu, Andy had a big fall, crashing down several feet between rocks and landing on his back. He broke his running poles, his torch and the race tracker but no bones, so he dusted himself down and – of course – finished the race.

And during the Transylvania 100k in Romania – which starts and finishes at the castle that inspired the tale of Dracula – a shepherd’s dog came barrelling down a mountain towards Andy and his running mate, threatening much more damage than a vampire’s bite. These dogs are no cuddly collies, says Andy, but terrifying brutes capable of frightening off the local bears. Fortunately, the two runners escaped unscathed.

Even the dogs couldn't cope with this elevation

He has a few pearls of advice for anyone contemplating an ultra.

During a race, be cautious about latching on to other runners because you’ll end up running at their pace, not your own.

Never waste time at aid stations – get in, grab your water and some food, and get out. Ten minutes at each checkpoint can easily add an hour to your overall time, he says.

For any race over 40 miles, go up half a size in running shoes because your feet will swell and you may get blisters.

Remember that in any ultra there will almost certainly be low points – but they will pass. Just keep moving.

Although in his seventh decade, Andy is not done yet. As with every runner, there are periods when he’s hampered by injuries and others when everything goes well and, as he describes it, he feels ‘invincible’. In July he’s racing the Eiger Ultra Trail 100k in Switzerland and in August he’ll run the OCC 50k, his fourth in the UTMB series of races that take place in and around Chamonix in France.

Of the latter, he says: ‘It’ll be nice, just a nice day out.’