Extreme trail running helps Michael Milton manage post-cancer fatigue
"It's about challenging yourself, testing your own limits"
If running 50 kilometers through some of Australia's toughest terrain in pouring rain doesn't sound like your ideal Saturday, then imagine undertaking the same challenge on crutches.
That's exactly what Paralympic great Michael Milton, the winner of Australia's first medal at a Paralympic Winter Games, will undertake this weekend as he embarks on the Ultra-Trail Australia as the latest challenge on an extraordinary list of athletic pursuits.
Milton, a man best known for his four gold medals at the Salt Lake City Paralympic Winter Games in 2002, and for skiing at the world record speed of 213 kilometers per hour on one leg, has always attacked life head on despite admitting that age comes with the need for a shift in the form of those challenges.
"I'm older, wiser, fatter and all of those things," Milton tells ESPN of the time since his gold medal haul in 2002. "Salt Lake was 15 years ago and that five-year period was the peak of my career from Salt Lake onwards, setting world speed skiing records and winding up skiing at over 213 kph in 2006.
"So that kind of period was quite a while ago now; but at the same time I still have a passion for skiing, I still have a real passion for challenging myself and testing my own limits."
Those other challenges have included a move to cycling, in which he set an Australian record and competed at the 2008 Beijing Paralympic Games; trekking the infamously brutal Kokoda Track in Papua New Guinea, twice; contesting the Mark Webber Challenge, an epic 350-kilometer multisport adventure race in remote Tasmania; and summiting Mount Kilimanjaro.
And then there's his two separate battles with cancer.
The high-speed skiing suggests Milton is somewhat of an adrenaline junkie, and it is the sport in which he has certainly enjoyed the most success, but he enjoys most the endurance-based challenges.
"I think it looks like that from the outside but I'd say 'no', and probably some of the sporting endeavours since I retired from Paralympic competition [reflect that]," Milton says when asked if he is more of an all-action athlete.
"In the end, I think it's about challenging yourself; it's about testing your own limits and going through that learning process, the problem-solving process, to work out how to do things, to work out how your own mind performs under pressure. Some of the challenges I've set myself have certainly been adrenaline-junkie type stuff, but at the same time I don't consider myself a pure adrenaline junkie.
"I actually think physiologically I've actually got more talent on the endurance end than the pure power side of things. I guess my biggest strength is probably my head, being able to perform under pressure, deal with setbacks, be mentally tough; [they're] probably some of my best attributes as an athlete."
So how exactly does he handle trail running?
"My stump is quite short so it doesn't work well with the prosthetic leg; crutches are what works for me," he tells ESPN. "I've got about four pairs of crutches sitting in my lounge room at the moment. I've got a couple of nice carbon-fiber custom pairs, some for trail, some for road and different setups.
"And, yeah, crutches provide a challenge. Your arms and hands and wrists aren't really made for running on; the science says you burn over double the calories running with crutches than you do with two legs. So they certainly offer challenges. But my body's pretty well adapted; it's the way that I get around and even though I'm not going super-fast it still can feel fun and fast when you're skipping down a trail and jumping off rocks. I really enjoy it."
Trail running is gaining interest as an endurance pursuit Down Under with Ultra-Trail Australia, staged in the Blues Mountains west of Sydney, regarded as the nation's premier 100K event.
Milton is taking on only the 50K race, but still even the shorter course has an element of terrible beauty to it -- offering stunning scenery while pushing competitors to their limits with its steep gradient and punishing finish.
"This week's race for me is a 50-kilometer race, we start off at Scenic World and go on a bit of a 6-kilometer road run around to the top of the Three Sisters, then down the Giant Stairway, for anyone who knows the area," Milton says.
"From there on it's a bit of a yo-yo course, it's up and down a lot and over the next 50 kilometers we do about 2,500-meter vertical ascent and probably from the 25-kilometer mark we've got nearly 20 kilometers on fire trail, so we kind of get out of that single trail, all the twisty and rocky stuff, and things open out a bit. Although in that section, there's a few pretty big three/four kilometre climbs.
"And we wind up at the 49-kilometer mark, which is just a kilometer to go, and lying in front of us is the Furber Steps up the escarpment back to Scenic World. They say you shouldn't count them when you're racing but apparently there's 951 stairs in this staircase in the last kilometer or so. There's no doubt it's going to be a challenge, the weather forecast is looking pretty rough too with cold and rain for most of the day. So there's plenty for us to get our teeth into."
Given Milton's health battles and his already long list of achievements, few would have begrudged him had he decided to ease into middle age and reduce his physical workload. But those same battles actually serve as one of the key motivators behind his desire to continue pushing the limits.
"There's many drivers for me but probably the biggest one is my own health," he says. "After going through cancer twice and having a reasonable amount of post-cancer fatigue over the last 10 years or so, my body functions better, my mind functions better and my fatigue is managed, when I'm fit.
"And that's a pretty big motivator because when that fatigue rears its ugly head, you wind up having a nap for two hours every day of the week, you wind up without the energy to play with your kids when they're mucking around; my quality of life goes down. So that's a big driver for me to maintain my sporting motivation to stay fit and to stay healthy and to make the most of the rest of my life."
With much of Australia's east coast headed for a wild and wet weekend, the Ultra Trail challenge will carry a fair whack of added difficulty. With that in mind, Milton is keeping his race plan and goal pretty simple.
"The No.1 goal is to finish and to do that within the time cutoff, and if I do that I'll be pretty happy," he tells ESPN. "Going into the event I wanted under 10 hours' run time, but given I've trained on the course in the rain -- I've had a look at my stats and the way that affects things like grip levels and speed and things like that -- I think that with the amount of rain that's forecast I'm going to be pretty happy just to get to the finish line."