"The Challenge of the Youngest Ultra-marathoner female"
"Ashmoret comes First"
Age: 24. Current personal record: 144 km run in 24 hours.
Her next goal: to break the 200 km ceiling
Meet Ashmoret Mishal, the youngest ultra-runner in Israel, a woman
who, it would seem, cannot be stopped
Hadas Bashan Photography: Ehud Romano
The only way to deal with pain is to give in to it. You just say to yourself: "Okay, now my calf muscles hurt, now it's my little finger. Each time you should focus on a different dominant limb. But you don't let it stop you". This is how Mishal describes her most difficult moments as an ultra-runner. Those moments after having run dozens of kilometers with a few dozen more to come. It hurts to hear this, and hurts even more to imagine it.
"It is a little weird to be sitting here, in a café, trying to imagine it", Mishal says with an amused smile on her face. "Sometimes, it's also difficult for me to understand and grasp. When giving a lecture, I tell everyone to stand on one leg and tell me when the burning sensation starts. Then I tell them to imagine that burning going on for 24 hours straight. But, when you are out in the field, you experience it differently".
At the age of 24, Mishal is not only the youngest ultra-runner in Israel, she is also one of the few women in Israel engaged in this branch of extreme sport, which is officially defined as running distances longer than the standard 42 km of the marathon.
She already has 60 km and 100 km runs under her belt and her personal best is a full 144 km, a 24 hour run from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (under the auspices of the Sea to Jerusalem Run). She hopes to break this record this month, a 200 km event as part of the Sovev Emek (Around the Jezreel Valley) Run. And all this without counting the nine regular marathons she has run so far. That's it in a nutshell.
So, when I arranged a meeting with Mishal, I was expecting to see a formidable mass of muscle. However, she is amazingly feminine and coquettish. "I am very meticulous about my femininity" she said. "I wear high-heels, dresses and put on make-up. Then, when people hear what I do they can't believe it. But then why shouldn't I be feminine?".
In the middle of the night, alone in the forest
Mishal was born and grew up in Haifa. Her father died when she was only two years old, so she grew up with her mother, a professor of brain research. I grew up with Superwoman, a super-hero. I would say that I get my strength from her", she says.
When she was 15, she went to live with family in the United States, and that is where she started to become involved in sport. She started with gymnastics and show diving. "I was exposed to sport at a very professional level. This value is embedded in the culture over there", she says. She then started to run for the school team. "Running was the sport that took my fancy, even though it is a monotonous sport, often taken up by older people while going through a mid-life crisis. But I caught the bug".
When she was 19, during her military service as a tour guide, she ran her first marathon in Jerusalem. "I stood out as I was the youngest, besides which not many women run marathons. When I finished that distance I felt on top of the world. You feel like a hero. A turning point in my life".
After running her fifth marathon, she felt she was ready for the next challenge. "I think I had outgrown that stage", she explained. "I so enjoyed those distances that I wanted more and more. I knew that I had the strength and this is how I reached the ultra. I set myself a target of 100 km, but after registering for the first run, I could barely fall asleep at night. At the first race I asked myself: 'What do you think you are doing here? What do you need this for?' I wouldn't wish this suffering on my worst enemy. But after the race you forget all about it and then run again. It’s just like the pain of having a baby".
How does it work exactly? The running alone part?
"Some of the time there are people who help, but there are moments in the middle of the night when you find yourself alone in the forest. You don't see people, distances are long and there are no longer so many people in the race. You can also get lost if you don't pay enough attention to the trail markers. The run is along a challenge trail, mountains and hills, gravel and stones. I know someone who fell and cracked his ribs but continued despite the pain".
How do you eat and drink during the race?
"Every 10 km there is a food and water stand but there are those who run with their own water supply. I also change clothes every few dozen kilometers. The sweat from the body soaks the clothes through. It is dangerous for the sweat to cool the body which could result in hypothermia, especially in a forest at night".
Is it possible to talk to the person running beside you?
"You should keep your heartbeat regular in order to keep going over a period of time, in this case it is possible to talk while running. However, during one of the races at kilometer 90 I was physically unable to utter a word as it demanded too much energy. My uncle, who was running with me, talked to me and I whispered back. I couldn't even answer".
Mishal describes what she experiences during this unimaginable effort as a meeting of body and soul. "I don't think while running. It is more like meditation, something amazing, a kind of out of body and floating experience. The brain secretes hormones which help deal with the pain and keep me awake for an unusual length of time. After the race the body crashes which just goes to show how strong willpower is. Even when the body says 'I can't do any more', the brain says 'no, you can do more'. It is all in the mind. These words take on real meaning when running".
Just like the first kiss
After running one of these ultra-races, you have to rest for a few weeks to a month, but the concept of "resting" takes on a different meaning where Mishal is concerned since sport is the essence of her life. She is a sports instructor to both individuals and groups. She has recently received her BA in Psychology and is starting her MA studies in Business Management. The combination of both these subjects will give Mishal a head start in becoming a running guru, having already developed a program called Rakia which combines training and lectures and is designed for the work place.
"In my opinion, sport is a tool for achieving one's goal – self-empowerment", she declares. "It incorporates setting goals and making them happen. That's what I like about running, no shortcuts. I have come across men who, having signed up for a marathon got cold feet. They were physically stronger than me but then there is the matter of courage. That's the difference between who is an achiever and who isn't – not physical strength. I have never given up in the middle of a race and I hope I never will. I would view this as a failure".
Mishal's training program over the past year included a run of at least 30 km every Saturday, "and since I am also a running trainer I run throughout the rest of the week with my trainees". She also works out in the gym two to three times a week, "mostly resistance exercises with weights", as well as swimming for 40-60 minutes twice a week. "I used to run a 40 km course in Tel Aviv once or twice a week", she says. "It would take four hours each time. After this sort of work out you could knock a race back easily, because here you are on your own and in a race you have your helpers at your side. Most competitors in endurance competitions will tell you that training is the most difficult part. The race is the cherry on the cake – you take the cup and receive compliments and 'Likes' on Facebook".
What does your diet consist of?
"Basically anything I want, because I can, since I burn calories quickly. When training for a race you have to eat properly, lots of carbohydrates and proteins. If I miss a meal I start worrying and get in a tizzy at the thought that I need to eat. I am aware that I have a very low fat percentage, really borderline, but there are some professional sportsmen who can live like that".
Mishal admits that ultra-running comes at a high price. "I have lost a toenail and another one has turned completely black. My legs are covered in calluses – not very sexy! I had a great deal of knee pain during my last race and that's when I realized that I have to start treating my body like a serious sportswoman and started going to a physiotherapist. My mother wanted me to stop ultra-running after I had run the 100 km marathon. She is always telling me" 'What do you need it for? You're still young'. It is quite true that this type of running isn't the healthiest thing in the world, but we all do unhealthy things. I am functioning well and everything seems fine. There is a limit to how long I shall keep doing this".
Do you know what your limit is yet?
"One day I shall be a mother and won't be able to treat my body like this. I am taking advantage of my youth. My rate of recovery is faster, but that won't last forever. My goals are to participate in the Iron Man Challenge which is a triathlon comprising 3.9 km swimming, 180 km cycling and a 42.2 km marathon run in under 17 hours – as well as taking part in trek competitions abroad. There is a Desert Challenge 4 competition where you fly to four different deserts around the world – Sahara, China, Chile and the Antarctic. We do 350 km. each week running amidst all those stunning landscapes with all the equipment on our backs. Since it is very expensive I would like a sponsor to back me. The registration alone is US$ 3,600. It would be an amazing experience for me".
Do you still get the same 'High' as you did after your first marathon?
I'm sorry to say, but no, not like at first. It's like your first kiss – it is impossible to recreate that exact feeling. What I do get though is that feeling inside when I run. It continues to strengthen my inner 'me', it shapes and calms me".
Aren't you afraid of becoming addicted to the excitement of an ultra, that nothing else can be compared to it?
"I love adventure so I am sure to find a post-ultra special something".
I don't show off
Mishal is one of Israel's running elite's single women. "I go on dates but don't talk about the sport. I have learned that, if I want a relationship, it's not worth my while to say that I am a runner. Imagine if a guy tells you that he runs the Nike 10k race and you reply, 'that's nice. I run 200 km’. It would probably embarrass him".
Couldn't you run together?
I sometimes go out with people from the running clique which isn't always a good thing. There are some sportsmen who talk about sport throughout the whole date. There are other things I am interested in".
I imagine that there’s a lot of ego involved in this field.
Of course. It is a male-dominated sport and men have a different approach. I hope they enjoy it. I don't show off. I'm the last one to brag about running 200 km. It's of no interest at all. What is interesting is the process I undergo".
Okay. So he doesn't have to run. What do you look for in a man?
"What every woman wants, the ideal man. He has to be ambitious but modest. He should want to fly and reach for the sky, to be successful but not brag about it. He should be confident, someone to lean on, caress you and make you something to eat at the end of the day. On the other hand, I learned from my mother how to live on my own".
Is it possible that some men could be threatened by you?
"Yes, men are aware of the fact that I don't need my hand held. I am one of the few women who run the ultra-race which makes me feel that I represent an entire sector.
I would like to change how women relate to themselves. When I speak to a woman her ambition will be to run 10 km and not a marathon. They underrate themselves and this is difficult to see. It is time to tear down the boundaries".