Pushing the limit – Ingo Sparenberg on extreme sports with cystic fibrosis


Marathon, triathlon, ultramarathon, Brocken marathon: Ingo Sparenberg regularly pushes his body to the limit of his abilities, even though he has cystic fibrosis. In an interview he explains what drives him and why extreme sports saved his life.

PARI Blog: Ingo, despite having cystic fibrosis you have completed a triathlon, several half marathons, a marathon, an ultramarathon and the Brocken marathon. Why do you do that to yourself?

Ingo Sparenberg: I have also asked myself the very same thing at kilometre 50 of the ultramarathon and at an elevation of 1,000 meters during the Brocken marathon (laughs). I am the sort of person who likes to push his limits. I kept noticing that the limits can be pushed farther. As long as I can push the limits, I will try to. It’s exciting to push to the limit. I like trying things that seem impossible and proving that they can be done. So I run 60 kilometres with a lung disease or run in one of the most difficult endurance races in Germany. Discovering extreme sports and inherent pushing of limits when doing them also saved my life.

PARI Blog: Extreme sports saved your life? How?

Ingo Sparenberg: Because the training makes me physically fit and strong. This is true generally, but it also acted as my life insurance one specific situation. In 2013, I had major emergency bowel surgery. The operation took place shortly after my triathlon. So I was in good shape and physically fit, my lung function was very good. After the operation things were very different. I had lost 12 kilos, I was extremely weak and my lung function was half of what it had been. From a FeV1 value of around 70% only 33% remained. If I had had the operation with already impaired lung function and had been out of shape, I would not have survived it. If one is already compromised, the body has no reserves to fall back on. Being in good shape from training made it possible for me to survive the operation. Since this happened, extreme sports, in addition to being a way to achieve the seemingly impossible, have also been a sort of survival credo. With the training I am getting in shape for the next surgery, something I know I will have to have because of my cystic fibrosis. Also, another motivation is that I am getting in shape for the nice things in life, like traveling.

PARI Blog: How much do you train?

Ingo Sparenberg: It varies a lot. I don’t go running much at all in the winter. Exerting myself in the cold air is not good for me. However if I commit to participating in a sporting event, then I work out regularly in a disciplined and targeted manner. For example, to prepare for the 2018 Brocken marathon I went on four to five long runs per week. Each training session took up two to four hours. Because if you want to run over the Brocken, you have to include 30-kilometre runs in your training regimen. Otherwise you won’t make it. And 30 kilometres means you’re out running for quite a while.

PARI Blog: How did you end up doing extreme sports?

Ingo Sparenberg: Ironically, a health setback got me into extreme sports. When I was a child and teenager I rode my bike comparatively a lot. But from the age of 20 sports were no longer a part of my life. Despite this my health was quite stable. But starting at around age 30 my health deteriorated suddenly and I wasn’t getting better. I lay in the hospital with bad pneumonia, which treated with IV antibiotics. If up until this point I bounded up stairs like a young buck, now I had to drag myself up one step at a time. This was quite a setback, which fortunately served as a wake-up call. After I was discharged, I started running.

PARI Blog: What were your initial attempts at exercising like?

Ingo Sparenberg: I came smack dab up against reality the first time I went running. I thought I could easily run for half an hour. After just one kilometre I had to give up, coughing and exhausted and I dragged myself home. I had greatly overestimated my abilities. But I wanted to prove to myself that I could do it. So I trained day in and day out. Walking, running, walking, running until I really could run for an hour. At some point I set the goal of running a marathon. I achieved this goal in 2011.

PARI Blog: What was the most difficult race?

Ingo Sparenberg: That was definitely the ultramarathon. When I was at kilometre 50 a summer thunderstorm came up. The temperature suddenly went from 28 degrees to below 20 degrees and it was raining buckets. It was really windy too. There was no house, no shelter anywhere. So I crouched down and wrapped my arms around myself to protect myself as well as I could from the wind and rain and to cool down as little as possible. I crouched down like this for almost an hour, and that was after I had already run 50 kilometres. It was stressful, horrible, painful. I wanted to wait until the rain shower passed before taking off again. I felt it would physically overwhelm me to run into the wind and weather while soaked to the bone. After the storm passed, it took a great deal of physical and mental toughness to stand up and run the rest. I couldn’t feel my legs anymore and I was actually at a breaking point. But I didn’t want to be stopped by rain. I had trained for this race for two-and-a-half years. I didn’t want to do 50, or 55, I wanted to do 60 kilometres and run over the damn finish line. So I stood up and started running again, even though I was not sure if I could actually reach the finish. It wasn’t until kilometre 59 that I realised I had a real chance. After 7 hours I dragged, ran, slid, limped over the finish line. Both for me, but also for everyone who cheered me on those last metres before and crossing the finish line were very emotional. I had actually done the seemingly impossible. It may sound ridiculous, but for days after the 60 kilometre run I felt as if I had saved the world a little. (laughs)

PARI Blog: In 2018, you topped this with the Brocken marathon. And now? Do you already have plans for your next athletic endeavour?

No. Nothing yet. But at some point an idea will pop into my head. It’s always been like this. And then I will give myself the next challenge and attempt to make the impossible doable.

PARI Blog: Ingo, thank you for this interesting interview.

Note: The statements made in the interview are the individual views of the interviewee. They do not necessarily reflect the PARI view or the general state of science.

An article written by the PARI BLOG editorial team.

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