Thursday, March 5, 2015

Return to "running" and reassessing reasons

How true it is that distance (and time) makes the heart grow fonder, or love deeper, or something like that. After five weeks off with a torn calf, I finally returned to running – or at least something that vaguely resembles running in its shuffling gait – at lunch time yesterday. What a thrill! Just to be out in the sun – actually, I think I could have just sat the locker room in my running gear and it would have been sufficient to relish the moment (well, not quite, there was the locker room smell, and I suppose actually moving my feet was required to feel some sort of accomplishment) that I was back in business. Two kilometers, walking the bends of the stadium and jogging the straights...

For a really good return to running after injury plan, check out this website. At least, I'm inspired by it.

Calf holding up well (at a brisk 6.5km/h). Could feel it working but no pain at all. This is on top of swimming 4km on Saturday morning, which definitely reminded me of the first time I ran 10k – the elation… Anyway, it all feels good. And one advantage I’ve realized in attempting to maintain some modicum of fitness with the swimming is that I’ve kept the exercise routine humming, which makes it far easier mentally to get back into the swing of things – going at a lunch time, waking up early on a weekend morning (especially to go swimming, in a pool, with a bunch of speedy freaks racing past me – rolling out of bed at 5.30am to go running the Salève is nothing!).

The different trail routes combing the Salève moutain...

Reassessing reasons for running

This time off allowed me to reassess my relationship to running, and why I run, and the different between running and participating in races... I realized:

1) i should really not try to intellectualize too much and figure out why i run, or rather why i participate in ultra trails and aim to successfully complete some of the tougher ones out there. When I do that, I start looking at it from the outside and it seems stupid and senseless. But when I can that to its logical conclusion, i.e. I stop competing in ultras, then my running would feel unhinged and something essential would be missing from my well-being. Yet I do not run just because I compete in a few ultras... So,

2) I feel the need to face my fears, exalt in overcoming them, and revel in the self-discovery that occurs in the process. I have found that I do this through running ultras. Possibly I could do it sky-diving or taking up accounting, but running is my outlet. This is why it is essential; this is why even if I stopped running, I would probably need to find something that would allow to experience this. It also explains why sometimes I do want to stop - but it's not running, it's stopping facing my fears, because that isn't always the most pleasant thing. Why do it? That's what people are really wondering when they ask why we run ultras... And of course, that leads to:

3) My occasional ambivalence towards competing in ultras and wishing to continually find something tougher is simply due to this desire to face and overcome fear and challenges fighting with the risk-averse mentality of staying with a comfort zone. This was important for me to understand, because when I was in the dark hole at the UT4M, all I saw when wondering "why am I here?" was the pointlessness of it, rather than realizing that that very question, at that very moment in the race, was exactly what i was seeking to overcome in competing in it. My intention therefore, in the next race, when that happens again, is to recognize it for what it is and say: "Aha, sucker, here you are! I didn't want this moment to come because it sucks, but actually this is exactly why I am here and if it didn't happen I would feel cheated in some way - so bring it on!"... Which allows me to conclude with:

4) There will always be this ambivalence, so embrace it - knowing that the choice must always be the search for new challenges and confronting fear to continue the journey of self-discovery and LIVE! Yes, there is a similar journey involved in marriage and children, but they are less 'pure' (less egocentric!) in the sense that they involve relationships - and in any case, they are all not only complementary, certainly not incompatible, but even enhance one another.

Evidently it was important to me to assess why I suddenly became re-obsessed with running a 100 mile (preferably mountain) race, and then look even beyond that! I had been harboring doubts and I knew those doubts would hamper any renewed attempt at that distance... Now I know why, and it's made returning to running even better!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

How the wheel turns...

On January 27th I tore my left calf muscle - not enough for surgery but almost. Two months off, the first time this has happened to me in 15 years of running. Just when I started structuring my training to be more efficient, faster, blabla... Ha, when I said in a recent blog that it felt like a fresh start, like I was just starting running, little did I know how true that would be. Beginner's mistake: increasing too much, too soon, not heeding the warning signs and bam! not taking that crucial rest day... The doctor told me that if I wanted to limit the consequences I shouldn't consider any racing until Autumn.

So for the 2nd year in a row, after dislocating my shoulder last year, I once again cannot ski and share in my children's rapid progress. Neither can I do any ski touring, which is such excellent winter training for spring trails - and for my planned 100-mile mountain run in April. Cancelled. Damn it! This objective has now eluded me for 4 years - first, by failing each year to make the points for the UTMB (primarily due a) to their bloody increase each year in required points  and b) a far too active social life - now I really have no desire to compete in the UTMB circus event); then by DNFing at the UT4M in August.

And now I've been made redundant, along with 3/4 of the staff as the company is relocating to Zurich. That's pretty much all the way across the country - Switzerland's small, but still... They speak a funny language over there too.

Oh, well. Sucks that I can't run to deal with it, but things must be taken in stride. The Chinese language offers great wisdom in this regard: the two characters used to express the word 'crisis' respectively mean 'danger' and 'opportunity'. And the opportunities I see are: reassess my reasons for running, find new goals, enjoy a rest with the prospect of returning to running with relish and energy, and the acquired wisdom not to do too much too soon - as for how new doors may open professionally we'll just have to see.
(I should make on-site showers and sufficient lunch time a prerequisite for accepting any new job, though I suspect that the (un)employment office might have something to say about that.)

But ultra-running too has provided me with a valuable lesson in confronting life's sucker punches. It has certainly taught me how the wheel turns, that no situation last forever, and that I am capable with the proper mindset to overcome any difficulties, even those that seem insurmountable, by cutting them down to manageable parts and tackle one at a time.

I have found myself chugging along fully charged, only to collapse minutes later in a heap of doubt and misery. Suddenly I am sitting on a tree stump in the dark, legs aching, stomach churning, head pounding, wondering what I am doing there, why I am doing this, four miles from the last check point and six miles to the next, unable to find anything in my bag that I could possibly want to it. I'm trying not the think about quitting, but of course in trying not to, I keep doing it. So at least I try not to enter the downward spiral of coming up with reasons...
Finally I stand up. I put one foot down, then the other. I lift my head and realize that the sky is a shade paler. Dawn is approaching. I can see the top of the mountain - it's not that far. And by the time I reach the top and find the checkpoint, exchange a few words with ever-smiling, ever-friendly volunteers, I'm ready to charge off down the other side.
Perhaps by the time I reach the bottom I'll feel like shit again. Or maybe I'll have managed to pass that point where I'll know I'll finish no matter what. Who knows? That's the journey of (self-)discovery, such an apt reflection of so much that happens in life. Might as well love it since you've got to live it.

So right now I'm swimming, replacing long weekend runs with long weekend swims. Somehow, however, an hour and a half doing laps in the pool somehow doesn't match running up and across the Salève mountain at dawn... But still, I'm working upper body strength and making the Ironman my main focus for the year. It's always been on my bucket list, so hopefully I can even give it a fair shot... All I have to do now is find a bike.
I also still hope to compete in the 100k Millau run...

But mainly I'm bouncing back from injury and cancelled ultras (and redundancy) by looking further ahead to 2016 - and making the GUCR and the Swiss Irontrail 201 my major goals (sure, skip the 100-miler and go right to 145!).

The first one caters to my desire to participate in low-key, uncrowded races; and I want to see what it's like running so far on flat terrain; and having grown up in England, how better way to experience the country again than by running in an iconic race along the Thames?...
The second one also remains uncrowded - and has become for me the ultimate non-stop mountain run, with over 33'000 feet in elevation in incredible landscape.

Maybe job or other commitments will prevent me from competing in my dream races next year. Maybe I won't get in the GUCR lottery... Yet despite how 2015 has started, I'm excited. The wheel turns. Set future goals, but work on them in the present. One step at a time.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Running with music

I never ran with music until the UT4M last summer, and that didn’t convince me that it was any great help in dark times since it didn’t prevent me from tripping over roots and slipping on rocks on the hellish 3-mile, 4’500-foot descent into Rioupéroux-Salignière – and DNF’ing. Thing is, when I started running, it was rather inconvenient to traipse a Discman around for several hours on end, not to mention the batteries that would be required for an ultra, and the number of CD you’d need to carry! – or the fact that a portable CD or even a tape player (remember those?) would likely not last two days in the Sahara desert. So I learned to enjoy the noises of nature (and natural noises of my fellow competitors) and felt comforted by the fact that I didn’t need a crutch that could ruin my run if I forgot it on race day or if it broke down.

But recently I’ve become very scared that I have become addicted to running with music, at least on those flat road early morning or night-time long runs… It happened when I left work in the cold one evening, having boxed at lunch time, to do some speed work just as daylight was fading, and suddenly couldn’t face the 4-mile stretch home along the lake. I was seriously contemplating hopping on the bus, when suddenly I remembered my MP3-player integrated headphones! Bowie was singing the early trippy Cynet Committee, and it immediately spurred me on, perfectly matching the indigo sky.

But it was when Ravel’s Bolero came on that the experience became borderline mystical. In fact, I’ve noticed that while Muse, Green Day or even Led Zeppelin can provide a fair amount of energy, I much prefer stuff like Adele, Pink Floyd – and classical. The classics though: Mozart’s Queen of the Night aria from The Magic Flute, Dvorjak’s New World Symphony, Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, Bolero and Carmina Burana. Or a few soundtracks like Game of Thrones, Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean, Lord of the Rings… And Vangelis, of course. Whatever I think of the UTMB, there are few things more inspiring than listening to Conquest of Paradise while running… They definitely got that one right!

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Setting goals vs achieving goals

An exchange with an acquaintance about my running goals this year made me realize how important my perception of my ultra-running might be to my success at achieving the goals I’ve set myself. What others think about what I do may stroke the ego but is actually either irrelevant or even dangerous.

The exchange can be summarised as follows (much less fluid since it took me a while to actually admit to what I had planned for the year—more about that below):

“So, good holidays?”

“No bad, kept the training going.”

“Ah yeah? What are your plans this year?”

“Well… A 50-miler early March, then 100-miler with 23’000 feet of elevation mid-April, I hope to squeeze in the Geneva marathon two weeks later, then I’ll enjoy the summer a bit before doing an Ironman end of August, and finally I’d really like to do a sub-10 hour 100km race end September, but we’ll have to see how the speed training goes…”

Having immersed myself since last year in blogs by mad hatters like James Adams, who ran across the U.S. in 69 days and whose favourite race is the Spartathlon (which he's finished three times), or Paul Ali, who ran in one year ran the Centurion Grand Slam (4 100-milers) + GUCR (145 miles) + T184 Endurance Run (184 miles) + something like 6 marathons + a few 50-milers I think... Well, I haven’t come to consider my own goals as particularly impressive, rather pedestrian in fact. Almost little league... I’m fine with it, and I’m not trying to compete (I could never squeeze in that many races in a year even if my body could take it), but it’s just that it didn’t seem like anything particularly earth-shattering. But summarizing the list of my goals for 2015 to an acquaintance made me realize that “hey it’s not bad at all!”

For many, any one of those events could be a major goal for the year, while for others it’s just taking it easy… It's useless to compare oneself to anyone else (we all have our own backgrounds and lives to deal with).

That’s fine, that’s a good place to be. Positive and proud (therefore energized and excited about the year—nothing worse than being jaded). But seeing the bewilderment in my acquaintance’s eyes (and words), my thought immediately after that was: “Can I really do all that? Am I biting off more than I can chew.” Particularly the sub 10-hour 100km… But then I realized: if I don’t believe I can do it, then I won’t be able too…

The other dangerous thought is on the other spectrum: “Indeed, am I not amazing to do all that?!”

Sure, no-one likes a braggart, but it’s more than that.

Since my DNF last August at the UT4M, I’ve decided to avoid talking about any upcoming ultras with my friends, family (apart from my wife) and acquaintances. Here’s the thing: I might be alone in this, and call me needy or attention-starved or lacking in self-esteem, but I do derive some sense of pride and satisfaction at the perceived craziness of running ultras. That said, it should really only come after actually running the race - but so often you get the glory beforehand. And though training for an ultra is certainly worthy of admiration, and that admiration is earned whether the race is completed or not. I realized last year when speaking about the UT4M with its 104 miles and 35’000 feet of elevation gain that people reacted as if I had already done it - and I bought into it! I began to believe it myself…

Now there’s a difference between tackling a challenge with a positive mindframe and the conviction that “I can do it” (it won’t guarantee success, but if you line up at the start of an ultra—or any challenge—thinking “I can’t do this”, you’ll definitely fail!), and somehow feeling that you’ve already achieved your goal. I am now convinced that this undeserved sense of achievement contributed to my being unprepared for the pain and suffering of the race. I thought, somehow, that it would be easier and I wasn't ready to bear the tough times. In Jordan, when it got rough I was looking for ways to overcome whatever was bother me; at the UT4M, I started thinking of reasons to quit.

So the key is gaining some perspective: setting oneself some goals that are a little scary and uncertain in terms of success (otherwise where’s the challenge and bravery and learning curve?), yet considering them normal and achievable and definitely not feeling in awe of oneself until they have actually been achieved!

Friday, December 12, 2014

The need for speed

Ok, I think I'm just going to put it out there: I'm tired of being a plodder! I figure I can tackle several goals in one blow by increasing my running speed.

1) Complete a 100-mile mountain run, i.e. +30 hours of running. If I can run faster, presumably (which means "from what I have read on the internet") this will also help me for my endurance.

2) More efficient training. By that I mean, more bang for the buck, less actual training time perhaps, less risk of injury than simply focusing on piling up mileage (which I'm not good at in any case). This has led me to establish the following simple training program: 3 runs a week - 1 intervals and/or hills; 1 tempo run; 1 slow long run - and some cross training (swimming, boxing). I started last week with my first real speed session (5 1k laps), my first real hills session, my first real tempo run, and my first real long run at a slower pace than I would usually run for. I realized that I was doing my long runs just slightly too fast, and going slower actually makes it more enjoyable... Fun so far, I hope the novelty and fun doesn't wear off too quickly, otherwise I'll have to get inventive, like fartleks, which sounds like a dirty word.

3) Definitively quit smoking. Ok, I'm not a heavy smoker. I often go a few days without smoking (usually on weekends), I've done bouts of several weeks without smoking at all, and in any case I only smoke 3-7 cigarettes in the day when I do. But if that doesn't prevent me from finishing a 50-mile race, it certainly interferes with efficient speed training and will undoubtedly prevent me from finishing a 100k race in less than 10 hours (the new barometer to apply for Spartathlon in 2016).

4) Compete in Spartathlon in 2017. Yes, I've decided that this is my new long-term goal (hence signing up for a flat 100km race next fall). If I am able to complete the Istria 100 next April with some modicum of success and desire to pursue these long distances, then the race I'm really gunning for is the Swiss Irontrail T201, which I has everything I love running for: beautiful alpine setting and a new level of ultra distance (201km, or 125 miles) combined with 37,752 feet of elevation gain. It could take up to 50 hours.... And Spartathlon is the equivalent in foot races - but is unique in that it requires pretty much running the whole way to stay within the time barriers. For a long time I knew that wasn't for me - now, I see it as an added challenge.

So, as I said, I'm putting it out there. Perhaps all this will be moot, depending on how it goes at the Istria 100. But after 15 years of running, it definitely makes me feel like I'm just starting out - and that's exciting.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Low training mileage and family life

Ah well, who hasn't been plagued with time to train? Or rather I ask myself: considering that work and mainly family life mean that I only have so much time to train (I refuse to go on more than one B2B, 8-10-hr total training block per three months, in addition to a race; I don't want to do more than 3-4 races in a year that take me away from home for an entire weekend or more), should I even consider competing in a 100-mile mountain run?

The answer, based on 15 years of semi-ultra-running and training is a definite yes. My training mileage before last year was so ridiculously low and my general lifestyle so poor - yet it still saw me through 40-mile races without real trouble. The advantage to DNFing my recent 100-mile attempt for what I consider to be 90% mental reasons means that physically I believe I can handle it - particularly if I decrease my mileage, since I overtrained and have been recovering from ITB-related issues and other stuff since August, and train smarter. I think I upped my average mileage by about 50% in 2014 - too big a jump for sure.

So, here's my outline of a training plan that makes use of cross-training, lunch hours, and time with friends and family.

But first, the mental hurdle: my main concern is pushing on past the 24-hour mark when I'm dead tired. The approach to this is two-fold: 1) don't stress so much and ensure that I get enough sleep; 2) pick a race with less elevation! I told Cyril at the UT4M that if the next stage wasn't so steep, I'd attempt to take it one step at a time - but I couldn't bear the though of a 5000+ foot climb in only 5 miles! So my next race is actually than 108 miles (173km) but with "only" 7,000m (23'100ft) of elevation. But more importantly, no steep slopes since the highest point of the race is at 4'600ft (1,400m), just a lot of up & down. This means replacing some of the more vertical training hikes I was doing with longer runs and less elevation (and actually running more than hiking and learning to power walk).

Anyway, in 2014 I realized that I was trying to hit a finite number of miles per week, basically throwing in as much as I could. This time around, I want to spend less time training but make it count. And instead of junk miles or even "recovery runs", I'm going to swim. Finally, a friend of mine has taken up kick-boxing, and I think this would be a great way to work on strength and core.

So an average week will look like this (weekday activities always take place at lunchtime):

Monday: Swim (1-2k)
Tuesday: Boxing
Wednesday: Tempo run (10k + warm up and cool down; 13k total)
Thursday: Hills
Friday: swim or rest
Weekend: long run, 25-40k depending on elevation

On certain weeks, I'm going to ramp it up with a longish run early Wednesday morning and/or a run home on Thursday or Friday evenings (particularly on Friday, when it can combine with a  Saturday run to make it a block run). Since there'll be quite a bit of skiing going on this winter (I hope), I may replace the long weekend run with a Wednesday morning-noon-run block of runs (Wednesday being the day when I don't have to take the kids to school). Finally, I hope to bike to work 2-3 times a week, and though it may only be 10 miles roundtrip with a few hills, I'll be doing on my wife's 7-speed, 3-ton, basket-in-the-front town bike...
So that's it essentially for the training - with a 50-mile race thrown in (which I will do at moderate speed) 7 weeks before the 100-miler, with mild tapering before, but almost none after depending on how I feel (but I'll quickly switch to swim and bike if necessary to avoid any chance of injury) to then start tapering 3 weeks before my race (3rd weekend in April - I had to choose another after finding out that the one I wanted to do in June fell on the same weekend as my daughter's theatre show).

So 30-odd to 50-miles per week (50-80k), but focused miles (speed, hills, long) with quite a bit of swimming thrown in and some strength training. Anyway, that's the plan. Depends on how the situation at work evolves, but definitely doable, and takes minimal time away from family, which is necessary to my mental well-being and good running. For me, it strikes the balance between staying fit to the point that benefits the family without making sacrifices that I will be the first to regret, while enabling to set ambitious challenges and face my fears by daring the ultra...

We'll see if it works!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Running and Addiction

The question "Is (ultra) running an addiction?" is a moot one. This so aptly and beautifully sums it up:

In a way, running is like an art. The movement of my body running through the trees, over rocks and splashing through creeks has let me see my own beauty and strength. Before, I had trouble seeing my body this way. It was always being judged, and ultimately found profoundly lacking. Now, as I run through the woods I feel a connectedness to the life around me, to the breeze in my hair, to birds singing in the trees and even to the other sweaty bodies I sometimes run with. I am part of the bigger picture. I am part of the extraordinary, complicated and yet simple work of art the Creator continually strokes with Her light and brilliance.
I may be wrong, but I believe it’s something like that that draws in my former drug, alcohol, sex and food addicted friends. It is not that we have covered up one addiction with another, but that we have gone from something to cover up the misery in our lives to fully loving and experiencing life through our desire to be free in the act of moving our bodies amidst and among mother nature’s wonders. In essence, our addiction is not to running, but to living.
- "Running: Just another addiction?" by Rachel Nypaver