Saturday, June 20, 2015

Vampires vs Werewolves

So I was running up the Salève this morning and when returning down, there's a moment where you run on the road for a bit, right through a hamlet where those intrepid helmeted bikers end up after their grueling ascent... And there were two of them there, eyeing me with what seem a great deal of suspicion and malevolence behind their fancy shades, and it made me wonder about cyclists vs runners, like triathletes vs runners.

Well, I have to say that we do look less ridiculous. When I started biking, since I'll be entering an Ironman end of August to check that off the bucket list, I told my wife: "You thought I looked silly before, with my spandex and buffs and backpack, wait till you see me decked out in cycling gear with shoes I can't walk in and diapers in my spandex..." Before I had actually to go out and buy one of those special cycling shirts that zip down all the way in front and have convenient pockets in the back to hold a really compressible wind breaker and the odd food item (though not very convenient for holding cell phones - it bangs on the lower back and I'm always afraid it'll fall out), I always poked fun at cyclists who wear these pastel-coloured shirts (usually apple/Jägermeister vomit green, or cerulean/Blue Curuçao vomit blue or Barbie-doll/wine vomit pink) with fake sponsors splattered all over them. Then I realized: YOU CAN'T BUY ANYTHING ELSE! Well, not quite true, but it's damn hard to find a simple grey cycling shirt...

I just can't get into much. Yes, the downhills are a real rest, unlike running downhill - although if it's too steep I get a sore neck and back, and cramps in my hands from clutching onto the breaks for fear of falling - but for the most part the idea of depending on something mechanical just gets to me. I still would rather go out for a long run than a long bike. I can usually get myself out of any scrape on a long run, but what if my bike chain breaks halfway up a hill, in the middle of nowhere? And the middle of nowhere can be half a mile from the nearest town, since you can't walk ten feet in those clip-on shoes... Actually, all it would take for me is to puncture a tire, since I have no idea how to change an inner tube and I still have replaced those extra CO2 capsules that fell off my bike last month. I probably need to address that issue before the Ironman...

Anyway, my "meeting" this morning with those two cyclists made me realize that cyclists/triathletes and runners are like vampires and werewolves: two feuding families of undead/presumed athletes, unable to understand one another.

Considering what I've said above and my experience with biking, I understand why I don't understand them - even though I'm occasionally venturing into their territory (hoping not to get harmed) - but what do they think they have on runners? We look less silly and - personal opinion - I do think werewolves, being less "diva-ish" than the vampiric cyclists or triathletes, are tougher and more resilient).

Monday, June 8, 2015

"Why am I doing this?!"

Weird how I realize only now how I have asked myself this question at almost every race since 2004 – and how important finding an answer to that question is for me to finishing a race.

On most runs (training runs and races alike) there are always moments – the sun glinting off the mountain tops, the landscape opening up to an incredible vista, a period of running bliss, a story shared with a fellow runner – when I say to myself, “ah, yes, this is why I’m doing it”. And of course at the finish line, having overcome doubts and difficulties, and the sense of self-discovery and achievement is driven home. But I need more than that, since in my case the question is always related to time away from family and the associated guilt I feel.

I thought I had resolved it. First I realized that if I don’t constantly talk about my running, my wife is fine with the time I dedicate to running. Secondly, since I do arrange to only race a few weekends in the year and train in a way that does not take too much time away from the family – some, yes, of course, I need time to myself and to keep fit and to hope to achieve those goals I’ve set myself – the problem is how I feel about it, it’s not outside criticism that I have to justify.

So why, when the going gets tough in a race, do I always tell myself that I’m being selfish and I should be at home – I’m the one who’s missing home. But it’s the pain and fatigue talking, it’s not objective. When I was just over half-way through the UT4M, and the option was pushing on for another day and night, or driving home with a friend and spending the weekend with my family, who were fine with not seeing me till Sunday afternoon, I know that the prospect of seeing my family contributed to my DNF. But it was just an excuse among others.

The question is, why set such goals in the first place? Isn’t there a limit after which having a hobby which provides fitness and time to oneself – important for balance in life – just drops into a search for the extreme that cannot be justified by “fitness, balance, time alone”? This is the question I needed to answer that question if I want to have a chance of finishing future ultras, otherwise I will just be plagued by the same misplaced sense of guilt which could lead to a DNF that I will later regret.
To resolve it, I had to figure out why I have never really addressed or even recognized this issue in the past 16 years of running. I was unable to rely on experience at the UT4M, since I had never really answered the question of “what am I doing here” effectively. And even reading quite a few blogs where runners all mention this very issue didn’t help. I thought I had it figured out.
At my first four race – Long Beach Marathon, MDS2000, Jordan Desert Cup 2000 and MDS2001, the possibility that I might have to DNF was there as a reality, but I never actually questioned what I was doing there and I knew that would only stop if I dropped dead, even when it got really tough. It’s not only the fact that I didn’t have a family back then, it’s just that my self-esteem was so shot that this was the only way to rebuild it. It wasn’t a conscious thing, I just know that, looking back, I’d rather have died in the desert than DNF. 

Then I stopped running for 2 years, my father died, I got married and a friend talked me back into running by convincing me to sign up for the MDS again. And when I look back, thoughts of not being able to finish – and wondering what I was doing there – occurred to me at almost every race – I just didn’t realize it until recently. At the Venice marathon in 2004, my legs hurt at km 15 and I wondered if I would be able to finish, whereas when I pinched my sciatic nerve in Long Beach all I thought was “it’s going to be a long second half.” At the 100km race in Bienne in 2005, I remember considering quitting at 55km – but I was with Cyril and when dawn arrived (the departure was at 10am) we found a second wind that saw us through the finish. At the MDS, I remember thinking “I don’t have to prove anything anymore, I’m in a better place than in 2000-2001, I don’t this shit, why am I here?” and on Day 3 I was ready to pack it in. Cyril told me that it was unthinkable, and he wasn’t going to finish this alone, and I’d better pull myself together. And I did, and by the end of Day 4 I was loving it again. Turns out, dehydration had got me dispirited, but as soon as I turned that around – and since Cyril hadn’t give me a choice to quit – then I felt great.

So the question only occurs when the body starts to give out. But the mind can drive the body so much further. I just needed to get beyond the question of “why?”, either by ignoring it (which Cyril helped me do) or by answering it (which I’m attempting to do here). Because Cyril wasn’t with me at the TDS in 2013, nor at the UT4M in 2014 – or at least not as a fellow competitor. 

Again at the Trail des Aiguilles Rouges in 2009, after calling my wife early in the race, then wondering and whining out-loud to Cyril about why the hell I was spending a weekend away from my family putting myself through this shit, and dragging my feet for about five hours (I just didn’t want to be there), I turned it around when we hit the last checkpoint and the volunteer said that we wouldn’t make the cut-off. I’d never DNF’d till then, and I hadn’t really planned on doing this time – and, faced with that prospect, of course I discovered that I still had enough energy to run the final miles and finish just before the cut-off.

What changed between 2000-2001 and then 2004 till now? It’s not just that I had a family. The sense of being selfish and spending time away from them was the expression of something else: I still didn’t have my life together and was still exorcising a deep sense of guilt linked to poor self-esteem that had little to do with my presence or absence. One of my best races was in October 2013, when I did feel that I had finally pulled myself together in the year since my debacle at the TDS – and so I felt less guilt, and the question of “why am I here?” didn’t cross my mind. But it came back to haunt me at the UT4M.

So now I have an answer for the next time this question hits me when I feel like I can’t take another step forward. It’s not a question of time away from my kids – by setting challenges and goals that force me to face certain fears, which includes discovering more about myself in the process, I can be an inspiration for them… That’s the key. I’m around them enough for them not to miss me on the few weekends that I compete in events – and actions speak much louder than words. I couldn’t do this while I was leading my life in such a way that I had little respect for myself. Feeling like a fraud, I could hardly see my running as something that could inspire them.

Now I definitely feel like it can. I remember reading a line that I now understand better: “My father didn’t tell me how to live – he lived and showed me how.” That's what my father did. And he was quite an absent father, traveling for business 2/3ds of the year - yet I never resented him for being away at the marathon des sables or other races. That, I thought, is great.
 That’s what I have to tell myself the next time I ask myself “what am I doing here?” I am showing my kids that this is a fulfilling and meaningful way to live life. When I am suffering seemingly beyond my limits and ask myself "Why am I doing this?!" the answer is: "you are here to accept - and overcome - that suffering." The body suffers, but the mind is free, as my father once said.

James Adams sums it in a few lines on his blog, talking about that voice in your head urging you to quit when it gets too tough:
Q - If you quit now you can get a good night's rest and spend tomorrow relaxing with your family.
A - Yeah, I'm really going to enjoy sitting on the sofa and hearing my little girl ask "Daddy, where's your buckle?"

I, on the other hand, can be rather verbose and tend to preach to my children and bore them with my life views, so I shall now enjoy the silence and get that damn buckle.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

On buffs...

Do you wear at buff at every race? When I first wore one, in the desert in Jordan (I still have it, I've worn it at every ultra, and only during ultras - until my DNF at the UT4M last summer, it was my "lucky buff"), it was really handy, even though I didn't really know the name for it. This was also quite a few years before an international body was created to give out points and establish some form of world rankings in what is now universally known as "trail running" (i.e. running anywhere but on concrete), basically attempting to regulate an activity that has existed since before humans discovered agriculture, and which people have been doing in its modern, recreational form for decades... Before ITRA starts regulating runners, it should require that every race director have run his own course at least once (how about even just one ultra?). That would at least mean that the UTMB would change hands... What next? An Olympic sport?

Different rant... I have nothing against race directors, on the contrary - only the utmost admiration and gratitude. And almost all, certainly the few I know, are passionate about long-distance running. I've often considered - and on one occasion explored the possibility of - organising a race. It's a daunting task and a labour of love... It's just that there are some races now cropping up where the desire to benefit commercially from the explosion in popularity in trail running...

Anyway, back to the buff: I didn't actually use that first buff much to keep the sand out of my eyes and mouth, but I found it somehow very comforting to have around my neck. Thing is, during all those years of alcohol and drugs, it made me feel like part of this nebulous ultra running community when I put it on. Otherwise, for the most part, I felt like a fraud. I kept to myself, particularly at the beginning of races, for that reason, a bit like at parties when I was a teenager around girls, afraid that others would see right through me. I still do for the most part (keep to myself, I mean; I don't go to many teenage parties any more). I enjoy the atmosphere (well, at least at lower-key races), but not the banter so much. What am I really going to banter about? When I tried that at the UT4M during the race, I ended up mainly asking the other person whether they had "done anything like this before", really just so that I could answer "I have, but that was 15 years ago" not so much to brag about how long I've been running - there's probably some of that, I just hate to admit it - but really to reassure myself that I could get to the end of the race (that obviously didn't work - in fact I'm quite sure it had the opposite effect). Then again, since 2006, I haven't done many races without my friend Cyril - so no real compelling urge to "make new friends". Only once, at the Défi des Jubilés: I started chatting to a guy just after the start, and we ended up running for 9 hours together. Probably my best race every in terms of time and how I felt thoughout. I didn't know him well enough to whine and complain like I've done at most races with Cyril.

Oops, off track again (bad pun intended). Now buffs have become such popular race gifts that I have almost as many as race shirts. Not sure what to do with them all, so I've started wearing them on my wrists like a tennis player. I might start using them as leg warmers, with a few spare in my backpack to use as a tourniquet in case I or someone I run across ruptures an artery.

So now we have hydration packs, shoes (for some) and other amenities, minus the spear since we're not hunting anything anymore... And I'm such a sucker. I'm not a fan of barefoot running, wearing a pack makes me feel like I have batteries strapped to my back like the energizer bunny. And I do love my buffs. I feel naked without at least one somewhere on my body.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Feels good to feel beat - a personal experiment

After all the injury time-off, it feels good to feel my legs and feel beat...

I have to say, all my training comments and recent cross-training ideas are really just work-in-progress, or actually rather a personal experiment, which is the whole fun of it. I plan out these very structures training programs, because a)  I have fuck-all else much to do at work, b) because I haven’t been able to run much and it’s fed the illusion that I’m actually preparing for the events ahead, c) it helps me plan lunches so I actually feel like I’m not sacrificing friends to exercise. But then, I stick to the plan only because I can change the plan in Word every day. Which means effectively I plan – and then toss the whole thing out the window when faced with day-to-day reality. But I’ve learned a few things along the way, such as what can lead to injury (e.g. no kick-boxing after a long run followed by hill sprint reps…)

My idea now is to pummel my body into “submission”. Exercising every day is a new thing for me. I’ve gone from 3 runs a week to 3-4 runs, 1-2 bike rides and a swim. I figure I’ll get used to it. I figure my general fitness can only go up. Though I’m a bit hypochondriac and can easily imagine over-training and burning out, the truth is I love to rest and relax too much for that to be much of a concern. I’ve read that training effectively is nearing your limit but not going over it – but while I might imagine or at least fear edging up to the brink, the reality is that I’m probably miles away from the cliff with no risk of falling over at all. Besides, I think over-training (not injury) is more a factor of stress and intensity than actual volume - getting all uptight about "achieving"...

As long as you're having fun... And the main thing is I’m really just enjoying the whole process, this experimentation, and looking forward to seeing where it will lead.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

What a long strange trip it's been

I suppose I could be talking about my twenties and thirties, or the past 15 years of running, but I'm actually thinking about the past three and a half months that really have been a long strange trip, characterized by a similar rhythm and atmosphere to the Grateful Dead's Truckin' - frantic undertones to a relaxed façade...

After the last encouraging post, I had a few decent runs of 20-40 minutes then blam! 25mn into my first morning run in two and a half months I felt a searing pain above my left ankle. I thought I might have re-torn the calf muscle but after several aborted attempts to run, the last of which didn't even last a minute, I finally found a physio who told me it was the Achilles heel - and put me on a regimen of eccentric calf muscle strengthening exercises that some Swedish study has shown to be highly successful in solving the problem.... And seemingly it works, because I am now once again - finally - up to 30mn running without a problem.
(Watch me jinx myself with this post...)

In the mean time, I've discovered the interest of cross-training. Primarily biking - I thought I'd be training for an ironman mainly focusing on the running, for my 100km, but it looks like I'll be training for the 100km with a load of biking... And the benefit I've seen has been to maintain my level of fitness so that while I can sadly feel 30mn of running, after over three months of almost no running, in my legs, there doesn't seem to be much cardio or endurance impact.

The other part of this long strange trip: unable to run, I've found myself constantly projecting training schedules and upcoming races - sometimes into 2017 before I put an end to the insanity. If this injury should have taught me anything, it is that plans must be flexible...

Finally, it's definitely been a long strange trip in the fact that I've come to appreciate swimming. Oh, not doing laps in a pool - but yesterday, when I was able to go swimming in the lake on my lunch break having heard that the temperature had reached a manageable 14°C, which it was at Alpe d'Huez two years ago, I had a magical time flopping through the water in my wet suit, watching the runners along the bank as I turned to breathe on one side, snapshots of the Jura mountains when breathing on the other side, the sun glinting on the water... Returning to work afterwards seemed surreal.

I was a little afraid of the swans, however.

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 I'm really wondering when I ask myself why I just signed up for another challenge... 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 within 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 I should just shut up and 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.