Friday, August 8, 2014

UT4M - Two weeks out

Iliotibial band syndrome... Me: "What do I do? Anti-inflammatories, strap, panic?" Ultra-running pharmacist friend: "Get some rest and suck it up. My knee hurt five miles into the UTMB and we hadn't hit the first climb. I did the last descent backwards. Everyone hurts."

Ok. Nuff said. Apparently IT is quite common as you load up before tapering. So this means I've gone about things the right way?!

UT4M profile:

I'm re-reading Ulrich Marshall on his Badwater Quad (584 miles, 96'000 feet total elevation change):

A little more than halfway through and after 130 hours, I was feeling completely used up, suffering from severe tendonitis. I can't do it anymore. The pain is too much. I have to stop. [...] On that day, I pushed through the pain by reminding myself that I wasn't doing it only for me. My suffering had a purpose. Anyone who's walked or run a few miles to benefit a cause knows how motivating this can be. Just when you start to feel as if you have nothing left to give, you remember how difficult someone else's life is, and you can keep going. Perspective does wonders. (I love this sign, spotted at a marathon to benefit cancer research: "Blisters don't require chemo".) So I strapped a bag of ice onto each shin and slogged it out for the final 232 miles, my legs the center of my universe, tormenting me for the next five days, all the way to the finish.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Running 40 hours to raise money for research into cancer treatment for children

My mother battled cancer for a year back in 1995 - and survived. My father died from metastasized prostate cancer in 2003. But losing a parent to this terrible disease is one thing - a child suffering from it is intolerable.

I can think of few things more tragic than someone having cancer at an age when he or she is supposed to feel invincible and immortal. Rather than all the things a child should be doing, they are locked up in a sterile room, with visitors donning outfits worthy of a biological warfare lab. Yet these children display extraordinary courage day in, day out, without any option of quitting.

This year, I've decided again to run for Cansearch, a research institute founded by Dr Marc Ansari to design genetic medicine to help children beat blood cancer (, by competing in the UT4M (165k (100miles) + 10'000m (33'000ft) elevation, - a "colossal" race according to the organizers - but so are goals set by the foundation I'm supporting, .

So please help me raise at least CHF 3,000 to support research to give the kids a fighting chance!

To learn more about the project and to donate, please visit:

And, of course, whether you contribute or not, if you think it is a worthy project, please forward to your own circle of friends and acquaintances.
I don't know how this race will go - in fact, 40 hours may be a bit optimistic! But since January I have logged 1500 kilometers, 32'000m of climbing, two marathons, a 50-mile mountain race, and 3 seasons of Game of Thrones on an elliptical machine (while recovering from a dislocated shoulder), so i'd like to think i've done my best without unduly comprising my family time (a lot of early mornings but only two complaints from my wife and one from the kids...).

Thanks in advance for your generosity.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

UT4M - Final thoughts, three weeks out

It’s only really now dawning on me—not so much the fact that I will be “running” 100 miles in the mountains, but the fact that I will be out there for two days and probably two nights too. And I haven’t been too keen on sleep deprivation since having kids.

On paper, my training really is below par, having barely managed to reach 40 miles (or 7-8 hours) per week, and 50-60 only a few rare occasions… But I have run almost 1,500km (930 miles) and over 30,000 meters (100,000 feet) of elevation since the beginning of the year, and that includes a 4-5 weeks hiatus end January through February to recover from a dislocated shoulder (I tried to stay in shape with a $100 elliptical machine and three seasons of Game of Thrones). For me, that's far greater consistent mileage than I have ever done (just the fact that I've kept track of my mileage is significant).

So I've done my best to train physically without sacrificing family time unduly (only one moment of complaint from my wife, so definitely a success), and I'll rely on 14 years of experience to pull through mentally. The result now really is irrelevant, because I will have answered the question: "how far can I go, how far is enough?" I don't want to train much more than this at this point in my life, I want time with my family while my kids are still young enough to want me around. So if it is not enough, then I'll just stick to races of less distance. Or perhaps I'll finish and still decide that it's too much...

There are so many possible endings to my race in three weeks, and right now they all quantumly exist as potentialities. In that state, all these possible endings validate in their own why what I have accomplished over the past year—what running has helped me accomplish.

Still, running for a cause will solidify my determination and inspire me not to stop until I really can't put one foot in front of the other. It puts all this egotistical training time to good purpose. Running helps me feel alive, so I need to share some of that...

The cause I will be supporting (cancer, of course, considering the family history) but more on that, and where and who to donate to, very shortly.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Early morning glory

I don't usually blog about training runs - at least I haven't so far, I don't think. Why, really? But this one... I just wanted to share the joy -

View of the Mont Blanc from the Signal des Voirons (1480m/4884ft)

I wasn't sure last night if I was going to make the 20-minute drive to the foot of the Voirons, a small pre-Alps mountain range in France on the outskirts of Geneva, or go for a flat run near home - the last time I headed up the Voirons, I got lost coming down in the rabbit warren of trails and couldn't find my car for an hour; was actually saved by a park ranger! It made the long run longer, but this time I was hoping to get something in before work since I won't be able to get a long run in this weekend, and I couldn't afford to get lost.

But I found myself rolling out of bed at 5am quite gung-ho. Got to bed early, the weather was perfect, and I was feeling pretty good after the XL Race in Annecy two weeks ago, and a five-hour mountainous running hike last weekend, with mostly rest in between each. I wanted to see how the legs would feel.

Well - the answer was a resounding "great". I jogged most of the way up - a five-mile climb with just under 3,000 feet of elevation, mostly single-path rocky trails and a few dirt tracks - and it wasn't too strenuous (I'm never good with strenuous, which is why i have never really done any valid speedwork), so I was really feeling bloody pleased with myself.

And then the view from the top, at 5,000 feet above sea level, just made me holler and yelp...

Close-up of the Mont Blanc, highest peak in Europe

View of Geneva and the Lac Léman from the Signal des Voirons

I noticed during the XL race Annecy that I had nicely improved my speed going down, and it felt good again today. I'd paid attention to which way I had taken going up (which wasn't the same as the first time I made the ascent - a rabbit warren I tell you!), and was careful coming down. Almost missed a turn - or rather was terrified that I had and would have to hike back up to find it - but no, there it was, just around the corner.

Got back to the car after 1h35mn, home at 7.45 in time to see my daughter off to school and have coffee with my wife, and into work at 9am.

What a way to start a Friday - the 13th on top of it.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Reasons for running

I run to revenge myself.

Marco Olmo, 2007 winner of the Mont Blanc Ultra Trail (UTMB) at age 59, in One Step Beyond (2009), a film by Paolo Casalis and Stegano Scarafia, produced by BODA’.

Certainly, anyone who competes in ultra marathons/trails has been asked the question "why?" Probably they've wondered about it themselves - I know I have. I don't generally dwell on it very much except to remember the feeling at the end of any run, not to mention race, which is reason enough of course (the fun, the thrill, the sense of achievement), otherwise I might question myself into quitting a race.

Beyond that? Well, I don't know if I run to revenge myself - I'm not sure I have much revenge to exact. I do feel that I have often run for redemption and a renewed self-esteem and sense of self...

I think the best is just to keep a running tally (no word pun intended):

  1. Because I can.
  2. Because one day I might not be able to.
  3. It’s a cheap sport if you don’t get carried away with ‘equipment fever’.
  4. It’s my only unique accomplishment: comfortably running 100km is not something most people can do (though the rapidly growing interest in trail running and my advancing age is making that less and less true).
  5. It stems the sensation that life is passing me by.
  6. Keeps me in shape. (Has saved my life.)
  7. Answers my need to feel things intensely, though I am quite incapable of managing intense emotions.
  8. Allows me to cope with the paradox in #7.

These last two laundry list items hide a question that I have been asked far less frequently than “why do you run?”, which is “what do you think of when you run?”.

This question is far more insightful than the former, and usually asked by people who have actually dedicated a certain amount of time to running and come away feeling that it is “boring”.

Why should it be boring? It certainly can’t be any less compelling than swimming or even biking. You’re outside and can enjoy the landscape—do people get bored hiking? I suppose so. But I think the fundamental reason for feeling bored is that we have a hard time being alone with ourselves and our thoughts.
Deep into an ultra, you enter a zone of “no-mind”. Of course, you are always peripherally aware of the stress you are placing on your body, you can feel the heat (or the cold), the weight of your backpack, the aches in your legs… You never let those thoughts gain too much traction, however, at the risk of entering a downward spiral of doubt and even despair that can lead to failure. I often find myself calculating how much distance I have covered, and how time it will take me to reach the next check point. I can’t do it for any great length of time, however. My thought processes freeze up after several hours, my brain is a mental marshmallow...

I thought before entering an ultra-trail that I would be having amazing flights of insight into life’s most complex problems. The truth is, my mind was empty, completely at rest—an extraordinary feeling.

And so... running for the silence

I did not compete in my first Marathon des Sables expecting to find silence, but that’s the greatest gift I received. And then I lost it.

So now I run and run to find it again and again. One day I hope that I won’t let it go.

Silence is a spiritual treat as rare as the flower bird parrot of Thailand. So often we do all we can to avoid it. I can understand that: silence scares me. It gives me vertigo, like empty space. So I run to exorcise this fear, embrace my phobia. That is why I run: for and towards silence.
Sometimes I wonder whether it isn’t a futile quest. Does silence truly exist? Isn't it a bit like the color black, the absence of something? And can we measure absence?
I really don’t know much about silence. So little. Almost nothing at all.
Not yet.
I’ve run for my father, for health, for my life, to impress my friends, my wife, my children.
I’ve learned a lot about myself in the process, all about what I would like to release and let go.
Now I’d like to run in a way that is devoid of any sense of ego, because I can.
To share the gift and the beauty of that silence.

To run because I can...

Running to share

And this means that I must run for a reason, for a cause, for those who can’t.

This is why, since the Marathon des Sables in 2006, I have tried to tie a particularly grueling trail run with raising money for a foundation. Like so many other runners. So that adds two other items to the list:

  • I like the spirit of trail running and the people competing in them.
  • When lived to the fullest, devoid of any notion of personal achievement, it leads to a sense of generosity, forgiveness and love of the world.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

A slight change of heart

Ok, so I’ve been a bit negative the past few days – chalk it up to a lot of things, but whatever it is it’s not necessary and that, more than anything, is contrary to the generosity that should pervade the world of trail running.

Truth is, I believe in a lot of what I’ve written recently on the nature of trail running, obviously, but not to such extremes. Nothing's ever that simple or cut and dry (or black and white...) And in the end, what does it really matter? There are enough races out there to cater to every desire. If there’s some handholding in some races, well, fine. I live in Europe where we exported the use of walking poles, and I know that some people can’t stand them. Fair enough. I’ve been poked in the chest before by someone checking their Garmin and it isn’t fun.

I think I’m on a bit of an emotional rollercoaster with my first 100-mile monster in 14 years(UT4M) less than four months away (which means the next three months are crucial and I still haven’t definitively thrown away those damn cigarettes).

I’ll take some advice I read on blogging on training to firm up commitment, and stay motivated and positive… Rather than blab on useless existential and condescending concerns about the so-called spirit of trail running.

The more I immerse myself in running blogs the more I am amazed at the community that exists, and that’s what the (my) focus should be on. In the end we are all united by the desire to experience something unique and the knowledge that we have shared a similar inner transformation by doing so, no matter whether it is racing at the front of the pack or stumbling across the finish line after the cut-off time.

The huge growth in the number of people participating in trail runs just means that there’ll be more and more different types of personalities, and that’s a great thing. There’s room for everybody. If we were all cast from the same mold, it would be bloody boring. And I have to say a) I’ll never refuse a little more comfort on a trail and I do love the food; b) the issue with time and “speed” has spurred me on my recent training to do more than just content myself with finishing. I always have been something of a lazy runner. Or an athletic couch potato…
Need to get up early tomorrow to try some fartlek training.

Monday, May 12, 2014

On entry requirements for ultras

Following up on the need for entry requirements from my post below…
I got this comment that if a race allows “anyone” to enter, without qualifying criteria, what’s to prevent exactly that from happening: Mr Anyone, who has little race experience, signs up on a drunken bet and ends up being a burden on the organization because he is woefully unprepared? (That and comments on overcrowding.)
Seriously, how often is that going to happen? Certainly not often enough in my opinion to use that as an excuse to put up blanket qualifying rules. And who knows, perhaps that ‘lout’ will surprise you? I ran alongside a British pilot during the long stage of the marathon des sables who had done exactly that. One evening in a pub he was the documentary on Chris Moon (a guy who lost an arm and a leg as a landmine clearance expert and went on to run the Marathon des Sables in 1996 with artificial limbs—the main reason for the explosion of popularity of the event in the UK) and boasted to his buddies that he would “do that race” the following year. There he was. And yes, he finished (while a pompous 28-year-old triathlete working for one of the first online TV channels blew out at the end of the third day).
Actually, why am I using someone else as an example? My dad signed me up to the MDS as some way to have a bonding experience and in the hopes of prompting me to clean up my lifestyle in Los Angeles. I had one year to prepare and no idea what I was getting into (and my dad wasn’t much help, despite having participated five times) but figured that I should be able to finish if my 65-year-old dad had finished three times. Still, I hadn’t lifted anything heavier than a pint glass in over ten years and almost nothing athletic since my failed attempt to make the tennis team my first year in college. I did curtail my worst habits but didn’t actually completely quit smoking, drinking or any other bad habit you can indulge in on a Saturday night in LA. I figured I should run a marathon at least before going out to the desert, and at least LA provided great heat and hill training, but I hobbled to the end of that first marathon in November due to a pinched sciatic nerve, and was unable to do anything (except party) until I came home to Geneva in February and started walking for hours at a time, three or four times a week, with a 20-pound backpack. I think I was mentally prepared to do whatever it took, however, and was so desperate to rebuild my self-esteem that I did finish.
So I am dead against entry requirements. (The only race to my knowledge that has understandable requirements is Spartathlon because of the speed aspect to the race - and even then, only the part about running 100k in less than 10.5 hours makes sense.) Read Finding Ultra by Rich Roll: he steamrolled his way into the Ultraman, arguably the toughest triathlon in the world and up there with the toughest events period, with almost no former experience—and almost won!
Are “qualifying points” required to attend Burning Man or any other multi-day music festival/happening/whatever the name for this kind of thing is? And yet how many people out there end up at the emergency room because they dropped ecstasy and drank vodka + energy drink all day and forgot to hydrate? If qualifying requirements are put in place to make sure people know what they are getting themselves into then they are pointless, because no-one really knows how they are going to react on a particular 100-mile race, even those who have done it dozens of times. Competing in a few 50-mile events won’t get you any closer to understanding what will happen on a 100-miler, so what exactly should the requirements be? It helps you test your food and gear, but you can do that on a training run. But still, everything’s different on race day. And there are some things some people will never be able to simulate: desert or high-altitude training are two I can think of. Does that mean a Scotsman shouldn’t be allowed to compete in Badwater, or Floridians in Leadville?
[Talking about Leadville and on the issue of self-sufficiency and babysitting runners—I just read that not only are you allowed pacers but that your pacer can carry your bag for you!]
Ultra running—running in general—is all about given everyone the chance to challenge their limits, discover stuff about themselves, etc. It’s about giving everyone their chance… In 2006, Ozzy Osbourne’s son competed in the MDS. He dropped out at the end of the second day. Maybe he wasn’t as fit as he could be, but he wasn’t treating it as a joke. At least the race got him back in shape, he’ll go into his next event that much more prepared, and to be fair four times as many people dropped out in the first three days in 2006 than the usual average for the entire race.
As for being a burden on the organization… Again at the MDS, Cyril and I ended up spending a lot of time during the long stage with an MDS veteran (only because we were moving along at about the same speed)—one of the those Frenchman who’d been coming back almost every year in its (then) 20-year history. He wouldn’t stop complaining at every water station and was constantly asking medics for an IV. He wasn’t particularly dehydrated but he knew it would give him a burst of energy. I remembered him from 2000 and 2001—nothing had changed. Talk about a pain in the ass… At every ultra event there are runners who get dehydrated, hypo- or hyperthermia, massive cramps, eye infections, kidney problems,… Their experience has little to do with it—sometimes it is the more experienced runners who have the most problems because they think they “know better” or can get away with it. What are the percentage of experienced runners popping ibuprofen like M&Ms then wondering why they kidney issues?
Also, never having had issues in past ultras is no guarantee that something won’t happen on the very next one. That’s the whole point of an ultra: anything can happen. Success can make you complacent. I remember on the first climb of the TDS in 2012 someone asked me what my time estimation was. I said: “Oh, just to finish. Always just to finish.” And I believed myself. Truth is, I had a secret time in my head that I wanted to finish in—nothing extraordinary, and nothing wrong with that, but I realized later that it meant that I didn’t actually believe that I wouldn’t not finish. I was being falsely humble. After all it was my 13th ultra, i.e. more than 40 miles, and I’d never failed to finish. I’d hit bad spots before and I thought I had all the answers. But 2/3rds of the way through I got into a downward mental spiral due to the endless rain and quit.
Perhaps quitting was actually the right choice. I had all the mandatory equipment and more, but I had used up three changes of clothing; I had no crew and drop bags were not allowed in 2012 at Cornet de Roseland where I stopped; night had fallen and I was afraid of falling off the mountain from fatigue and the cold, or getting hypothermia at 8,000 feet in the middle of the night—which would have entailed a delicate rescue mission. So if I had sat out (or eaten my way out of) my blue funk and latched on to some other runners, chances are I would have made it to the end, but there’s also a fair chance I would have been a real burden on the organization. But that’s the risk they take.
I think what I’m saying is: let everyone take responsibility for themselves and trust them to do so. There won’t be many clueless people signing up for a 100-mile ultra, and if there are some, well the experience will certainly sober them up. It might give them a taste for the adventure, it might disgust them completely, or they might actually surprise everyone and tough it out to the end. If that’s what they want to do, let them.
The main reason why “qualifying requirements” piss me off is because I don’t even think for the most part it’s to make sure that participants know what they are getting into—which as I have said is pretty much impossible and just another way of saying “we need to make sure you’re good enough”, which is merely pretentious. I think it’s actually to heighten the perceived appeal/toughness of the race (“this is really tough because not everyone can compete in it”) and to find an optimal balance in the drop-out rate. It needs to be high enough to be able to boast about the difficulty of the race, but also not so high that people don’t sign up or don’t come back.
Neither is it really about limiting the demand for sold-out races—or at least it shouldn’t be, since the cost is too high as entry requirements (as I argue in post below) change the nature of ultras. The problem with overcrowding—and this just proves my point about a shift in mentalities—is that a lot of people are signing up for particular races because of the prestige, not because of the race itself. And that is no different from wanting to do the London or New York marathon rather than the one near where you live because you don’t think it gives you the same bragging rights. I go on about this in “UTMB vs UT4M”. There are so many races out there now that new rules should be instated for those that are overcrowded, i.e. you can't compete if you've already finished unless you're part of a team. This would allow people enter races that are particularly sought-after because of their beauty, difficulty, etc. and give everyone a chance to get in. (I'm joking for the most part--I don't even know if this would solve the problem; just trying to get my point across...)
I don’t disparage anyone their success in completing any ultra, no matter the distance or the support provided/allowed by the organization. I’m really just talking about mindset here.
I suppose what I would like to see is that instead of entry requirements, just make the races more self-sufficient. Make it less about speed and much more about endurance. Mental resilience and race planning. I’m looking forward to competing in the UT4M which allows two drop-bag points but at the same time I know it’s going to be mentally easier. It makes it easier to cut the race up in pieces, it can also compensate for poor planning.
No pacers, no drop bags, no crew. Provide water and let the runner deal with the rest. If that means lugging a 20-pound backpack up the hill, then so be it. You can run with a lighter pack and take some risks, or load up and feel covered for every emergency. Each participant makes the choice for him/herself.
When the start gun goes off, each runner is on his/her own until the finish line—but everyone’s in it together. That’s how it should be.