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

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Burning Man Ultra

I first went to Burning Man in August 1999. I went back in 2001 and 2002. Since then trail running has boomed and I have to say that the camaraderie, the sense of craziness, the quirky fun characters competing in them remind of the spirit of Burning Man.

So I'm not surprised to find out that a 50k run has been organized there now for several years. I did run while I was there since I had my first ultra - actually my first race ever - coming up a few months later, the Marathon des Sables. But there was no 50k to compete in back then...

If ever I needed a reason for returning... 

Watch a great video here:

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

DNF addendum and "Running norms you can break"

I just had to add this, no commentary necessary. It's just so true:

You can DNF all you want!!! Because frankly….Who gives a crap?! I remember reading a post a little while ago stating that those who DNF ultras were essentially nothing more than human garbage. Not finishing what you start is basically the worst thing imaginable. Complete failure. I say screw that nonsense! If you’re sick, fractured, twisted, fatigued, or heck…if you just want to go home, eat dinner with your family and call it a day, by all means, just do it. You can! You can stop running!  It’s your life, it’s your experience, and who cares what anyone else thinks about it? I seriously doubt that when any of us are on our death beds, we will be wishing, above all else, that we had finished that dang 100 miler. Ultrarunning, as wonderful as it is, puts an intense amount of stress on the body–YOUR body. The skin that YOU have to live in every single day, and for the rest of YOUR entire life. Race wisely.

Helps put things in perspective as does the rest of this great blog by Ashley on "9 ultra running norms you can break":

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

A new running season I suppose

Ok, it’s been a while and I just realized that my last entry was on a DNF – I can’t let that stand. Particularly since, having just re-read it, I would have something to add: bullshit!

Well, not completely. I mean, 90% of what I wrote is true - at least the mental mindset part - but I now know that it was all mental. Of course I was beat, but in such a long race, who isn’t at some point? I forgot that things can turn around. I should have slept, had the cup of lapsong souchong tea that I’d been carrying in my bag, read the inspirational text messages sent to me by a mate back at work, and headed out just before dawn to see how the sunrise helped me – and get the job done. Because it turns out even that stress fracture in the foot wasn't a stress fracture but cuboid syndrome or dislocation. Painful but only in a dull way and quickly fixed by a 5mn physio manipulation. Nothing that should have prevented me from dropping out, at least not where I did.

In a way, I was too tempted by the 2-hour drive home that would allow me to spend Saturday with my wife and kids. And Sunday, because if I had soldiered on to the end, it probably would have taken me till Sunday morning at least. And that’s what I couldn’t bear. There’s the real problem: no matter how many races I’ve done going in with the attitude of “just finishing”, and no matter how many times I’ve read it and told others, I realize now that I’d somehow given myself a 42-43 time limit, the time it took me to complete Jordan. I couldn’t face doing any longer… and that was my downfall.

Now I’ve signed up for another 100 miler, with 24,000 feet of elevation, in Portugal. A new mountain range to discover and only 50 participants. Far away from home – or at least far enough so that quitting won’t bring me home any faster and I might as well soldier on. Quite early in the year – June – but at least this way I won’t be obsessing about it for nine months, with the real risk of peaking too soon.

Because out of everything I wrote after the UT4M, I do believe that training was not the real issue, and it’s irrelevant anyway because I’m not willing to dedicate more time to this. It would take away the enjoyment and make the sacrifices and egocentrism too great. So if I fail to finish this next 100 miler, then I may have to admit that either physically and/or mentally I just don’t have what it takes. But I need to find out.
This time I going to train differently, hoping that I don't have another skiing accident. Anyway, more ski touring in the winter months, more swimming, more biking; fewer long weekend runs but longer (every two weeks instead of every week to spend time with the family), more mid-week speed work, no pressure (no fund raising) and lots of fun. 

I’m excited again.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

UT4M: Chronicle of a DNF foretold

Well, it ain't 2000, this wasn't the Jordan Desert Cup. I'm no longer in the same mindset, evidently (some of it for the better for life in general, but not so good for finishing ultras), but most of all - despite my best hopes, 14 years and 15 ultra trails of varying lengths later - I don't have the same level of training.
After all these months - almost a year of anticipation - I didn’t finish the UT4M. I stopped after 94k (59 miles) and 5,200m (17,100ft) of elevation – just past the half-way mark. Ultimately it was the right choice to allow me to live and fight another day, since it appears I have a stress fracture in my right foot. But since that only registered as another dull pain on my radar about an hour previously and did not bother me at the checkpoint where I debating whether to continue, I cannot claim that as a reason for stopping. The main reason was: faced with a very steep 1700m climb in less than 9km,  I just couldn’t continue. I truly felt like I could no longer put one foot in front of the other.

This is partially true, because:
  • I was suffering from post-race-like soreness in my quads that indicated a definite lack of specific training.
  • I was in a state of general fatigue after 21 hours unlike anything I remember experiencing in the past; attempting a 3-to-4-hour climb seemed ludicrous: it was so steep, I thought I might slumber off and topple over backwards.
  • My morale was quite good, so I knew that my thoughts of quitting weren't due to a deep funk: I had no particular leg fatigue apart from the quad soreness, I wasn’t cold, I was psyched to be there for the most part (now that the massively technical 1500-meter in 4km drop over damp rocks and roots was behind me), I wanted to pass the 100km mark and see dawn - and I didn't want to let down the kids of Cansearch and all those who had donated towards the cause. So it had to be physical: I really couldn't continue, I wasn't just wanting to believe it.
However, it’s also partially not true, because:
  • If the next stage had been flatter, I know I would have attempted to go a little further, in other words the really steep climb beat me mentally too: perhaps I should have at least attempted a few steps, taken literally the adage "one step at a time"...
  • …particularly since I was sitting at the table in the rest area faced with another competitor in the same shape as me. Perhaps I could have suggested going on with him and we could have slogged through it together?
  • If the race ended at 100km, just over the next "hill", I know I would have slugged it out to the end. It was the additional 60k they had me mentally beat (along with that bloody hill, I should add; again).
  • Which means I didn’t actually segment my race, specifically into: first part of the climb, which would take me to dawn; and the second part of climb, which would bring me to 100km marker and a full view of the race course at its highest point, and the knowledge that the hardest terrain was behind me… Had I done that, perhaps at that point things might have gotten “easier”.
  • I tried to rest, yes, but I somehow thought that the time barriers were catching up with me – they were, but at that point, I still had almost three hours to spare.
  • I forgot to visualize the arrival.
Still, after resting for a day and a decent night’s sleep, it’s very easy to forget how absolutely beat up I was. So my conclusion is that perhaps I didn’t try everything  I could have to see if I could continue just a little bit longer, but chances are I would not have lasted long and that it is probably for the best considering my foot fracture. And I really think the fatigue and quad soreness comes down to lack of proper training, which I suspected going in but need to be ok with since I could not really have trained more, considering that my family ultimately means quite a lot more to me than ultra running. This race required more block training and far longer runs (B2B) than I would ever have had time for. At least currently.
I am quite convinced that my children will grow up to the point where they no longer really want me around and I'll have time to train more before I actually get too old to do these races.

So now for the next few years, the aim is to maintain a modicum of form, derive pleasure from smaller challenges (and set the yearly the 'A' race at a 24-30 hour event, anything from 100-miles "flat" to 100km with up to 6,000 meters of elevation (I have a particular race in mind evidently). Or a desert stage race. Definitely a desert stage race in the near future (but not Morocco!!!).

Ah, when all is said and done, I'm feeling good. There's some wisdom and balance that has come with age and acceptance. I can enjoy the sense of adventure that comes with any ultra trail, without beating myself up for not necessarily having taken it past the limit. Is this compulsion to overcome extreme adversity in what is, after all, a fake environment really necessary?
I don't think so. Accepting to stop when it's painful to go on, even though perhaps you could, even though perhaps, many hours down the road, the situation might change and a huge exhilaration may overwhelm you as they do in these types of races if you push through enough barriers - well accepting to stop can be an important step in simply accepting who you are, regardless of what others thing or how you are made to think of yourself by outside circumstances or outside definitions of success. And the ultra community is certainly as guilty of that with regards to finishing or DNFing as other circles are of complacency, material wealth, career promotions, etc.

Mainly, however, back to the basics. My first MDS and the Jordan Desert Cup had been 90% about running and enjoying the unique experience, and 10% about the race (other runners, their experience, how I was measuring up to them, my performance). Over the years, that percentage has almost reversed in many cases. At the UT4M, it was about half and half, and my best moments and the reason I overcame stomach cramps and hip pain was because I was revelling in the moment. But I want it to be more about the running again; about the landscape, the experience, the camaraderie, the uniqueness... I want the purity of those first races. Forget about performance (including finishing at all costs) and just enjoy a) being there and b) finishing in the sense of "experiencing the whole race". If I hadn't finished in Jordan, I wouldn't have the ineffable memory of getting lost in the desert just past the Hedjaz railway of Lawrence of Arabia fame, or particularly stumbling through a candle-lit Petra alone at 2am after 42 hours of racing, hallucinating and seeing scaffolding on the 2,000 year old walls...
I have a few memories to take a way from the UT4M, and that's a start. I'm certainly not going to let a DNF take them away from me. I won't let a DNF compromise the moments of exhilaration that did occur during those 21 hours, particularly sharing moments with Cyril who joined me at three rest stops and followed me through the race (I'm pretty sure I would not have made it as far and in such high spirits without his presence). Though there are lessons to be learnt, I choose not to wallow in self-pity at not finishing and belittle my achievement by comparing myself to others.
I choose to consider the glass half full, draw an imaginary finish line at the checkpoint where I stopped, and feed on the sense of accomplishment at covering 60 miles and 17,000 feet of elevation in 21 hours - my longest race, after all, since the Jordan Desert Cup...