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...

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 (www.cansearch.ch), by competing in the UT4M (165k (100miles) + 10'000m (33'000ft) elevation, ut4m.fr/en) - 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: http://www.givengain.com/activist/123860/projects/8692/

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.