Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Is (ultra) running selfish and pointless?

Of course I am going to answer a resounding "yes", hang up my running shoes, and take up golf... Still, though running has arguably (and I am arguing this point) saved my life from ending up in an East L.A. gutter, I will try to be as objective as possible when answering this stupid statement that I read in a book recently.

Stupid, because saying "running is selfish" is like saying that cell phones (smart phones? i dunno, names change so quickly) prevent people from communicating. No: people are selfish and self-centered - running is just an activity and phones are things. Some runners sacrifice family, friends, work to their running; most that I know try to do what they can with the time they have available - and in that regard, each one is different. I can't compare my situation to anyone else's. For instance, if my dad had been around for us as much as I am for my kids, my parents' mariage would never have lasted. Too much of a free spirit. But the time he spent with me was entirely dedicated to me and he opened my eyes to the world (apart from being directly responsible in getting me involved in running, which I suppose means that if the act of engaging in running saved my life, then my dad saved my life); and divorce would not have done me much good.

The author also ranted about how some runners try to make their running mean something by running for charity. Sure, if you claim that's the only reason you run, then yes it's disingenuous. However, I think that even though some might wish to deny that by promoting their running via running they are also promoting themselves and their accomplishments, for the most part anyone running for charity knows that they are deriving a personal benefit from it but they just also wish to share the joy and put that to good use. Perhaps there's a bit of guilt, since yes, of course, running is a solitary activity that means when you do it you are necessarily taken time away from something else for your own benefit, but I think for the most part people's hearts are in the right place. And for fuck's sake why does it even matter why? I don't do many of my races for charity, but I did raise nearly CHF 4'000 for cancer research competing in the UT4M (and discovering that running an ultra for charity doesn't prevent a DNF) so the benefits are genuine and concrete whatever the reasons. And without the running, people are just not going to give.
Which doesn't mean it has to be running - many personal engagements are worthy vectors to ask people to donate to a cause. It just seems that people are more inclined to give money to charity for a running event than if you say: "Hey, I'm watching all seven episodes of Star Wars" or "I'll be doing back-to-back trilogies of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings - including the bonuses". But why? If someone actually does spend 20 hours watching TV - and I know they are out there - that's quite an achievement. Why shouldn't that be used to raise charity? In that regard, I don't particularly place a  running event above a telethon as a reason to raise money for charity - I'm just trying to point out that running (or TV) is just the excuse to ask for money, but while it might reflect positively or negatively on the person asking for the money (depending on how they do it), it doesn't say anything about the value of running.

And so is running pointless? Well, I suppose that depends on what is meant by something "having a point". Personally I think most employment out there is ultimately pointless from a cosmic perspective - which doesn't mean that work is unnecessary and beneficial (beyond need to put a roof over our heads and food on the table, it answers many personal, social and psychological needs that don't necessarily relate to poor self-esteem or greed), or that I won't feel happy in a job, give it my best, and feel that I am doing something good apart from lining shareholders' pockets - and since most of my fellow human beings take more or less the same approach, I don't judge anyone's work (though perhaps sometimes I'll question their relationship to it) and, of course, I don't consider work truly pointless (but don't make me think that the world will stop turning...); I'm just trying to give a different perspective and figure out what someone means when they call running "pointless".

Because "pointless" is like holding up a mirror to "successful": what does that mean?! Currently I am unemployed. I have not forged a career as such, since for most of my twenties and thirties I attempted first to be a writer then a filmmaker. Those pursuits taught me alot, providing me with a wealth of life experience that I wouldn't exchange for any "career" in the world. And at 44, I have a happy mariage, two kids who want to spend time with me, I feel more and more comfortable in my own skin, and have an acceptance of life and who I am that I never thought possible: that, to me, is "success" if I was forced to define it that way. How much I earn, how much professional responsibility I have, what my social status might be, mean nothing if I am drinking myself to oblivion each evening, riddled with anxiety, if my wife and kids hated me, and my job was less than compelling. I know I'm not the only one to feel this way.

What do we take away with us when we die? Yep - so acquiring external things is really absolutely useless, or at least limited to those that can allow us to develop ourselves internally: knowing oneself, the most interesting and essential and gratifying of all human studies (not to mention the off-chance that there is a cosmic force and eternal soul).

No, it's not that cut and dry

That's where running comes in - ah, yes, here we are! That's why running isn't "pointless", unless you think that living, in the sense of self-discovery and self-improvement, is pointless. While we are on this planet, we might as well live, live in such a way that we are transformed as people for the better. And running, especially ultra running (although any distance is an ultra depending on what level you're starting at), is certainly one great way of doing that - not the only one, for sure, but less expensive than sailing or space travel, and (arguably) less risky than sky-diving, for instance.

I won't go into exact reasons why, because I could only give examples (like running through candle-lit Petra alone at 2am) but those examples are just moments that cannot capture the essence of what ultra running does to a person, in the self-discovery that occurs when you overcome the moment when you want it all to stop - and you have the power to make it stop, but choose not to, and then the magic occurs... There are great, inspiring books out there that will provide other perspectives and a myriad of glimpses on this: Out There: A Story of Ultra Recovery; Fat Man to Green Man; Running and Stuff; The Summit Seeker.

Still, it's almost impossible to explain adquately how running can transform you into a more stable, more tolerant, more generous and just a better person ("can" as long as - back to the first part of this long blog - you don't let it take over, obsesses, loose the joy, become enamored with your own accomplishments), by changing your view of yourself and the world.

But it can.

And I can't think of anything that has greater value for one's family, friends, co-workers and the world at large than becoming a better person. It's the simplest, yet hardest, yet most rewarding thing that one can hope to achieve in this life.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Great start to a season: Cabornis trail race report (44km/2200m elevation)


After overcoming injury in 2015, I went on to have a great year, with varied races and first attempts at speed training, and pretty structured training in December, to end with a local 5-mile race where I shaved 4 minutes off my last time. 2016 has so far gone well also, with no injuries, progressively higher mileage and, along with last year, probably the longest stretch of consistent running and structured training in my 16 years of dabbling in ultras.

So, of course, I was heading into the Cabornis trail with high hopes, aiming for the first time actually to "race" (i.e. post my best time possible, not just take in the views, but still finish with enough in the tank to pick up training again next week). It was a close call, however, as I seriously stubbed my toe on a chair in the living room a few days earlier when I turned off the lights to go to bed, but it was a toe that apparently doesn't seem to matter for running because it didn't bother me at all even though it was still sensitive to the touch on race-day. The friend I was supposed to the race with, Jérôme, wasn't so lucky, however: he sprained his ankle on Wednesday on a night run and it still looked like he had an orange jammed up his foot three days later...

So it was sadly all alone that I took off Sunday morning at 6am for Lyons, a 2hr drive from Geneva where I live. The Cabornis takes place in the Mont d'Or just 10mn outside the metropolis, and is beginning to be an early-season local favorite, because the distance and elevation ratio is perfect, and on hills not mountains so there's a fair amount of (tough) running to be had, even though it's really up-down-up-down... Also you can choose on the spot (at mile 10) whether to complete the full 25miles/40km or only do the 23km loop.

So high hopes I had... My usual time would be around 6h30, depending on motivation and how much time I would spend at the check points/feeding stations; here my target time was 5h27mn, that of a friend in 2014 who went on to finish the UTMB that same year. With the training I had, I figured it was manageable, or at least meaningful...

Anyway - when my friend raced it, it was sunny and 19°C. This year it was barely above freezing and it rained the full week before turning most of the trail into a Woodstock-style mudfest. However, count your blessings where you get them: rain had been predicted until the last minute but we actually had spots of sunshine. Well, we had the three seasons Winter-Spring-Autumn all rolled into one race. I took off with just a long-sleeve warm shirt and vest, then it started to snow, so out comes the rain jacket, then it stopped, the sun came out and the birds were chirping and my rain jacket was off, then it was windy and cloudy, then a few drops of rain, and the rain jacket came on again... And that cycle occured three times! The third time i just bagged the vest and kept the rain jacket.

It was a very scenic race through vineyards and ruins of stone houses, the whole lot overlooking the valley around Lyons. Of course trail races being what they are, it ended up not really being what the website announced or even what the race director said that morning (must have a different model Garmin): 44km (just over 27 miles) and 2200m (an extra 700 feet of elevation), so my base comparison time from my fitness level in previous years had to be readjusted upwards to over 7 hours...


And then there was the mud - did I mention the mud? Oh, well, wasn't too bad except in the beginning and end. So we started with a gradual 1000-foot ascent, just too steep to run (at my level) and power walking was made difficult with the mud and the sheer number of people (reminds of why I don't like crowds - you feel like everyone's impatient and trying to push passed, but actually everyone feels the same way and is really polite and everything). But after about 4 miles we could really run, with the downhill not technical or steep at all. Until mile 10, it pretty much undulated this way, with some uphills even runneable and there was more pebbles and (slippery) tree roots than mud after mile 4 (and some asphalt - gasp!), so at the cutoff point (which you had to reach in under 2 hours, and I had 20 minutes to spare) I was actually on par for a 5-hour finish (again, based on 25 miles).

We had been warned that the next section was tougher, but for about 3 miles it just continued in the same vein. And then it got messy: from about mile 13 to 21 the climbs and descents - though short (300-foot elevation range) were steep and muddy and very slippery, making for slow going. I've found it easier hiking up ski slopes - in fact one section was so bad, I wasn't sure I would make it up. I couldn't find a grip and had to venture into the undergrowth away from the muddy path... After that it got better, actually with some road winding through quaint villages, except for one last section, when we were supposed to be finished (my watch said 42.5km!!!), where I almost lost my shoes in the mud that wrapped around my ankles making a pleasant sucking sound at every step.


One fellow's wife, who's obviously read too many "inspirational quotes" on twitter, told her suffering hubby, "remember, pain is only in your head". I believe I saw him pause, debate whether to return and tell her where she could stuff her pain... but then, as he was already a few steps up the next hill, he probably thought it wasn't worth it. "Don't wait for me at the finishing line", i would have said. But then, that's why my wife doesn't come with me on these things. Though I don't think she's silly enough to say something like that (then again, she doesn't read running magazines, quotes, blogs, etc. where you come across such soundbites made up by people in comms who probably haven't run a mile in their lives).

So anyway, I enjoyed the whole romp, but was really starting to want to arrive by the time km 43 rolled around and I still felt like we were lost in the hills. Then suddenly we emerged between two cow patches and there was the church steeple. The arrival was only a quarter-mile away, and I finished quite happy in 6h11, completely unable to tell whether that was an improvement in any way but quite sure it was that I couldn't have given it much more if I wanted to be able make the 2-hour drive home safely enough. At least my ranking was similar to my friend's two years ago - but i don't really care about these things...

The prize was a liter of local apple juice, which was quite welcome.



Sunday, February 28, 2016

To taper or not to taper - more self experimentation

What I mean by "to taper or not to taper" is really the "traditional" view of reducing mileage progressively over 2-4 weeks before a race. I've always been a great fan of that, even when I wasn't doing much mileage to begin with. I'd average about 25 miles per week, then get frantic two months before a race, ramp up to about 35-40 with a long run in the mountains on weekends, do that for 3-4 of the next 6 weekends, then do pretty much nothing for two weeks while trying not to drink or smoke too much... The races I'm talking about are in the 40-50 miles range in the mountains (usually about 12'000 feet of elevation), and though I was never aiming for speed, I'd always finish, even if the last few hours were a slugfest and parts of it often involved quite a bit of suffering, and as the years passed I slipped closer and closer to the bottom of the rankings. And evidently whatever I did in 2014 - there was no speed or structure to my training and probably I didn't really increase my mileage a huge amount (not to mention the slight issue of a dislocated shoulder) - wasn't enough  to finish the 100-mile UT4M...
 

Anyway, now that I had a more constructive year of training last year, and have done quite well since the beginning of the year on my "base training", averaging 40 miles a week now after some "speed training" in November, I'm eager to see how that will translate in the upcoming Cabornis race, 25 miles and 6'000 feet of elevation on which I hope to test my speed.

However, tapered I have not, or at least I am experimenting something different, having just completed my biggest week in two months, though I plan to do only about 12 miles of easy running with some sprints spread out between Tuesday, Wednesday and Saturday - and a bit of biking. We'll see what happens. Even though I want to "race" the Cabornis, not just run it comfortably, I'm also using it to find out more about how my body functions/reacts. Because after all, there's no set recipe for tapering, everyone is different, and I want to see what works best for me in time for the Swiss Irontrail in August (not to mention anyway that I heard that tapering for too many races reduces its effectiveness).

Well, these are really just reasons made up after the fact - this situation really came about when I realized last month that the 3 weeks on, 1 week off in terms of ramping up mileage then having a recovery week, wasn't perhaps best for me (a factor of age? - 44 - and the fact that I don't have a history of big mileage?), but rather 2 weeks on, 1 week off (maybe I'm just a bit lazy, but I did come close to an injury in January and it's been much better since I scaled back the following week and settled into the 2/1 rotation So this is race week but it also needs to be a "week on" if I want to keep following my pattern, with a lower mileage recovery week after the race. Hence the big week last week and some mileage this week to add to the race mileage and have a decent week...

Does that make sense to anyone but me?!

Anyway, point is, I'll learn much more this way about how (not) tapering effects me, how much recovery I need, bla bla bla.

And what is more fun that experimenting on oneself?

Also, whatever happens, it's a nice feeling to have completed stage one of the new this-is-me-structuring-my-training program, i.e. consistent higher mileage running for fun not looking at watch with a bit hill sprints, before moving on stage two in which I have planned to keeping up my mileage and increasing a bit more, but mainly implementing some speed work. 

Monday, February 15, 2016

Running to heal?

So another post on the calf pain saga... Well, it's not so much a pain as a dull presence. Seems to slip around from the right of the shin to the Achilles' tendon to the glucem-something other (the big fat calf muscle). I figure if it's moving around... Also, I'm wondering if the fact that I try to massage my calf with a massage pillow may not actually have bruised the shin bone and that's all it is really...

Anyhoo, I went off Sunday morning for my first serious long run in several months. I've done some 3-hour runs but in the mountains - I think it's been last June since I actually came close to 20 miles on roads. I'd roped in a friend since the weather was going to be miserable and planned on doing about 10 miles before joining up with him. About half-mile into my run I could feel my calf. Definitely. I thought about turning around... Nope. As long as I don't do any sudden movements... Then I figured perhaps I'd meet up with my friend but tell it's a no-go. Nope, can't do that. Then I thought: ok, school holidays are starting tomorrow, we're heading to the mountains on Wednesday, this will be my last run, I can afford take a week off from running, particularly if I'm skiing and touring...

By the time that mental game ended, I realized I couldn't feel my calf anymore. The weather was still miserable, but my new playlist was great, my friend dragged me along for 8 miles at a hefty pace, then I turned back home for a final 2 mile, hitting my target with nary a peep from the calf.

Go figure. Don't want to jinx myself though. But it is an enigma. It's not like the muscle or whatever warmed up and the pain went away only to come surging back - it didn't hurt the rest of the day, and the next day not at all. So I went for a short easy run this morning (the day after), and I could feel it after a half-mile but much less and it eased off again even quicker than two days ago. Not completely, however, so I know something's there. Bit annoying really, because I have a race in less than a month and not sure exactly what to do. I don't seem to be making things worse, yet it's not going away either.

Oh, well. I'll focus on family skiing this week, with a couple of long runs/hikes in the snow thrown in. Then I'll take it from there.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Consistency, almost - finally!

Ah, well, I didn't really stick to what I said in the previous post, since I went out for a run only three days after what I thought was a muscle pull. However, in my defense, I was not totally idiotic: i went for a massage and the therapist said that it was a contraction not a tear - so there!
I did reduce the mileage, then upped it more reasonably the following week, and now planning to get just shy of 50 miles with the long run tomorrow morning. The calf is still tight so I'm being careful. A few faster runs when I feel ok, but no hills or anything too stupid.

Which means two things: for the first time in three years I have cleared January injury-free (no skiing accidents - there's almost no snow!) and can train in February. And maintain some sort of consistency. So now I'm as excited as my kids at Christmas time to see what I can do at the first race of the season early March, the Trail des Cabornis.

Well, let's not count the chickens... I still have four weeks to go. Need to get there in one piece.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

50 miles and a calf strain!

Ah, well, I was so pleased yesterday as I was on the final stretch of a long run that capped my first week of training where I had pushed to almost 50 miles - the upper limits of my current mileage - with the view of doing some proper so-called "base training" this year, and ready for two days rest as I could tell the muscles were tired... And I was just telling my running buddy how I was hoping for an injury free winter-spring after the past two years (dislocated shoulder skiing and torn calf kick-boxing) when I jumped to avoid some brambles and felt a twinge in my left calf...

Definitely a strain. But definitely nothing like the tear last year. And it's early in the year. So I am going to be smart: no running for a week, even if I can already barely feel it. Do some (arg) swimming. Then start back at 35 miles the following week, then take a couple of weeks to get to 50... Got to account for my age!

Because the main thing now is consistency. I look back at the last two years of training when I started recording my mileage and elevation, and even factoring in elevation (which can perturb straightforward mileage), the intensity of my training was all over the place. Of course last year that had something to do with lining up a two 100km races and an Ironman in three months... But still.

So now the goal is to remain within the 40-50 miles a week bracket - consistently over the next two months, before upping it a bit hopefully. And remain injury-free.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Which is tougher: Ironman or ultra marathon?


 










I really can’t complain about my year. After suffering a severe tear in my left calf in January, followed by a mild Achilles tendinopathy, I was only able to return to running end of April – but i compensated with quite a bit of swimming (in February-March) and a lot of biking (April-May). Then in July I competed in a 65-mile mountain run, the Vichy Ironman in August and the 100km Millau road ultra in September.
So quite a few people have asked me: which is more difficult, Ironman or Ultra?
Well, first of course it depends on what kind of ultra we’re talking about – you can’t compare apples and oranges (or fries and Brussel sprouts). Certainly the Beaufortain mountain trail run, with its 21’000+ feet of vertical elevation and highly technical trails, was in a class of its own and took me to places an Ironman never could – if only because it took 28 hours and everything I had to complete. By the same token, I’ve done 50 miles footraces on flatter terrain that were easier: quicker finishing time yet more relaxed pace (with more frequent stops to sample the great food at check points).

So the ultra marathon that I feel is most comparable to an Ironman is a 100km road race, with similar finishing times (i've also read that elsewhere). Mathematically it bears out, if you are so inclined, i.e. 3k run equivalent for 1k biking and 1k run equivalent for 4k swimming, so an Ironman is (3.8x4) + 180/3 + 42 = 117km in terms of time. Presumably also endurance effort, but that's what I'm here to find out. Hmm...
Anyway, having completed both a month apart, I feel quite well placed to give an informed opinion – though it still only remains valid for me. The first took me 14h40mn, while the second took me 13h40mn, and I would attribute the hour difference to two factors: the high heat at the Ironman (35°C) and the fact that IronmanTM couldn’t be bothered – despite the high entry fee – to give out anything more than the sponsor’s gels and bars (no bloody savory food, discounting a few random Tucs!) (whereas at the Beaufortain they were cooking pasta soup and serving coffee at 3am at the top of a mountain). And then of course there's my lack of specific training… But that only makes my answer more valid.

Because definitely I would say that the 100k ultra marathon is the more difficult challenge, and anything above that, or with considerable elevation, definitely more so. (Though training for an Ironman – particularly in a dedicated and specific way, which certainly wasn’t my case – is a lot more time-consuming.) I didn’t doubt that I could finish either going in (though in such endurance events it is of course always a possibility), but during the races I never really doubted that I would finish the Ironman, whereas I did have some moments during the 100km whether I could finish, wanted to finish or would finish in one piece, when my goal had been to walk only the hills and after that as little as possible (goal accomplished actually, even though my pace at the end was more a shuffle than a jog). And I was able to jog up some stairs at the end of the Ironman, whereas my right knee had locked up by the time I completed the 100km.
And I had trained specifically for this race. Up to 50 miles per week of running (a huge max for me), while I’d only swum 5 miles and biked 200 miles in the 3 months leading up to the Ironman (that would account for my time…). Not to mention that I have a hard time in the pool after about 10 minutes and I’ve never been a fan of the bike and all the apparel that goes with it.
However, I will say that while I entered some dark spots at the 100km that didn’t occur during the Ironman (i think due to the change in activity from swim to bike to run), I did find it more intense. You always seem to be in race mode, whereas at the 100km, even though I was aiming not to walk, I never felt as pressured (much sorer, yes, but not pressured). And I took my time to eat, chat… 
And there was definitely a sense of pride and accomplishment particular to finishing the Ironman – it was my first (which doesn’t imply there will be a second, though I can’t rule it out), and you never forget your first time…