In true style, it never rains when it pours. Though we have been getting a few breaks in the weather recently which is really appreciated.
At least some parts of Coed y Brenin are starting show signs of Spring even though there is still a lot of damage around and about from windblown trees. I’m really conscious of the days getting longer. 5am runs aren’t dark as long and the evening is lengthening too. I know this as I can put the recycling bins out on a Wednesday night, after the girls have eaten, in the light.
As a few niggles have been easing off I’ve been finding time to get out on my feet and on my bike again. Really focussing on good quality cardio, but also sorting good running technique and overall recovery.
I’m pretty confident in my physical condition at the moment – in that I know I am physically capable of finishing the race. But I am slightly worried about my mental preparation. That’ll be tweaked for the next four weeks and I’m sure I’ll get it right.
I spent a very useful couple of hours with an MdS veteran who gave me some valuable top tips, and helped me visualise some of the things that I might face.
As he said, the Marathon des Sables is 60% mental toughness. One foot in front of the other and you’ll get to the end. The other 40% is in your mind. That’ll tell you heaps about the mindset needed to finish the race. Even after having most of his sole removed on day 2, Nigel still finished the race – oh, with his urine being the colour of black coffee. That might have been as a result of popping CoCodamol like they’re Smarties. Whatever the reason, I can’t wait!
It’s useful to know the final shopping list to get. And to relax about some of the things that were set in my mind as problems, that aren’t.
I also got my race number, 542. A few friends on Facebook came up with some of the unique qualities of the number. It’s the totient function of the integer values of numbers to 41 (!) it’s the number of a very good threadlock, and it’s the number printed on 1mg Rohypnol. It’s nice to have the number early; from outside the race there is a lot of information – stage times, CP positions, but also webcam footage and stage finish camera’s. I’ll write more about all this in the days to come.
29 days to go – it really is the final countdown now!
The last month has been the start of a new chapter for me. I resigned from my job – sometimes when all other things are equal and you’ve looked at all options, voting with your feet is the thing to do, even when you don’t know where you’re going. I feel like I’ve achieved a lot and I’ll continue to follow the discussion on access to the natural resources of Wales very closely. The personal drive for countryside access is something fundamental to me and it’s at the heart of why I love being active in the outdoors.
Doors close, other opportunities open. Time is now my commodity again and the need for income will replace this only to quickly!
Along with leaving my job, a couple of other experiences have been making me do some soul searching. Amongst these, the reason for this blog, is a very dear friend in Australia. He asked me to consider a book by someone who doesn’t see distance running as healthy. I greatly respect this friend, he’s known me since being at my most vulnerable and has a certain insight that makes his thoughts challenging and valuable. However, on pushing myself hard physically I know that it is fundamental to me, its a non negotiable.
It’s a strange feeling, and one that I have tried to understand why it is at my core. It should be obvious I suppose, but it’s just outside what I can see clearly. To explain it, I have to look backwards to look forwards.
I’ve always been above average in sports – good hand eye co-ordination and plenty of opportunity has been useful for that. I’ve never been ‘elite’ but I’ve been to selections for county sports and other higher teams. Despite enjoying the “killer” moments when beating someone was there, I never found winning the real core of my enjoyment. The central enjoyment is in using my body and mind to it’s limit. Sure there is a point where that makes you a winner, but I’ve never really experienced that. The point for me is that exertion makes me feel vital, alive and me, not at the whim of someone else.
The only place that this happens for me is in wild areas. Perhaps it is my safe place because I used the outdoors as a place to escape the non school hours whilst my parents journeyed through surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy to their death. By escaping into the woods, the outdoors, riding bikes, swimming in lakes, fishing, canoeing tin baths, wild camping, map reading, climbing and making fires I didn’t have time to focus on morphine pumps, colostomy bags, anti-emetics, iced Complan meals and the day to day focus of parents suffering with cancer as a teenager. Sure, I had more chores to do than my peers, and expectations of academic success were daily reminders of who I “needed” to become p gain approval. Even then I knew city life wasn’t where my head was at, but I had access to woods and lakes right out my back gate and a dog for company when I wanted it.
I found the immediate loss of parents pretty tough, 20 years old, selling family homes, deciding what had sentimental value, where to live and what to do had a great deal to play in my bereavement journey. But it also shifted my life expectations. My Dad, my hero, lived to 47. The lack of “life” available to us as a family after 7 years of Mum, then Dad fighting cancer really made me aware of the continual passing of time and hence, its value. As a 20 year old thinking you could be half way through your available life, reference points become very different. Yes, I partied, yes, I struggled with the concept of premature death happening to me. As I did this the outdoors became even more important to me. Oceans, rivers, mountains, deserts, forests, wild spaces and even Lordswood in Southampton showed me more than the night-life in East Grinstead ever could. Whilst others were saving up for designer jeans, I was buying Trangia stoves. It sounds very Crocodile Dundee, but the urban space is relatively simple to understand if you know nature. Initially, for me the battle was mental, how to be and feel safe in these different environments and then as these skills developed the challenge became physical.
My expectations for life shifted from quantity to quality. Whether here for another day, year, decade or however long wasn’t important. Living in the moment and feeling alive is something that underpins who I am.
In a very scientific, physics oriented point of view, our frames of reference can be very different all at the same time. Think two cars travelling towards each other and the view of speed from passengers, observers and a plane flying overheard. Being in the middle of the ocean and watching the stars and thinking how far away those things are is incomprehensible. Journeying through vast landscapes makes a small human being feel totally inconsequential. Stuck 40 km into a run and faced with 100m of short steep trail that scale is the important one, not how far it is to Alpha Centauri. And yet those can all seem insurmountable. Those big things can be quite frightening if you over think them. But its the small things we exist in, that 100m of steep trail. Who are we, what are we, what happens when you die? All very fundamental things, but as a society we don’t really think about them. I guess if you can’t answer them robustly it asks what is the point in your life? If we believe it is about “the greater good” there is every chance that our lives will end up like a scene from Hot Fuzz with a church steeple stuck in our throat – “i’ hur’s”.
That sense of scale, all happening at once is why I love moving through nature. Sometimes I do it well, sometimes I don’t. Looking ahead and looking down at the same time, seeing how what I’m doing now can affect what I’m doing in 2 hours. The planning and the discipline puts big things in small steps that can be coped with. The journey is so much more to me than the destination. When that journey is about my own effort I find it even more rewarding. That I can move, that I can make decisions that I am in control of where I’m going is really rewarding. Of course most of the time the “in control” bit is really what or where you can go as a result of natural forces – down stream, working with wind and tide, nature is omnipotent in its control of us. But sometimes we can judge whether we have the skills, strength or stamina to win; very occasionally we can “win” our objectives over nature. Sometimes we get our asses handed back to us on a plate and coping with that is a skill too.
So, why go so far? Why do things that may either finish your life immediately, or reduce your life expectancy? How can I answer my friends request to consider the damage I’m potentially doing to myself in pushing myself hard? Why am I qualified to know better than a Psychology degree holder?
The answer is easier for me if I consider the norms that I don’t understand. If I knew when I was going to die then maybe I’d dial it back a bit, but I don’t. When will I become unable to live in my own way? Given a choice between watching an hours TV and going running in the cold, dark and wet, I’d always choose the run. I learn more, feel more, see more and relax more than when watching the TV. Yes, I have to rest, but I’d prefer to cook food for the family, or cut the grass than sit and read a newspaper. So when the day is crisp and bright and I can run, bike, canoe, sail or walk into a new place the experience fills me more deeply than anything else I have ever known.
Whether that activity is “extreme” in others frames of reference doesn’t matter to me. I’m never going to be the quickest, or able to go the furthest – that is the winning mentality again that just isn’t important to me. It’s my personal challenge, I do enjoy measuring myself against others occasionally, but it’s the feeling of being alive, being connected yet insignificant in the environment that I love. Running far is a mental challenge – continual forward progress, a metaphor for life. As that progress gets harder, the further you go, knowing who you are and how you cope is knowledge that helps completes a journey.
Those journeys give me time. Meditative, rhythmic time. Time to cope with the stresses of everyday life. Time to find answers. Time to find more questions.
My young daughters tolerate my journeys, I include them when I can, but sometimes, just now, I can’t. I try to share the journeys in the traditional way, through story telling, but Dad’s run, bike ride, paddle or whatever can never compete with the Octanauts or One Direction. It won’t be long until I can journey with them in different ways and that excites me. Not to push them physically, but to let their mind develop in a way that means that they can journey in any environment. Ultimately having the confidence to journey through life independently. Occasionally, I look at the pain of losing my parents early, and feel selfish about the chance I place that same experience in front of my daughters. But, I watched my Mum and Dad live for retirement, I’m sad they didn’t do half the things we spoke about. If they had lived their life in the moment I’d be in some way happier that they died young. It’s the fact that they lived for the future and the future never quite came that jars with me. I hope, if my daughters have to deal with the same situation I did that they understand how much “the journey” is important to me. Yes, they would be angry, but hell very few people are content to lose their parents at any age!
The shared journey with my girls has started – the canoeing, the walking, the scrambling, the camping, the picnics, the runs and the cycling are all journeys. Special journeys because they are shared journeys. Journeys into our wild areas. Discussions about caring for those resources, those finite resources that are being used up. About being responsible, about appreciating what others appreciate in the outdoors and sharing it. In that sense, I’m still doing the day job just to an audience of two. I can add so much more time and value to my children, to their knowledge and value of the outdoors. Every minute I can get them to value being in the outdoors is a journey, a soft learning experience. One where their body and their mind controls their experience. Not the TV, not the tablet, not some electrical gizmo, but them. Nothing else to blame, every minute is their making. If they fall, it is their mistake. There is no reset button, no start this level again. Pretty fundamental.
That in a nutshell is why I go so far, for every minute you go further, the more you learn. The more you’re to blame. Not some x ,y or z reason. You alone can control your journey. The harder you make the journey, the more you learn about yourself. That means that I may have to eat humble pie, aged 70 with horrific debilitating arthritis, but that’s part of the journey I’m willing to accept in payment for what I’m working hard for now. Knowledge of who I am.
To be aware of this and able to write this is a gift that my children have given me – more knowledge about me.
I’m here for a good time, not necessarily a long time.
I’ve had a bit of a rest time from the high volume training, I needed it! A great family holiday away from work, phones, emails and running has done my head a lot of good. I’ve still got a few aches, but in general I’m doing okay. This week was back to running and I put in a reasonable 83 km.
This week I’ve seen an inspirational style picture somewhere. The simple logo, “6 minute mile or 16 minute mile, you’ve still run a mile”.
This resonated with me a lot. I dislike the “I’m better than you because…” type statements at the best of time. It just stops people having a go. We all start running somewhere, it’s hard. The commitment and motivation you need is easy to knock at the best of times, but before you’re “in the groove” or find the enjoyment it’s something that can stop you dead. This blog really is in response to a story I heard from someone I know, I hope it’s a reference point that undoes some damage that some others have unthinkingly caused.
When someone can run a long way, or run fast (or both) I think it’s amazing. But when you hear some stories I can’t help but think that the struggle is the same whether you’re a top athlete or a beginner. Sure the results are different, but the effort can be much, much more.
I hope I never look down my nose at other runners, I try and remember that their battle could be much harder than mine and at the end of the day they aren’t sat at home. Being a runner is a label, I know that, and I was taught labels aren’t important. I spent a long time not really thinking of myself as a runner, I often still don’t think of myself as a runner. But I am.
Running, especially distance running. is a psychological sport. Fitness is actually relatively simple to attain. It’s often the mind that stops you. There are lots of reasons to stop and being mis-labelled or judged can be a very powerful brake.
Think to Mo Farah’s race at the Olympics, Farah’s’s training partner Galen Rupp is a handy runner. Their preparation for the Olympics was identical, the same coach, the same programme. Their genetics are similar and their ability is nearly identical. So why when Farah kicks does it stick? It has to be belief, one that he has grown. Once labelled the best in the world, or second best in the world the you’ve got a big psychological boost, or brake depending on where you are. When you are in a place that other people comments hurt or distract you then the label can be important. It helps you get back up.
Running can be competitive, running can be therapy, running can be for health, running can be fun. Running should be fun, go look in a playground at children running just for fun. When did you last feel like that? Running means lots of things for lots of people, and all of them are as valid reasons.
Run to be social, run to be competitive, run because you’re being chased. It doesn’t matter. If it makes you happy then don’t let someone else put the brake on!
Often it’s our peers, or people who inspire us, who can hurt us. An overheard word about someone being derogatory about someone else can be really damaging. Remember though, those who are criticizing others must be insecure themselves. Ignore them. Don’t let them get inside your head.
My answer to the question – the moment you use running as a form of movement, you’re a runner. That first moment you choose to run 20 steps, you’re a runner. You might not feel like a runner, you might aspire to more, you might have goals, some goals may seem un-achievable but you’re a runner.
So having just written an article about balancing training and life for Andy Mouncey this week sucked a big one for training. 5am starts and at 11pm finishes meant for 5 days training wasn’t an option, and Saturday I was washed out totally so training was completely unappealing.
Saturday then, I put to checking out how my cook kit would work out for Marathon des Sables. I’ve got the equipment and fuel to under 200g for the race, but I really wanted to check that it’d work in the wind. I’m going to be eating dehydrated food, so need to get some heat into the water I’ll use for reconstitute. I’m using an Alpkit Mytimug to cook in, an MSR Titan tool spoon, both of which I have used a good bit on different trips. But to get the weight down, and as I’m not going to be worried about speed I’m going for an Esbit titanium stove. That and some solid fuel tabs will see me through the race, tests show that 10 mins is what it takes to boil the right amount of water. I can wait whilst I’m recovering! The only thing I need to work on is the high performance wind shield – tin foil. Job done.
Last night I realised that work wasn’t going to be much better this week, I might get the chance to do a few 40 minute runs in the morning, but not much else. So although I woke up really tired, and it was miserable with wind and rain, I needed to head out for some kind of exercise. My ankle is taped at the moment because of a sore Achilles, so a long run would have been a bit daft, though it is getting to the point where I want to test it.
A long ride would be perfect. Took a metaphorical teaspoon of cement and went out. Got a category 2 climb in and a bunch of category 3’s so the training effect is good.
What the ride has taken out of me physically, it has given me a whole load back mentally. So it was definitely worth it!
It’s difficult to define what being a “better” trail runner means. For some it means faster, for others it means further. For me it means using running as a method to move through places where there isn’t a made up pathway. Whilst lots of people have written about performance, I’m going to go all “Point Break” and this is about being a better “soul” trail runner. That is trail running just for the love of it.
1. Running at night makes you focus on the bubble of your headtorch light. The lack of depth perception and more confusing shadows means your foot placement will not always be as certain.
2. Leaning forwards downhill gives you more grip. If your body is perpendicular to the ground your contact patch (between the sole of your shoe and the ground) is bigger. Bigger contact patch = less chance of slipping.
3. Understand maps, reading a map is different to looking at a map. Maps let you see the terrain and do lots of mental preparation before you get on the trail. On open ground Google Earth is a great visualisation tool, but it’s not reliable as a source whilst out running. Get a detailed map of your local countryside that you know already, teach yourself what those features look like when drawn and what different map scales look like too.
4. Look around more. Trail running is always beautiful, looking at the view is an important way to relax your mind. Reminding yourself of the environment you’re running through will make sure you respect it, and sometimes how vulnerable you are.
5. Core strength exercises make running uphill, cross slope and uneven surfaces easier. The more control you have of your mass the less energy, physical and mental, you’ll spend running. Kettlebell swings, press ups, rowing in fact anything that engages your core will make you a better trail runner.
6. Flexibility exercises make bouncing from the inevitable fall or injury more likely. Even 5 minutes a day will make a noticeable difference. Don’t do stretches on cold muscles.
7. Proprioception makes you like a mountain goat and less likely to turn an ankle. Standing on a wobble board with your eyes shut is the best way to learn this. Start holding onto something about nipple high!
8. Sleep on the trail, doesn’t mean running miles, but learning to be part of the environment you’re running through might pay off in an emergency. Most big accidents due to bad conditions or injuries are caused by people panicking. Being confident to stop and rest is a key skill for running remote trails.
9. Shorten and lengthen your stride. Track runners do their thing on a flat, uniform surface. On trails the surface changes, the gradient changes and so should your stride length. Short quick steps going uphill is like a low gear on a bike, whilst long loping downhill strides are the runners equivalent of freewheeling. Experiment on the same bit of trail and find what works for you.
10. Think trail, this is in addition to reading maps. Visualize your run. Think about key points-top of climbs, feed points, views, navigation handrails, escape routes or points of interest. Trail running is as much mental as physical, so thinking about it is really important.
11. Trail running is the best thing to do to make you better at trail running. So stop reading, go run!
My last blog was April 28th. Time seemed to do a Stephen Hawking stretchy, shrinky disappearing thing.
So, I meant to do a quick update on two things:
Snowdonia Half, I finished 34th. I’m really pleased with that. Nice to know that I can run shorter distances at a reasonable pace. Also the sense of achievement has been a really good motivator for me.
2013 miles in 2013 April mileage got me another 382km, so switching into miles, at the end of April I’ve logged 930 miles. This puts me 259 miles ahead of schedule.
I heard that I didn’t make it into the TORQ Trail Team. Yes, I’m disappointed, but at least it means I’m in the UK for Trail Marathon Wales. So properly bittersweet. Running in Chamonix would have been brilliant, but I really like running in Coed y Brenin too.
I’d been hoping to get out and shoot some more footage in Coed y Brenin, play with some new angles and generally have another go of making a shorter, snappier video of trail running in the forest.
I’d been playing around with a pole for the GoPro for a while and thought I might be able to get some interesting angles with it. It seems weird to set the camera up, upside down, but the results are pretty reasonable. I don’t think I can do away with a tripod completely, it’s a quick substitute but there is some camera movement I don’t like. The best set up I can get is like this.
I was lucky enough to be joined by Arfon Hughes and Alex Lanz from Meirionnydd Running Club. This was great as it meant that I could slog round behind the guys, and get the footage rather than running twice as far, setting, filming, and then collecting the gear.
Both Alex and Arfon had been racing the day before. Alex had collected two medals, one Silver and one Gold and when we were filming he wasn’t quite sure what they were for. Turns out that one of them was where he had just won the title of Welsh Junior Trail Running Champion (U20). Alex has a really inspirational personality and his running style is effortless. It was a real pleasure to spend some time running with these guys, and a real honour to spend some time with an athlete who will no doubt collect more and more metalware as his running progresses.
Arfon is clearly passionate about the environment and his running. There is a lot of work that he puts into the running club, and as he also Wardens a big area of the Berwyn for Natural Resources Wales, he knows his onions (amongst other things) about the flora and fauna in the area.
So the video is beneath, it is shorter than the one I made before, I definitely want to get out onto some open trails in sunshine as I think the footage would be spectacular. I won’t leave the next update so long next time!
Nearly a week on from the TORQ Trail Team weekend; it’s made me think a bit.
Roy Belchamber took some great photo’s of the event, and was kind enough to send some to me for use. The chap sat next to me, also chin stroking, is Mike Evans, have a look for his results at the London Marathon this Sunday, he’s aiming for a PB of sub 2:30hr. Anyway more about the TORQ weekend later.
Mid week, I went to see Bodhi Movement, for my fortnightly treatment to try and get rid of some the damage I’ve accumulated in my muscles. As always, I felt a bit bruised afterwards and Sam gave me a telling off for not spending enough time on my foam roller and stretching. I’m definitely improving but there is more I can do!
When I had a lower leg injury last year I saw Matt Williams from the Physio Clinic. Matt’s advice and know how is a really important part of my preparation for Marathon des Sable. Recently Matt has been getting more involved in performance. With a new(ish) arm to the business which is the Sports Performance Clinic. Matt has been involved in improving some pretty high level athletes and I’m confident he’ll help me along with MdS. As well as physio advice he recently put me through a performance screening session. A few low threshold movements and some high threshold movements. Nothing that breaks a sweat, but enough to identify where there are any muscle imbalances. These imbalances are what can cause injury when doing high miles, and also make the stride more inefficient. Inefficiency over long distances obviously challenges the chance of success. I was really surprised at how simple the screen exercises were, but how much control they took.
It’s identified that I’ve got a few areas to work on, and the screen is followed up with 7 simple exercises I need to do twice a day. I’ll be back for another screen in six weeks and we’ll see how my muscles are changing. If you’re serious about not being injured in a sport that you love, I really recommend making the effort to discuss the Performance Matrix with Matt.
At the weekend there were a couple of people who were of the opinion that cross training wasn’t a part of an Ultra runners armoury. You want to be trail fit – just run on the trails. I disagree.
Now, these people have far more experience than me, so why am I so sure? Well those same people are also adamant that you have to believe you have done enough training for your event. Mental and physical training. Cross training for me is an inherent element of my mental training, but it also has a physical benefit. I believe I need to cross train, and target specific exercises. I do not want to be on the start line thinking “I wish I’d worked on loosening my hamstrings, or strengthening my core”. I want to hit that start line feeling the strongest, most powerful and fittest I’ve ever been. For the first time in 20 years my body fat is heading down into the mid teens. I’m starting to feel the benefit of having watched my diet for four months. I’m starting to feel competitive.
I’d describe the running I most enjoy as solo adventure running. I love to run new places, on my own, challenging myself. I’m not fussed about racing too much. The competition is with me, further, higher, longer, more remote or quicker than I was before. I don’t need, well haven’t needed, to be quicker than person X or Y. The Saturday in Ratlinghope challenged that a bit. Maybe I’ve got a bit to go performance wise, but I might just start to feel like racing! Eek.
That said, I’ve had some lovely soulful runs this week. This morning particularly – I woke up early thinking about work, stressed about work at 4am. Lying in bed knowing I wasn’t going to go back to sleep just made me want to use the time to set me up for the day.
I love going out before dawn, I always have. Getting ready to fly balloons, sailing the ocean or being up early for a mountain adventure has always been special. Sometimes cold, but always really peaceful, undisturbed. Better still with running at this time of year when it’s warmer than the winter. All my senses focussed on my breathing and my foot strike being even, restricting other senses is great for this. I just love it. The sky slowly brightening, switching the head torch off and running in the first glow of light. No stress of being able to see a watch. Just running for the feeling of covering the ground, journeying, moving through the countryside. It’s my spiritual thing I guess.
Running easily down the little lanes and into Coed y Brenin. Seeing Barn Owls hunt, deer finishing grazing in the open and heading back into the forest. Knowing that anyone after me just won’t see those same sights is really special. I grew surrounded by a wood in Sussex. It’s a comfortable, familiar environment for me. Even though Coed y Brenin is technically a Forest (an area set aside as a royal hunting ground) and much bigger (9,000 acres) than my childhood woods, I still think of them as woods. So running 20 km around the woods and then being home in time to have breakfast with my girls before 7 am is pretty special.
I’m pretty sure Sam will be grumpy though, I spent the rest of the day driving a laptop, which probably means my hamstrings and back muscles are shorter now than ever. Hey ho.
TORQ haven’t announced who will be joining their trail team yet. Social media means we are all able to stay in touch. The ‘official’ hashtag is #TORQTrailTeam so if you’re interested in all the news, look it out. There are a couple of Twitter and Instagram feeds beneath.
Have a great weekend running, or having a fun time whatever you choose to do!