Sneezing and the Parallax

“There is no truth. There is only perspective.”

– Gustave Flaubert

When I travelled to my childhood home in Germany this weekend, little did I know that I would also discover a thing or two about perspective. Most of you know by now that I was born in Germany; and my blatant lack of any sense of humour as well as my passport confirm that I’m still German as of now. Until my twelfth year of age I grew up and lived in the lovely city of Cologne, famous for its fragrances, beer, and a stunning Gothic cathedral that is home to the remains of the three wise men.

Cologne

But I digress. After all, this blog is dedicated to my trail running adventures, and running in nature is a fiendishly tricky thing to do in a big city, no matter how much perfume, booze or bones of biblical characters it has to offer.

It was obvious to me that the chances of being able to fit in any genuine training towards my ultramarathon were approximately zero while I was staying with my family, so I had always planned it as a rest weekend in my training cycle. However, only a non-runner would assume that this meant that I didn’t bring my running gear. I stayed in the house where I grew up, so I knew the area like a beaver knows his dam and was keen to see how many sneaky little runs I could fit in.

When I laced up for the first time and stepped off my father’s porch, I was faced with my first dilemma: I had no idea how far anything was away. At home, in Scotland, I know the lengths of my typical running routes better than the periodic table, and I’m a scientist. In Germany, I soon realised that my estimations of distances were all still based on the perception of a pre-pubescent me.

In the absence of trails and nature to keep me entertained on my run, I made a game out of re-visiting places that were once important to me in my youth: I first ran to my kindergarden, then primary school, secondary school, visited the church where I spent many a Sunday morning, the on to the park where I used to play, ran past the house where my best friends lived, as well as the yard where I first learned to ride horses. I visited some long-lost but never forgotten loved ones at the graveyard, and then continued my journey onwards to the banks of the Rhine where I used to play with my friends.

What struck me was how little had actually changed. Sure, there were new fences and more buildings in what were once open spaces, but in essence, everything is still where it was a quarter of a century ago. What has changed completely, however, is my own perception of the importance of these places. What used to be the whole world to me as a child now fit into an easy morning run. I guess it really is all just a matter of perspective.

Father Ted Joke(“These are small, but the ones out there are far away.” – Father Ted)

On a slightly different note, I also made another novel discovery related to my beloved act of running while in Germany, and that is that it doesn’t mix at all well with hay fever. As soon as I stepped off the plane, my sinuses were blocked up, my eyes were itchy and my nose was running. At first, I found the constant sneezing on the run mildly entertaining, but it soon made me feel first exhausted and then miserable. It was so bad that I even tried running on the dreadmill at one point, and lasted a whopping 20 minutes before my rapidly dwindling will to live forced me to stop. Oh well, at least I got my scheduled rest!

I’m back in Scotland now, where I’m enjoying my completely sneeze-free trail runs once more and with renewed vigour. I’ve also come to see that I’m really only an inch or two away from Germany, depending on the scale of the map I look at…

Ultra Grateful

“Focus on the journey, not the destination. Joy is found not in finishing an activity, but in doing it.”

– Greg Anderson

I think everyone here would agree that running is mental, in every possible way. Does it follow then, than ultramarathon running is ultra mental? I guess I’m about to find out.

I admit that when I first looked at my training schedule for the next twelve weeks in its entirety, I promptly had to spend the next few minutes breathing rapidly into a paper bag. The usual “what I have done?” freak-out had definitely taken on ultra proportions.

However, as with all things in life, I’ve once again found that everything is temporary if you give it enough time. Now that I’m two weeks into my ultramarathon training, I couldn’t be more excited about finding myself in all the weird and wonderful places this journey is yet to take me.

Sadly, a significant contributing factor to this change in attitude has been a very sombre event. Ten days ago I lost someone very dear to me in a cruel car accident. I can’t say that I’ve come to terms with the loss at all yet, but for now this brutal reminder of the finality of life has made me all the more adamant to live mine to the fullest.

Right now, I can’t think of anything that makes me feel more alive and happy than being in the wilderness. It’s beautiful, powerful, healthy and life-affirming. It gives me space to think and breathe. And with the arrival of spring, the trails have never felt more wonderful and alive. As such, I’m really happy that the looming ultramarathon in June is only another reason for me to spend much time on the wicked and wonderful trails that Scotland has to offer.

But there’s more to any running training than merely clocking the miles, of course. One of the best parts of spending much time alone in the wilderness is that I keep getting to know myself a little bit better every time. By venturing further than ever before, even after 10 years of running, I’m not only learning valuable new things about how my mind and body work on the run, but also about the extremes of feeling tired, content, ecstatic, fed up, and all the other emotions that come out in the safe solitude that mother nature offers.

By definition, endurance events should involve an aspect of carrying on regardless of feeling a various degrees of fatigue, ranging from weary legs to a full blown death-grip bonk. In those battles, the mind can be either a dangerous master or a beautiful servant. In shorter races, I find that my usual strategy for dealing with any signs of trouble is to keep telling myself that it’ll be over soon al while clinging on until the bitter end. However, it doesn’t take a genius to realise that in an ultramarathon this strategy would at best result in an abysmally miserable run, and at worst – and far more likely – result in the sobbing mess of a runner in need of urgent trailside rescue (and possibly therapy). Of course I accept that parts of the run (and life!) will be gloomy, but also that it’s up to me to banish the negative thoughts over and over again. In that sense, running is once again a great metaphor for life.

My recent brush with the frailty of life has reminded me of something very important, which I am sure can help me out in darker times. At the moment, I am just grateful to be able to run at all: grateful to have this life, grateful for my health, grateful to live in such a beautiful place, grateful for this powerful body that puts up with all the nonsense I inflict upon it, and ultimately, incredibly grateful for this opportunity to run and learn and grow.

If this all sounds very fatalistic or depressing, let me assure you, it’s not. In fact, when I did a terrible job at awkwardly trying to explain all of this to a wonderfully eloquent friend this morning, he eventually described it as “relentless positivity”. It sure works for me!

I hope you are all moving forward as well, whatever your purpose or pace. 🙂

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(A relentless optimist on the run:

contemplating the meaning of life while clocking a parkrun PB of 22:10 this morning)

Feeling Seriously Runspired!

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“There’s an overwhelming cultural mentality today that difficult tasks should be avoided; that volitional discomfort is an indication of some psychological oddity. Meanwhile, ultramarathons promise exactly the opposite; the expectation is that the race will be strenuous. Your body will get battered, your spirit will get broken, and you’ll question your sanity and emotional stability. (What’s more – you’ll pay somebody a lot of money in race fees for this to happen. If it weren’t for ultrarunning, there’d be a huge boom in masochism support groups. Clearly, we NEED this sport.) It’s no wonder most people think we’re insane.

But here’s the good part: our gain for suffering through all of this is something akin to enlightenment. We understand that our bodies and minds are capable of far more than most people ever realize – that the primary limiting factors in life’s journeys are the extent to which our minds can dream, and to which we’re willing to work to achieve them.

These truths we discover about ourselves are what keep us coming back for more. In that regard, ultrarunners are the fishermen leaving the shore: we’re fully aware that the storms might be terrible – but the rewards we harvest by venturing into the sea are always worth the hardship.”

-Donald Buraglio, The Running Life: Wisdom and Observations from a Lifetime of Running

I can’t think of a more wonderful place to run my first ultramarathon than the Scottish Highlands – what a place to be, what a life to live! Am seriously getting excited about pushing the limits, even though the race itself is still four months away. Here’s what’s in store for me, the backdrop to all the pain I’ll no doubt suffer:

Cateran trail

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Cateran trail3

cateran trail 4

I’m feeling so antsy right now that I’m seriously thinking about heading up there and start to recce the trail this weekend – despite the fact that the whole area is currently buried under several feet of snow!

My Accidental Marathon

“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And YOU are the one who’ll decide where to go…”

― Dr. Seuss, Oh the places we go

I would like to propose another item to add to the infamous “death and taxes” list: the dreaded car service. But while the first two really are entirely dreadful and predictable, I have come to discover that there can be interesting and unintended consequences to the latter…

I had to take a day off work only to be stranded for the better part of that day in a town which I don’t like and wait for a certain car dealership to charge me a minor fortune before reuniting me with my vehicle. Sounds like a hoot, doesn’t it? Well actually, it was.

Rather than twiddling my thumbs all day over a good book and a series of lattes, I instead opted to go for a run. I suppose that I shouldn’t be surprised that running has the power to make everything a lot more fun – even dull cities and waiting to be robbed blind by a corporate giant. I hadn’t planned the run in any way; I decided this morning that I’ll go for a run and just grabbed my trainers, hydration pack, £5 and some good tunes.

I dropped off the car and then I ran. And ran. And ran some more. I meandered my way around the city, following a vague path from green space to green space, hoping to find some trails in the urban jungle. After I had passed the imaginary 20 kilometre marker, I felt worthy of a reward and briefly dashed into the next bakery, bought some cake and nibbled away at this over the course of the next kilometre or so. Eating a slice of carrot cake on a long run was a novel experiment in running nutrition and as such had the potential to go very wrong indeed. However, although it wasn’t the most practical thing to eat while moving, it proved to be great fuel for even more running. But after another 45 minutes had passed I felt renewed prangs of hunger, and briefly contemplated more cake. A bout of soul (or rather, stomach) searching, however, revealed that what I really craved was something savoury, so I made a beeline for the nearest supermarket and acquired a bag of crisps – the second experiment in running nutrition, with results comparable to the carrot cake case study. I also picked up a tried-and-tested chocolate bar to avoid the need for further pit stops.

With no news on the car and my body willing and able, I just kept putting one foot in front of the other and continued my quest as a seeker of green spaces in a grey city. When the call finally came to inform me that my car was ready I had run 45km. By Pheidippides!

marathon thoughts

Okay, I admit that I just love the fact that I accidentally ran a marathon and a bit. However, once the sheepish schoolgirl giggles calmed down, there are a few important lessons which I have learned from this particular run:

1)      Long runs are all about having fun and staying comfortable. Ok, this isn’t exactly an epiphany, but this particular run brought these truths home to me like never before. Long runs are most enjoyable when the pace is being kept to something that feels like a doddle and much time is spent simply enjoying the scenery. I just went for it and took care of my physical needs and – lo and behold – it turns out I continued to run strong for a very long time. I should add that I felt that I could have gone on for much longer and only stopped because it was time to get my car. And it’s a good thing too that I stopped before I did something seriously silly, as I still need my legs to handle the demands of an intensive half-marathon training schedule!

2)      I’m amazed that my body let me get away with eating cake and crisps on a run. It appears that I have been unnecessarily cautious with running nutrition in the past. While I’ve always believed that there’s no right or wrong when it comes to running nutrition, I’m realising now that I haven’t been as open-minded about it as I could and perhaps should have been. The bottom line is that on long runs, we need calories; and we need to get them in whatever form we can tolerate. Giving in to my silly cravings (aka listening to my body!) worked wonderfully for me; it turns out that my body can be bribed to go on forever as long as I keep feeding it calorific comfort food… I expect to get a lot more adventurous in future!

3)      I learned to not worry about long runs. Yes, they are hard, and when things go wrong, they easily have the potential to go very, very wrong. However, it’s not the end of the world.  Long runs are our chance to enjoy our hobby in all its glory; to see a lot of the world and reap the rewards of our hard-earned fitness. They are also a good opportunity to try new stuff.

4)      This particular long run has demystified the marathon, which is a great breakthrough after my meltdown in Athens. Running a marathon doesn’t have to be painful. It doesn’t even have to be particularly hard. Sure, when running to smash that PB, pushing the pace for such a long distance will always require a hefty dose of masochism. However, there’s a different way to run a marathon: it can also be run leisurely and genuinely enjoyed all the way. My whole escapade saw me out and about for 4 hours and 50 minutes, was a fair bit longer than a marathon and included two pit stops at the shops (really, you’ve got to laugh). Sure, it’s slow, but still far from embarrassingly slow. More importantly, it was so much fun that it’s left me wanting to do it all again. And after all, isn’t that one of the most important – but often overlooked – aspect of our training?

My Great Scottish Run

Nine years ago, the Great Scottish Run was the first Half-Marathon I ever participated in. So when I found myself waiting in the starting pens for the gun to go off on Sunday, it was a special experience in many ways; a trip down memory lane, as well as a realisation of how far I have come.

Moreover, the Great Scottish Run was also my last race before I shall attempt the classic run from Marathon to Athens in November. As such, it was a dress rehearsal for my actual target race, and in many ways “just a long run”. With my training having gone as splendidly as it has, I was quietly confident in my ability to last the distance.

With the race day nerves firmly in check, I was able to just soak in and absorb the electric atmosphere. And boy, it was amazing! The biggest sporting event in Scotland held in its largest city, filled with people who were generous in showing their support of the race by lining the streets and making a plethora of cheerful noise. The event also added fuel to the national hype which is progressively building ahead of the Commonwealth Games, which come next year will be hosted in the very same city through which we trotted. Mortal runners got to line up behind some inspirational and well-known Scottish athletes, but the cherry on top of the icing on the atmosphere cake came in the form of none other than the legendary Haile Gebrselassie, who is of course and without a doubt one of the best distance runners in the world.

Given that I have no time for any form of recovery post-race, I couldn’t afford to race this run, so instead I decided to just have fun on the run and let everyone around me do the racing. I paid attention to the scenery, offered words of encouragement to fellow runners, hollered and waved at all those who cheered us on and tried to look gracefully aloof for any camera I spotted.

I stubbornly ignored my watch until just after the 10 km marker, at which point I noticed a young man who was slowing down. I pulled up next to him and stayed for a little chat, during which I found out that he’d never ran a half-marathon before and was deflated by the realisation that his goal of a sub 1:50 half-marathon was slipping out of his reach. I figured that if he had never before encountered a rough patch on a run, how was he supposed to know that they don’t tend to last? Therefore, I promised him that I’d do my best to pace him to his goal, an offer which lit up his face and instantly lifted his posture and pace.

For the second half of the half-marathon, I kept an eye on the time and my newly adopted running disciple and offered much feedback and encouragement, all while keeping up my earlier endeavours of hollering, waving, cheering and general admiring of the scenery.

Not only did the great Haile win the race, he did so by smashing the course record. In fact, he’s run the fastest half marathon ever on Scottish soil, his legendary status well and truly maintained.

Personally, I skipped across the finish line about 45 minutes after the elite runners, clocking an official time of 1:48, a certain determined young man nipping right at my heels. In hindsight, I realise that of course I ran his race for him in the end, but it was a wonderful and rewarding experience. My genuine delight for him to have achieved his goal eclipsed my own finish of the race. As these things go, we lost sight of each other in the t-shirt area and that marked the end of our journey together.

“If you can’t win, make the fellow in front of you break the record.”

– Author sadly unknown

I don’t even want to say too much about my time in the race, as this was never a goal to begin with. The aim was to prepare for Athens, to stay comfortable, and to enjoy the experience. Still, 1:48 is only nine minutes off my personal best, and I can honestly say that I have never felt so physically comfortable in a race before.

Most importantly, my run of the Great Scottish Run 2013 was without a doubt the most fun I have ever had in a race.

I can’t wait to line up at the start line of my next adventure and run a marathon from Marathon!

Great Scottish Run

A Worthy Pursuit

I don’t expect to break any personal records at the Great Scottish Run tomorrow.

Mind you, the amazing Haile Gebrselassie might just break several of them. I find it really exciting and humbling to think that with every stride I will tread in the footsteps of a modern day legend. I can’t think of any other sport where mere mortals get the opportunity to (vainly) chase the elite – yet another point to add to my ever growing “Why Running is Awesome” list.

“When you run the marathon, you run against the distance, not against the other runners and not against the time.”

– Haile Gebrselassie

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