Run Training, Ultra Style

“I pay no attention whatsoever to anybody’s praise or blame. I simply follow my own feelings.”

– Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

I was thirty-seven kilometres into my long run on Sunday when I started to feel a little peckish. In an uncharacteristic move for this time of year (when I should normally be found pottering about some mountain range on Sunday mornings), I had simply rolled out of bed a few hours earlier and made my way from village to sleepy village along the local long-distance coastal path. One distinct benefit of this was in my moment of hunger, I found myself surrounded by a plethora of shops, cafes and takeaway restaurants. Thus, it didn’t take long before my journey saw me power-hiking along the waterfront while merrily chomping into a veggie burger, that classing “relentless forward progress” mentality firmly embraced.

Naturally, that was also the precise moment when my path was crossed by an acquaintance.

“Is THIS what you do when you say you are out running?”

While I can understand her bewilderment, I’m afraid to confess that at the time my response was limited to a feeble attempt to defend my actions, which – hindered by a mouthful of veggie burger – came out as nothing more than an incomprehensible mumble.

It was only when she was long past that I embraced the truth of the matter. Actually, my answer should have been: “YES! This is exactly what I do when I say I’m out running.”

And what is more, I am not even ashamed.

In other news, I did not get a place in the London Marathon. I’m thinking that may be a good thing; it may be the biggest party on earth, but I’m just not sure how the organisers would feel about me stopping for a pub lunch half way around the course…

Shake

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A Full Moon Run Of Legends

Last Friday (the 13th), just after midnight, I met a legend, and together we ran across a nature reserve under the light of the full moon. Really, I couldn’t make this up.

You see, last week, I was on the verge of entering a marathon in Burma. I really wish I had; it sounds totally amazing. But instead, I entered a 78 mile, 24 hour ultramarathon in good old England…

There’s so much I could – or should! – be freaking out about, but right now my main concern is the fact that my surname isn’t Forsberg or Frost. The implication of this is that I’ll have to run at least some of the distance at night. Now add to this the indisputable fact that I am a massive pansie, and we’re firmly into meltdown territory. And because this is one issue that just can’t be solved by avoidant coping or chocolate, I did the sensible thing asked for help on the internet.

My local ultramarathon running group on Facebook is a very friendly and supportive bunch, but before you declare me complete insane, I’d just like to reassure you that I do know some of the members personally. I was hoping that one of them could be persuaded to accompany me on a night run, show me the tricks of the trade and help me get my confidence up a little.

And sure enough, my plea for help was promptly answered – my rescuer a man who everyone in the group refers to only as “the legend”. I’ve never had the privilege of meeting him before myself, but virtually everyone else in the group I have run with has immediately told me all about his considerable running achievements and adventures. How could I resist learning from the very best?

On the eve of battle, however, I wasn’t sure what was freaking me out the most; the general idea of running in the dark, the thought of heading willingly into a remote forest with a strange man, or the prospects of running with someone who’s run over 100 marathons, and literally every ultramarathon I could think of and then some. Yes, including the famous Marathon de Sables. Twice.

forest night

The fact that I have returned from the midnight wilderness to write this post is an unfortunate spoiler of my unscarred survival of the night. Prior to that particular Friday the 13th, I firmly believed that night running could only ever be a miserable affair; I had braced myself for feeling tired, cold, insecure, potentially frightened and most certainly lost.

I can’t think of a time when I’ve never been so wrong about anything. Night running is amazing. Especially in lovely forests, by the light of the full moon and in the company of legends. There was a light drizzle, but the humidity felt warming and coupled with the many glimpses of lush green, gave the whole run an almost tropical feel.

We chatted freely and many giggles rung out into the night. Along the way, I had great fun skipping across the minefield or frogs that were out and about at night. We even stopped for a chocolate break at some point (confirming once again my long held belief that chocolate really does solve every problem) – I’m not sure if running gets any better than this.

Tentsmuir beach night

The legend sure lived up to his name. He was a great guide and taught me about running in the dark, but in doing so I feel that I learned a lot about life. Once again, I experienced that most limits exist only in my mind, and that it is possible to encounter truly amazing territory if I dare to go beyond them.

On a practical note, the legend has shared an incredibly useful night running tip with me, which I’m sure he won’t mind me passing on to you. As soon as we took off, he told me that he never actually wears his head-torch on his head! Instead, he wraps the strap around his wrist and then holds the torch in his hand. I readily followed his advice, and can confirm that it worked very well for me. Using the light this way means that headaches from tight headbands are a thing of the past. It’s also much easier to look around when holding the torch in hand. Fellow runners very much appreciate this technique as well, as it ensures that they won’t constantly get blinded and losing all the night vision just because someone dared to look in their direction. And finally, I’d imagine it looks a lot cooler as well.

Do you have any thoughts on night running? Have you tried it? Do you love it as much as I do?

Awaiting The Tempest

Alright folks, here it is: that rather predictably timed taper-meltdown blog post you’ve all been waiting for. And because this time I’m tapering ahead of a 55-mile run, I feel that I have a good reason to ponder such fundamental questions as “is there really such a thing as eating too many pancakes?”. On the plus side, the fact that I’m going to run a little less over the course of the next two weeks means that I should hopefully have a little more time to update my blog here and there!

Lady's Tower

(I’m sorry that I’ve been such a bad blogger lately – I’ve been too busy running in cool places like this.)*

But back to my taper-related ponderings. Although I genuinely don’t know how on earth it’s possible that I am tapering again already, I am really very pleased with how my training went. I remember two months ago, when every glance at my training plan was enough to cause a minor fit of hyperventilation. But looking back over it now, I can’t deny that it’s been a very consistent training cycle for me and I did pretty much exactly what I had set out to do. What is more, I really loved the training, especially the beautiful long runs, each of which felt like a journey in its own right. I always knew that tackling an ultra would primarily be a mental challenge, but I did not expect how much spiritual growth would also occur along the way and on the trails. I can only hope that it will be enough to see me go the distance on the day.

And this brings me to one of the most humbling aspects of all of this; for the first time in a very long time, I’ll find myself at the beginning of a road and genuinely not know if I’ve got what it takes to make it to the end of it. It’s thrilling; exciting and intimidating in equal measures.

In all honesty though, I’m very much looking forward to the challenge. I have prepared by body as best I can, clocking a consistently high mileage for the past few months. I think that’s all I really could do to prepare myself for my first ultra: run a lot and be open to learn what I could along the way. I don’t think there’s a formula for completion; for me it’s primarily been a case of getting used the idea of dealing with the unexpected.

I’m looking at the run itself as a journey in its own right. I’ll hopefully enjoy a lot of it, but I also expect a lot of weariness and don’t for a second think that I’ll be able to escape a certain amount of pain. I’ll just have to trust that my mind and spirit will be strong enough to keep going regardless.

I love how Becky has put it to me before: “Go forth and meet your demons”. I like the sounds of that.

And as for the pancakes (and in the interest of carb-loading), I’m think I’m going to put my original question to the test and find out exactly if there is such a thing as too much, and if so, how much is too much. Wish me luck!

*(I’m not sorry.)

Reaching the Sky

“It is not the mountain we conquer but ourselves.”

– Sir Edmund Hillary

Alright, East Lomond isn’t exactly Mount Everest. And I’m definitely not Sir Edmund Hillary. But last week, for the first time ever, I managed to run all the way up to the summit of East Lomond (448 m).

East Lomond

I love the Lomond hills, I run there often and I’ve stood at the summit of the peaks many times. But parts of the ascent are incredibly steep and thus far my journey there inevitably involved at least some power hiking. But no more – on Friday, I finally ran all the way up to the top! It wasn’t fast, and it certainly wasn’t pretty, but to me it represented something that I genuinely never thought I’d be able to do. I must confess that I revelled in my victory so much that the descent involved a rather embarrassing outburst of that celebratory “pretending-I’m-an-airplane” running style.

Do you have any running challenges that might seem impossible but that you are determined to conquer regardless?

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…

Mind the Map

You guys, I’ve gone and done it again. I’ve gotten lost. And this time, I don’t just mean to say that I got lost on my long run again (although that happened, too!). Instead I seem to have gotten a bit lost in this beautiful spring and life in general. It’s all good though. I think I’ll call it wander lost.

One side effect of this wander lost is that I haven’t found the time to update my blog in ages, even though I’ve experienced, seen and realised much that I would love to share.

Last weekend, for example, I went on a Hebridean island-hopping long run. My journey took me from the mainland to three different islands and involved five ferry crossings. The views were just stunning; sleepy fishing boats, sea birds, the occasional seal and more mountainous islands shrouded in mist on the horizon. I spent almost the entire day travelling and on my feet that day, although I only ran for four hours and covered just over 40 kilometres. The best part was that it didn’t feel like a long training run at all; instead it felt like a real adventure.

20140426_110432(Views from the long run, looking out towards Arran)

On Tuesday night, I commemorated my return home from the west coast of Scotland by running another accidental half marathon. I had only set out to run about 10km on the cold and misty evening, but bumped into a running buddy on my way home and couldn’t help myself but join him for more of the same again. It’s been a lovely reminder how mental milestones can be shifted.

Fog Coast(A foggy evening on the coast, near Crail)

Yesterday, I had to travel to Stirling for work. The downside of this is that it means a painfully early start to my day. However, this is more than made up for by the fact that the drive home takes me past the lovely Ochil mountain range in central Scotland. Thus, I ran up the Mill Glen, straight up to the peak of the Law (in fairness, this part of the route involves significantly more scrambling and power-hiking rather than running), and then over to the summits of Ben Cleuch and Ben Ever. While descending from Ben Ever, I set a new personal record; by adopting a running style that can only be described as a renegade miniature human windmill impersonation, I not only struck terror into the hearts of sheep all over the mountain, but also ran my fastest kilometre of the year so far, in 3:26. My quads hate me today, but it was totally worth it!

20140502_151019(Looking east from the summit of Ben Cleuch)

Tomorrow I am heading back up to the Cateran trail for more proper ultramarathon long run training. In the rain. I genuinely can’t wait!

Finally, I came across this nifty heat map of popular running routes around the world today. I immediately consulted it to find out if others are privy to what I believe to be my very own secret running places. Apart from looking really pretty, I think this map could be very useful at times. For example, if I ever really want to run on my own (say, when I have just been to see my horse and haven’t had a shower), it could direct me to places where I’d be highly unlikely to encounter another runner. The local motorway, for instance.

I hope you are all doing well and are enjoying the spring as much as I am.

20140502_143350(Spring in Mill Glen)

 

Ever Changing Scenery

I suffered a serious lapse of self-control over the Easter weekend. And no, I’m not even talking about the inexcusable amounts of chocolate eggs I have annihilated. Here’s what really happened: four days off work, mixed with the most beautiful spring weather, sprinkled with the threat of a looming ultramarathon was all it took to turn me into a temporary binge runner.

The first run was a long trail run on the coastal path; I loved rolling out of bed and simply hitting the trail until I felt like jumping ship, at which point I headed for the road and jumped on a homeward bound bus. Saturday was parkrun day, and my legs were so fresh they even had a PB in them. It was a lovely day for it, as it also happened to be the second anniversary of my local parkrun. As such, there was much cake eating and rejoicing with the totally awesome people that make St. Andrews parkrun the fantastic event that it is!

Sunday saw me back on the amazing Cateran trail, for more exploration of the ultramarathon route. This time, I went on my own, and although the going was tough, I enjoyed every moment of it. Yes, even the bit where I got lost in a swamp and power hiking was all I could do to ensure that my shoes would stay attached to my feet. There’s learning in that, too, I am sure!

SONY DSC(Loch Beanie, near the Shoe-Stealing-Swamp-of-Doom)

On Monday morning, I joined a real ultramarathon runner for another 18 mile run in a local Nature Reserve. My legs still felt surprisingly good, but general fatigue was finally and predictably nipping at my heels. It was a challenging run, but I’m glad I did it.

All in all, I ran 96km over the four day weekend. The only explanation I can offer to explain the fact that I felt perfectly fine on Tuesday morning is that my legs were so traumatised that they simply stopped talking to me. Still, I’m sure that they are grateful for the little (relative) rest they are getting right now.

As I am typing this, I’ve put said legs up on a very cosy sofa of a holiday cottage on the west coast of Scotland. While I’m here on business (I’m attending a training course on animal assisted therapies – it’s awesome!), I can’t help but feel that this is almost a mini vacation. For a start, I’m waking up to this view every morning:

cumbrae

This cosy little cottage also happens to be fully decked out with maps and hiking guides for the area, which I continue to study vigorously. Naturally, you can expect another post about my explorunning upon my return to civilisation (and a stable internet connection)!

I hope you are all having a great week, too!