Turn of the Tides

Autumn in Scotland(The Hermitage, Dunkeld, in all its autumn glory)

I have never felt the need to prove anything to anyone with my running; certainly not to other people, but not even to myself. For me, the only real tragedy when running would be if I didn’t enjoy myself. So right now, while my body is still feeling the aftershocks of a very nasty chest infection, I am more than happy to give it the rest that it needs. I decided to bow out of the Cologne Marathon before I even made it to the start line: I’ve always said that I run to be happy and healthy, and I am pleased to say that I have found it very easy to live by those words.

I still run almost every day, but these days I’m very relaxed about it. No watch, no hill sprints, no intervals, no tempo runs. Instead, I am enjoying one easy off road run after the next. It’s brought me much peace, and the intense connection with nature has allowed me to fully embrace and enjoy the changing seasons. This summer has been nothing short of amazing, but I’m now ready to run through autumn and into winter. Bring on the long sleeved tops and chocolate-fuelled long runs!

I have no doubt that the lust to run fast will return – I suspect that it will resurface the moment after I have coughed for the last time. I’m signed up for the Jedburgh Ultramarathon in a month time, and am already getting very excited about that. Sure, I’m not as fit or fast as I was at the start of the year, and very much doubt that I’ll manage another second place finish. Instead, I look at it as my lap of honour; a chance to celebrate a great year of running.

I wish you all peace and balance on this equinox and new moon. Can you feel the changing seasons?

3 peaks autumn(The “Three Peaks”, Jedburgh Ultramarathon)

I am on a journey; with my thoughts, my dreams and my running. Running is my teacher, and with each step I learn a little more about life. I respect the distance but keep testing the limits. I don’t let my demons chase me; instead I am becoming a master hunter. Happiness is not my destination; the journey itself keeps bringing me a wild sense of freedom and unbridled joy. I am on a quest for peace, balance and quiet bliss. I am a seeker, an explorer, a runner!

Running on Happy

“All men should strive to learn before they die what they are running from, and to, and why.”

– James Thurber

June was epic. I honestly can’t think of a more fitting word to describe a month which included a world record attempt, the Billy Bland challenge, as well as my first ultramarathon?

I admit that part of me was bracing itself for a mighty wave of those “post epic running blues” (the big bully brother of the post marathon blues). However, I can only assume that he took a wrong turn somewhere along the way, because he surely hasn’t made it to my doorstep.

In truth, this relatively quiet month – in terms of running – has given me some fantastic time to reflect. And the more I think about it, the more I realise how much awesomeness running has brought into my life lately.

The places it has taken me over the past year or so have been incredible. Athens and Rome were city highlights, but much more special to me are the countless summits, remote lakes, mountain trails and coastal paths that I have travelled. This is a beautiful country, and I can think of no better way of exploring it than on foot. I always find that there is something both liberating and grounding about running in nature.

When it came to training for my first ultramarathon, each and every long run was a profound journet for me. Each run is teaching me about being patient and about giving up that which I don’t have in the first place; control. I’m learning that I can only change the here and now, and that I always have a choice. And, perhaps most importantly, running keeps reminding me that everything is temporary; which is prompting me to fully live in the good moments and accept the difficult times in equal measures. These are all amazing lessons, which are having a great impact not only on my running, but life in general.

The more I run, the more I find that the process becomes so much more important to me than any outcomes. At this point, I am not even thinking about any particular finish time I want to target in my next big race, the Cologne Marathon. I am, however, looking forward to just running it. The hunger to race it might yet come, or it might not. It really doesn’t matter. All that matter is that right now, from where I’m standing – or should I say running? – things are pretty darn good.

Finally, I have met some amazing people through running lately. Some of you have found their way into my life via this blog; you know who you are! New friendships have been forged while running my home turf, and I have met some very inspirational people through various running events and competitions – not to mention the wicked and awesome local parkrun crowd. I can’t help but notice how much richer my life is as a result of the new people who have happened to run into it. I tip my cap to all of you, and lift my glass to one of you in particular – you know who you are!

I really don’t know if I’m ever going to top June in terms of running achievements, but it doesn’t matter. I really thought that I had nothing epic to write about. But I’m a happy runner, and what better message could I possibly report on a running blog?

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Keep moving forward!

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?

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…

Speed ≠ Everything

“How can you tell if someone has run a marathon? – Don’t worry, they’ll tell you.”

It’s so true, isn’t it? Over the past month or so, whether they wanted to or not, my friends, family, acquaintances, co-workers, the mailman, my dentist, etc. have all been subjected to the details of my marathon escapades in Rome. Their responses predictably fell into one of two categories. The non-runners tried to make polite conversation by asking how long this marathon was, all while backing away slowly, of course. That one just never gets old, does it?

The runners’ response was somewhat more inviting, albeit just as predictable: “Cool. What was your time?” This prompted me to launch into a well-rehearsed monologue of explanations as to why I had decided take it easy in Rome, before – much like a catholic schoolgirl on Sunday mornings – all but confessing my finishing time of 3:48.

I know I can run faster than that. My running buddies, of course, are well aware of this, too. However, the point is that in Rome I made a conscious decision not to run all out, mostly because the race didn’t fit into my training and racing schedule at all. I still loved every second of it, and it actually taught me a lot about finishing a marathon feeling strong. The whole thing has made me think – are we, as runners, too hung up on speed sometimes? What’s that all about?

Friends who take up running often tell me how far they have run and how long it took them. Of course, quantifiable improvements in running performance are very nice, but why don’t they tell me how they felt, how much (or little) fun they had, or where they went or what they saw on the run?

Please don’t get me wrong, I too find it really fun to run really fast sometimes. I like it as much as the next person and like many other runners, I include workouts in my training which are specifically designed to improve my speed. However, this is certainly not my only goal in training, or running in general. It’s not even the most important one, not by a long shot.

Many runs (and sometimes even races) have a very different purpose. A prime example of this is the long run, of course. Not only is speed not important on these runs, it can actually be counter-productive in training. Yet, being hung up about pace on the long run and going too fast has got to be one of the most common rookie running mistakes that I see time and time again.

My easy runs and recovery runs are for the pure joy and relaxation of the sport. I must say that over time, these runs have become more important than ever to me. Some call them “junk miles”, but I couldn’t disagree more. On these runs I just relax and enjoy the scenery and my hard-earned fitness. Having fun on these runs is paramount to everything, and they are so important to keep the passion alive. I never really remember how fast I ran anything, and apart from a few meaningful personal bests, I don’t even recall the finishing times of the races I have done. I do, however, remember the places where I have run, the sights I have seen and the people that I have met.

auchintaple-loch(Auchintaple Loch: a place which I passed – slowly! – on a recent long run.)

As a long-time (and hopefully life-long) runner, I find that this constant focus on speed is just not sustainable. It’s not feasible to constantly hunt those personal bests, for my part, I’m certain that I’d get very, very frustrated before eventually burning out entirely. This is not to say that I don’t have goals in my running or racing, when I’m not focussing on speed and finishing times, I might work on my running form, make a conscious effort to improve my cadence, aim for a clean negative split, try to high-five at least 5 spectators per kilometre, or tweak my nutritional strategy in an effort to avoid those dreaded pit-stops (the seldom talked about arch nemesis of virtually every runner).

Running is so much more to me than simply moving fast. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that I’d almost depreciate what running means to me in my life if I were to quantify it only in numbers. When a fellow runner comes to tell me about a recent run or race, I’m making a point to ask them: “Awesome – how was it?” They might still only tell me about their speed and times, but at least I am keeping the doors wide open.

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. 🙂

parkrunnin_birthday

(A relentless optimist on the run:

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

Still Standing

This past week, my life has been completely taken over by my other big hobby:

Palera

It’s been one hell of a week, involving amongst other things much carrot cake, a few tears, more logistics than I can shake a stick at, a horse that saved the day and a very successful classical dressage demonstration evening.

I stayed with a friend all week and in between organising everything, running just wasn’t anywhere near the top of my priority list. I just tiptoed out her front door and fitted in a sneaky run in whenever I could – she stays in a beautiful place, so it was easy to just cruise out of her house and into the woods! I realised that I didn’t think of the runs in terms of my training at all, there were no thoughts of time, distance, pace, intervals, etc. Instead, I ran when I needed a bit of space and quiet time to myself.

I was therefore very surprised when I found that I had still managed to sneak in a total of 67 km of zen running over the course of the week (all of which will all go towards Kyla’s Around the World Running Blog Relay).

There are two things which I know for certain: I’m definitely still standing and I’m absolutely not standing still.

Still Standing