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.)

Running Into The Record Books

Yesterday I ran my leg of the Great British Relay. Although I really enjoyed being part of this world record attempt, the run itself was stupidly tough for me for some reason. I just couldn’t get my legs moving, so the whole 8 miles were a battle. I suspect that my legs have not yet forgotten the long and hilly runs we did over the course of the weekend… I was so happy to run in the company of some truly great runners who kept me going. We made it (just) in time and the deed is done – and it was so lovely to be part of something larger!

GBR

Run of the Inner Valkyrie

Sunday morning saw the streets of Edinburgh turn into my own personal battlefield. In my previous post, I made no secret of the fact that recent events had, perhaps for all the wrong reasons, inspired me to race the Edinburgh Half Marathon despite having done no event specific speed work. But I had been pissed off to the point of wanting to attack 1:40.

I travelled to Edinburgh with a group of friends on what we affectionately called the “Battle Bus”, which made for a very entertaining start to the day and somehow damped the blow of the fact that the day began at stupid o’clock for all of us. And just as we arrived in the city, the heavens opened to welcome us with a mighty downpour. And while that did nothing dowse my bloodlust, it did cause me to shiver miserably on the start line. But really, what would a run in the capital of Scotland be without a generous helping of proper Scottish weather?

As is normal for me in endurance races, my plan was to run the first two or three kilometres by feel alone, and to sort my pace out thereafter. However, within minutes I couldn’t ignore the fact that although my energy levels were good, my legs felt decidedly heavy and had all but withdrawn co-operation. My feet were soaked and cold before I had run a single mile, and by the time I passed the two mile marker, I was already a few seconds off my target pace.

I won’t go so far as to call it a terrible start, but coming home on the right side of 1:40 was not looking promising. In that moment, I did something that has helped me through many of the darker moments I have experienced on my long ultramarathon training runs. I did absolutely nothing. I noticed how I felt, decided that nothing was actually really wrong, and kept going without trying to change anything right there and then. Because one thing I know for certain is that everything is temporary, if you give it enough time.

Rather than worrying about the race in these early stages or beating myself up about slipping off pace, I just accepted that my body was telling me that this wasn’t the right moment to launch my attack. But the moment would come. The worst case scenario was that the opportune moment would occur not in this, but in a future race; but that was a risk I was willing to take.

The next time I looked at my watch was as I was passing the 10km point. Just over 45 minutes. There was hope! More importantly however, I noticed that my legs had finally woken up and were starting to listen to my demands. I held back for another 4 kilometres, but then, finally, it was time to race!

I had to focus to keep the pace for the last part of the race, but I can’t say that it was a real struggle. Everything had somehow fallen into place and was there for the taking. Before I knew it, the finish line appeared in front of me and I ran towards it until my lungs felt like exploding. Then I ran some more.

I emerged victorious from the battlefield after 1:38 of running my drenched socks off. The negative split was very much dictated by my body, rather than my mind, but hey – I’m not complaining.

Streakers Edinburgh

 (A victorious army, ready to return to the battle bus!)

Girl On A Mission

“The best revenge is living well.”

–          George Herbert

This Sunday will see me at the start line of the Edinburgh Half Marathon. Prior to a recent event, I must admit that I wasn’t bothered about this race at all. In fact, last weekend my level of enthusiasm had plummeted to the point that I had almost talked myself into withdrawing my entry and going for a long ultramarathon training run in the mountains instead.

But all that changed one night during the week. You see, one fateful night this week, I joined a training session with a local running group that shall not be named. Little did I know at the time that this single training session would ignite the will to race in me like I have rarely experienced it before.

The session required us to get into groups for speedwork. Because I only knew a few people in the group, I went around for a chat and soon found myself in a friendly pack of guys who seemed to run at roughly my pace. Unfortunately, the coaches hadn’t mentioned the fact that they apparently expected us to match the groups by gender as well. Yes, you’ve read that right. How very stupid of me! Without bothering to find out anything about me as a runner, they immediately started to gently nudge me into the direction of a female pack.

As we were running, I jokingly asked the guys why the coaches keep picking on me. One of them just shrugged his shoulders and answered: “Because you are a girl?” In what those of you who know me understand is an incredibly rare occurrence, I was actually lost for words. But I was also determined to stand my ground, and although it was a tough workout, I stuck it out with the guys for a while. But my resolve eventually faltered when two of the three coaches came over to my group in the middle of the session and downright ordered me to go run with the women’s group on the other side of the field instead. Really, I couldn’t make this up.

superwoman glass ceiling

Now, please don’t get me wrong. The women were lovely and I am more than happy to run with them. But excuse my naivety for thinking that speedwork groups should be matched by – how can I put this? – actual running speed, rather than anatomy. I didn’t think it was possible in the 21st century, but I think I might have hit some kind of glass ceiling in a running group.

I was, and still am, pretty frustrated by the whole escapade. It goes without saying that I won’t be found training with this group-which-must-not-be-named in future. But even as my own personal anger subsided, I started to feel bad for the women who regularly train with this them. What kind of message are the trainers hammering into them, week in, week out?

As a result of all of this, I have not only decided to run the half marathon on Sunday after all, but I am going to take all that fury to the start line with me and hurl it at the road ahead of me. While I don’t feel as though I have anything to prove, I’m going to try and put the wisdom of George Herbert’s words to the test and see if the best revenge in the running world is racing well. Wish me luck!

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…

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.

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!

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)