Sunday, 30 September 2012

Cannonball read #25: Eat and Run by Scott Jurek

"Eat and run", a memoir by ultrarunner Scott Jurek, is by no means a literary masterpiece. Jurek is a lot of things (physiotherapist, winner of many prestigious ultramarathon races around the world, cook, vegan) but he is no high-brow writer. Yet I devoured his book as if it were one of his delicious-sounding vegan meals.

Jurek tells the story of how he became a great ultrarunner. He speaks of the building blocks that made him who he is -his parents, friends, coaches- with warmth and humour. He speaks of the trials he went through, the slow deterioration of his mother's health, his falling out with his strict father, his divorce. And then he speaks of how changing his diet was the catalyst for reaching the top of the ultrarunning mountain.

It is hard to review an autobiographical book without judging the person writing it. Jurek comes across as a loving yet competitive, spiritual yet down-to-earth, fragile yet strong individual. He tells his story in a tone that suggests that he might as well be sitting next to you over a couple of beers; friendly, relaxed, personal. The format he follows to tell this story is also one that reminds of the above scenario: loosely connected episodes, bits of his life that, put together, give us a better understanding of who Scott Jurek is.

The book is, of course, not called just ”Run”, but ”Eat and run”. Jurek started out hunting and cooking his own food as a child, but ended up becoming a vegan through fine-tuning his diet. A vegan athlete is no common occurrence, especially when it comes to elite level, and Jurek explains how it worked for him. At the end of each chapter he shares one of his recipes.

My feet were itching to hit the trail by the end of the book. My stomach was sending me signals that it wanted to try the hummus or the lentil burgers. As for myself, who has looked up to Jurek and drawn inspiration from him for a while now, I felt like I knew him a little bit better after reading this book, and that I respected him even more. The book inspired me and made me think about my own running, and -perhaps most importantly for Jurek- it made me want to buy hum a beer.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Update + Cannonball read #24: The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

Hi everyone! I have been buried under a pile of fan mail, each mail demanding to know when I'm finally going to update my blog. If by "fan" you mean my dad, and by "pile of mail" you mean the message he sent me this morning wondering why I hadn't written anything about running in a while.

So, yeah! Update! Knee is doing fine. Foot is not doing fine. After one of the most wonderful runs ever a couple of days ago, 19 km of both city streets and forest paths, I came home and immediately started limping. The pain is on the top side of my foot and feels kind of like when your shoe laces are too tight. If only it were that simple to fix. Too bad my VFF don't have shoe laces. Too bad it hurts even when I don't have any shoes on.

It would be easy to blame running for it. After all, I've made enormous progress the last couple of weeks, maybe too much, too soon. But I think that the blame might lie within landing too hard on the floor at some point while Body Combating last Sunday. I remember feeling pain in my foot then, but I was able to run both last Monday and Wednesday without feeling anything. 

So, here we are. On the bench. Again. I'm treating the foot with some diclofenac gel and it's already much better than yesterday, so I don't expect this to last more than a few days. Patience. A virtue that I've mastered to perfection, at least when it comes to running.

Apart from studying and limping, I've been spending my time reading. And here comes Cannonball read review #24 (we're almost there): The long earth, by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter.

Terry Pratchett has been so successful in writing the numerous Discworld novels that he finds himself in a predicament: people either expect him to be just as funny in his other novels, or they expect him to do something completely different. Unfortunately, in this collaboration with Stephen Baxter for the book ”The Long Earth” he lands somewhere between these two. Not funny in comparison with Discworld, too pratchett-y to be different.

The Long Earth is a fantasy/science fiction novel about parallel universes. One day people discover that they can ”step” between worlds using a strange potato-based contraption. This opens up a lot of possibilities, at the same time as it creates a lot of problems. The book explores all those issues through the eyes of Joshua, a saviour kind of guy who was raised by Harley-riding nuns, and who travels through these universes in the belly of a Zeppelin controlled by the robotic reincarnation of a Tibetan motorcycle repairman.

I'll give you a minute to re-read that last sentence, shall I?

See the pratchettness of it yet? The quirk? The philosophical questions it raises? But there is one pratchettian component missing: the humour. And that's where I think Pratchett has dug a hole for himself. He's so good at what he does best, ie the Discworld novels, that a lot of people – myself included- expect him to keep doing exactly that. As soon as he strays from the formula and aims for something more ”serious”, like he did with ”Nation”, for instance, he's doomed. People will make comparisons, and his non-Discworld offerings will be lacking, because they're not Discworld. Oh, and because they're not as good. Pratchett is best when he's funny.

But say that you somehow manage to put the comparisons aside, and judge the book as is. Pretend that it was written by an unknown author. The book is still lacking, despite the very promising premise. It drags on, until the last 50 pages or so when it suddenly picks up pace and becomes really, really interesting, only to leave you hanging. No, really. The end felt like a cliffhanger, and I don't know if it was intentional and they are planning a sequel (probably) but it seemed like the book would have benefited by getting rid of maybe 200 or so pages about what came before and telling us what comes after instead.

Stephen Baxter, then? I mean, his name is on the book cover. Well, I wasn't able to ”see” his contributions to this novel as much as sir Terry's. But then again, I haven't read that many of his books that I can easily recognise his voice, as I do with Pratchett's.

In the end, I think the book has trouble finding its audience. It's not kid-friendly (because of the swearing) but not adult, either (too....lightweight). Will I read the sequel? You bet. I'll read whatever sir Terry throws at me. Even if he throws me crumbs. Don't judge me! They taste a bit like the cake they came from.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Where the streets have no name

(Warning: Long read!)

I started running around the time mammoths made Earth a cosier place with their thick woolly fur. I ran for days and nights, over fields and mountains, in rain and in sunshine. It wasn't supposed to be quite so long, this particular long run. The flu had been circling me like a vulture for a week. The last thing I wanted was to overdo it and die, providing it with an easy meal.

I had studied several maps to make sure I didn't get lost. I even took a picture of the map on my computer screen with my phone. They tell me you can use the GPS on your phone together with online maps these days, so that you don't get lost? WHAT KIND OF SORCERY IS THIS?

I was on familiar grounds for the first couple of kilometres. An easy upwards slope through the woods, with the sun warming my face despite my breath fogging up the cold air in front of me. And there it was! My motivation! I knew a long run would fix that. I was having a blast already.

Then suddenly I was on the moon. A grey landscape opened up in front of me. Big heaps of gravel surrounded me. Signs pointed to the ”food heap” and ”asphalt heap” and monstrous lorries carried dirt and emptied it, forming even more heaps. It was surreal. I ran around trying to find the exit like a mouse in a maze but all I saw was trees. Until I employed my typically underused brains to figure out that the lorries had to be coming from somewhere. Bingo: a road that led away from this infernal trap.

One small step for man...

I followed this road down to a motorway. I knew where I was, and strangely enough it was exactly where I was supposed to be. I crossed the motorway to a dirt road on the other side and found myself once again surrounded by trees. A few houses reminded me I wasn't so far from civilisation. According to the map, the dirt road would soon end and I would be able to continue on a trail. 

So far so good!

Hang on. That can't be it...
Kind of looks like a trail...if trails were only one metre long.
Dead end. No trail. I ran back a few hundred meters, thinking that I must have run past it, nothing. The map had lied! I doubled back to the motorway, because I thought I'd seen a path along it.

This looked like a path. But it wasn't. Yet another dead end.

With a couple of unplanned kilometres extra in my Garmin, I hit the motorway. I had seen a sign pointing to a golf course earlier, which -according to my RELIABLE map, yes I'm being ironic- could provide an alternative route to where I was hoping to end up. I probably don't have to tell you that running on the hard shoulder of a 90 km/h motorway is a hairy experience, despite the fact that Swedish drivers will kindly leave a good 3-4 meter margin when they overtake you. Thankfully I only had 400-500 metres before I reached the country road that would take me to the golf course. It was a fast 400-500 metres.

But just because I knew where I was didn't mean I knew where I was going. Several dirt roads lay before me, some cutting right through the golf course, others going around it. I was unsure: which road would lead me to E4, which had become my reference point for this whole adventure? I picked the road that seemed to have seen the most action, but which worryingly enough took me far away from the golf course. It was a lovely road, in the shadow of fir trees. On my left there was a path and a sign pointing to "Djuptjärn". I would later find out that this is where I would have ended up if I had found the trail I had been looking for, cutting my run by as much as 4 km. 

I was now by the E4, had found my bearings and was faced with a dilemma. I could run to the left and back to the city or follow through with my original plan and run in the opposite direction. I had already covered almost 12 km, so the wise thing to do would have been to run back. So I ran on instead. Because if I didn't do stupid things, I wouldn't be the adorable little idiot that I am.

I had found a good rhythm and was enjoying this immensely. It probably sounds boring to most people, but an open, straight road ahead with hay fields on each side has a hypnotising effect that lulls me into a meditative state. It's a shame that I, once again, didn't know where I was and had to keep stopping to look at the map. A lot of good that did me. The streets here had no names, so there was no way of finding out exactly which street I was running past now.

I was running further and further away. But hey. If people never got lost, Columbus would never have discovered America, and then we wouldn't have had Justin Bieber. My safety net, J, was at work and I didn't want to have to call him and ask him to come and pick me up in the middle of nowhere. So I kept running, excited yet apprehensive at the same time. Just how far would I have to run before I started turning back? Distances on the map of my tiny phone screen seemed a lot shorter than in reality. Strange.

A long, straight dirt road lay to my left. Finally, something I recognised from the map. This road would take me to a cycle path, which would in turn take me all the way back to town. It was about time. I had run 18 km when I got to the cycle path. And now I was back on familiar grounds. I had run here before, just a couple of hundred meters from the river.

I wished I'd brought my camera, and not for the first time.

A headwind did its best to tire me out. Psychologically I felt deflated after the joy of discovery and was looking forward to a warm cup of tea back home. My body started sending the first signals that it, too, was looking forward to getting home and maybe standing in the hot shower for an hour or a day. My chest was aching in a way I've learned to recognise and which I usually associate with bad posture or inhaling too much cold air, and, since the air wasn't that cold, I suspected that I was too tired to run with good technique.

The city started coming into view, and I had never before been so happy to see the river and the bridges. My feet were on fire. Remember the sores I got by some seam in my VFF about a month ago? I have been wearing socks since then, something that is a great solution for sores but not so much for blisters. I kept telling myself I'd walk the last couple of kilometres. But walking is so, how should I put it? BORING. Onwards I ran, and it felt like I had been running forever. But as much as I love spending my days running, I was hungry, thirsty and tired.

27 km had taken me on a round trip around the south part of Skellefteå, on gravel, dirt and tarmac, through forests, along fields and past little red cabins. The rice porridge I ate later had never tasted better, the orange juice had never quenched my thirst more.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Dude, where is my motivation?

If they tell you that studying is easier than working, that it leaves you lots of free time, that it helps you stay flexible, THEY'RE LYING. A course at 25% means a theoretical equivalent of 10 hours of work per week, three such courses 30 hours. So why does it feel like I'm working full time?

Still, I'm loving every single course I'm taking this semester, warts and all. Each one of them is extremely interesting and fun, although I still haven't figured out how to distribute my time so that I do all of them justice. One day I'm completely focused on photography. Next day I'm engrossed by sports psychology. The third day I've already forgotten everything I'm supposed to have learned. Goldfish memory – making students miserable since 5000 BC.

It's funny how running seems like such a great prospect the evening before, when I've finally put my books down. But when it was actually time to go running after a photo manipulation / essay writing marathon earlier today, I was reluctant. The weather was not lifting a finger to motivate me. Dark clouds floated lazily in the sky and tiny seed pods from the trees danced in the wind, reflecting the warm autumn light when the sun managed to break through the clouds. Actually, it doesn't sound that bad when I put it in writing. Funny. Maybe the weather wasn't the problem after all. Maybe I was just more motivated to finish up the essay.

This horrible weather was the cause for some ugly rainbows, too. Bleh. Rainbows. Just as bad as unicorns and puppies.

I am remarkably well-disciplined when it comes to running, though, a self discipline that I wish would wash off on other areas of my life (*ahem* cooking *cough* doing the dishes *ahem*). I tried to feel excited about it. Tried to remember the days when I wasn't allowed to go running because of my knee. Tried to think about how fun it would be to run on new grounds. Nothing worked. I just had to do it.

Of course, I managed to pick this particular route on this particular day. I wanted to see what the local running track in the woods looked like. It looked like a torture chamber. Up it went, up until I was hallucinating I was climbing Everest, until my eyes watered and my throat was sore with the effort of finding some oxygen to inhale. Everyone knows oxygen levels are low on Everest.

I persevered and was rewarded with the ground levelling out. I filled my lungs with air, caught my breath and promptly took the wrong turn, a horse track leading me up yet another mountain. But I was spent. I had to take a walking break. When I reached the peak, I resumed running and it was all downhill from there. Strangely enough, running got easier after that initial high altitude shock, so much easier that I took a detour by the river to collect the final couple of kilometres that would bring me up to an even 10K.

I need to scout a route that will capture my imagination. And not just any route: a long run route. Now that I'm up and running longer distances again, there is no point in holding back. I need to expand my horizons and find my motivation. Hopefully on flat ground.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Cannonball read #23: Titan by Stephen Baxter

It's a mystery. I enjoy most science fiction films I watch, most books I read, yet I never actively seek science fiction books out to read. This particular book, Stephen Baxter's Titan, was in my bookcase for years before I finally picked it up, reading the summary on the back cover and trying to remember if I'd read it. A sticker on the front told me I had bought it on sale, but I had no recollection of it. This didn't seem like a promising start.

Half an hour into the book, I was ready to put it down again. Details upon details of spaceships and how they work, jargon that might as well be another language, and science. Lots of it. I was wondering when the story was going to begin. But, paradoxically, despite the book balancing precariously on the edge between good story-telling and Space Flight for Dummies, Baxter slowly but surely drew me in.

Titan is the story of a manned mission to the titular moon of Saturn. Five astronauts make their way through years and unfathomable empty spaces to what they hope will become a new frontier for mankind, at the same time as Earth undergoes a catastrophic crisis. It is a journey fuelled by curiosity, that basic human thirst for knowledge and, in the end, for finding out what comes next. Are we alone in the universe? And – something that is perhaps implied, but never openly discussed – what happens when we die?

The aforementioned details that, early on, threatened to bog down the novel, prove to be the catalyst for its success. They are precisely what turned the astronauts' bland journey to the outer reaches of our solar system to riveting fiction. They spoke to my own inner curiosity about how people would survive such a journey, both mentally and physically. I felt what the astronauts felt: their boredom, their detachment, their fears and hopes. My only minor complaint is that I never cared for the characters, never rooted for them other than that I wished they'd survive so I could follow them on their journey. Their personalities are almost interchangeable as soon as one strays from their job descriptions, and that makes it hard for the reader to find someone to identify with. We identify with the idea of them instead, that they represent mankind. But maybe that was the point? That we are all flawed and ultimately as boring as these five?

Titan is not a book about hope, at least not if you honestly believe that we are the masters of the universe. Yet it is not a book about despair, either. It is a book that explores what it is that gives meaning to our existence and that reminds us how small and insignificant we are as soon as we've left the gravity boundaries of our home planet.

Saturday, 15 September 2012


A great way to spend a sunny autumn day is by running with more than a hundred others in the woods, wouldn't you agree? Not that I got to see much of my surroundings while I tried to avoid breaking my leg on the uneven, stone-littered terrain between Skellefteå and Skelleftehamn.

Kraftjoggen is a 20 km race that was organised for the first time this year. The idea is that, together with its sister races Krafttrampen (mountain bike) and Kraftloppet (Nordic skiing), it will give people the opportunity of doing a ”classic” (similar to Svensk Klassiker, for which you have to complete 4 races in 4 different sports within a year to qualify). It was a well-organised event that I'm sure I'll participate in again.

Around 150 runners gathered behind the starting line. Fifty meters later we encountered the first and worst hill of the whole race. Those who had warmed up before the race had nothing to worry about. Despite my vigorous 1 minute warm-up, I still managed to get some lactic acid dangerously close to my thigh muscles. Thankfully it was all downhill from there. Or at least flat. With some very gentle slopes to break the monotony. An easy course.

Or so I thought, until we hit the first real terrain bit. Upwards the single track went, and my steps got shorter, as my eyes worked overtime to spot all stones that threatened to cause me to twist my ankle and my brain tried to figure out the route promising the least risk for injury. I've said it before: VFF are not ideal for terrain. My KSO are not good on slippery surfaces. But I wouldn't change them for the world.

An old photo, because I didn't take any during the race, but very similar surroundings

I took a short walking break after 10 km, not because my knee complained but because I thought it to be the wise thing to do. It disrupted my flow, but luckily it coincided with the beginning of an easy part of the race on tarmac, so I was able to pick up some speed again soon and even run past some of the others. To think that I was worried before the race that I'd end up being last; that my knee wouldn't hold, or that my strength would betray me. Coming back from an injury that caused me to take it easy for 6 months meant that the only thing I had dared hope for was to complete the race, but here I was, running strong.

People had come out to see us run, and they were enthusiastic in their support, lifting our spirits. Before I knew it, there were only a couple of kilometres left, and my fear that I would run out of steam never came true. Instead I increased my speed a little more and passed a couple of runners. I felt great. I was running fast, by my standards, but it never felt so hard that I couldn't keep it up. I was in control. As I ran past the finish line, I raised my hands to thank the volunteers that cheered me on.

Do I dare say it? Do I dare say that I'm finally back and running longer distances?

Tuesday, 11 September 2012


What a terrible blogger I've been. And even more terrible blog reader. It's like, since we moved, I've stepped into a different, eerie world where blogs don't exist. I hardly spend any time on the computer any more, except to study. I do other things instead. Yesterday, for instance, I spent two hours gathering blueberries and lingonberries. Then I came home and made apple cake. It's not that I don't care what others are up to, I do. It's just that creating a life for myself here is so much fun, so overwhelming, so different, that I haven't found my balance yet.

Between studying for three different courses and pretending to be Martha Stewart (except the prison part. I'm not doing that. I lack the upper body strength for prison), I've been going for runs. Skellefteå has its own version of Skatås called Vitberget (ie the White Mountain, a Tolkien-ish name that makes me think Gandalf lives there or something. Also, something of an exaggeration. It's more like a hill). J and I found a trail there so narrow you could just about fit two ants in it, which sent our pulses through the roof while we negotiated stone blocks and fallen trees for 5 kilometres. Otherwise, the river area is a great one to run fast in: relatively flat, mostly gravel-free and very, very pretty. I averaged sub-5 for two kilometres there the other day.

Last Sunday I joined a group at one of the local gyms for a Body Combat session. For those of you who don't know what that is, it's basically shadow-boxing, throwing punches and uppercuts and kicks and generally imagining that you're doing some serious damage to an imaginary opponent. I tried avoiding looking in the mirror while I did all that, or else the illusion would have been shattered as soon as I caught sight of my puny chicken arms trying to do ”damage”. I hadn't done any Body Combat in years, not since we lived in England, and I came away feeling energised. A day later, I was sore. Two days later, I couldn't move. My upper body, from my shoulder blades to the tips of my fingers, was aching so fiercely that I could hardly turn around in bed without waking up.

So I went for a run. Hey, it's worked for me before: when my muscles are sore, I flush the pain out with some increased blood circulation. It's science, people. I read that somewhere on the Internet, so it must be true.

It took me 5 km to get into some kind of flow. My legs never woke up completely, but I did pick up more speed towards the end. Now, after a hot shower, I feel much better than I did before the run, although I still suspect someone beat me unconscious some time last Sunday – I must have suffered head trauma and memory loss, that's why I don't remember it. Why else would my body hurt in such a way?

Tuesday, 4 September 2012

Down by the river

It took more than 16 hours to drive from Gothenburg to Skellefteå. Driving at night is nothing I would recommend. You don't notice you're sleeping until you're hugging a tree. Somehow we survived to see another day.

Högakusten bridge by night

Since arriving here last Thursday, we've been unpacking, furnishing, re-furnishing, putting up curtains and paintings, assembling furniture, buying new stuff because we threw the old stuff away and generally making a home for ourselves. This intensive working schedule paid off. I'm loving our place so far.

And what I love the most about it, at least from what I've seen in the short time we've lived here, is the fact that 300 meters from here flows the river. To the west lies a path that takes you through the woods and to a dam, which you can cross and follow a similar path back to town. Skellefteå has several bridges, allowing you to shorten or prolong your run. This path is laced with evergreens and birches, which are currently clad in their best autumn colours. J and I went for a run there the other day, on a warm late-summer evening, as the sun was slowly sinking down on the horizon.

This morning I wanted to explore what lies on the east side, towards the sea. The path by the river gave way to tarmac pavement by the road, but the monotony of this straight stretch was balanced by the rustic surroundings. Farms and fields formed pockets of civilisation in the fir forest embracing the whole city and obscured the river, which was nevertheless never more than a few hundred meters away. I ran over a bridge and then back towards town, lost in my thoughts, tired, so tired after the move and all the kilometers I had put behind me, both on my own two legs and while driving. Still, I pushed on. I wanted to test my knee, see what it was made of. I put bridge after bridge behind me and soon I was back home, with 18 more kilometers in my legs.

Life's pretty good right now.