Friday, 31 May 2013

Ups and downs

Wednesdays in the AIK world mean a 17 km run on the hills surrounding the north part of Skellefteå. It's a tough session, with many uneven upward slopes that make it hard to find a good rhythm. Add to that the fact that it was really warm during last Wednesday's session and you'll understand why it felt more like a crawl than a run.

The first time I joined AIK for this particular round, I had to stop and walk up a hill a mere kilometre after the start. Granted, it was at the end of a long slope; but it didn't bode well for the rest of the session. As the weeks passed, these stop-and-walks came later and later, until I could run all the hills up to the very last one: the mother of all steep, long upward slopes. This slope is vertical, I kid you not. Not only do you need crampons to climb it, it is endless. Both times I attempted to run up this hill, I made the mistake of looking up from my feet. That's what our coach has told us to do, in order to promote a good running posture. But he didn't mention the psychological disadvantage it would entail to look up and see just how many more kilometres there are left to this particular hill. You might as well be climbing up to the moon. Each time I've made this mistake, on the verge of collapsing from a mixture of mental exhaustion and lactic acid poisoning in my thighs, I've gotten so disheartened that I have immediately given up and started walking. What is even more disheartening is that everyone else seems to be able to climb that hill without crampons and/or permanent psychological trauma.

As hard as the first 9 km or so may be, it is all worth it once that diabolical hill is behind you. Because what lies ahead are glorious kilometres of pure, wonderful single-track through the woods. Stones, roots, mud, the works. If you can forget about the task at hand for a second (and, really, you shouldn't, because it's easy to stumble and fall if you lose your concentration), then you might notice the bird song and pine scent around you. I didn't want the run to end. 

Yet, end it did, and I made my way home happy as a clam. I made myself a smoothie and munched on some cashews. Ten seconds later I started feeling funny in my tummy. I felt sick. I tried to ignore it, but it was impossible. I had to go and lie down. A couple of hours later – BARF. Yep. The dreaded stomach flu, the bane of everyone's existence, the intrusive parasite that turns grown-ups into little babies, had arrived for its annual visit. I moved from the bed to the sofa so that I wouldn't disturb J in his sleep, and suffered an uneasy night tossing and turning, drifting in and out of sleep, thirsty beyond belief, yet unwilling to get up and get some water in case it made me toss up my cookies again.

With parched lips and haunted eyes I lay silently staring at the living room ceiling and wishing that morning would arrive, so that J would wake up and fetch me some water.

I spent the whole day yesterday sleeping, waking up from time to time only to look at the clock and fall asleep again. I managed to eat some watermelon last night, which was the only solid food I had eaten in 24 hours. Despite having slept all through the day, when the night finally came, I slept again, this time a deep, dreamless sleep. I woke up exhausted, with a severe headache and some heaviness in my stomach but no tendency to throw up. Meanwhile, my body had obviously resorted to cannibalising itself when it didn't get any food from me, and I had lost over a kilo. Either that, or one of the things I threw up was actually my stomach.

Today I'm planning on doing as little as possible and getting rid of any residual alien forms in my body. I need to be in good shape tomorrow, as I am going on a weekend running course. Some of the topics included in the course are running technique, planning your training and, of course, diet. I'm really looking forward to it, so don't get in my way, stomach.

Sunday, 26 May 2013

Luleå stadsmara - a half marathon to remember

I wanted to rip my clothes off. I wanted to scream at the people lounging in their garden chairs to stop staring and do something about it, couldn't they see I was in agony? That garden hose is not going to turn itself on, you know.

But more about that later.

True to character, I didn't enter Luleå Stadsmara until the last minute. Or a day in advance, anyway. J had offered to drive up with me and have a look around town while I ran, but it felt wrong to drag him all the way up there so I could run a race. Still, we packed up our things and headed North. Four young reindeer who seemed to be far away from home were munching on some leaves by the E4. They were still there when we drove back later that night.

Being the time pessimist that I am, I was quite stressed when we finally arrived with only 5 minutes to spare to pick up my bib. The atmosphere around the race was festive, the volunteers were cheerful and the day was so incredibly beautiful that my stress lasted no more than 2 seconds. I walked away with my bib and the race's functional T-shirt in my hand, and met up with J and some guys from the club.

After a quick warm-up, I went to the start. Third row from the start, to be exact. Because, for the first time in my life, I belonged to a club and thus had the right to compete. For real. With only a couple of minutes left, I looked at all the sinewy, strong runners around me and wondered what the hell I was doing there. Shouldn't I be standing right at the back of the crowd? But a boxing match was taking place inside my brain, and the competitive side had just knocked out common sense and humility. ”Screw this”, I thought, ”so what if these are real professional super-elite runners and I'm not? I'll give them a run for their money. At least for the first 10 meters, right before I collapse from heat exhaustion and die”.

Before I had time to think more such petulant thoughts, the starting gun went off and I remember marvelling at how it suddenly had a different meaning now that I was competing. The chip runners usually get at such races allows them to get an official time from the moment they pass the starting line and not from when the gun goes off. For competitive runners, that is not the case. Their official time starts counting as soon as the gun goes off, so every second counts. For me, it wasn't as important, because I doubted that mere seconds would make a difference in the results. I'm nowhere fast enough to compete on such a level.

Photo by Norrbottenskuriren

I was a balloon that had been expanding with each passing minute, a balloon filled with anticipation and nerves, and when the gun finally went off the balloon exploded. All the pent-up energy found its way into my legs and, almost against my will, they moved forward much faster than I had planned on. The plan was to keep an even 5:15 pace, which would allow me to break 1.50 for the first time, but now I was doing 4:20 and it felt good. Until it didn't, that is to say, which was just a few hundred meters later. My speed dropped to just below 5:00, but I was nowhere near enough psychologically to calming down and following my plan.

It was a really hot day. Well, by Swedish standards, anyway. There were almost no clouds in the sky, and no trees to cast a shadow during the first kilometres that went through an industrial area. The wind that should have served as a cooling factor was just in the way. I felt my head turning red. I had my water belt on me, and it kept jumping up and down with each step. I must have wasted an entire pizza's worth of energy on moving it back into place. After only a couple of kilometres, I was ready to throw in the towel. What the hell was I doing here? I thought for the second time. Why do I put myself in situations I know I can't handle mentally? I can't enter a race and run conservatively. This has been proved many times in the last couple of months, when I said I would take it easy during a race, yet I still ended up running so fast I had a near-death experience. Granted, it also resulted in me breaking every personal record in the distances between 5K and the half marathon, but was it worth it?

I tried to relax. Thought about my shoulders. My facial muscles. My feet. Was I tense? Was I wasting energy somewhere in my body? The greatest energy waster was my brain, that was so incredibly focused on how damn miserable I was feeling that it almost failed to noticed what a beautiful town Luleå is. People were sitting on benches with ice-cream in their hands, enjoying the same heat that was now torturing me, feeling the same sea breeze on their faces that acted as a wall against me. Others were standing by cheering us on, and I tried to smile, or raise my hand in thanks, or -if I was running downhill- even make an effort to actually say ”thank you”. The public was truly amazing. A sign that said ”stop jogging, start drinking beer” was a bit more dubious in its ability to cheer, but it did put a smile on my face, and the long-haired, bare-breasted guy sitting beside it getting a tan got the thumbs up from me.

The first 10K went really fast, and I broke my personal record by a few seconds. That in itself should have served as a warning that the second half was going to be even more of a nightmare. I have been injured and/or ill throughout spring, which meant that I haven't had the chance to run as many long runs as I usually do. There was no way I could keep running at the same pace, no way I would have the endurance for it. All I could hope for was to finish the race. Alive.

My legs were starting to consider jumping ship. My brain, the captain, had abandoned the ship before the women and children ages ago, but my heart was still there, dreaming about the possibility that I might break yet another personal record. The heat was draining every last drop of fluid from my body. My lips were dry, my mouth was dry, and the water stations seemed to be moving further and further away from me. Meanwhile, J had been walking around the course and I was so grateful to see him after 12 km that I almost threw my water belt at him. I hadn't used it at all and it was only weighing me down. The water I got at the stations was used 10% for drinking and 90% for showering myself with, offering some much needed, if a bit short-lived, relief from the heat.

I wanted to rip my clothes off. I wanted to scream at the people sitting in their gardens to turn their hoses on and spray me already. I'd even consider accepting an ice-cold beer by the long-haired guy at this point. To shower with.

I tried to do some quick calculations in my head. The first half of the race had given me a good margin to break my record, which I now needed as I was losing speed fast. But my brain was non-responsive and my ability to do maths (limited as it already was) was next to none. Once again, I focused on the tense areas in my body, relaxing where I felt it was needed. My thoughts drifted to other times, happier times, when I ran at an easier pace. Times when I ran longer distances, but when I could take a break, drink some water, maybe buy something to eat, run on. When I ran all day just to explore. I longed for those times. The battle between the competitive side and the life enjoying side was raging on, but the latter was now winning. I eased my pace even more, but it did nothing. It was already too late, and my energy was already depleted.

I ignored the signals my body was sending that all it wanted was to jump in a nearby fountain and then lay down on the grass and just look at the gathering clouds for hours. I put one foot in front of the other, despite its protests. The finish line was within sight and I made a final effort to pick up some speed. I crossed the line with the feeling that my stomach was crawling out of my mouth, the fact that I had broken yet another personal record registered somewhere in my brain but stored for later use. Right now the focus was on recovering my senses, finding J so that I could just lean against him and not have to spend any more energy keeping my body upright. And I was so thirsty. So thirsty.

Despite the fact that the life-enjoying side had won over the competitive side in the end, a little bit of coal was still burning in my heart. I went to look at the results on the big screen. Sure enough, I hadn't struggled for nothing. I had managed to grab second place in my age division, despite my relatively modest time. After getting something to eat, we waited for the awards ceremony. When it was my turn, I went up on the podium feeling slightly self-conscious. What the hell was I doing here? I thought for the third and final time.

One of the churches in Luleå. Photo by J
With the prizes I had won in hand, we walked back to our car. We drove into town for a quick bite and to walk around a bit, and promised ourselves we would come back. Next time there will not be a race. I have had enough of racing. At least until next time the competitive side takes over.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Cannonball read #14 and #15

Um. So. Yeah. I have kind of gone underground the last few weeks. Training is going well, I guess, though in smaller quantities than usual. Life is also going well: I am healthy, I am lucky enough to have people around me whom I love and who love me, I have a job and summer is around the corner with lots of fun plans to look forward to. I've been on holiday and recharged my batteries. I've run races and done well, much better than I thought I would. But you wouldn't know it by reading this blog. Mainly because, well, there's nothing happening in it nowadays. I mean, look at that banner. March 2013? Today is the first of May and I still haven't updated that banner. At least the year is still right.

There is no real explanation as to why I haven't felt motivated to update the blog. Just lack of inspiration, I suppose. I am not going to go so far as to say that I will shut it down, but if I do update it, it will be even less often than it has been so far. Unless, of course, my muse decides to pay me a visit and stay a while.

But there is one thing I still have to do. I am still doing the Cannonball Read, and I still have to write reviews for the books I read. So here come two of them:

Cannonball Read #14: And another Eoin Colfer

I read ”The hitch-hiker's guide to the galaxy” a zillion years ago. I don't remember much about it, except its nuttiness. Yes, yes. I remember the towel. And 42. And the characters' strange names, like Zaphod Beeblebrox. But the details escape me. So I wondered how it would be reading part 6 of the trilogy, a part that wasn't even written by the original author of the series, Douglas Adams (who is, unfortunately, dead). It was written by Eoin Colfer, the author of Artemis Fowl, an author whose work was new to me.

I needn't have worried. Judging by the response the book got it was just as well. Some readers thought that Colfer tried to copy Adams' style of writing but the book didn't live up to Adams' standard. Others complained that it was nothing like Adams had ever written. Either way, the readers compared the book to Adams'. So, lacking that point of reference, I was going to read the book for what it was, on its own merits, and not through comparisons to the original books.

And this is where you expect me to write a summary. The problem is that for the first half of the book or so I wasn't really sure what was happening – but that could have been my own fault for not concentrating hard enough. Earth is to be demolished by some alien bureaucrats, to make way for a hyperspace bypass. Does that sound familiar? That's because this is how the first book started. Arthur and his friends escape unscathed (again), but the aliens are determined to not let them slip this time. Cue the shenanigans.

Once I focused long enough to understand what was going on, I could relax and enjoy the humour. Because it is an entertaining book, even if it isn't roll on the floor laughing your arse off-funny. There are no likeable characters to speak of (one of them is outright slappable – I'm looking at you, Random Frequent Flyer Dent), nor character development; what you get instead is a story that is crammed with odd personalities that fight for your attention. Perhaps the book would have benefited from a little more focus on the main characters, but then we might have missed the craziness of the secondary characters. Come to think of it, I don't really know who the main characters were, and which characters were secondary.

It is not for lack of trying that ”And another thing...” doesn't top the list of my favourite books. All the ingredients for a good fun book are there; I would even go so far as to say that it was a book written with love for Douglas Adams, not an attempt to make money off the success of ”The hitch-hiker's guide”. But it is not a great book. Maybe it relies on the originals too much. Maybe it counts on nostalgic readers who try to quench their thirst, loyal Adams fans who were deprived of their favourite author way, way too soon.

Cannonball Read #15: Ender's game by Orson Scott Card

Ender is a 6 year old boy that gets chosen to join Battle School, an elite programme that is meant to produce extraordinary generals. These generals will later fight the war against aliens. Through intensive training, facing new dangers every day, Ender will have to stand his ground and prove his worth.

Ender's game was one of those books that confuse you. On one hand, action! Spaceships! Aliens! Drama! On the other hand, the cognitive dissonance of having a 6-year old behaving and thinking like an adult. Despite Orson Scott Card telling me that this is no ordinary 6 year old, I couldn't overlook the fact that this just doesn't happen. No suspended disbelief for me. What made it worse, perhaps, was that this 6-year old was as precocious at 6 as he later was at 12; there was no progression in his maturity, no painful lessons learned. He seemed to know everything right from the beginning.

A lot of the book had to do with battle strategy that flew over my head, possibly because I don't find it interesting enough to read about. What I found most interesting was Ender's relationship with his sadistic older brother, Peter. In the beginning of the book it is implied that their story will have a dramatic ending.


Yet nothing happens. Their relationship, which seemed to be a central element in the book, an important contributing factor to Ender's decisions and even his personality, just fizzles out. There is no resolution to their conflict. Peter, who is fleshed out as an important (and interesting!) character in the beginning of the book, just disappears during the second half. I realise that the most important decision Ender makes in this book is meant to show that he is a caring individual and not at all a murderer like his brother. Still, this juxtaposition comes at a time when we've lost interest in the brother, who has been shown to have redeeming qualities after all, and is not the bogeyman he was during Ender's early years.


This was an easy, entertaining read, but I failed to see why it has won prizes and a place among the classics of science fiction.