Saturday, 21 February 2015

No regrets

To say that this week has been full of ups and downs would be an understatement. Some work-related issues almost managed to make me quit and become a chicken farmer in Jamaica (why Jamaica? Because the temperature went up again turning the pavements into ice rinks). Then those issues got resolved, more or less, and I was pretty content again. That's when a cat jumped down my throat and started sharpening its claws on it. I ignored all warning signals that this might, shockingly enough, not be an actual cat but the flu, and ran another 30 km last Wednesday, a great run that was fun and gave me confidence. Then I spent Thursday trying to cough up the bag of sand I had so obviously swallowed.

There was a chance I wouldn't be able to run today. Despite the beautiful weather. Despite the fact that my legs desperately wanted to. Despite the fact that it would only be a shorter run.

I was still doubtful that I would make it to training this morning when I woke up. My throat felt much better, but there was a hint of headache and tiredness lingering in my body. I threw caution to the wind and joined AIK. Our coach told us we would be running on snowmobile tracks and I immediately regretted my decision. I remembered the last time we had run on snowmobile tracks. It was amazing to run in the woods in the middle of the winter then, but the tracks had given way under our weight with every step, making it taxing to run. How would I fare today in my half-sick state?

I didn't need to worry. After a slow start, when whatever virus has occupied my body attacked me with all its might, I emerged victorious. My breathing got easier. My heart pumped effortlessly. Not a hint of soreness in my throat. And the tracks were hard enough to bear our weight.

And the woods? Well. Let me just say that I regretted regretting that I had joined AIK for this run and started planning my next snowmobile track run. Because just look at this:

Thursday, 12 February 2015

One ran over the cuckoo's nest

Why did Shaman shuffle down the road like a cripple? Why, because she lacks self discipline, of course!

But can you blame me? I spent a pretty big chunk of my time last Monday fantasizing about running 30 km on Wednesday. I felt strong. I felt ready. I felt that it had gone so well the previous week that nothing could stop me now.

Something almost did. Because on Tuesday the temperature soared up to a sweltering 7 degrees, women all over the city started digging in their closets for their summer dresses and barbeques got fired up.

And the snow started thawing. Covering the roads, pavements, lawns in baby-smooth ice. The kind that is really hard to run on.

Tuesday involved a lot of swearing on my part. Because, although spikes are an effective way to run without slipping and breaking a leg, they are also a very effective way to get sore feet and a fresh injury in your knees. I did not want to run 30 km in spikes. Tuesday was not a good day to ask me how I am doing, because then you would get a diatribe on all the injustices weather had inflicted upon me.

A calmer, resigned Shaman joined AIK yesterday. I would run with the dreaded, hated spikes, but I would only run the usual 11 km and then run my 30 km session another day, when I didn't have to wear them. I took nothing with me, no water, no food. I just grabbed a sandwich before I left, because hey, I would only be running 11 km and I could easily do that on an almost empty stomach. 

Like this, only darker and icier

It was just as miserable as I knew it would be. It was alternately slippery and slushy, or sometimes both, drenching our feet in ice-cold water before sending us skating into the bushes. But, as any long-time reader of this blog surely must know by now, there is a screw loose in my head. Not only was it loose last night, it practically fell out my ear and disappeared into the slush. Because, when we were almost at the end of our 11 km, instead of doing the smart, disciplined thing and going home, I turned to some of my fellow mental hospital candidates and asked if they would join me on a longer run to the Bergsby dam.

I wasn't surprised when they answered yes. After all, birds of a feather flock together and we are all a little cuckoo. In fact, these guys would have run a long run anyway (they may be crazier than me. At least I considered skipping the long run). Some of us started singing to lift each others spirits. Some of us probably managed to have the opposite effect on the others, so I went silent after a while. My legs were already beat after 14-15km, way too soon. I had aches in all new places because of the spikes, and my energy seeped out of me much more quickly than I had hoped it would. When we crossed the dam and turned back towards town, we were met with a strong headwind. Things got worse and worse. I tried talking with the others to distract myself from the self imposed torture I was currently undergoing, but it proved to be too much of an effort.

People dropped out one by one to run home, and each time I envied them. My feet were soaked and hurt. Our little warrior group was 7 strong to begin with, but by the end there were only four of us left taking a detour to add even more kilometres to our total. Then three. Then two. I looked at my GPS: 26,2 km and we were almost back where we had left our cars.

The saying goes: Misery loves company. So I turned to the only running companion I had left and said, ”We can't give up now, we've almost run 30 km!”. Because, if I should suffer, so should he, and he followed me willingly enough. Told you my team mates are a little cuckoo. I fit right in.

We were running against the wind again, on icy pavements by a busy, grey, dark road, around deep pools of thawed snow, then up a long hill, then back towards the parking lot. Another detour to make sure we didn't end up with too short a run, and now I was ready to throw in the towel. Our thoughts and conversation wandered to warm summer evenings, on soft forest paths and how wonderful it would feel to run unhindered by spikes. I could almost see it in front of me, through the grey winter fog of this February evening run.

31 km later I was back at the car, wanting to throw my spikes as far away from my feet as possible but only managing to throw them two centimetres to the right. I was dead, or dying, possibly from starvation and/or dehydration, but I am sure that there was a lonely brain cell somewhere in my head that was cheering for my achievement.

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Flowing in the wind

The wind did its best to throw me off the bridge but I leaned into it. I must have been a sight, running with my body swinging like an upside-down pendulum from side to side depending on the wind's whims. I didn't care. The sun was starting to come up in all its glory. I call that great weather.

Once I arrived at the hockey arena, where AIK usually meets up on Saturdays, our coach informed us that those who felt like it could incorporate a faster 5km interval in the middle of the long run. This interval included the dreaded Erikslid slope. This slope lures you in; it starts off easy enough with a gentle incline, but just as your legs are starting to feel the difference between flat and hilly, it swerves steeply upwards. Only for a short bit, though.

I told my teammates that I would jog the interval, that no way I would run fast. Not during a long run at these post-injury times. Plus, I already had a long run in my legs. Last Wednesday I logged a wonderful 26 km, including hills, a run that made not only my day but my week. I could have run forever. So, nope! I would not run fast. No way.

Then we stood in a long line, all 12-odd of us, the slowest ones first and the fastest ones last. We started running one by one, 20 seconds between us, so that we would naturally gather up at the end of the interval. I wanted to position myself at the front of the line, but there were apparently others who didn't want to run fast either. So I started third.

I could feel the horns growing out of my head. The competitive devil took over me. I willed my legs to slow down. Tried to remind them I hadn't really done any speed work since last summer. But the devil was too strong. I caught up with the second runner on the beginning of the slope, then the first runner on the way down from the slope. The wind was on my back, lending a helping hand, but then it turned against me, trying to push me backwards with every step. I gasped for air. Thought to myself that now I could relax, when I had run past the first two. Then I saw our coach standing by the side of the path. He was very enthusiastic in his encouragement. It gave me new wings. Later, when two of the fastest runners had caught up with me from the end of the line, and when I had just started to struggle again, our coach was there again, telling me it looked good, that I was doing a good job. When he turned up again for the third and last time, I had found enough strength in me to smile in return.

I jogged back home after the long run, stopping by the river to take a look at the winter swimmers. My legs were tired but satisfied. I had passed 60 km this week, for the first time since last summer. Flow.

Monday, 2 February 2015

Hill repeats

Some runs you enjoy while you're out there. Others you don't enjoy until after you've come home and had a cup of tea.

We tried to look around us and admire the beautiful winter landscape surrounding us. Some of us had strength left to lift their heads and rest their eyes on the falling snowflakes. Others tried as hard as they could to will the lactic acid off their legs instead.

Okay, so maybe it was just me. The lactic acid had accumulated after 10-odd hill repeats up a short slope. It started off so easily. Yesterday was, uncharacteristically for a Sunday, a rest day and my legs felt strong. The first couple of repeats went great. Then, my inevitable transformation into a wheezing potato commenced. The repeats felt progressively harder and more and more people started overtaking me. My shoulders tensed, my breathing got shallower and my posture withered like a flower that hasn't been watered in weeks. And, of course, lactic acid flooded my legs and refused to leave.

The thought that I might actually die, my last breath wasted on the obviously insane act of trying to move my aching hamstrings up this little hill for the thousandth time, did cross my mind. And still, I somehow managed to survive. I was just as surprised I had as I was all the other million times I'd thought I would die while training. I am starting to think that my brain is just lazy and trying to trick me into going home and eating chocolate instead.

Curiously enough, I enjoyed this run both while I was out there (despite the near-death experience) and afterwards, when I had jogged home and had a scalding-hot shower. I am sure that, once the lactic acid drains from my legs, I will feel stronger, too.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Why we choose to suffer

Memory is a fickle thing. Like all things in the known universe, it inevitably falls victim to entropy. As time passes, it becomes a disorganised mess of fragmented images, imagined sounds, a censored version of reality. Also, as any police investigator will tell you, it lies. Memories are the result of a subjective creative process deeply influenced by our personalities. They are susceptible to suggestion. That is why two people can recall the same incident in two very different ways.

How we remember pain is a particularly fascinating subject. Even if we know on a cognitive level that we have experienced pain, we cannot recollect it physically. It is kind of a survival mechanism: just imagine if we re-experienced pain every time we remembered it. We would be overwhelmed by it, unable to lead a normal life.

The past is shaped by what and how we remember. For example, if a race has made a good overall impression, we might remember the scenery, the friendly volunteers, the interesting runners we meet. We often either repress or distance ourselves from the discomfort and the mental challenge. So that what we are left with is a beautiful, perfect snow globe of a memory, an idealised image of the real thing. But if that is how we remember it – and we can never revisit the past to find out if it's true-, is it less real than what actually happened?

And does it matter?

There are different sorts of pain (emotional, physical, mental), degrees of pain (from discomfort to agony) and even levels of pain tolerance. Runners of any distance might experience pain. Disappointment that they didn't win a medal or break a personal record. The beginning of a foot injury. Pushing through the wall at a marathon or the blood taste in their mouth during hard intervals. And so on.

Yet there is something particularly grueling about an ultramarathon. Maybe because the suffering is prolonged and gives ample opportunity to experience all sorts of pain. The ultramarathon is a Herculean labour, an extraordinary trial in which the athlete (from the Greek ”ἄθλος” meaning labour, task) must perform a seemingly impossible feat in order to succeed.

By choosing to run an ultra, we choose to willingly marinate in pain. We feel the tiny stones that have found their way into our shoes, gaiters be damned, and the blood blisters that are starting to swell under our big toes because of them. We feel the niggle in our knees and the anxiety that it can develop into an injury. We feel our stomachs revolting against the latest energy gel we've thrown down our throats. We feel eternity weigh upon us as day turns into night and the hours of our voluntary torment stretch forever towards an unknown finish line. In short: pain makes us feel. We are alive. Pain makes us focus, turn inwards and explore, something that is sorely missing in our frantic day-to-day lives.

Why do we keep putting ourselves through such harrowing situations? After all, the human instinct is to avoid pain. Pain means threat, danger. That's why we learn not to touch a hot stove after only one or two misguided displays of curiosity. Are ultrarunners just really slow learners? Well, I'm sure some people might say that ultrarunners have some kind of screw loose, but slow learners they are not.

As is often the case in life, it is a question of effort versus reward. Ultra running takes a lot of effort but the reward is worth it. We invest enormous amounts of energy in our sport. If we never got any energy back from it, we would just stop doing it. But that is not what happens. What we do get back are the healthiest, most nutrient-dense calories you can get, in the form of breath-taking views from the top of mountains, oxygen-rich air in thick forests, the beat of our hearts and feet on a silent, empty road… and delving deep into the abyss of our own souls to come eye to eye with our monsters, the ones that tell us we can't do this. And we get to slay them. That. That is why we endure the pain. We transcend ourselves, we go past our limits, we venture further than we thought was possible. We triumph. Mind over matter.

And then, when the race is over, we get to lie back and enjoy the memories we have created, where pain once again becomes nothing more than a cognitive exercise, unable to yield its power over us. We know that we persevered. We know that we conquered pain. We learn that there is an end to the pain, and that all we have to do is wait it out. We get stronger, patient, self-confident. We get an extra arrow in our quiver for when we have to face other, involuntary trials in life. Because then we know that this, too, shall pass.