Sunday, 17 September 2017

Warning: Ultrarunning may seriously damage your feet.

I don't remember exactly when my feet started hurting during the endless agony that was Ultravasan 90km, but I do remember I ran on feet that hurt way longer than you should if you like avoiding pesky things like injuries. I mean, most people stop running immediately if it starts hurting. It's basic self-preservation, common sense, the sane thing to do. I kept going for hours. I'm hoping that, since the men in the white coats haven't shown up at my doorstep yet, they got distracted by all the other insane things going on in the world and I dodged a bullet this time.

The bruise that revealed itself in all its blue-black glory when I got back to our hotel room and removed my socks healed within a couple of days. The grotesque swelling of my feet subsided just as quickly. I wasn't worried. My feet hurt this bad even after I ran 100 km a couple of years ago, and back then it was nothing but a displaced bone that caused the pain. I was going to be back in my running shoes in no time.

I tried, in fact, to run a couple of times after that. A 5km run on pavement first, and, when that caused pain, a 6 km run in the woods that went slightly better. Then, my right foot started hurting even when I walked. This was not like last time. This was not a displaced bone. This was more serious. Now I was worried.

Not worried worried, mind you. My running motivation has been virtually non-existent since we bought our house, replaced by gardening motivation, painting motivation, lazily-looking-at-all-the-pretty-flowers motivation and so on and so forth. So what if I couldn't get back to running right away? I did yoga. I lifted weights at the gym. I dug holes in the garden and covered them up again. I even went roller skiing once. I kept my fitness level relatively high.

But now it's been exactly four weeks, eleven hours, fifty-six minutes and thirty-three seconds since I stood at the starting line of Ultravasan but who's counting. I'm kinda sorta starting to miss it. Not Ultravasan. Running, I mean. My friends go running. They plan races. They throw up between intervals and sweat profusely and almost die doing hill repeats and I'm jealous because I miss running even at its ugliest, but I also miss them. I miss AIK. And I simply cannot fathom another autumn without regular running, like the nightmare that was last year's autumn.

I am giving it until the end of the month. I will keep focusing on becoming the next Terminator 2-era Sara Connor, bad-ass albeit with a grace that only yoga can provide and a gardening-fueled pain in my lower back, until my foot stops hurting. It's already much better and I am hopeful that whatever the injury, it will have time to heal in the 2 weeks that are left of this month. Then I will throw myself back into running's arms and hug it and kiss it and have its children and never again take it for granted.

Sunday, 20 August 2017

Ultravasan 90K

The clock says 01:30. I've slept less than three hours but it's time for us to get up and eat breakfast, check our bags one more time to make sure we don't forget anything. The bus leaves for Sälen at 03:00 and we have to walk there. It takes us fifteen minutes or so but we're not worried about it. We're too sleepy still.

But, when we finally arrive in Sälen around 04:00, when we see the fog, the darkness, the rain hanging in the air, the runners rubbing themselves with tiger balm in the tent and walking around in bin bags to keep themselves dry, it finally hits us: we are about to run Ultravasan 90 km. 

The obligatory pre-race visit to the port-a-loo for the obligatory emptying of the bladder. The watch looking for satellites. The speaker interviewing Jonas Buud, one of the elite runners and poster child/ record holder for Ultravasan, who is unfortunately injured and cannot run. The nervous anticipation, the smoke machines tinted red, the steady drizzle a premonition of things to come. The air vibrating with the breaths of a thousand hungry runners. And we're off with a loud cheer.

I only make it a couple of metres before my Achilles tendon reminds me of its existence. As if I'd had forgotten; it's been hurting since we ran in Boden, a month and a half ago. I decide that ignoring an injury is the wisest decision and keep climbing the endless hill that comes right after the start. People have started walking already, but I feel strong. I feel so strong, in fact, that when a guy starts talking to me, I realise in the middle of this nice conversation we're having that I'm running at a 5:30 min/km pace. This will most definitely not do at an ultra, unless your name is Jonas Buud and then you're running too slow. Still, I feel strong, the way runners who open too fast on their first-ever race feel strong right before they run into a wall.

About 10 km or so later is when it all becomes a blur. We enter the woods on a technical trail. The rain starts picking up until it's so thick that there can't possibly be any air left between the raindrops. I am drenched. I bet if I removed by clothes now, fish would fall out. The trail is treacherous, littered with stones and roots at places, covered by slippery planks at others. Soon enough, whatever dirt the path, trail or forest road we run on has turned into mud, and the mud only gets thicker and thicker until we sink to our ankles in it. Mud that hides rocks. Mud that is very slippery itself.

There's four of us from AIK doing the 90K. There's several more doing the 45K and three teams of 4 persons each doing the relay. I keep looking for them. I know at least two of the 90K ultrarunners are ahead of me, the 45K ones have not started yet, and the relay teams will fly by at some point at what seems like the speed of light compared to my snail pace. I find J, one of the 90K runners, we exchange a few words about how great this weather is for our morale and then he runs on. I feel the weight of every single drop falling on my shoulders, weighing me further and further down. I want to stop. This is not fun. All I can think about is how not-fun this is. I don't think about the worries of everyday life, I don't think of fun days in the sun, I think about how I wish my J was here, or that I were at home with him, where it's warm and dry.

But something keeps me going. The guy whom I talked to earlier got me thinking about pace and special medals and such. Everyone who finishes the race gets a participation medal, but men who finish the race in under 9,5 hours and women who finish it in under 11 get a special medal, because we're so very special. This stupid medal keeps me going, because somehow I think this is achievable. So I keep going in the never-ending rain and I'm determined to get that stupid medal like it's the Holy Grail.

Endless hours pass. When the rain keeps falling like this and everything turns grey, and you have to keep your head down looking at the ground so you don't trip, it's as if you're in a bubble. You have no points of reference in your environment to pin time stamps or experiences on. The aid stations are the only exceptions, the most notable of which is the half-way point and largest aid-station at Evertsberg. A quick stop there to eat and go to the loo leaves me frozen, my fingers stiff and useless, my bones achy. The first AIK relay runner passes me, giving me a much appreciated thumbs up. Right after, I pass this man sitting on his porch and blaring ”Don't stop me now” by Queen, which becomes a very appropriate soundtrack in my head for the rest of the race.

I follow the stream of runners. I'm never really alone, and even less so now when we're joined by both 45K and relay runners. More runners mean more feet on the ground, which in its turn means more mud. There's no trail now, only wide forest roads, otherwise lovely to run on, the ground consisting mostly of nice, soft sand. I have already tripped once on my way to Evertsberg, thankfully saving myself a face plant by using my hands as collateral, so this change of surface is welcome. It's less muddy and more wet now. Still, time drags on. I think about the stupid medal. I keep calculating in my head how fast I have to run to make it in time. I talk to people. Everyone is so friendly. We're in this together, ultra runners and long distance runners alike. It's just that we who are running 90 are in this a little longer.

Once I've passed 50K, I start counting down. ”Don't stop me now” gives way, quite predictably, to ”Final Countdown”, but only for a short while because then I realise I still have 40K left and it's a ridiculously long way to go, too long to be counting down already. So I switch back to ”Don't stop me now” and I almost start crying because the next line in the lyrics is ”cause I'm having a good time” and I most definitely am not.

30km left and, well, that's better! 30km is not that much! I reset the clock in my mind. I pretend that I haven't just run 60km, oh no. I'm just heading out for my ordinary long run on an ordinary Saturday. It works quite well, mentally. My legs protest, they don't think this strategy is working quite well at all for them. I find myself walking more and more often, and it gets harder and harder to start running again. I drink the energy drink on offer, warm blueberry ”soup” and water, and eat nothing but a few chips and some pickled cucumbers. Somehow that's enough, and my stomach manages pretty well to avoid becoming a ticking bomb.

20km left. Less than a half-marathon. That's nothing! I have more than three hours left to cover this distance. My morale is so low that I start counting how much time I would need to get to the finish line if I walked the rest of the way. But I refuse to give up. I only want to know I have the option, that's all. Besides, it'd be so boring to walk for such a long time. I walk when I have to and run the rest.

When the 10km sign shows up, I want to kiss it. 10km is a doable distance. By now I have experienced so much pain, moving from my Achilles tendon in my left foot, to my right knee, to my left shoulder, and now finally settling in both of my feet in an almost excruciating way. But 10km is not a distance I'm afraid of. I'm going to make it!

At 5km, a cyclist pulls up next to me, keeping me company and chatting for a while, probably looking for any signs that I might collapse, but oh no. Not today, my friend! 5 km? I can do them with my eyes closed! Hell, I can do them walking backwards with time to spare to that stupid medal!

3 km. Time has slowed down even more and it takes four days to run one kilometre. 2 km. I am in Mora. I am running past buildings I recognise, the lake near our hotel, the camping grounds by the river. I've run here before! 1 km left. The sun is out but the wind has picked up. At the bridge right before the last little hill I have to hold on to my cap so that it doesn't fly away. At the top of that last little hill I see a whole AIK relay team, and they're standing there screaming my name at the top of their lungs. I have the biggest smile on my face. I run up the hill. Let me repeat that: I've just covered 89,5 km and I'm running. Uphill. Their cheers give me strength and I keep that smile on my lips the whole way to the finish line, almost in tears, happy tears, as the crowd applauds and shouts encouraging words, under the arch with the historic lines: ”In our forefathers' footsteps for the victories of tomorrow”.

I am done. I've done it. I can stop.

I talk to people I know, people I don't know. I walk back to the hotel with my friend J, who finished the race 20 minutes before me. My feet hurt and I'm stiff, but it feels pretty ok, all things considered. Later on, I see that I have what looks like a bruise on my right foot and it's a bit swollen. In the evening, all AIK-runners go out to eat and celebrate what was a successful day for all of us, teams and ultrarunners alike. We go to bed early. We have an early start and a long drive home the next morning.

P.S. Oh yeah. I made it in time for the stupid medal. With time to spare.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Boden Fortress 50K

I've never felt less prepared for a race. No mental preparations at all. There have been so many other things to focus on lately that, when race day finally dawned, I was almost caught by surprise.

The evening before, I packed my things with an uncharacteristic lack of interest. I would put one thing in the bag, then go and do something else, then come back and put another thing in the bag (or maybe that's just my ADHD?). My right knee had been bothering me for ages, so much so that I wondered if I was injured. It made it hard to muster up any enthusiasm for the race. In fact, I was convinced I would get my first DNF and be forced to cancel the rest of my races this season. No wonder that packing felt like a chore. No wonder a 50 km race felt like having to face the death squad. I'd rather be at home tending to the garden and avoiding any confrontation with my knee.

There were four AIK runners that drove to Boden to participate in this peculiar race, that would take us to 5 (?) Swedish Army forts, positioned on the perimeter of the town. My running buddies echoed my feelings. All four of us have entered the Ultravasan 90 km race in August, and this was to be an important step towards that. Yet no one felt ready. It was a beautiful day, already warm at 9 in the morning. When we arrived at the National Defense Museum, just in time to listen to the information given by the race organisers, a trail shoe-shod, hydration pack-carrying crowd had already gathered.

Way too much time was given to the energy drink sponsors, and I felt my attention drifting off to other things, like the swords on the wall, the buzz of the cafeteria fridge behind me, the faces of the other participants. The race organisers then went through the course, but my brain was completely shut off. I trusted that they had marked it well enough for me to avoid getting lost; I wasn't going to be able to retain any of this information anyway.

Outside, the four of us posed for a ”before” picture, to remember how insane people look right before they throw themselves into the burning pits of hell: all manic smiles and misplaced confidence. The starting gun was less of a gun and more of a tank cannon, keeping in line with the military theme of the race. I have a very strong aversion to guns, tanks and all things military, but it was kind of cool to get such a deafening send-off.

Just before the start

The others opened strong. I had no desire to try and keep up with them, partly because I was worried about my knee and partly because 50 KILOMETRES IS A LONG WAY, MAN, KEEP YOUR SOCKS ON. I wasn't last but I couldn't have been far ahead of the last runners. We climbed up to the first, and perhaps most accessible fort after just 4 km. The view was breathtaking: you could see for miles around, over the tree tops and Boden. I drank a couple of dl of water, filled my water bottle and negotiated the steep, rocky trail down to the river again.

The first fort

I was now running alone, no other ultra runners in sight. Some of the 10K runners ran past me impossibly fast, too fast to register. I trudged along in my 6:30 pace, the sun already too hot, the surroundings having gone from soft pine forest to dilapidated boat yard. My motivation started waning. After the second fortress, at around 13 km, we made our way back to town. This was a part of the course that was more populated, as we were running among what looked like Suburbia, but it did nothing to alleviate the boredom I was feeling more and more. Time went by so slowly, and the half-marathon distance seemed to never come. I haven't been so bored since one hour before the bell rang on the last day of school.

Running to the second fort aid station

After the third fort, my mood started changing. I was running on forest roads now, having just passed 22 km. I kept thinking that I was almost half way. It was nice to run in the forest, in the shadow; the sun was really hot. Unfortunately, the course turned towards town once again, and soon I was in the town centre, giving angry looks at drivers who didn't stop at crossings to let me pass. I spoke to J on the phone. I felt kind of delirious because of the heat. I remember asking him to drive to Boden and bring me cold milk. Move over, pregnant women. Your cravings are nothing compared to the cravings of a dehydrated ultra runner.

A couple of kilometres later, the aid station appeared before my eyes like an oasis in the desert. Conveniently positioned by the river, in case someone wanted to throw themselves in it to fight off the heat, they were a sight for sore eyes. My watch said I'd ran 28,5 km, the volunteer said 31. I wanted to believe him and not my watch. My motivation had started waning again. I ran by the river, then up up up on soft, bark-clad paths and technical trails, on an ascend that felt unending, like it would take me all the way to heaven. Right before I arrived at a fort/aid station, I ran past a couple of guys who were walking up. ”It looks easy!” they said. ”It doesn't feel easy” I replied, really struggling now. ”How do you think it feels for us then?” they said. 

One foot in front of the other, I thought. Onward, upward, forward. But the course had a fantastically cruel ace up its sleeve: The secret stairway. If you've never tried switching from running to walking up stairs, let me tell you: it sucks. It sucks all of your energy out of your thighs. It burns almost as much as the sun burned my scorched shoulders. Soon enough though I'd climbed to the top and reached the aid station. Two of my AIK-friends were there, one of them nursing a bloody, chafed foot, the other having just completed the obligatory run around the fort. We exchanged a few words, drank way too much/not nearly enough water and I headed off again.

The secret stairway

I had started passing more runners now. I passed one of the walkers, who commented that it still looked easy. It's easier to run downhill, that's for sure. The race doesn't really start until you've hit 30 km; that's when all the sins of your past, all the injuries and missed long runs, all the shoddy preparations start catching up with you. A few of the runners I passed walked. A few lingered at aid stations too long, but understandably so. My own sins hadn't caught up with me yet. As I realised there were fewer than 10 km left, I started counting down, a countdown that was slow. I didn't mind, because I was going to make it in under 6 hours and my knee hadn't complained once.

The course had one last nasty surprise left for us: we had to make our way up a slalom hill. A sun-exposed slalom hill. Slalom hills are very steep, and they magically become even steeper when you've just run a marathon. One foot in front of the other, I thought once again. Onward, upward, forward. I looked down at my feet, looked up at the top of the hill. Neither helped. I just had to fight it, just had to make it to the top, even if I had to crawl there.

After that particular trial, a nice trail down to a camping site, some paved roads, a beautiful path by the river, and less heat. I remember thinking that it wouldn't add up to 50 km. I remember thinking that it couldn't be possible that I was still running and the finish line was nowhere in sight. I remember looking at signs and hoping I'd see ”National Defense Museum” on one of them. 

A couple of kilometres left

And I remember finally seeing the finish line, among the tanks and the people and the shade. Oh, the shade.

My feet hurt. I crossed the finish line and immediately took my shoes off, lay on the grass, happy to do nothing and having nothing to do. My AIK-friend who'd finished first of the four of us snapped photos and got us coffee and ice-cream, once the other two also finished their race. We sat there chatting for a long time, all of us thinking about Ultravasan 90K in August with considerable trepidation.

After a wonderful shower and a meal, we headed home. It was quiet in the car, an almost contemplative mood having taken over us. This was one of the races I've enjoyed the least, mostly because of the heat but I think also because I wasn't in the right head space for a race. Usually I look forward to spending a day out on the trail. Relaxing into the knowledge I have nowhere else to be, just enjoying my surroundings and the fact that I have a pair of healthy, working legs that make it possible for me to see all these new places. But this time, I couldn't relax. I felt that I did have somewhere else to be, although I don't know where. It was a stressful race, both for my body and my mind. Hopefully I will be more enthusiastic when it's time for Ultravasan.

Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Appreciative af

I did an online test the other day that was supposed to help you find out more about your best personality traits. Number three: humour (not sure J would agree, as he doesn't seem to appreciate my running commentary about how funny certain foreign names are during skiing competitions on TV. I don't get it. I think I'm hilarious). Number two: honesty (selective honesty, I swear. You can still come to me with your ”Does my butt look big in this” type of questions. Also: The dog ate my homework).

Number one? Appreciation of beauty and excellence.

Normally I would nod my head wisely at this and exclaim that Finally! Internet tests get me! but after my close call with death by prolonged exposure to the elements yesterday I'm not sure I agree completely. There might be exceptions to my appreciation of beauty is what I'm saying.

It started off well enough. I had decided to run home from work, because that's the kind of running I could fit into my schedule. I glanced out the window a couple of times as the clock hands crept slowly towards 6 pm and freedom, which was a mistake because it did absolutely nothing for my motivation. It was snowing. It was windy. It was dark. But, once I stepped outside, my Appreciation Of Beauty And Excellence kicked in. I noticed how big fat snowflakes made small craters in the ground upon impact. How trees gracefully bent in half in a magical ballet. How passing car drivers could tell that I was thirsty and drove close to the edge of the road, shooting off snow in my direction to quench my thirst. I gratefully flashed them a huge smile with teeth turned brown from tire-tainted slush.

Unfortunately, things took a turn for the worse after a while. Three seconds into my run, I realised that no one had gotten the memo that I was running home from work, and the sidewalk was still covered in 10 centimetres of snow. Sure, I could run on the road, which was relatively clear of snow, but I had forgotten my reflective vest at home and I wasn't quite feeling suicidal just yet. So I moved through the white stuff like a hippo through a puddle of molasses, only not as elegantly.

After three kilometres of torture, my Appreciation of Beauty And Excellence was still going strong. I was appreciating the beauty of suddenly running parallel to the bus route and thought it was really excellent that it was so close by. In case I needed to take the bus the rest of the way home. Which I didn't. Because one personality trait that didn't come up on the Internet test was never throwing in the towel, not even when it's really wet and useless and, frankly, getting a bit smelly. So, instead of doing the smart thing, I did the other thing, which was putting one foot in front of the other several times in a row.

A few kilometres later, I was running through the village of Bergsbyn. Saying that I was running is, of course, a gross misuse of the word. Snow was thick on the ground and the wind was slapping me around like someone had told it that corporal punishment was about to be outlawed and it was trying to get in a few good hits before it had to stop. I waded, I swam, I sent prayers to all known gods that I don't believe in. And that's when I, driven to despair by weather conditions and unresponsive imaginary entities, finally started feeling suicidal and decided to brave the road.

Ah, the road. Pavement with only a light dusting of snow on it. Hard, unrelenting, dependable. I felt the minor aches I had developed around my knees dissolve into nothing, aches that can only be attributed to the softness and instability of fresh snow. But you know who else likes the road? Car drivers. 7 pm on a Monday is apparently rush hour in Bergsbyn, because I could only run on the road a few seconds at a time before I was forced to jump back onto the sidewalk. Playing chicken with cars is not a game a runner can win.

The last few kilometres home were slightly uphill, because I wasn't miserable enough already. My ears were frozen and my eyelashes were stuck together. My throat hurt because I had inhaled all that ice-cold air. But, in the end, after an hour and a half, after taking it one step at a time, one foot in front of the other several times in a row, I got home. As I stood in the hallway peeling off wet clothes, I looked out the window at the snow falling outside and appreciated the beauty and excellence of being in a nice, warm house.