After all the treadmill and road running of the last couple of years, it was great to be back running on trails.
Such a sense of freedom moving in the wilderness, jumping over rocks, picking up speed downhill and working hard up those steep climbs.
Where have I been all this time? I was lost and I found myself again!
Ok, the last two years were not that bad! I ran well, had fun and met wonderful road runners along the way. But it was time to step out my comfort zone, so I joined Lidia at the Tassie Trailfest. In the morning, Lidia ran the half marathon while I ran the marathon (44km actually). In the evening we ran the 16km together.
The Tassie Trail Fest is a weekend long festival of running and runners in the little town of Derbi, Tasmania. With races of various distances from 5km to 44km to an "all-inclusive" Multiday Ultra Madness challenge, it caters for runners of any ability and for those like Lidia and I who take turns in running and babysitting duties (although this time we had Lidia's mum over to help!).
It is small and casual event, very well organised by a charismatic race director, Johnno who takes time to meet and great everyone. Johnno has put a lot of attention in all those little details that make of a race an experience to remember and I will definitely be back to tackle for the Multiday challenge!
And the trail is simply fantastic!
Two days of rain before race day - getting nervous!
I hear you... I am soft! I got so used to running in a controlled environment, I was nervous not knowing what the weather could throw at me, what the trail would be like, how much incline and technical the run would be. My intention was to just have some fun, so with no pressure of performance, I could reframe that feeling into something more uplifting: excitement! If anything, this was going to be a different way to get two runs in a day as my last effort before the 24h in Canberra.
The field for the marathon was pretty small and aside the eventual winner of the race, who was obviously on a mission for setting a record time, everyone was pretty chilled. A couple of kilometres in the race, up the first set of never ending switchbacks, I found myself naturally progressing to 2nd place which I maintained till the end. Not because I was fast, because the field was small! And I felt surprisingly good.
The first half of the race was a constant climb up. I remained relaxed and kept a comfortable pace, moving forward with intent and perseverance also on the steeper sections I could have as well walked. I carried only my handheld water bottle and very little nutrition with me, which would have been plenty for a flat road race but not enough for the effort required on this profile.
Mostly single trail on the bike track, there were little opportunities for taking the wrong path or getting lost. Unless like me, you second guess yourself when I didn’t spot marks for a while. About 30 km in, instead of listening to my gut feelings telling me I was on the right trail, I succumbed to the doubts, stopped, got my phone out to try to work out where I was and if I should carry on or go back! With no reception, I stood there, unsure on what to do next.. I started calling out “is there anyone behind? hello?!”. As I was ready to start running back, a female runner appeared charging up from behind a bent, surprised to see me just standing there! She assured me we were on the right track. I turned around and I took off feeling such a rookie!
The next rookie mistake was just around the corner as, shortly after I ran out of nutrition and water with 8km to go, and the temperature getting warmer. Luckily, the last part was downhill and I kept moving maintaining a high spirit enjoying the serenity of the surroundings. The GPS on my Garmin also went bananas losing a few kms so, so I had no idea how far I still had to go. I thought I should be able to cover the distance in about 4 hours 20 minutes so I was counting down time from that ball park number. Which ended up being pretty accurate as I crossed the finish line in 4:21. I went straight for the aid station.
Lidia and I spent the afternoon back at the apartment with the kids, before heading back to Derbi for the 7:30pm start of the 16km evening run. The moon was out, it was warm and windless evening, just perfect for our date night! A couple of kilometres in, we found our position and ran with no-one directly in front or behind, which made the whole run even more magical. We ran together and chatted the whole way, one of the best nights we had together in a very long time.
The finish line was inside the Town Hall, a rock band was playing and could be heard from kilometres away. Such a great way to finish the run, with other runners already celebrating with pizza and beer, and dancing on stiff legs.
A great weekend in every way.
The thing I took away is that while I believe training specifically for the event or challenge ahead is of fundamental importance, I have been too specific lately. It is good to take a break. Go back to basics and look for the fun in just running because we can.
My gear & nutrition
- OC Tshirt (of course), Salomon compression shorts, Injinji socks, Hoka One One Speed Instinct trail shoes
- 1x CurraNZ capsule 2 hours before start, 3x powder carbs & electrolyte in 600ml handheld Ultra Direction bottle, 1x gel, 1x AtOneFoods power bar
I was recently one of the four main guests at SBS Insight night on "Pushing the Limits".
We discussed different aspect of endurance sport, physiological and psychological, sharing the personal stories behind what we do and experiences in taking on endurance challenges.
It was a great night and I took home great insights by the other guests and experts in the audience.
In hindsight, I wish I answered some questions slightly differently, giving a bit more depth and express myself better. Particularly one question around the WHY I do what I do.
To put things in the right context, we were discussing the possible long term risks of endurance events, the toll on the body, the dependency on the mind.
This is what I would have liked to say:
It is a bit hard to explain to those who are not part of this wonderful and fast growing niche of ultra runners. Admittedly, fellow ultra-runners also look at me a bit perplexed given the oddity of the challenge, the incredible boredom and complete lack of social appeal of running on a treadmill for 24 hours… but they get it.
All ultra runners have their own reasons to test their limits.
I started running long when my mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer late 2010. It was my way to try to make sense to what was happening, to get hold of my thoughts and to flush out all the negativity before summing up the courage to speak to her. Later running became a way to make my contribution to the race against cancer, getting others involved with my OUTRUN CANCER Corporate Treadmill Marathon events, spread awareness, advocate for prevention, and raise funds - over 600,000 AU$ to date - for specific and innovative prevention programs.
Now, running long distances, taking on unusual challenges, pushing my physical and mental limits through running, is my way to be in peace with myself and be authentic.
When I go for my long runs I am a better husband and a better father. I can deal and overcome my worries, personal doubts, fears and pressure of a busy life and high expectations. I find a more balanced perspective on things and all the noise subsides. Running also improves my general health, as I seek healthier food and make better lifestyle choices, and boosts my overall energy levels.
I have the belief that pushing through the moment where you have the choice of quitting or carrying on, functions as a way to prepare for the curve balls life inevitably throws. I doubt I’ll ever need to run away from or chase somebody for 24 hours - although that is a useful skill to have. But I am pretty sure there will be many cases when I’ll need ultra resilience. This is my way to practice the ability.
“How did you train your mind to tackle 24 hours on a treadmill?”
This is the question I get asked more often about my 24 hour treadmill stint. And it's the right question to hard as that run was 99% mental and 1% physical.
I feel I was lucky to recognise this disproportion about the run and be very intentional with my mental preparation, to which I dedicated more time than my physical training. If for no other reasons, while running all the time is physically and practically impossible, the opposite is true for thinking about running!
What worked well for me was becoming 100% crystal clear on my WHY, WHAT and HOW. And be comfortable with it, removing choices and options to bail out.
I am a strong believer and advocate of Simon Sinek’s “Start with Why” movement. If you don’t know him I encourage you to read his books or simply watch his TED Talk.
Essentially he describes a pattern adopted by successful leaders and companies, which he calls the golden circle. These successful people and companies, think, act and communicate from the inside of the circle to the outside, which is the complete opposite of everyone else. They start from the reason they get up in the morning or their company exists (the WHY), not from the process (the HOW) or their product (the WHAT). In other words they start from a purpose, not from the product.
I believe this applies to many other aspects of life, including endurance running. Particularly for something out there like running on the spot for 24 hours!
Everyone has different ways to find their clarity. Some people love their spreadsheets and data, others draw their path from start to finish with the obstacle half way to find the way around it.
I visualise things and love dot lists. And to marry the two things I create mind maps.
My mind map for the 24 hours challenge evolved over 4 months. I printed it and hung it up on my bathroom window so I could see it daily and add leaves or improve points continuously.
By the end, the map was so clear in my head I could go back to it on my daily decisions and, most importantly, during the race.
In the lowest moments, when I was hurting mentally and physically, I found comfort in knowing it was all part of a big plan. “It’s all-right” I kept saying to myself “Here are the reasons WHY you are doing this.. and here is WHAT you are actually doing.. and here is the HOW”
Admittedly, this is the first time I formalise my WHY/WHAT/HOW for a running race but I am hopeful I can find a structure and a set of "rules" which I can use for other challenges.
Like most runners I suffer of FOMO every weekend when I see posts about races. It would be great to use this mind map as an independent judge on the races I should take on and those I should miss.
Check out a great free tool Xmind - happy mind mapping everyone!
I am a fan of audiobooks. They are so much easier to consume than physical books, I can put one on when I am commuting from place to place, when I am cooking at home or clearing up, or on a long uneventful training run.. on a treadmill for example! I have a pile of unread books on my bedside table but I easily smash through one new audiobook a month.
Another reason why I like audiobooks is that like many other ultra runner parents and business owners, I rarely sit down and relax to read a book. There is always something to do and guilt feelings aside, when I do, I normally fall asleep in a nano second!
But I do own physical books which I read, of titles which have passed my system:
1. Test of fire: Just by listening to the first thirty minutes of a book, I get a feeling if a book is for me. If I have any second thoughts, I'll stop listening and return it right away. I won't be able to push through. I tried before.
2. Listen to it once: Passed the first half hour, I am typically excited about the book and I listen to it whenever I can. I go through the story/topic relatively quickly to get an overall feeling.
3. Listen to it again: Admittedly, you can miss a lot of the content when you listen to the book while multitasking. So, if the book has left a sign, I will listen to it again with more intention. This will normally happen within 2 months.
4, Buy the hardcopy: When I get to this stage, the book is worth the physical space in my library or bedside table and becomes material for research or reference.
Here below the 5 "running" books in my collection
BORN TO RUN - by Christopher McDougall
I must have read this book 5 times. I am not a fan of the whole argument about barefoot running (although to some extend I agree with the principle) but the description of the Tarahumara, Caballo Blanco and mexican canyons inspired me so much I actually went to run the race in 2014. And what an experience that was.
The book gives a good representation of why and how the Tarahumara run, and this struck a chord with me. They run just because they can run and they enjoy it - that's what it is all about most times.
HOW BAD DO YOU WANT IT? - by Matt Fitzgerald
This was my source of inspiration when training for the 24h treadmill record attempt. Through more than a dozen stories, the author make the case that only mental strength and resilience allow us to truly reach or get close to our true physical limits. I used this book as base from which to build my mindset for the 24h treadmill challenge, and I will keep building on it.
THE MINDFUL ATHLETE - By George Mumford
The title says it all. This book is about the importance of mindfulness for athletes and I think it has particular relevance for ultra running. This was also mind training material for my 24h treadmill record attempt. The big takeaways for me from the book were the acceptance of being uncomfortable and the search for the ultimate prize - being truly in the moment.
OPEN, An Autobiography - By Andre Agassi
Ok, this is not about running. It's a very raw and powerful autobiography by the legendary Andre Agassi. I grew up watching him playing and at the same time I had no idea of the story behind the man: his strength of mind and how much work he put in to become the legend he is. It helped me put things in perspective. Now when I hurt during training I know it only minimally compares to the warm up sessions his dad put him through when he was a kid. From his book I stole the routine of standing for a couple of minutes under a very hot shower before any important event in my life or race. It gets the weakness out of the body
START WITH WHY - By Simon Sinek
ok ok ok. This is definitely NOT a running book! But it may as well be my favourite book of all time. It has changed the way how I look at the world and myself and the way I communicate to others. Simon makes the point that successful leaders and companies are successful because they operate and communicate in the total opposite way of everybody else; the WHY they do something is more important than the HOW and WHAT. To apply this to running, the book has taught me to reflect on the WHY behind any race or challenge I take on. When the WHY is powerful enough and it is true and in line with my moral compass, I found I can endure all the pain and struggle of training, lack of sleep, setbacks, etc.. and achieve things I previously thought were out of my range. Pretty powerful stuff.
Why go long when you can go ultra-long?
When I signed up for the Sydney Marathon I was thinking to go for a fast time. Then, after running the City to Surf way faster than what my body was ready for, I changed my mind.
It's not that I don't enjoy running on the red-line of my abilities, but I find going fast is not my true calling. It doesn't serve me any good. I get tight and pick up little niggles which ultimately put me at risk of injury and, God forbids, could side line me for a while.
I worked out I could commute to the start line from home, adding around 20km to the marathon. That would make it a solid long training run before my all nighter birthday run in 3 weeks. And for once, I could actually run with others, and use other runners and road closures to keep up motivation, focus and pace.
I left home at 5:30AM and I was at the start line 5 minutes before the gun went off, just in time to say hi to Guy and Steven both aiming for a sub 3 hours.
The first 15km turned out to be quite hard physically and mentally. I was moving well but felt out of focus, the plantar of my right foot was giving me grief and I was thinking "This was not a good idea! I am only 15km in and feeling so tired already!". Then I reasoned that this was nothing more than the "35km wall" and I should get more nutrition in and push through, things would brighten up. I ate my protein ball with two mouthful of Ensure Plus from my handheld bottle.
As we made our way up to Centennial Park, the 3 hour 15 minutes wagon was on my tail, 50 meter behind. Bang on where I wanted to be. After what felt like 100 turns in the park, I crossed path with the leading pack travelling in the opposite direction, and I was really happy to see Gary Mullins and Andy Heyden running really strong with a smile on their face.
Along the course, spectators and friends cheered runners on and that makes such a tremendous difference. As I was exiting Centennial Park, Neil joined in and we ran and chat all the way back down along Oxford Street when I reached the marathon distance on my watch in about 3 hours and 11 minutes. Sweet.
I stopped at the next water station to fill up my hand held bottle and have some electrolyte. My previous attempt drinking from the plastic glass on the run had been a disaster, so what the hell.. I took my time to stop and actually drink instead of splashing it everywhere. There must be a better way for this.
The day started to warm up and so did my legs. My pace started to increase without any conscious effort on my side and I started to overtake other runners.
About 100 turns later (seriously windy course..), through the city and out to Pyrmont, I hit 50km on the watch and 30km on the course. I felt really good now. No more plantar pain, legs nice and loose, go figure!
The way back via Barangaroo was so familiar I almost felt like it was one of HuRTS sessions. I spent the last couple of kms preparing for the final stretch via Circular Quay and on the lookout for Lidia with the kids, I was hoping to run the last 50 meters with Lorenzo and Allegra.
They were nowhere to be seen so I ran straight to the finish chute and here they were! waiting for me with a huge smile! What a great feeling to have them all there.
I ended up running 60km (Strava says 62km?) with a 3 minutes negative split.
My official marathon time being 3:08.
After a brief rest at the recovery area eating 2 bananas and 2 apples in 2 minutes flat, we went straight to lunch at friends' house.
A long run, delicious food and good wine with family and friends. I couldn't have had a better day!
Funny enough, the pain on my plantar and other niggles have completely gone.
This is not the first time it happens to me. I reckon a long run stretches my plantar and all other muscles maybe stimulating my body to kick in and start to repairing it. Go figure!