Review: The Rise of the Ultra Runners

Many of us are running less at the moment and many of us are reading more about running so I thought I would try and capture my thoughts on Adharanand Finn’s ‘The Rise of the Ultra Runners’ which I finished a few days ago.

Except I don’t really know what to say. Is it the definitive book on ultra running as the endorsement from Dean Karnazes on the from cover suggests? Is it an electrifying and inspirational account as the back cover blurb suggests? Maybe. Honestly, I don’t know what I think about the book. I sort of like it and don’t. I enjoyed reading it. There where bits of the book I couldn’t put down and then there were bits where I lost interest fast and rolled my eyes repeatedly and just got irritated. The thing is, I am not sure I know why.

So the book then. It’s an account of a journalist road runner turned ultra runner trying to understand ultra running and ultimately getting to and running the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc. Along the way Finn writes about ultra running as an emerging sport, about some of the top ultra runners he interviews and about his own running. It should be the sort of book I like, a nice mix of personal stories and experiences mixed with descriptions of iconic races and some less well know ones and some general information and analysis about ultra running. And actually that is what I like about it. Finn’s writing is really good story telling. He takes you on those races with him, he transports you into those stories and it feels like you know the people and places he’s talking about just a little bit better at the end of the book. Read it. It’s worth reading. It might even inspire you. It’s a good book.

So why don’t I like it? Why is there something about the book that really grates? Something that has not shifted since I finished reading a few days ago? Maybe it is simply that Finn’s focus is the racing world of ultra running. And it would not have occurred to me to start there when thinking about ultras. Finn mentions Fastest Known Times and gives a brief nod to running in the Lake District but his focus throughout the book is on the races. Somehow that’s just not where my mind goes when I think ultra running. I think Nicky Spinks and fells and racing yourself and maybe the clock but not racing others. I think Kilian Jornet in summits of my life rather than Kilian Jornet winning or not winning a race. To me the racing over ultra distance is a side show of ultra running not the main thing. For Finn (and I guess also for sponsors etc), it seems racing is central. So maybe our starting points and approaches to thinking about ultra running are just different. And maybe the racing starting point grates because it puts the focus on times and on winning or placing and one of the things I have always enjoyed about watching even the elite ultra runners is that they don’t talk in those terms. They talk about the challenge of the distance, the terrain, the conditions. Maybe it’s that.

Maybe it’s that there are people who I think of immediately when I think trail and ultra running that are barely featured. Maybe it’s that the book actually has quite a US focus. Maybe I am just grumpy that Nicky Spinks, Joss Naylor, Jasmine Paris, Emilie Fosberg (for example), my heroes of the sport, don’t take centre stage. Maybe it’s that.

And then there’s something else. And this is unfair because I have never met Adharanand Finn. I don’t think I like him. I don’t think we’d get on. Throughout the writing there seems to me to be an arrogance. It reminds me of a type. A type I don’t like. A type I sometimes see out running. A type that makes me roll my eyes and exclaim ‘road runner’ silently in my head. You know, the type who is too focused on their pace to nod an acknowledgement of a fellow human, too important to step aside and wait to let people pass and too wrapped up in their training to consider anyone else out on the same stretch of earth. It’s subtle and it’s a kind of arrogance I know I am over sensitive too. It’s not elitist really but something akin to it. It perhaps links to my points above about where our respective starting points are in thinking about ultra running. For Finn it is still about racing in some way. It’s like taking a road running mentality and transposing it to longer distances and more difficult terrain. It’s still about winning or if not quite in that elite field then it is still about posting a respectable time. As someone who has never and isn’t likely to ever run a respectable time over any distance that mindset just grates. It suggests that if you can’t do this in a certain time then really you don’t belong here. And that certain time is up there close to the elite times. I wonder how Finn would feel actually coming last.

So clearly Finn is a decent runner. His running journey as outlined in the book is impressive and I am sure he learned a lot about himself during the races and during the training he did. I just, for whatever reason, don’t find his story inspiring. Impressive yes but nothing more than that. Should you read the book? Yep absolutely. If you’re interested in trail and ultra running and the people at the top of that sport then yes. It’s a good book and I hope it inspires you and I hope you enjoy it. I’m going to continue to feel uneasy about it, quite unconvinced that Finn has really got to the heart of my kind of ultra running, not really sure that when Finn writes about ultras he really truly gets it. And I realise that this is an utterly idiotic things to say given that Finn has completed several and I have completed none and given that almost all of my races have been road races and that I am a wimp of a trail runner who can sit at a top of a hill too scared to run down. So yes, I am being unfair and judgmental but to me Finn writes about trail and ultra running as a road runner. Now there’s nothing wrong with being a road runner if that’s your thing but they are different sports with different mindsets, cultures, goals an ambitions and I think the problem I have with the book is simply that it is written by a road runner who also happens to be pretty decent at running trail ultras as it turns out. I am not sure why that bothers me but it seems it does.

50 miles reached

In 2017 it took me to mid April to reach 50 miles, in 2018 I’d done it by the 24th January, in 2019 I hit the 50 miles mark less than half way into the Dopey Marathon on 13th January. This year, well April fools day it is. Still ahead of 2017. I am amazed. It is of course easy to get disappointed and grumpy about those stats and I do absolutely miss the headspace I found when running 80-100 miles a month. That seemed to be a sweet spot where running was lush but not too tiring. At least that’s how I remember it. Anyway, be that as it may I actually feel pretty good about things as they stand.

I didn’t even reach the 50 miles running but having set off on a run/walk up the hill with the plan to walk up to the moor and then jog back down. Because of more sitting and generally moving less during lockdown everything feels a bit tight and grumpy so we were both hoping that walking up would be a good warm up and would loosen everything and then we could have a gentle jog down just to keep things ticking over. Nice and easy. We didn’t run down. Kath’s knee was niggly and I had a kit malfunction – well not really. My pants just wouldn’t stay up. I think I need a half size smaller for them to stay up. A size smaller would be too small I think but as they are I can’t run in them for more than a few steps without having to retrieve them from round my ankles – and they don’t have a draw string or anything. Unfortunately I didn’t know that before we set off as I haven’t worn them for ages. They will now be relegated to at home yoga pants.

Anyway, the walk was gorgeous. As we set off there were lots of garden birds like blue tits, blackbirds and robins. Further up there were some goldfinches and then we were treated to our first lapwing arial display in a field just above one of the farms. As we carried on up the hill we saw fewer and fewer garden birds and more and more lapwings. Then we could hear the curlews and then we saw them and as we stood and watched and listened everything was perfect. There were other little birds that we couldn’t identify but we looked them up later and there were meadow pippins and possibly stonechats. The higher we went the more grouse there were too. First we just heard their grumble and then they started popping up everywhere. Love grouse.

We turned round when we ran out of road. It was tempting to go up the path to the trig point but if there were other people on the path we wouldn’t be able to pass each other at a safe distance. We were already slightly irritated with other people because in spite of the very clear instructions to not drive to somewhere to exercise, several cars had passed us with people doing just that – there’s nowhere to go, the road ends so there’s no other reason to drive up it.

So, I said I was pretty happy with things in terms of the running. I am, as unlikely as that might seem given my tendency to be really critical of me. Since the lockdown started I have got out more. In fact 20 out of my 50 miles have been covered since the 24th March. I am no longer grumpy about running or my lack of fitness but instead am looking forward to getting out and just doing something. I am walking lots but that’s fine. When I run, I run slowly and that’s fine. Somehow the mindset has shifted and the pressure is off. I am enjoying it, whether that it is a nearly 5 mile walk with one or two jogs or a quickish mile with a walk home as I did a couple of days ago. Any training plan is out of the window really. I presume the two races we have booked will be cancelled anyway so it’s not like I have to be ready for anything. And if they don’t cancel them, well let’s worry about that as and when it plays out.

Weird normal Sunday

Well if the week was weird, I wonder if the weekend is even weirder. In an attempt to ban the weird we did normal Sunday things: Kath got up to finding a decapitated baby rabbit courtesy of the cats, she sorted that while I slept through all of it. Then we had a cup of tea in bed before eventually getting up and doing some gentle yoga. Then we both pottered about, cleaning, dusting, vacuuming, putting things away or just creating a different configuration of random piles of stuff.

Late morning we decided that maybe it was time for our time outside. We got our running gear on and with as much enthusiasm as I could muster we set off on a 30 second run 30 second walk and repeat adventure. Here’s how it went:

  1. So we’re really doing this then?
  2. It’s all downhill, it’s fine.
  3. Really, I’m not sure I need these walk breaks.
  4. Oh is that snow?
  5. Still downhill, don’t need the walking, it’s annoying.
  6. Oh people – stay on your side of the road
  7. Erm, where’s the downhill?
  8. Ok does this count as up or is this flat?
  9. Was 30 seconds this long last time?
  10. I see people, where are they going? Can we get round? Yeah, we’re good
  11. Ah yes, downhill
  12. More people. Is that 2 metres, maybe, just, phew we’re past
  13. What wait, did Kath just say extra walks are ok? She did, didn’t she
  14. We’ll ignore that for now
  15. 30 seconds is like forever
  16. Uphill
  17. I hate uphill
  18. What do you mean run – that was a quick 30 seconds
  19. This is a loooooooong 30 seconds
  20. Extra walk breaks – ok I was too smug earlier, I need the walk breaks
  21. Aw look lambs, we can stop and look at the lambs
  22. Should have taken the shorter route when I had the chance
  23. extra run, yay, I am so wonder woman
  24. Fuck
  25. That was not 2 metres you idiot
  26. Kites, we can hear kites. Where are they? Can’t see them
  27. Just keep running, just keep running, just keep running
  28. Shut up
  29. Yay another extra run because I am so totally awesome
  30. More like stupid
  31. Ok walk up the golf course, letting people past, what’s with the people, there’s never people
  32. Running all the way down the narrow path – because you know, there might be people. We don’t want people
  33. 30 seconds/30 seconds bla bla bla
  34. Lambs!
  35. 30 seconds/30 seconds. I wonder what’s for lunch
  36. Oh I know this, yummy. Ok, how long left? A mile? Piece of cake
  37. Achilles: Hello!
  38. Go away
  39. Walk a bit
  40. Run down the hill
  41. Walk up the road, home, 4 miles. Yay

The rest of the day has been more Sunday things, pottering about, little bit of work, the cats bringing the rabbit back, or a new rabbit and a mouse, drinking hot chocolate and watching a bit of TV. More yoga. It’s not that unusual for a Sunday and yet it feels weird.

Anyway, here’s to weirdness and seeing what the new week brings.

Yep, starting again?

What do you do when you are struggling to get back into running, struggling to run a mile and generally struggling with being heavier and far less fit than you were? Well naturally you sign up for a hilly half marathon. Of course you do. Never mind that it seems totally unrealistic and undoable, you just decide that in 5 months time you will run 13.1 miles most of which are on upward flat sections. Yep. That’s what you do. Yes.

So having established that this is the done thing, I am delighted to tell you that Kath and I have now signed up for the Suzuki Midnight Sun Run in Reykjavik on the 25th June. The elevation profile looks like this:

So I should probably give you a running update and tell you how much progress I have made since the beginning of January. Yes, well, about that. I ran on the 5th January – dragged my butt 6 miles to go have breakfast. And then I carried my running gear across Europe for a few days while I popped in to see Dad in Hamburg and then went to a workshop/conference in Osnabrück. I meant to go run while I was over there. I am normally quite good at running when away from home like that but somehow it just never quite happened. The workshop was pretty intense and they were long days with late dinners and even though I was awake early enough every morning, I felt too full still and it was still dark and I had no real idea of where to run… excuses excuses excuses.

Torture Device!

So then I got back and started marking and that was that. I basically didn’t move until I was finished (I still have extensions and paperwork but mostly I am done) and here we are another week disappeared. On Thursday I had a strength and conditioning session. The first one since I gave up sometime in December because everything just felt impossible. I was in two minds of whether to go back but actually I didn’t hate the session. I found it hard but it was good to be doing.

Wonky headband!

Yesterday I finished marking and didn’t really do anything else other than the odd stretch every 3 or 4 scripts. At some point though, I sort of realised, I am actually going to have to stop thinking about running and actually run. So in glorious sunshine I headed out late morning today to run the sheep loop and pop in and see Mum at the end. It was lovely out. I ran the first half mile or so, then put in a 30 second walk break and then continued on running for a bit. As the ground got more uneven and muddy I dropped into 30 sec/30 sec intervals to protect my calf muscles and feet. That seemed fine.

I walked for a couple of minutes towards the bottom of the former golf course – I have never liked the bit where it switches from muddy path to tarmac and I always feel like it’s damp an slippery so rather than tensing up and making my feet hurt, I just walked through that. Along the canal I stuck to 30/30 again and it wasn’t until right at the end that my feet started niggling a bit. Overall it felt good to be out and positive to actually be moving and doing something.

I was having fun really!

So, work towards the midnight sun run starts here I guess. I’m mad.

Going for 1000 Miles Again…

….or the one where I need to talk about weight.

Well here we are again. 1st of January. New Year. New Decade. Bla Bla. Yep, I am my usual grumpy self about new year. I wrote about how I like New Year for the reflection it brings last year. I haven’t changed my mind on that but somehow I am always a little disappointed that nothing happens at that magical midnight moment when one year or in this case one decade ends and another starts. Surely something should be different?

Well it isn’t. The world is still turning, arseholes are still arseholes and lovely people are still lovely. I am still me. Actually the last two of those are not disappointing. They are just as they should be but could we start a thing where every year at midnight on the 31st December an arsehole we each know turns into a lovely person. That should sort the world out pretty sharpish. Anyway, two things are on my mind. One is the the fact that Kath and I once again signed up for the #Run1000Mile Challenge – which you already know but which is now official. I have no idea if I’ll make it, we’ll see. As of today I am ahead of schedule! I went for a very slow and painful 3.66 mile run/walk. I tried 30/30 second intervals to see if I can nurse my calf muscles and feet a bit but it didn’t seem to help that much. Any slight up or uneven ground and everything tightens up and starts screaming. At least today it was manageable on the flat – yesterday I could only run downhill.

The second thing is weight and the new year new you bollocks that is going around as it always does at this time of the year. Honestly, I haven’t actually noticed it as much as I have done in previous years- but it’s early yet – still plenty of time to guilt-trip us into some sort of diet or gym membership. Anyway, the obvious thing is that I am still the old me and I am perfectly happy with the old me. There need not be a new me or indeed a new you just because there is a new year/decade. You do not need to upgraded, renewed, replaced or upcycled. Also the whole start and end of decade thing that is going on with pictures of 2009 and 2019 – if looking at old photos etc is bringing you joy then yay for that. If it’s not and you’re finding the entire experience uncomfortable then just don’t do it. I seem to be totally indifferent to it. Which is odd because I often get caught up in things like that. I am also lazy though and for 2009 pictures of me I would have to actually turn on the old Desktop computer… yeah, forget it. In 2009 I was also just me. A decade on – still just me.

So weight. I’ve been thinking about it as I grumpily flick past the ‘running to lose weight’, ‘yoga for weight loss’ and ‘get your dream body now’ adverts not to mention the weight watchers, slimming world and diet product marketing… Over the last few years I have genuinely shifted the focus from what I look like to what I can do. I am no longer concerned about the number on the scales or the number on the label in my clothes (though not being in-between sizes would be really really welcome). I’ve read stuff and learned stuff (and written stuff) about weight discrimination, about fat shaming, about body positivity about being fat and healthy and all of that. And I am uncomfortable with all of it. There is something about body positivity that just freaks me out. Maybe it’s that the focus for me is not on what you can do… anyway I am digressing – not the point of this post though I may come back to it…

The point I was trying to get to – in a roundabout, long sentences, thinking as I am typing kind of a way – is MY weight. I’m too heavy. Ok, now before you start with the positivity or with the telling me off for thinking and writing about weight and weight loss, calm the fuck down. Don’t tell me I’m not fat – I am. Don’t tell me it doesn’t matter, I look just fine as I am bla bla bla – nobody cares. I know how much I weight today, after a bath, butt naked with wet hair. It’s not a number I’m keen on but I have spent a lot of time trying to move away from caring about numbers and that has worked – so it wasn’t the number that made me think I was too heavy. It wasn’t even the tightness of my jeans – I can buy bigger pants – it was a general feeling of bleurgh. A feeling of being unfit, sluggish, weak and a bit sack of spuds-ish. Things niggle or take more effort than they should and running is so much harder.

So – am I doing anything about it – Am I going to be lighting up the search engines looking for the next trendy diet, how to burn fat in 6 easy moves? Don’t be daft. I’m not going to do anything about the weight. The weight isn’t the problem. I’m going to do something about feeling less strong, less competent, less fit and generally less wonder woman than I want. No, I’m not changing anything major or joining a fancy gym. I hate the gym. I am simply going back to what I was doing and what brought me joy as well as fitness. I am looking forward to starting to feel the benefits of daily yoga again and the sense of fitness that comes with consistent running and the feeling of power that comes with strength – gained through yoga and through the strength and conditioning exercises. The number on the scales will change in a downward directions – almost certainly – but probably not by as much as you might think.

And just to be clear, this isn’t a January new years resolution thing. I kicked this off last year when deciding to look to RunRight for help to make sure I can run injury free in 2020. While the sessions with them were getting too much for me mentally at the end of last year (well no, everything else was so I had nothing left for them), I am now looking forward to going back later on this month. December was a month of slowly coming back to things I’d neglected and the trick in future is going to be to make time for at least some of those when things get crazy busy and I get tired.

Anyway. Happy 2020.