ULTRA Festival 2021 – Review

A little while ago Kath signed up for the ULTRA festival online. Over Friday 30th April -Sunday 2nd May the festival offered 12 talks and a couple of films to watch online. Honestly, I was only vaguely interested because, you know, ultra… not likely to happen any time soon or ever for me. We haven’t watched everything yet and we didn’t watch everything ‘live’ but I have really enjoyed it. The first thing we watched was the first session Ultra running 101 – Why it’s for everyone. Initially we were a little irritated because the chat seemed to miss the fact that it was supposed to be basics. However, we very quickly settled in and as the conversation went on it hit the brief more and more and felt welcoming and inclusive. It was a nice introductory talk to the festival and really confirmed that running an ultra is basically having picnic while running a stupidly long way.

Then we watched ‘Training for the Long Haul’ with James Elson and Robbie Britton which I really liked because it was so much about how much of what works is so individual. Kit is individual, training is individual, food is. So much of training is about figuring out what works for you. I really liked the way both of the speakers talked about being careful of people who say there is only one right way of running, training, fuelling… Lots of what they were saying made sense and made me think about whether I should think about my running in terms of time rather than distance. So the training plan I use is based on time for 2 runs during the week and then the ‘long run’ is based on distance. But as I was listening to them I wondered if maybe I’m actually doing it the wrong way round and so I might try doing my long run based on time and think about the other sessions a bit differently. I am quite happy to have a little experiment and see what that does to my running.I also chuckled when they referred to running easy as a difficult thing to do and that it’s fine to run 14/15 minute miles. If anyone is struggling to run that slow, I can help. Just come and run/walk with me. If I hit more than one 13 minute mile in a row I am having a speedy day.

Listening to Shane Ohly talk about his Bob Graham round was also really interesting. I liked his take on the many debates about how these rounds should be done and what counts as supported or unsupported etc. He seemed content to do his thing and leave others to debate whether what he did was proper. I liked that. It seems a good place to be mentally – your run so your rules, others can figure out what means for them. My favourite talk though was ‘A Chat Between Friends – Nicky Spinks and Damian Hall’ which came across as really just that, a chat between friends. The ethos of trail running generally as well as just having a thing for going very long came across really nicely. It’s not about going fast, it’s about pushing yourself in other ways and enjoying the outdoors as you do it. Some of it is just about being smart and organised and good at navigating and good at preparing so you can keep going effectively when you don’t really want to. The same came through in the film ‘Wrath’ which followed Damian Hall and Beth Pascall on their successful FKT attempt on the Cape Wrath Trail a couple of years ago – 230 miles across what looked like stunning but difficult terrain in a Scottish winter. It was inspiring to watch and made me think about what my next impossible thing to do could be.

We’ve watched the talk on Sustainability in running yesterday evening which was also really good but also a bit scary. There is so much waste and often we just don’t think about it anywhere near enough. There is so much more we can all do here and I think it will probably make us think about things more in the future. We definitely do not need any more race t-shirts! Again I liked the realism of this talk, and the focus on each of us doing what we can, making small local changes that together begin to make a real difference. It resonated with what I have often told my students: To change the world you take small steps, bit by bit, little by little and it might not feel like much but it all adds up to making the world a better place. We all need to do more and I will try be more conscious of that.

The final talk we watched last night was the talk on mental resilience. I don’t like the term resilience but I think that’s because resilience is an overused phrase in my world and is often used to blame people who struggle to cope with unsustainable and awful conditions and situations and actually the problem is not them. Resilience is not a long term solution. It therefore took a little while to settle into the talk. However, in the talk, resilience was used in a more positive sense rather than as a way to shift blame for structures that are impossible to thrive in. It was about how you get through those tough bits of running long and while some of it was ultra specific – you have more time to go to the dark places when you run long and the physical exertion is on a different level so a different sort of mental strength is needed, much of what was said is also relevant for shorter runs I think. I quite like reframing the inner dialogue from inner demons to inner angels as a concepts – not sure I’d use angels because angels are bit freaky. But having a conversation with my younger non-running self about how amazingly well I am doing compared to what that younger me would have thought possible is a different sort of inner dialogue than the other little voice reminding me that by all objective measures I am a terrible runner. Reframing or constructing yourself differently, changing the way you think about what you are doing and/or why I think might also be a powerful tool. Certainly something to work with.

I’m looking forward to catching up with the remaining few talks and the film Via Alpina over the next few days but mostly I am excited to get back to running. I feel like I may be ready to step back out there. I might never go that long but I love the ethos of ultra running and trail running generally. I like the focus on being outside and in nature, of running your way, figuring out what works for you, fuelling right for you, not being afraid to walk, stopping for photos, not focusing on speed per se but focusing on challenging yourself, on racing – sure, but racing yourself or the terrain or simply the distance, not necessarily other people. It’s all my sort of running and I will try and focus on the joy of being outside, the joy of moving and the #MyRunMyRules mindset as I re-start my running journey once again. So Thank you ULTRA festival and I think I might well be checking out the ULTRA magazine.

A ‘not quite’ sort of day

1st of March. Hmph. Time seems to be flying and yet not moving at all. Time is weird. I went for a run today. I didn’t want to. I did a workout too this morning, didn’t want to do that either. I didn’t sleep well. My knees hurt in my sleep and I couldn’t get comfy at all and wherever I turned there seemed to be a cat making it impossible for me the stretch out or move. I didn’t make 30 miles in February – I nearly did but not quite – because I did not want to dodge all the people that the glorious sunshine brought out yesterday. They were everywhere and in hordes, even on the roads. So no quick 30 minutes to just tip the mileage over 30 and no 4.5 miles to fulfil my obligation to the plan.

Yesterday’s sunset

Anyway, I woke up early. Not that it felt like I had been asleep much. An exercise session was on my mind but I thought if I just keep quiet maybe that feeling that I should just get it done would go away and I could stay in bed drinking coffee, cuddling cats, watching the sun come up. Well there was no sun to be seen in the fog anyway and then Kath uttered the words I didn’t really want to hear: ‘I was thinking about doing a workout’. Oh sod it then, let’s do it. Let’s start the month positively. It was actually fine and I did feel better afterwards. There was a lot of ‘not quite’ in the session though, the not quite managing the same number of push-ups as yesterday, not quite sprinting on the spot until the timer beeped and not quite managing the bear crawl for 30 seconds… not quite.

I left my sports bra on as I had planned a run today and having to change bras is a major factor in not actually making it out the door (no? Just me? Oh ok). Kath headed out after she finished work. I was still faffing with stuff but decided I wanted to get it done. I wanted the first day of the month at least to go to plan. Well, not quite. I got changed and headed out. I felt cold. I rarely feel cold running and even if I do it’s only for a few steps really. But throughout the whole run I could not get warm. I couldn’t quite get into a rhythm, not quite. I was always not quite settled. I told myself that if I got to the end of the road and still wasn’t feeling it I would turn round and come home. At the end of the road I was neither settled nor more unsettled and on autopilot I just kept going. Everything though felt not quite right. I dropped to run/walk. I’m not sure why. I was going downhill. I had been quite clear in my head about the planned loop but now I just couldn’t face it. I turned off early and significantly shortened the loop. I kept going on run/walk. Sometimes though I didn’t run the full 45 seconds – not quite. I met Kath coming in the opposite direction as I huffed and puffed up a gentle slope. She turned round to come with me. From there it was uneventful, a walk up the hill, a run/walk home. I was supposed to do 30 minutes. I did 28.22 minutes. Not quite. I only covered 1.86 miles, not even 2 miles. Not quite. I also didn’t really feel better after the run. I felt better when I put my sticker on the calendar for today showing that at least on Day 1 I stuck to the plan – even if not quite.

Running Wins

I don’t feel like I am winning at much at the moment. Things I thought I knew and was sure about, things I sort of know I am good at, things I love doing… all have been put into question over the last year and particularly over the last 6 months or so. So I take my wins where they fall. And this week’s running wins are both so unremarkable and so bloody huge at the same time.

I have yet to hit 50 miles for the year. I haven’t been hugely focused on running. I haven’t forced myself out in bad weather, I have stayed in when it’s been icy and I have kept distance low and running intervals short. I have done more Body Coach App sessions than runs and I am ok with all of that. I am quite happy to not push too hard right now because my brain can only do so much at a time and doing routine things sometimes (but no longer most of the time!) uses up a very silly amount of brave. On Wednesday I did my Body Coach App session in the morning and it felt good to have got it done and out of the way. In the afternoon I was tempted to do naff all but put my big girl pants on to go out for my run. I fully intended to run/walk but as I set off my knee felt a bit funny. Not painful as such just a bit vague and unreliable. I decided I wouldn’t take the first walk break and just keep going to see if the knee settled. It must have done because I don’t recall thinking about it again at all. I had sort of settled into a nice little plod. As I made my way down the hill I thought I could always drop into the run/walk when I got down the hill. I didn’t. Soon I’d run the first mile and I felt comfortable so I kept going. I wondered if I could get to two miles – the route I had planned would have a killer hill at about 1.6 miles so I changed the route and went along the canal towpath. As I plodded along I started to think about running the entire 30 minutes. I never actually decided to do that. I just kept entertaining the idea and as I got closer to the 2 mile mark and ticked off little landmarks the notion of just keeping going until the 30 minutes was up didn’t seem ridiculous. It didn’t seem possible either but the idea wouldn’t let go and when I turned round with 5 minutes to go the psychological boost of ‘heading home’ helped get me there. I was very pleased with that indeed. It was 30 minutes nonstop and it was 12.35 minutes per mile pace. Happy.

Thursday was busy and I ended up not doing anything and then Friday I meant to go in the late afternoon again but my knees were sore from the Body Coach session earlier in the day. This morning though I went to try another 30 minutes. Kath came with me and we picked a different route. So setting out to run for 30 minutes without stopping is psychologically harder than sort of doing it by accident. The route was also different and not mostly downhill. It started down, then sloped up, then down a short sharp hill and then flat and slight down for a bit until it started slightly sloping upwards, though it is barely more than flat. This was about 20 minutes in and this was where it got really tough. Another 2 minutes along and we were in proper upward sloping territory and I had a way to go. I wasn’t sure I would make it up the slope so I had to decide between trying, dropping to run walk, turning off and doing a sharp downhill, flat, bastard uphill, slope down, sharp up and slope down instead. I went for the latter option thinking that if I could get my breath back on the down bit I could have a go at the first hill, recover on the slope, have a go at the second and then finish. The uphill in that particular loop is always further and steeper than I think and I nearly didn’t make it. Kath kept telling me that I was doing it. My legs didn’t think so but my brain seemed to lack energy and focus to question what it was being told so as I was doing it I did it. I did recover enough on the slope to power up the last little hill and then I only had 30 seconds left so I stretched my legs and finished strong. Happy.

I have one more 30 minute run to do this week and I will try running it all again. I might try the same route again and see if I feel strong enough to try the slope this time. I know in the scheme of running achievements running nonstop for 30 minutes is nothing, it’s unremarkable and lots of people do it every day. But somehow it felt like a massive milestone after the crappyness of my running year and craziness of the last 12 months generally. I could have cried after the first one and to back it up today was fab.

Happy Weekend.

Above the Clouds – Review

I am tidying the blog. Well tidying is too strong a word. I was scrolling through draft posts to decide what is worth saving and finishing and what I should just bin. Mostly I just binned things because they were things written about at a particular moment in time which are not really relevant anymore. I did think that this review was worth finishing though. I wrote it in September last year when I was really struggling with fitness and didn’t really know what was going on health wise. Not sure why I never finished the edit and posted it because the review was pretty much finished. So here it is:

A week ago I curled up on the sofa to read Kilian Jornet’s ‘Above the Clouds’. I am grumpy about not running or exercising much at all. I couldn’t get passed the 8 minute runs on the 5k plan and the Nike app just doesn’t seem to work for me beyond a week or so. I was and still am feeling unreasonably tired and this last week I have been for a few walks, slow walks, and I have been aching and tired like a ran a half marathon and didn’t stretch. I have a blood test on Thursday that will hopefully provide some answers. If everything is fine and I am just less fit than I ever have been then ok, well I guess I can work with that. But let’s just wait and see and then go from there.

I finished ‘Above the Clouds’ in an afternoon/evening and it is a nice and easy read. If you are interested in running and in particular running in the mountains then it’s worth a couple of hours of your time. But it’s not the snippets about training or races etc that stick with me from the book. Instead it’s the things left unsaid or hinted at. It’s clear that Kilian Jornet is not a people person and that he would rather just be running in the mountains or recording his thoughts just for him rather than sharing them with the world. There are passages of the book that made me smile because the reluctance to share too much of Kilian the person rather than Kilian the personality is tangible. Engaging with us, the public, through the writing is something he sort of has to do as part of the job. And presumably publishing the book then also means activity to promote the book and so more people stuff… So maybe I should start the review by saying thank you to Kilian Jornet for doing this, for sharing and for allowing us a glimpse into his extraordinary life and give us so much to think about and reflect on.

So the book provides an insight into Jornet’s journey that led to him climbing Everest twice within a few days and I really like that this is positioned both as something that has been in the making all his life and a sort of endpoint as well as just another thing he does. It’s that mixture of acknowledging the extraordinary while also recognising that for him that is actually just what he does, his normal if you like. This tracks through book and it made me think about how many people I would call inspirational just go about their normal life. For them, what they do is not special or record breaking or pushing boundaries (it might be but that’s not the point), it’s about them doing their thing their way. And in some ways this is so ill at ease with the social media world where clicks and likes are everything and doing your thing your way is difficult – particular where your thing your way does not conform to expectation. That juxtaposition between making a living doing what he loves – running in the mountains – and having to to the things which allow him to make a living doing what he loves – being an influencer and content creator – is an interesting one and one he clearly struggles with.

It made me think about social media and how we often view the sort of content created by these sporting greats. We see the big views, crazy mountain runs, snippets of what they choose to share on line with their sponsorship agreements and brands. That’s fine, that’s what it’s about. However it leaves a whole load of stuff unseen. We rarely get a glimpse of the ‘I can’t be fucked to get out of bed today’, ‘I am struggling with motivation’, ‘Everything hurts and I can barely walk never mind run’ stuff. It doesn’t fit with the influencer role. Except that there are glimpses of this in the book. Glimpses of losing the reason, the why, and therefore struggling. It also links, I think to something else Jornet writes about: The difference between training to compete or competing to train. It came as no surprise to me to read that Jornet competes to train. Throughout the book it is clear that his end goal is never about competition or records. It’s about him. Competition/races can provide motivation to train but the race is not the end point. I think maybe us mere mortals could also learn something from thinking about the difference between the two approaches – and we may take a different approach at different times in our lives. Practically I might do much the same but I think the mindset is completely different.

Something that resonated with me, which isn’t really about running at all, is the idea of home as feeling rather than place. Home for me has always been about a feeling not a particular place. When I say ‘home’ my meaning is completely dependent on context. I might mean the house Mum and I shared in Germany, I might mean my Dad’s flat in Hamburg, I might mean our very own corner of West Yorkshire. Sometimes it might mean a hotel room or a cabin or apartment. That’s not to say that I call every place I am staying at ‘home’. To me it’s a feeing of settledness and calm, maybe partly of familiarity but it’s more than that. It’s about what it feels like to be in the particular space. Home is Ilkley Moor when the curlews are circling, home is the flash of orange and blue as a kingfisher darts passed along the Leeds Liverpool Canal, home is the smell of Gl├╝hwein in Hamburg in the run up to Christmas or the icy blast of air conditioning as you come through the front doors of the Contemporary Resort at Disney. For Jornet home is always in the mountains but as it is for me, it is more a feeling than a place.

Jornet writes: ‘To me, sport doesn’t mean a life full of sacrifices but rather one full of choices’. This is sticking with me because it runs counter to how we so often think about life. The narrative of ‘achievements come on the back of sacrifices’ is really quite strong. Not just in sport but in other areas too – careers, relationships even. Reframing sacrifices to choices is a subtle but important difference in thinking about what we do and why. So some of the choices Jornet makes might seem extreme to us. The training he is capable of and chooses to do, the risks he chooses to take, yep, mad. But making choices to do x and y is a rather more positive way of thinking about achievements than sacrificing a and b to achieve them. So rather than sacrificing an hour in bed, I am choosing to get up and see the run rise during my run. Instead of sacrificing my chocolate fix and love of cake, I chose to bake my own healthier versions and instead of sacrificing ‘bad’ food, I choose to learn more about nutrition to help fuel my body better. Sacrifice feels imposed, unsustainable and a bit forced and miserable. Choice feels empowering, sustainable and positive. I don’t know if that’s what Jornet had in his head as he was writing but that’s what is sticking with me.

So overall reading the book left me with a sense of contradictions. Contradictions that are inherent in us all but which come out so clearly when someone like Jornet writes about his life. The book isn’t an amazing feat of story telling, it’s a bit chaotic and the sections don’t always link together easily. It’s not even a particularly well written book but there is something raw and honest about it. It is the story of an introvert who would clearly rather be running in the mountains than writing the book and who is certainly not looking forward to the promotional work the book will require. It’s the story told as it would be told in a cafe with friends with asides and tangents and chaos and an assumed familiarity with his life and work which sometimes means there is a lack of context. I loved the book because it felt real, it felt human and because there was no attempt to hide the lack of need for other people or the disdain felt for many of his fellow humans. There was also no attempt to gloss over the contradictions. Jornet comes across as supremely arrogant in some ways and vulnerable and humble in others. In other words, he’s human with all the flaws, contradictions and issues and the book not only doesn’t hide them, it acknowledges and embraces them. That’s rare in a book by or about elite athletes.

Happy reading.

January Round Up and February Planning

We finally come to January 31st (or 357th if you feel a bit like me), how are you doing? Even I am beginning to struggle with lockdown. I am not a people person, I’m quite happy not seeing people and am happy to keep in touch virtually but I would give quite a lot to sit in a coffee shop with a coffee that someone else has made for me and maybe a pastry and just watch the world go by. I don’t even mind doing that on my own, just being amongst people would actually be quite nice. So yeah, if I am feeling like this my heart really goes out to those of you who really need those face to face interactions and feel energised by them.

I thought I would have a little look back at January and share my plans for February. As I looked ahead to 2021 I really wasn’t sure what the year would bring in terms of exercise and fitness. I was anxious about starting running again and grumpy about the non-existent fitness levels. I knew I wanted to start again but I really wasn’t sure about how things would go. My review of the first cycle on the Body Coach App from the other day perhaps shows that things are actually going pretty well. Fitness and strength are very very slowly coming back. I am a long way from where I was at peak fitness (which wasn’t that fit really but a happier level of fit) and there is a long way to go but when I remember to not compare myself to when I was Dopey fit, I am happy with how things are going.

January running hasn’t been spectacular but there has been running! I finish the month on 29.65 miles (more on why not 30 in a minute) which I was initially a bit disappointed with but then I looked back and there are only 3 months with higher mileage since April 2019 and none of those months are loads higher (under 40 miles). So in the context of how running shaped up over the last couple of years, the crappiness that was flu or Covid just a little more than a year ago now and the post viral crappiness that took all my fitness (but if that’s all it is taking I know I am one of the lucky ones) and the snow and ice that stopped me from venturing outside, then nearly 30 miles is good going!

Every now and again I get grumpy about my inability to run consistently without walk breaks. I like run/walk and I think I will always want to use run/walk for longer distances but I really would like to be able to run 10km without having to walk. How hard can it be? I will get there again. Patience. I have mostly been running using 30/30 second intervals but sometimes I get bored so sometimes I run the first mile and then drop into intervals, sometimes I run the first 5 minutes and sometimes, on routes with steeper bits, I run when I can and walk the hills. I found 30/30 really quite hard at the beginning of the year and pretty much impossible if there was anything steeper than flat involved. It’s getting much easier although I still really struggle to breathe going up and I wonder if partly that is still a post viral hangover that is making it harder to get the air into my lungs.

I have mostly run from home and I miss travelling to places to run. I’d love a run on the beach at Seahouses or a hike up one of the Yorkshire 3 peaks or a joint run with Kath at Bolton Abbey. But, patience. I have been lucky in that my therapist is based at Bolton Abbey and I can therefore travel there to see her and then take the opportunity while I am there to run. I never go far though, partly because I am often tired after therapy and just a little gentle mile or so helps clear my head without adding pressure and partly because I get side-tracked by coffee and then walk back sipping it. I could go further and get coffee on the way back but that section is often busy and busy is not why I run at Bolton Abbey. When I went last I had the run from the Abbey to the Cavendish Pavilion all to myself. I didn’t see another human soul until I crossed the bridge and headed for coffee. Bliss.

Running from home has had its rewards though. It’s not a bad place to run. Even just on the roads round the village is not unpleasant at all and sometimes it is quite nice to have a nosey at people’s gardens. They might not be in full bloom or showing off all their glory but you can still see quite a lot and get ideas. Running along the canal has been mixed. Some days it has been too busy with people to actually be enjoyable. For example, today I turned back sooner than I had planned and went a different route making my run an out and back more than a loop really because the stretch of canal ahead was just full of walkers and I had already got tangled up with people who didn’t have their dogs under control which meant I had to stop until they had retrieved them before running on. But on other occasions I have seen a kingfisher and stood and watched for ages. I call them kingfisher breaks and they are most legitimate reason to stop whatever you are doing and just spend a few moments being in the presence of greatness. There is something powerfully restorative about seeing them perched on branches just above the water and then inevitably fly off in a flash of glimmering orange and blue.

Most of my running has been a couple of miles and then a walk up to come home, maybe a little over 2 miles but not much. I am ok with that. It’s actually all within the Disney 10km training plan that I am loosely following. That plan had me running (or run/walking) 3 miles today. Yesterday I looked at my mileage and got into my head that I needed 5 miles something to hit 30 miles in January and that I could totally do that even though that would be 2 miles more than the furthest run since goodness knows when. What I didn’t get into my head was that the ‘something’ actually meant I needed nearly 6 miles. So after having done my Body Coach App workout first thing this morning, I set off early lunch time to sort out these 5 miles something. I got half way down the first stretch of road, about 3 minutes in maybe and felt like turning back. Legs were tired and I was struggling to settle in the cold air. But you know, 5 miles something won’t just magically run themselves, so onwards. I looped round to the canal rather than running straight down to it – it’s a sort of cheap mile somehow and then plodded along the canal almost always sticking to 30/30 expect for the dog issue and standing in a couple of times to move out of the way of couples who clearly think they might be parted forever if they walk in single file.

I was going quite well when I bumped into a friend of ours and stopped to chat for a few minutes. I was about 2.5 miles in and intended to carry on along the canal for another mile and a half and then come back and loop up the former golf course and home. But like I said, the canal was busy and getting busier so I changed my mind, came off the towpath at the next bridge and ran along the road and back through the estate I’d run down earlier. It was hard going after that stop. I stopped my watch at 4.5 miles which happened to be just at a walk break because I felt sure my legs were done. I wanted to save the 4.5 miles run/walk and then just measure the distance home as part of the cool down. I knew it would be roughly a mile, just under. But once I’d walked for a couple of minutes I decided to have another go and ran a a couple of consecutive minutes and a bit more 30/30 so I actually ended up doing 5 miles of run/walk before walking up the rest of the hill home. I finished on 5.46 miles which wasn’t enough to make it 30 for the month. That’s ok though, my legs are tired and I am not going out again for the sake of round numbers. They’re just numbers and I am not quite sure why I’d got it into my head anyway. January finishes on a strong note.

Looking ahead to February, my plan doesn’t change much. I still plan to do the 5 Body Coach workouts each week and to run 3 times a week. The workouts have now moved to Cycle 2 and have stepped up a little as far as I can tell so far. If they end up being too much when combined with 3 runs then I will drop one but I think I can probably work round that by choosing some of the workouts which are a little easier or which are more gentle on the legs. My midweek runs are 30 minute runs on the plan so they are what they are – often I run a loop that’s slightly more than 30 minutes, I guess it might not be if I get faster. The weekend runs don’t increase much in terms of distance -they go from 40 minutes next week, 3.5 miles the week after, 30 minutes the week after that and then finally 4.25 miles in the final week of February. That’s what is on the plan anyway. You never quite know what I might decide to do. Given that I have been getting on quite well with 30/30 I thought for February I would step it up a bit and try 45 seconds running with 30 second walk breaks and see how I get on. I’ll let you know.