Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Following the Philosophy of Yiannis

             A surprising benefit of running the Desert Solstice race a few weeks ago was the goodie bag, which had a copy of the DVD “Forever Running,” featuring Yiannis Kouros.  For anyone who hasn’t heard of Yiannis, he is the best ultrarunner ever, holding many records including the World’s 24-hour record at 188 miles.  He set that record in 1997 and many believe it is untouchable.

            After returning from the race, while procrastinating over writing out holiday cards, I decided to distract myself and popped in the DVD to check it out.  Not knowing what to expect, I quickly became engrossed in this seemingly low-budget movie shot in Greek with English subtitles. Most of the DVD is Yiannis either running or providing insights into his philosophy of running and training, etc.

            It is hard to compare myself to Yiannis. I require more that 2 ½ hours of sleep a night.  I also do not run marathons in sub-3 hours.  I also do not have 150-plus World records! 

            It turns out, however, that Yiannis and I do have a few things in common.  Unwittingly, over the years, I have subscribed to some of his training philosophy.  I wholeheartedly agree with Yiannis’ observation that “some runners worship the body, simply run all day.  If I am to do this, I shall become inhuman and will not find inspiration in the race.  I practice a couple of hours morning and evening with many breaks.  Run too much, where is time for something else? … I disagree with speed and quantities; I do quality training with rhythm depending on the race’s needs.”

             I am also in the less is more camp.  Unlike many runners I know who spend their entire weekend running, I spend very little time running but instead enjoy time with family, friends and other hobbies.  Then, when I actually run a 24-hour race, the experience is very fresh since going into the race I haven’t run for more than 4-5 hours at a time.  For my preparation for my last 24-hour race at the North Coast 24 in September, I concentrated on speed work and running twice a day and had my best race ever!

            Yiannis also comments on the concept of patience in an ultra race.  “The verb ‘endure’ is not a physical verb, it’s a spiritual one. Endure means to withstand…you must be patient and then do solid training. Without patience, you will never conquer endurance.”   Also, “No one completes a race via his body but with his mind.”

            I too think of the 24-hour race as more of a spiritual experience than a physical one.  I find it to be a form a meditation.  In a 24-hour race, there are no physical obstacles, no need to pay attention to rocks, roots or see if you’re still on the course.  It is just running and, at its best, I tune out everything and just concentrate on running.  I ignore other runners since, as Yiannis also says, “we are not racing against co-runners but we are racing against nature, clock, time, distance.”  Those are the only thoughts that cross my mind as well.  I know that at the end of the race many runners who are faster and much more talented than me will have faltered so I do not pay any attention to them but only to the clock, time and distance….  You can be well trained but if your mind is not focused – a certain mental toughness – your body will not cooperate.

            Finally Yiannis sums up why ultrarunners run.  The rational in doing such a sport is to experience the extraordinary moments of ‘exceeding.’ You cannot experience them in normal life.”  Ultras are truly extraordinary events and it is for this reason that we all keep returning to run them again and again.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Desert Solstice - Breaking Records on a Track

            A few months ago, I received an e-mail from Nick Coury inviting me to a track 24-hour race in Phoenix called the Desert Solstice.  The purpose of the race was for record setting and as a qualifier for the 2012 U.S. 24-Hour team.  The idea of running a track race has always intrigued me.  Running at its purest.  Nothing to think about, just running.

            I had been fortunate to actually qualify for the U.S. Team at the North Coast 24-hour Nationals in Cleveland this past September.  I looked at the American age group track records, though, and the longer distances seemed beatable so I signed up to try to get at least one age group record.

            While having the best of intentions, since the North Coast race, my training has been a bit thin.  Curling 3-4 times a week cuts into the running hours.  As the race approached, I realized that I had done no long training runs since the Chicago marathon in early October.  This made me a little nervous so, the week before the race, I ran 20 miles on Saturday and then again on Sunday.  That would have to do.

            Before race day, the race entrants ebbed and flowed but at the starting line nine individuals were ready to run.  There were three women, Carilyn Johnson, Suzanna Bon and me.  We joked that we should all place in the race.  Both were trying to qualify for the U.S. team, Carilyn having been on the team in 2009 and Suzanna in 2010.  Three of the men were “only” running 100 miles and were lightning fast the entire time they were on the track.

Suzanne, me and Carilyn before the race.
            The 400 meter track was a rubberized surface at a local high school.  The straight-away surface was only a year old and the turn surface was four years old so the course was in excellent shape.  The track, however, was quite open with only some aluminum bleachers around part of it so nothing to block any wind.

            We started running at 8:00 a.m. under cloudy skies.  Weather initially looked promising but a fairly stiff breeze started blowing early on, hitting us in the face on one of the turns.  Then the clouds blew away, the sun poked out and it started getting plenty warm for a Clevelander used to GRAY skies and COLD weather!!! The aid station workers were awesome, however.  They had everything and so I bummed sun screen from them and also put a bag of ice on my head to try and keep me cool.  Regrettably, I had forgotten sun glasses since the forecast was for clouds and rain but I did remember a hat.  I originally was planning a fairly aggressive pace (at least for me) but decided because of the warmer temperature to run a little slower in the early part of the race.

My good luck charm watching the race.
            We switched directions every four hours so we could use some different muscles.  Every time I passed the clock, my pace per lap was displayed.  This was awesome as I could know every 400 meters what my pace was.  This kept me occupied for most of the race and believe it or not I did not get bored at all!  I really didn’t pay attention to much else.  By 12 hours, I was close to 72 miles, a very good pace for me.  I was shooting for 133 miles for 24 hours (American age group record) and that seemed doable if I had no major catastrophe!

            After the sun set, temps were cooler and downright pleasant.  Intermittently, a few sprinkles kept us cool, but nothing major.  Phoenix definitely has a dry climate.  I was drinking plenty of fluids or so I thought.  The first time I had to go to the bathroom, however, was 8 hours into the race!

            From the turning motion, I did develop some blisters on my feet.  I also think I had a small rock in my shoe that I didn’t want to stop to address, causing a blister on the bottom of my foot.  I probably should have stopped early on to fix my feet but I just kept going and started calculating what my time would be at the 100 mile mark.  There was a fairly soft age group record of 19 hours and 25 minutes.  I thought I should be able to beat that, no problem.  That became my goal and my fixation.  Round I went until I hit 100 miles, about 17 hours and 14 minutes.  Hooray!  I had a new record…. and I then promptly went to check on my foot situation.  By then it was raining, I popped a few blisters and then pondered whether to continue and try for the 133 mile age group record.  Based on my 100 mile split, I definitely had enough time to hit those miles… but I was not feeling confident that I could maintain a steady pace without a lot of discomfort, started thinking I was really not in great shape to continue strong for another 6 ½ hours and so decided to stop at that point.  I was very happy getting my age group 100 mile record, however, and now I have something to shoot for when I run another track 24-hour!

            Congrats to Suzanna for getting an American age group record for 100 miles (around 16:02) and to Carilyn for running almost 131 miles.  Also the super fast guys had a good day.  Mike Arnstein ran a 13:46 for 100 miles and Jay Aldous ran a 13:52, which was a new World record for his age group!

            Nick and his crew did an excellent job with the race.  Everything was spot on and I could not have asked for anything more.  Looking forward to trying it again!!