A good introduction to ultrarunning. Full of his own experiences with a few big ultra races; interviews with many of the best known names in the ultrarunning world; and quips and quotes about why and what of ultrarunning. I quite enjoyed the book.
It’s quite a contrast to Mimi Anderson’s book. What Mimi has achieved is many times over anything that Vassos has run. For instance, his hardest challenge was the Spartathlon, Mimi completed double Spartathlon in record time. But what he lacks in ultrarunning achievements, he more than makes up with his writing skills. This book is vastly more entertaining, informing, and inspiring than Mimi’s.
(Note to self: this is why I should hire a ghost writer for my autobiography)
A Cherokee parable from Tennessee:
An old man is teaching his grandson about life. ‘A fight is going on inside me,’ he explains to the boy. ‘It is a terrible fight and it is between two wolves. One is evil—he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, arrogance, self-pity, resentment and ego. The other is good—he is joy, peace, love, hope, determination, humility, fortitude, compassion and truth.
‘The same fight is going on inside you—and inside every other person, too.’
The boy things about it for a minute and then asks his grandfather, ‘Which wold will win?’
The old Cherokee smiles and replies simply: ‘The one you feed.’
‘You’re only delaying the inevitable. Your feet are permanently wet when you run up here.’
‘Clag’ is a mountain runners‘ term for bad weather around a peak. It usually means poor visibility due to cloud, and often involves damp and general misery. The word ‘clag’ gets used a lot. If you’re ever stuck for something to say around a mountain runner, just keep repeating the word ‘clag’ and watch them nod solemnly.
Some of the advice/instruction that sticks is: ‘Drink from any stream you like, but not from beneath the farm line’, and ‘If you’re in imminent danger of death, press your emergency button. But only if you’re an actual imminent danger of death. If not, you have a map and two legs—so please just sort yourself out.’
I get up most days at five and run for, like, an hour, an hour and a half before work. And I also sometimes fo some swimming or go to the gym in the evening—so I sort of double train. …
Running-wise, during the week, just an hour, an hour and a half every day and that’s always in the hills. Then at weekends, long distance—probably on average four hours on both Saturday and Sunday, again on the hills. Big days out on the hills.
It’s not hard to motivate myself to get up at give to run. I really enjoy being out. I never, ever get back from a run and regret having gone. We live in a really lovely area so I run straight from the house, right into hills. And I enjoy the feeling of running. Even in the winter, you go out and see owls, foxes and deer. It’s still really beautiful, even if you’re running at night.
—Jasmin Paris, elite ultra-runner and cancer researcher
I stop grappling with the agony in my ankle. You can be in pain without suffering. Radical acceptance they call it, and it’s enormously freeing. This doesn’t just hold true in an ultra. Life in general is better when you focus on the good stuff. I once read somewhere that ]the quality of an experience is directly related to the quality of your thought’.
It’s said that anyone who sleeps on the slopes of Cadair Idris will awaken the following morning a madman or a poet. The pace we’re travelling, spending the night up here is a proper possibility.
Eventually we make it to the summit, and make three unexpected new friends. One of them sis simply thrilled to be u there and doesn’t give two hoots about the lack of a view. He’s called Sherlock, and he is scampering and sniffing around delightedly. His tail’s wagging so hard, it might just gan away all the fog.
Sherlock the Beagle, I later learn is famous in mountain racing circles. He has more Instragram followers than his owners, Jen and Marcus Scotney. At almost exactly the same time as I’m meeting his dog, Marcus takes the race lead from the 2015 winner, Jim Mann, and it’s a lead he won’t relinquish.
There’s a ‘leave me alone and don’t speak to me’ area in the drop bag point.
When Goran Ivanisevic reached his first Wimbledon final, he was struggling with an injury. Asked if he might pull out, he said, ‘It’s the final of Wimbledon. Even if I’m dead, I’ll play.’
‘I shan’t wish you luck because if you have trained properly, you won’t need luck. And if you haven’t trained properly, then luck will be of no use.’
—John Foden, Founder of Spartathlon
Running has only recently been part of my life. Nature and my passion for being outside have always been there and I would not let anything take away that passion. Running, skiing, climbing, walking, gardening, farming—that’s who I am. That is how I define myself. I don’t define myself as a racer or competitor But yes, I love winning of course, it’s big, but at the same time it doesn’t matter at all.
—Emelie Forsberg, amongst world’s best mountain runners and partner to Kilian Jornet
‘With a shovel in my hands and dirt under my nails—that’s when I feel really alive and connected to the earth.’
—Emelie on her love of gardening
‘Love your hips, breasts, butt and belly. The fat keeps you warm. And healthy.’
—Emelie on body image
First you have to love what you are doing, and to love being outside. And that’s me. My passion is to be outside and to be running and to be climbing. So that’s bigger than the pain. Occasionally something will come up and of course, in that moment its painful and it can be hard. But looking at it another way, it’s what I love to do and the motivation of discovering, it’s much bigger.
—Kilian Jornet on running and pain
I’m reminded of something I once heard from an ultra-running veteran. He says in general life, he walks around feeling fit and lean like Mo Farah but on the start line of a 100-miler he feels like a sumo wrestler.
… in the five minutes I’ve been gone, Caroline has somehow calmed the dog and put all three kids back to bed. As well as tidied away m breakfast and helpfully left all the shoes outside the front door so I don’t have to come back in.
If it was the other way round, I’d probably have stuck on a film for us all
‘My motto is: I don’t find the time, I make the time. I say this to anyone who says they don’t have time to exercise. Taking into account the working day, a commute and a good night’s sleep, the average person has approx 60 hours of free time a week. I fit in the miles around work, family and an ultra-running husband by running to and from work, doing speed sessions at lunchtime and getting out early at the weekend. I don’t really get the opportunity to enjoy nights out, lie-ins, relaxing weekends or even wait for the rain to stop But that suits me as running is more important. I organise my training week—knowing exactly when I’m going to run—an I stick to ti. _If you want something, you will find a way._’
Debbie’s top 10 tips for 24-hour racing
- Don’t count the laps.
- Focus on lap splits or one hour at a time.
- Make the challenge to run for 24 hours—with the goal distance being secondary.
- Be prepared to reassess your goals. Possibly about 17 times.
- When you get to eight hours you will probably want to die. Embrace the darkness.
- Races are wond and lost in the last four hours, so don’t worry if someone is running Yiannis Kouros pace for the first few hours.
- Things happen in 24 hours that do’t happen in other ultras. Feet, nausea, …
- Treat yourself: keep your iPod for desperate stages, have a walking break on the hour, save the pee stop for the next hour. Trust me, it’s the best seat in the house.
- Smile and be polite to crew/volunteers. It forces your mind to stay positive.
- You have to really want it. If you don’t, you’ll find an excuse.
… aid station best practice. This involves calling out your race number as you arrive and asking for containers to be refilled with your choice of water, squash or sports drink. While that happens, you grab as much food as you can carry from the table. One of the added motivations to run quickly is that fewer grubby hands have been at the food before you. As soon as the newly refilled water bottles are returned, you set off, eating the food as you go.
This is why aid stations—certainly in the best-organised ultras—tend to be located at the bottom of lengthy hills, so you can briskly walk up whilst eating without losing too much time (as you’d be unlikely to run the hills anyway).
‘I just run. I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void.’
—Haruki Murakami, in ‘What I talk about when I talk about running’
Much has been made of running’s ability to make you mindful. Absolutely in the present. And that’s a wonderful, life-enhancing thing.
However, running can also be mindless, and that’s sometimes equally lovely. T.S. Eliot, the poet, described it as ‘idea incubation.’ To the inventor Alexander Graham Bell it was ‘unconscious cerebration’. And the original American advertising executive James Webb Young says it’s ‘unconscious processing’. Whatever you want to call it, it’s rather pleasant to be lost in your own random thoughts.
So the choice was clear: diet or gym. Stop eating whatever I wanted or start burning more calories. A tough call, both were equally appalling prospects at the time. But greed beat sloth in the battle of deadly sins—and later that same day I found myself tentatively arranging a personal training session.
… soon running became so much more than an easy way to keep the pounds off. Running sorted me out. Still does.
I’ve realised that id I’m ever in a funk, or stuck on something, I go for a run and when I get back, that’s it, mood improved or problem solved.
And running gives me space. Both space to thing, time to myself, and space in a physical sense—it’s whilst running that I feel most deeply connected to a place, whether that be magnificent mountain, fabulous forest or slightly smelly city street.
It didn’t come easy. Early on, every run was a struggle. I’d be puffing and hurting within minutes, with an atrocious gait and a string of injuries waiting around the corner. But even though all of that, through the muscle pulls, ankle sprains and ligament tears, I knew I’d stumbled on something life-changing and life-affirming. I didn’t have to be especially good at it, but this running thing, I concluded, was a shortcut to a better version of me.
The treadmill power hour
Four minutes at target marathon pace, one minute flat out sprinting.
Repeat x 12.
I get this a lot. Running such long distances, you must be mad! But am I really?There are clearly other options available to me today, sofa and pub being high on the list. But what’s good about a day that I’ll barely remember tomorrow, let alone years later? And firness-wise, is it more sane to spend your time in the gym, running on a treadmill, going nowhere, seeing nothing? There’s a quote I like from Abraham Lincoln.
‘In the end it’s not the years in your life that count, it’s the life in your years.’
A much younger child pipes up. He’s been desperate to say something but now he has my attention, he seems to struggle to find the words. Eventually he works it out. ‘Why are you going so… slowly?’ he demands.
‘Ha! I’ve just run from Athens and it’s honestly not nearby.’
‘Yeah, but still…’
‘So hurry up!’
‘Honestly, I can’t.’
‘Honestly, at least try….’
It’s one of my favourite ever conversations.
For around 40 hours after kissing the statue in Sparta, I can’t move my legs. Or rather, I can only move my legs if I use my arms to do so. The only physical way I’m able to get either leg from one position to another is to shove them there. Otherwise the legs just follow me limply about, attached by the waist but utterly incapable of independent action.
On that first night, I flop onto the mattress with my legs hanging over the side. And thats how I stay, sleeping in the shape of a twisted right angle. The prospect of having to sit up and somehow force the legs into a position where they’re not making my lower back ache is worse than the actual ache. I’m thankful that I’m too dehydrated to need the loo.
The Japanese call it Shinrin-Yoku, or ‘forest bathing’. Simply visit a natural area and enjoy all sorts of calming, rejuvenating and restorative benefits. It’s a cornerstone of Japanese healthcare.
‘I think as human beings we just forgot that this is what we need to do.’ —Claire