Finding peace in the pace
It has been a tough training week in many different ways.
I have hit week seven of my 14 week training schedule, and with that I also hit a physical and mental wall. I am training for the TransJeju, a challenging 56 kilometre trail race in South-Korea in October. I have never in my life run such a distance, so I am not sure what I am preparing for exactly.
For a significant number of years now, I have been an endurance athlete, although these words sound way too serious and “elite” for an average athlete like me. However, I have always taken my training seriously and tried to set my own goals. I got really serious about endurance sports when I decided to enrol in a triathlon in 2014. Having always been a really bad swimmer, fearful, unskilled and insecure, I thought that enrolling in a triathlon that involved a 1.8 kilometre open water swim would help me overcome this. I found a swim coach, went through all the emotional phases one goes through when overcoming physical and mental fear and got there. That first triathlon, finishing reasonably comfortable, really changed my perspective on my own physical and mental being.
Ever since 2014 I have been training diligently and have enrolled in a few different races, triathlons as well as trail running events, but I never did any “insane” distances. I know that “insane ” means different things to different people. I mean nothing insane from my perspective. This year I decided to enrol in this 56 kilometre trail race. I cannot say that I reflected a lot on this. I did well in a short trail running race earlier this year, realised that I was gradually running longer distances, so somehow I must have thought that this was a good time to take running to a more insane level, from the perspective of the average runner. This race will include a 1950 metre ascent of the Hallasan volcano on Jeju Island, and a total elevation gain of 2500 metre over quite technical terrain. The scenery will be extraordinary, but I am not sure how much I will be able to enjoy this during the race.
At this point in my training I have increased my distance towards 30 kilometres, which is a bit more than half the race distance. A bit more than half. This thought makes me feel slightly uncomfortable. I meticulously follow the schedule and every time I feel something awkward, a nagging cramp, a lightheaded feeling, a fatigue that isn’t supposed to be there, I try to diagnose the problem and adjust what needs to be adjusted. You could compare this process with a painter who is working on a painting that is nowhere near being finished, constantly making changes, adding a stroke, brushing something away, mixing colours in a slightly different manner.
As said, I am an average athlete, but I have stamina and endurance and a strong will in completing what I have started. I also enjoy solitude and a certain level of physical suffering, which are good starting points for endurance sports. Triathlons are perfect for someone like me, jack of all trades and master of none. You can pull off not being outstanding in one particular discipline and just plough through all three, like a 4WD steadily keeps ploughing through rough terrain without ever speeding up crazily. Given that that has been my training context for several years now, running just used to be part of a bigger thing. I could switch my focus. You could also compare it with a juggler keeping many balls in the air at the same time. This is what my daily life looks like, deliberately. I never really think about what would happen if I would drop a ball, I just keep cruising through the days. Back to the triathlons. You can thus afford to have a bad day when you’re running, but a better one in the pool or nailing it on the bike. But now, running has become the thing. There is nothing else to run off to.
I have always loved running, though. I run wherever I go. From South-Africa to Myanmar, from Germany to Cambodia. But now, running is serious. I have taken it to the next level. And this week in particular I have been questioning this decision seriously.
The weather has been horrible. The summer in Hong Kong is extremely hot and humid and this week we have been treated with excessive rain and thunderstorms. I don’t mind running in the rain, but heavy thunderstorms are just a bridge too far. Nevertheless I managed to stick to my schedule, but struggle to deal with the humidity, to name one of the many obstacles. Every time I ran, I felt like inhaling steamed cotton balls. At least that is what I think steamed cotton balls would taste and feel like. The heat is one thing, but the humidity, that is a different ball game.
I plan my really long runs around the weekend, to give myself time to recover. Last weekend was just painful and halfway through the week I was still recovering. Last Saturday, the heat and humidity, but also a sensation of a burning pain in my legs during the run, the kind of pain you can’t ignore, the kind that drives you insane and makes you think you’ll have to start walking or crawling soon, led to me questioning my plan. Then there was also this feeling of being overheated already after eight kilometres, while still having another 18 to go with some serious uphill in the middle. I somehow managed to finish both of my long runs last week, but went through some dark existential motions. And a sort of anger also came over me whilst running. Angry with the weather, myself, the sound of the lukewarm water in my backpack. Angry with the world.
Throughout the years, I have learned to deal with physical pain and overcome it, embrace it even, only on rare occasions I have felt like I couldn’t handle it anymore.
So, after last weekend, I started reflecting on everything that went wrong, tweaked my food, increased protein intake, carbs and started taking some supplements. Stretched more, cut back on the strength training a bit. But the gloomy dark feeling stayed. Even track and shorter hill training were a struggle.
Should I be doing this? Why am I doing this?
Recently someone said to me that my desire for endurance running must be rooted in a fear of death. Well. I still like to believe that there are other reasons for me doing this. I hope. Maybe. I am not sure.
As the week moved on, I felt more tired, achy and even my daily core and mobility training, something I normally really like, to the same level as liking blueberry juice or dark chocolate, became a drag. In short, I hit the lowest point of my training so far, mentally as well as physically. Last time I had found myself in this training state must have been about three years ago.
Then, on Wednesday, a little gem fell into my lap.
About ten years ago, Haruki Murakami wrote a book about running, called “What I think about when I think about running.” I have always been a fan of Murakami and have read an extensive part of his oeuvre. I knew he was (and still is) a runner as well as a triathlete, but had never read this book. Until this week. The timing was perfect. I can relate to pretty much everything he says, how he feels when he runs, why he does what he does and what kind of sensations are going through him when being at the start of a race. Murakami is a far more experienced runner than I am, but somehow, whilst reading this little book, I felt like I had a partner in crime. I felt like I know him personally and that he understands what I am trying to accomplish.
He writes how, while he runs, he thinks about a number of random things, and yet he can’t manage to describe what exactly he thinks about. I experience the same thing. I can usually recall how I felt, but not what what kind of thoughts crossed my mind. He describes how he deals with pain, how insecure he feels just before the start of a triathlon, having to throw himself into the ocean, dealing with elbows pushing into his side and the sensations that go with transitioning from swimming to biking to running. How he feels he has a bond with other runners he encounters during his runs all over the world. Every single word I could have written myself, just not that eloquently.
Murakami also runs with music.
I never used to do this, but recently, since I started running real serious distances, I started running with music. A good friend of mine used to teach indoor cycling and I attended most of his classes, not only because he was an outstanding instructor, but also because he turned out to be an excellent DJ, mixing the music in such a way that it blended perfectly with the pedalling, whether it was fast and light pace or pedalling with resistance. Although I know all the mixes by heart, which song will come next and how every single beat is mixed at which bpm – I am talking about beat, not about pulse – I still enjoy the music and it comforts me when I am heading out for long runs, avoiding having to listen to my own footsteps, helping me to keep the pace.
So, it had been a tough week and already yesterday when I was doing my cross training in the swimming pool, I was dreading the long distance run I had to get in today and the even longer one tomorrow. It had been raining heavily the whole day and by six o’clock it was still raining, like a mantra that would go on for hours. It turned dark, but my thoughts turned darker. Committed as I am, trying to ignore my inner voice, by half past six I got myself together, prepared my backpack with an excessive amount of water, plugged in my earphones and left. When walking through the village towards the main road I still had no idea where I was headed. I just kept repeating to myself that I had to get the distance in. This is very unusual as I always know very well which route I will take, where the stingy parts would be, what kind of terrain and what kind of inclination I would be facing. Today, I couldn’t even bring myself to thinking about the route.
But then, something extraordinary happened. Maybe it was because of Murakami, maybe because my training actually started to pay off, maybe because my body decided to stop resisting. Who knows. I started running, simply putting one foot after the other, one step after the other. My pace synchronised with the music: Gorillaz, The Prodigy, Iggy Pop, Everything But The Girl, Faithless, Moby (whose music has got the unusual capacity of adapting itself to any kind of pace and inclination, like it is molding itself into your running). And Nick Cave. Always Nick Cave.
I was also accompanied by something that was more than a drizzle and the darkness of the evening. After the fifth kilometre, sweat and raindrops were rolling down my spine and I was waiting for that dark existential feeling to pop up, for aches to appear and sluggishness to take over. When I hit the fourteenth kilometre, I realised I still felt good and I was heading for the country park, which meant that some serious hills were ahead of me. Still no feeling of dreadfulness or Nietzschean existentialism. Around the eighteenth kilometre, the drizzle merged into a proper downpour, but I couldn’t care less. I kept the pace, did not even slow down on the hills, drinking my three sips every ten minutes and feeling good. I could not possible tell you what I was thinking about during the run, but I am almost certain that around the twenty-first kilometre I was smiling and I might have even sung out loud. God is a DJ.
Somewhere halfway I squeezed the chocolate outrage into my mouth and remember enjoying the instant caffeine boost. At around the twenty-fifth kilometre, the downpour stopped and the last kilometre I spent under a dry sky, the air filled with a touch of freshness. I think I actually felt happy. I felt all the reasons why I was doing this, why I got into long distance running: I zoned out, tuned in, spaced out, zoomed in. Like therapy, finding peace in the pace.
If there is one quote I would have to choose from Murakami’s book “What I talk about when I talk about running”, it would be this one:
“For a runner like me, what’s really important is reaching the goal I set myself, under my own power. I give it everything I have, endure what needs enduring, and am amble, in my own way, to be satisfied. From out of the failures and joys I always try to come away having grasped a concrete lesson (It’s got to be concrete, no matter how small it is.) And I hope that, over time, as one race follows another, in the end I’ll reach a place I’m content with. Or maybe just catch a glimpse of it. (Yes, that’s a more appropriate way of putting it.)”