Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Arrhythmic Running

Running in Times of Despair and Hope

Figure 1a/b Running along Willamette River in Portland/Oregon – a city with a high ‘runnability index’ and my daughter Xenia pointing at a ‘heart’ mural in downtown Athens

My last running blog goes back to the running events in Afghanistan, while advising the government on urban planning issues for Kabul, its capital metropolis. This was end 2015. Since then I did not engage in competitive racing anymore, so I thought there was nothing to share and to inspire.  People only take inspiration from winners and good mood stories I thought, knowing deep inside it’s not entirely true. The truth is that I simply did not have the courage to accept life-changes that busted the running bubble I was inhabiting for the last decade, since I started running back in 2005. Since my first marathon in Radenska/Slovenia in 2007, my running and overall fitness performance curve remained in the uphill mode with some hard-fought achievements on the marathon and ultra-marathon distances - until you realise you can’t keep up the appearances anymore.

Main reason: the last two years my heart was seriously beaten up. - By the ‘election’ of Trump of course, and seeing this real-estate mogul trampling the constitution and international conventions, as well repealing the few progressive civil right legacies of the Obama administration. – By the downfall of social-democracy and reason in Europe, my home-continent. – By EU’s financial failures in general and the ‘financial waterboarding’ of my home-country Greece in particular – a testing ground for ‘hyper-austerity’ as Yannis Varofakis accurately framed it. – By the rapid environmental degradation of the blue planet and its protective shield, jeopardising future generations and the invaluable biodiversity. – By religious 'fanatism' of all kinds spreading as a cancer throughout humanity, trampling the merits of science and common sense. But in all honesty – at a personal level – most by some family and health kickbacks, including the death of my father (albeit in a very peaceful and remarkable way); a permanently mutilated shoulder (thanks to an unfriendly encounter with a brainless driver in my home-city Athens, parking his car on the pavement I was running); permanent ear damage or tinnitus (thanks to a popping ear during one of my long-haul flights to China last year) and last but not least Arrhythmia or Atrial Fibrillation (AFib) of the heart.

This ‘heart-injury’ - a runners most important muscle - was first diagnosed in highly polluted and overstressed Kabul/Afghanistan after the last races I reported on. The arrhythmic beating of the heart goes with an overall higher pulse - beating up my heart literally to a point that stripped my running abilities to jogging level – something I thought I would never surrender to.  My heart doctor advised not to run/walk more than 5-10k! After a period of denial, I just had to settle for a more sporadic and non-competitive jogging life, joining the growing league of ‘young AFib-ers’ that might be co-induced by intensive sporting. My decade-old mantra ‘Run to Live’ needed a humiliating but life-saving update: ‘Jog to Live’.

But there was also excitement the past two years. - Excitement to draft a global handbook on the application of the International Planning Guidelines (tampered by the uncertainty of publication). - Excitement to experience the birth of a first and healthy granddaughter (tampered by the realisation of my own ageing). – Excitement to see my youngest daughter ‘graduating’ from pre-school followed by entering the first grade in the local municipal school (tampered by worries about the educational downfall in Greece). – Excitement to spend more time with my lovely spouse and daughter at home in Athens (tampered by the degradation of street-life-quality in our neighbourhood). – Excitement to transform our flat roof into a green paradise enjoyed by many friends and family members. – Excitement to host my son and his girlfriend, my sister and her husband, and finally my widow mom, sharing my preferred city gems with them in Athens and Attica region. – Excitement to undertake some new professional adventures by travelling and advising countries from China over the Arabian Peninsula and Africa to the Caribbean and the USA, ending 2016 with the active participation in the Habitat III Summit in Quito/Ecuador and ending 2017 with a keynote lecture at the Balkan Architectural Biennial in Belgrade - and winning an award for work done in Wuhan/China (overall tampered by a downfall in income and job security as free-lance consultant). – And even excitement to watch Trevor Noah, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver and the likes testing the first amendment of free speech against Orange Hitler in the White (Nationalist) House.  But in all honesty again – at a personal level – the greatest excitement of all was the successful ablation (operation) of my heart, by forcibly restoring the rhythmic and low pulse beating of the heart. While a first electro-shock intervention early last year failed, a more serious ablation was executed during the summer, complemented by a medication regime to keep the heart in check – so far so good.

Figure 2a/b  Hiking up Pinchincha Mountain in Quito in Afib-mode, grasping for air /  Reaching Pinchincha peak at 4,700m altitude before 'running' back downhill
Did I really abstain from running altogether since the diagnosis of Afib/Arrhythmia? Of course not. In 2016, against my doctors advise, my longest running race was the Athens Classic Marathon, albeit in walk/run mode and finishing in a time just under 5 hours, 2 hours slower than my best time on that course in 2009. But given the difficulty of running with elevated heart pulse (up to 200 bpm at low running speeds), it felt like a victory of mind over heart. Apart from this ‘major race’ I only engaged in the Chios Half Marathon in 2016 – further reduced to the Chios 10k in 2017. During Afib I could not run any hill, do any interval workout or even run non-stop for much longer than 5k, especially under hot/humid weather conditions. Not easy for a guy who ran a sub-3-hour marathon and a 180km non-stop mountain race in 20 hours-some.

Figure 3a/b Finishing my 7th Athens Classic Marathon 2016 - in Afib mode (walk/run) - my last marathon-medal? / Running the 21k and 10k races on Chios Island in respectively 2016 and 2017

A memorable moment though during the Afib period occurred during a city run in Tehran/Iran, while attending a conference as ambassador of ISOCARP (International Society of City and Regional Planners). When cresting a hill in a nearby park, struggling to sustain the running mode, I suddenly felt a surge and flew up the mountain and all the way back to my hotel. After measuring my pulse, I realised I had relapsed into ‘rhythmia’ and out of Afib, in a natural way. Some days later however, while cresting a longer and higher hill back home, I relapsed back into Afib and felt like Icarus as he approached the sun with his waxed wings and fell back to earth. My joy was short-lived.

And yet, I kept on running whenever and wherever possible. Often more out of fear or remorse for the expanding waistline than out of pure joy as previously experienced – the ‘runners-high’ was on a record low these days!

After my last successful races in Afghanistan, a second place in the Bamyan Marathon and a first place in the Kabul 24h Marathon (in a multi-storey building!), I ran or jogged – I consider running at speeds of 10k/h and more - much shorter distances in all places I have travelled and lived since then: Dubai, Nairobi, Kenya’s Rift Valley, Minsk, Antwerp, Durban, Wuhan, Bogota, Quito, Athens, Willemstad, St Lucia, Kingstown, Chios, Shanghai, Abu Dhabi, Portland and Belgrade. I ran with heath, rain and frost. I ran until I had to walk and walked until I could run again, with average speeds below 10k/h, so technically no running at all. Through social media, I kept following my running friends their enduring and inspiring races and achievements, with a mix of admiration and jealousy. There were days I was in peace with the Afib state of running; overruled on other days with anger and disillusion.

This thus changed with the successful ablation of my heart in an Athens private hospital, taking the risk of a substantial out-of-pocket financial investment. The intervention lasted some hours and resulted in burning/freezing ‘tattoos’ around the synapses of the heart, to deflect the ‘bad’ electrical signals causing the arrhythmia (and also ‘heart flutter’ as they discovered during the operation). The operation was declared technically successful, but it remained to be seen if the heart would stay into rhythm of relapse into Afib again. Daily medication for the next 6-12 months should support the status quo, with the side effect of reducing my VO2 Max or lactate threshold – practically capping my pulse in the medium range.

Figure 5a/b Successful heart ablation in Athens hospital in June 2017

This ablation happened in July 2017 and now we are 6 months further down the line and so far, so good. After a recovery period of a month I started rebuilding my lost running fitness on the island of Chios, a wonderful place to run, bike and swim, culminating in finishing the local 10k race in less than 60’, meaning it was a run and not a jog! A small but meaningful achievement. Upon my doctor’s recommendation I kept running distances and speeds at bay, not to provoke a relapse into the fold. Yet I could finally enjoy running again and go out more often. Without pushing too hard, I could finish a second 10k race, here in Athens, in 53’. Slow compared to my best-time of 38’ but better than in Chios and a PR since Afib-diagnosis. Even more glorious was crossing that finish line in the Agios Kosmas Stadium together with my youngest daughter Xenia, who earned her very first 2k race medal at age 6. Xenia is training 4 times/week – two days running and two days gymnastics – passing the baton to the next generation.

Figure 6a/b Finishing the Athens/Kosmas 10k race and crossing the line with daughter Xenia - November 2017

Of the non-competitive training runs since the heart ablation – and apart from the aforementioned runs in Tehran and Chios, four stand out in this difficult period - Glyfada, Portland, Belgrade and Chortiatis/Thessaloniki.

 In Glyfada, my home-city in the Athens metropolis, I ran countless runs but the one with Martin Cordoba stands out because it brought back the special memories to the Spartathlon race, possibly the most enduring foot-race on this globe. I attempted twice to cover the 246k-long race from Athens to Sparta, but failed – mainly due my inability to run with heath. It was a watershed-race in the sense I finally found my limit, something my body could not digest. Of course, I could have tried again and again, but instead I accepted the red line, maybe because my heart was already sending coded messages, who knows. The day before the 2017 edition of the Spartathlon, I caught up with age- and soulmate Martin Cordoba, a passionate ultrarunner from Argentine, who achieved two completed races out of five attempts. This was his sixth participation and eager to get the balance right. He accepted my invitation for a last training run the day before the great day. We ran 10k and I hardly noticed the time or distance while talking the way ultra-runners do: about everything and nothing. To my great amusement and admiration, two days later, Martin crossed the finish line for the third time. I ran the entire distance on his side in the virtual world. 

In Oregon Portland (USA), while attending the World Congress of ISOCARP on ‘Smart Communities’ last Septem,ber, I enjoyed a 20k run with a Canadian and Polish friend/partner in crime. We ran at dawn with crisp air and blue skies along both sides of the Willamette river that runs through Oregon/Portland. Despite being seriously undertrained and overweight I felt like running in my better days, finishing fresh and ready for a long day of speeches and events. With Michael and Slavek I also share a passion for comparing runnable cities and writing about it. With Michael I co-authored an article on Running Wuhan, soon to be published in a magazine. Running with running soulmates is great and running with professional running soulmates is a real blessing. Portland proved to be a quite runnable city, making the transition from car- to people-centric city I would like to see happen one day in my home town Athens – currently a sacred place for motorized four- and two-wheelers. Running in Portland reminded me of my Boston Marathon – the year of the pressure-cook-attack – and the joyful training and recovery runs along the Charles river. Runnable cities are just great for everyone!
In Belgrade, where I attended the Balkan Architectural Biennale, I had the chance to run along the Sava and Danube river, from and to the old city district, through the famous Kalemegdan city park with its medieval fortress. But most of all I was thrilled by a train run in the metropolitan forest park just outside the core-city. On a crispy Saturday morning I joined the Belgrade Runners Club to run a 10k loop in the muddy forest, ending 3rd place in a competitive training run. The 3rd place is in this case totally irrelevant but being able to maintain a certain pace on the uphill’s is no less than a great feeling since the heart ablation. Also, the spirit among the Belgrade runners, in a society drained by socio-economic downfall and backward nationalism, was more than heart-warming and promising for the future of this beaten up Balkan city.  If both Belgrade and Athens, the two main Balkan cities could learn from e.g. Portland how to turn down toxic cigarettes and cars, I would be glad to ad a Balkan tier to my already multi-layered identity.

Figure 8a/b Running in Belgrade's Kalemegdan Park at the bifircation of Sava and Danube / Finishing 3rd in a training run of the Belgrade Road Runners in Topcider City Forest, making Belgrade a decently runnable city

Of cigarettes and cars I did not suffer on my last run of last year, a 35k hike/run from the valley to the peak of Chortiatis Mountain northeast of Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city. The day before I seduced my spouse to undertake a 16k reconnaissance hike to the refuge just under the peak, rewarded by a great meal around the fireplace. The next day I doubled the distance in a walking and running mode, not to trigger a relapse I would definitely regret, with blue skies and a caressing sun, awarded by a superb mountain view overlooking Thessaloniki city and bay all the way up to the sacred Olympus Mountain, which I have crested and raced multiple times. I arrived back in the valley at the time of a sunset combined with a rising orange supermoon – magic and a happy end of my longest walk/run of 2017. Two days later, I started the new running year with a beautiful 12k run at Volvi lake, at the base of Chortiatis mountain, rewarded by a rejuvenating thermal spa-treatment in Apollonia. The new year could not start better.

Figure 9a/b Hiking/running on Chortiatis Mountain (with my spouse Maria) and along the shores of Volvi lake nearby Thessaloniki in northern Greece

So, on a final note I could say ‘we’re back on track’, albeit in some different modus. I am saddened by the realisation there is no way back to the previous level and running life, not of racing my beloved marathons let alone ultra’s, but its good and important to set new goals and ambitions within my healthy perimeter. As I long as I can run, I exists. What will 2018 bring? We don’t know but it helps to be ready and open-minded to seize opportunities within reach. Meanwhile, let’s hope all the world problems will be solved in 2018. Have a good year too!

Frankly Runner

Monday, November 23, 2015

24 hour Race Kabul

Running around the clock for Deba & Nageena

Race report Ultra Compound Race Kabul

Posing with Deba (back), Nageena (front) and their parents and little brother
after being awarded as best male runner

After completing the first international Afghanistan marathon last October I was sure there wouldn't be another race to run anytime soon in this war-torn and security-paranoid country. I was actually looking for a marathon to replace the Athens Classic on 8 November, to which I had signed up (and paid for) but couldn't take part because my first recreational break could only be granted one week later. I was thinking about the Istanbul marathon on 15 November - never done before - a good way to run from Asia to Europe on my way home to Athens. Until I received a strange email with the announcement of a 100k/24 hour charity race/walk in downtown Kabul, on Friday 13 November. Wasn't quite sure if it was serious: running 100k within 24 hours in a city with zero freedom of movement, at least for internationals and UN-staff in particular - where, whom? The charity cause however was more than serious: raising $100.000 to help Deba and Nageena - two poor Afghan sisters - with a life-saving bone marrow transplantation in an Indian hospital. I called organiser Dave Lavery and I agreed I would sign up after I saw the race venue and checked with security about its safety.

Roof-top race course marked by cones and a code not to bombard this place
The 6 floor running course
Next Saturday I was dropped off at a gate of a compound close to the popular ‘Butcher street’ in downtown Kabul. Security guards with automatic guns let me in and led me to Mr Lavery - a tall well built, grey-bearded jovial and vocal Canadian expat with many years of Kabul in the backpack. In the typical Canadian no-nonsense style, he immediately showed me the race-course. While walking next and behind Dave - in many sections there was only space for one runner at a time - my eyes must have must have looked more and more puzzled - was it possible to run 100km or more on this 875m lap of which only 300 meters outdoors and 575 meters indoors in an empty residential building over 6 floors connected by 220 stairs, from basement to roof-top - with splendid views over Kabul and surrounding hills? Dave might have noticed my ‘puzzlement’ but reassured that security would be UN-compliant, with Nepalese ‘ghurka’ soldiers fending of any possible attack - sic. After this commitment I had no arguments left in the pocket not to confirm my participation next Friday.
Obviously there was no time left to train properly for a race like this. This year wasn't very successful on ultra-running so far - my longest distance was not more than 62 km, in a mountain race in Northern Greece (Zagori mountain run), not even completing the full 80k. Now I was supposed to run 100km or even longer within 24 hours. I would go with the flow - there was no pressure to perform or to compete. The decent performance at the Afghanistan marathon some weeks ago should suffice to confidently aim for a distance beyond the marathon mark - despite the odd course of maybe the most compact ultramarathon in the world and human history.
The 220 steps of the staircase between basement and roof-top

The entire week leading to the race it was raining and very cold in Kabul - under these circumstances it would be nearly impossible to run the slippery surfaces, stairs and sharp turns. But the race was on Friday the 13th, usually my lucky day since my birthday on the same rare combination more than half a century ago*. Friday morning was still cloudy but skies would be blue by the time of the gunshot - a nice prospect to start the race. I arrived well on time to organise my pit-stop with my choice of drinks and foods to keep going, as well some warm clothes for a night that would flirt with freezing temps. BBC Persian and a national Afghan TV (Tolo) showed up for interviews footage with focus on the charity story around Deba & Nageena who were present with their lovely parents.  All runners - around 30 national and internationals, fairly gender balanced to Afghan standards - had the chance to meet and greet with the family - a strong moral boost to keep going for their well-being. I paid my fee and got race shirt No13 in return - a positive sign?

Ready to go
At 12 PM sharp, Dave Lavery finally blew the whistle and there we went - stepping into a new adventure. The first laps were quite hectic with many runners starting way too fast and bumping onto other slower runners on stairways and narrow alleys. Race director Dave was not only running himself but also correcting other runners on the course to keep left on the stair- and doorways. First laps passed quickly but also made clear this would become a tough race later on, both physically and mentally. Only the first 3 hours I could complete 8 laps per hour but needed to wind down to seven to save energy for the long haul. After 8 hours of endless laps, narrow corridors, thousands of stairs, hundreds of floors and rooms in and out - I needed a first longer break of around 30’ to restock carbs and proteins with a hearty meal of grilled chicken breast with rice and carrots, accompanied by a can of malt beer. That hour I could only complete 3 laps, the lowest number of the entire race. The next hours I only logged 5 laps per hour but I kept going while other runners took longer breaks or simply called it a day with sore knees an battered quads - some of them would later resume running and walking after a few hours of sleep.
A brief break with nurse Kim
In the wee hours after midnight there were only three non-stop-runners left that seemed to compete for the longest distance: Dave, the organiser, Sean MacGillivray, a Scottish endurance athlete running non-stop with a backpack of 12 kilo’s (no kidding!) and I. Some younger Afghan runners went to bed after midnight, claiming they ran more than 70k and would wake up on time to complete the last 30k before 12pm next day - a claim that the organisation commented with some skepticism. The counting of laps was not electronically but based on verbal communication to nurse Kim, who was not only standby for med-support but also registered the hourly number of laps on a big white board.  I found it very difficult to memorise the number the laps per hour - your mind is not working properly throughout such an ordeal - so I kept track of my laps by marking every lap on my own whiteboard. How many times I got so disoriented that I ascended the rooftop floor a second time instead of going down - with other runners correcting my mistake. But despite the monotonous laps and frosty and wacky cold night I can cope with the much-feared sleep deprivation and mark lap after lap, thanks to a shift from running to fast walking.
Running through the night with some beats
View from the roof-top shortly after sunrise
I reached the 50k mark around midnight and managed to log the 100th lap by sunrise - the magical moment when the night is pushed away by a new dawning day - with a golden sun reflecting on the frozen damp on the rooftop - making it extremely slippery - and reflecting its rays on the surrounding mountains with their pink coloured snow cover - pure magic. Even the patrolling Nepalese ghurka’s were at awe. I kept going and by 8AM I finally reached the goal mark of 114 laps or 100 km. 100 km in and around one building! Now it was time to listen to the competitive voice in me. Where are the others and how far and fast will the they go? Sean looked stronger and faster than ever and I was sure he logged more laps than I did so far. Dave have some setbacks due to medical tests but picked up the pace after sunrise. Also the young Afghan runners - some very committed young men and women - rose from their beds and were running again. As I could not read the running minds I decided to break the fast with a superb omelette and then add some more laps to compete for the lead. Around 11:30 it was clear I was out of reach and concluded the last lap, number 130, totalling 113,75 km and 28.600 stairs or 13 vertical km’s up and down. Sean already quit the race when he reached the 100k mark but Dave continued until the 12pm gong and accumulated 119 laps or 104,125 km. 

The 'podium' with Sean (3), Dave (2), Frank (1)
The podium positions were clear and of course I was happy with my win, but hats of for Sean with his 12kg backpack - an outstanding performance as Dave later said - as well for Dave himself - running strong at age 55, with only one kidney, coming back from a long recovery, running while organising and running while sampling blood every couple of hours - ‘il faut le faire’. Also hats of for the young Afghan runners that kept going until the gong, some of them - and Zainab in particular - the only Afghan woman finishing the Afghanistan marathon some weeks earlier - running, walking and finally limping a large part of the race in pain. 

BBQ with award for best female (Afghan) runner,
flanked by some other brave young Afghan runners
The race event was concluded with a great BBQ meal and some time together with the lovely sisters and their mom and dad. I was awarded with a gift box with Emirates goodies and a nice certificate as Best Male Runner. After the race I went straight to the gym of Alpha compound, not to run more but to enjoy a cooling-down swim and a re-heating sauna and hammam. Maybe thanks to this early-recovery workout I only experienced mild soreness the days after the race. It was not the legs but my lungs that needed most time for recovery: running 13 vertical kilometers at an altitude of nearly 1.800 meters with heavily polluted outdoor air is certainly not ‘trouble-free’ for a runner with a history of asthma like me. That was also the main reason why I was forced to a brisk walk for the second half of the race - but it was also the key for success as I could keep going without breaking down. It was my first completed 24 hour race, actually the longest race I ever ran in time - not in distance (that was Olympia Race in 2012 with 180,1 km in 20h15). In any other ’normal’ 24 hour race a distance of 113 km would be considered as a turtle-performance, but this race was everything but normal - it actually might qualify for one of the most compact ultramarathons ever, ‘thanks’ to the extreme security conditions imposed upon expats in Kabul. Once more it is proven that nothing is impossible and that there are no good excuses not to run, wherever, whatever.

Apparently, the entire event was ‘interesting’ enough for the BBC to make a short reportage for its Persian broadcasting (see link below) but lets not forget the cause: the solidarity with the Thalassemia sisters and their parents. The event raised around $10.000 or 10% of the needed funds. In other words more funds are most welcome, so please also donate - my race fee of $125 went entirely to the fund.

Frankly runner
Athens, 23 November 2015

*) with all my respect to the victims of the horrible killings that day in Beirut and Paris

BBC Persian; http://www.bbc.com/persian/afghanistan/2015/11/151115_l93_kabul_marathon?post_id=768770843_10153780780585844#_=_

For those that want to support the worthy cause please visit the Gofundme site; https://www.gofundme.com/sx6kh7fk/donate please spread the word so we can ensure we raise the necessary funds for Deba and Negeena. Thank you!

Friday, October 23, 2015

Afghanistan Marathon Race Report

 Race report

It’s Friday morning 16 October and I am 43 km out of Bamyan town towards Band-e Amir National Park in the Central Highlands of war-torn Afghanistan, 3100 meters above sea-level. At 9:04 AM, race director James Bingham blows the whistle to kick-start the first International Afghanistan Marathon, jointly organized by Untamed Borders, Free to Run and the local Silk Road Event club. I am the last one to cross the imaginary starting line, marked by two race banners, literally in the middle of nowhere in this majestic rugged landscape, surrounded by snow-capped mountains. Only now it sinks in this is really going to happen. For many reasons this is not just another marathon race - one in the many dozens I’ve ran so far. 

Only ten days earlier I arrived in Kabul to embark on a new UN-mission to advise and support the Government and President on urban development issues. On my two-day layover in Dubai I must have picked up a virus, causing an infection of the upper part of my precious lungs. Two days ago I was still coughing up my lungs and could hardly train. My training already lost focus the last couple of weeks since I knew I could not be back on time to run the Athens Classic as planned. When I found out about the Afghanistan marathon a couple of weeks ago I thought it could be a nice replacement but was pretty sure I wouldn’t be allowed to run it because of security risks, provided the race would happen anyway. The Taliban was just pushed back from their brutal attack on Kunduz but they demonstrated how easy it is to terrorize and create a state of fear. I spent my first week in Kabul in splendid isolation in a UN compound, under security curfew due to high alert of attacks on UN compounds in the capital – with entire restriction of movement. With the combination of a severing lung infection and security threats I could only dream of lush Afghan highlands, let alone running a marathon. Yet, against all odds, I finally applied for a UN security clearance to travel to Bamyan, bluntly indicating the real purpose (I could have faked a business trip). To my big but pleasant surprise the trip was cleared two days before the race. A race against the time started to figure out how to get there, where to stay overnight (safely), how to move around there and last but least to register for the race if still possible an if the race was still on. 

No wonder it felt like a miracle just to drive out of the compound and heading to the airport, still anticipating a last minute cancelling of the flight due to security risks. Uttered a sigh of relief when the small plane finally took off and landed safely at the small Bamyan airstrip the day before the race. I was warmly welcomed by the local team of my agency and after a courtesy visit to the office I went to the registration centre in Buddha cafe. In no time I was handed over my bib number - it started to sink in this could really happen.

The office team took me on a tour through the nearby Buddha caves, a truly unique UNESCO World Heritage Site with what once were the biggest Buddha statues ever made, until the Taliban blew them to pieces in March 2001, as ultimate humiliation of the local Muslim population that cared for its Buddha’s. However, Bamyan bounced back and is now a thriving and relatively progressive multi-ethnic community, welcoming a growing number of Afghan and foreign tourists in a stunning landscape setting. While admiring the views of and from the Buddha caves I motivated three local office colleagues – two gents and a young dynamic lady - to sign up for the race, which they did just before closing time. Moving others to run and push their limits can be as rewarding as running yourself! I was driven to my hotel - Highland Hotel, built as a small fortress on a hill overlooking the entire Bamyan valley – and warmly welcomed by manager Parul, an Afghan archaeologist with excellent knowledge about the region, its people, its history and its multiple local legends that testify a unique blend of different cultures of East and West. The Highland fortress also happened to be the hotel of the race organizers and even more pleasantly surprising, the finish line of tomorrow’s race - while I thought it would be more downtown. I couldn’t wish for a better briefing on the race, accompanied by excellent Afghani food.

Next morning, after breakfast, my office running colleagues showed up timely to drive to the starting line, ahead of the official race vans. It reminded me to the Athens and Boston marathons, where you also drive the race course and then run back. It gives you more than just an idea of the race course: you notice the hills and the sheer length of the one way road. Once at the starting line I was happy to meet ultra-runner Stephanie Case, whom I know as colleague while working in Gaza, and driving force behind Free to Run, an NGO aiming at empowering young Afghan women and girls to run in this male dominated and women unfriendly society. She came with an entire bus and contributed substantially to a high share of more than 40% female runners, high overall and of course especially in Afghanistan. Hats off!
The next surprise was the timely start, which I nearly missed as I thought it would take the usual delay. I deliberately started easy given the high altitude (3100m), the fragile condition of my lungs and being slightly undertrained for running an oxygen deprived marathon. I was here to complete the race; not to compete. Some other international runners took of much faster and most of the local runners went out weigh too fast, as if it was a sprint. 

Although gradually going down to 2550 meters altitude in Bamyan, there were also some uphill’s to negotiate. The weather was overcast and temps below 10 degrees Celsius – ideal running conditions for me and allowing me to push a bit on those hills, picking up more and more runners gasping for air while over-striding. Only after cresting the hills I had to make some brief stops to cough up the toxic waste in my lungs – painful but controlled. At the halfway mark I was handed over refreshing watermelon while informing that I was running in 10th position. That must have been a decisive moment to shift from completing to competing – I had nothing to prove nor to loose and I was still enjoying the stunning landscapes on both sides of the road. For long time you don’t see any runners in front of you and all the sudden there are a few within reach. International runners usually keep their (slowing) pace while most local runners could not bear the idea of being passed and clinched on until they broke down and were forced to walk, which indicates they are really doing something new and inexperienced – again hats off! When I reached the last check-point I was told to be in second position, but too far behind the lead runner, Keith MacIntosh (UK) who was running at a blistering pace. The last 7k I struggled a bit with raising temps, sun, lungs and glutes but could keep my position, as I didn’t see any runner at far distance behind me, at least not on feet. Crossed the line after 3 hours 49, which could have been maybe 20 minutes faster if I started a bit faster, had clean lungs, had more prey to hunt and didn’t suffer a bursitis hip injury towards the end of the race – still struggling with it. However, it was a marvellous experience to cross the finish line after a memorable race with unexpected outcome. 

Being sure I finished second I was informed I was actually third. How come? There was a lot of buzzing about cheating with a motorbike but the mixed race jury finally rejected a disqualification, which would have resulted in a podium with only foreigners - maybe undermining future competitions. I didn’t really bother too much about this ‘setback’ and cherished my ‘bronze medal’ and a call onto the podium - a feat that felt surreal anyway, given the antecedents of this race.
Next day I joined race initiator James Bingham on a trip to the stunning Band-e Amir lakes 80 km out of Bamyan, while sweeping all the plastic bottles along race course. Band-e Amir is the first National Park in Afghanistan and more than worth it – a chain of 6 deep-blue glacial lakes surrounded by sandstone cliffs. It could be the perfect setting for the first Afghanistan Ultra-marathon…(and yes, James is considering it one day). Later in the afternoon the running team of my agency took me also on a ride, this time to a volcanic mountain with a ridge that was cleaved by a big sword to kill the dragon in the valley, with strong reminiscences to the legend of Saint Michael. A nice place to conclude this extraordinary journey before heading back to dusty and jammed Kabul next day.

Post scriptum
My last running blog on franklyrunner.blogspot.com goes back to February …2014. What happened in between and why write again? Was the Afghanistan race so exceptional or were all races in between so bad? No and maybe yes. The dedication to overcome many hurdles to get to the start and then running a decent race in a war-torn country despite all the adversities feels like a greater achievement than running a faster but ‘normal’ marathon. On the other hand this was just a marathon while I thought I was an ultra-marathoner only writing about marathons as trainings for  primary ultra runs. And indeed, since the longer-distance races were not working out that well anymore since a series of very promising races a couple of years ago, such as Swiss Alpine marathon (78k), Comrades in South-Africa (89k), Psara-Allepochori (100k – 7th place), Megara (125k – 2nd place) and Olympia (180k – 3rd place) all in Greece, my appetite to write about a growing number of failed ultra-races ebbed away since my second DNF in the ultimate ultra-run from Athens to Sparta – the (in)famous Spartathlon – see my last race report of February 2014. Since then I only had more disappointing ultra runs while also my finishing times on the classic marathon distance went gradually upL. Although I always claimed that participating is more important than performing or even completing, the truth was probably hurting a bit, but not enough to bother writing about it. 

However, I never failed to raise and run again after falling and failing. Last year I still ran around 10 international races of marathon or longer distance, including a memorable ‘short but intense’ 55k run in Iceland and a 62k run from Ancient Nemea to Levidi in Greece. I was also unlucky to start well trained and motivated in the 100 miler in the Virgin Forest in Northern Greece autumn last year, struck by a winter storm/blizzard and cancelling of the race after only 35k mud/snow running – wisely since many runners including myself suffered severe and life threatening hypothermia. This year was not much different. I ran five so-and-so marathons during spring - all in too hot conditions for me – and failed to complete the brutally beautiful 80k ultra Zagori mountain run in northern Greece, despite a training week with my coach Robbie Briton around Chamonix at the foot of the Mont Blanc, some weeks prior to the race. I basically gave up dreaming and signing up for other ultra-races and be happy with ‘simple’ marathons , thus happy to have seized the opportunity to run the first international marathon in Afghanistan. Since there is little chance to find other local races this will be it for this year so time to look forward and plan races next year – despite the great uncertainty where I will work and live. But the bottom line remains that there is never a good excuse NOT to run, train and discover new places or rediscover old places. Aging and/or a demanding profession might grant some excuse for running slower and shorter but not for NOT running and NOT trying to push again the readjusted limits of speed and distance. Paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw there is a say that
“We don’t stop running because we grow old, we grow old when we stop running”.

See you on the road!

Frankly runner
Kabul, 23 October 2015

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Running the Edge
Running Report 2013 - Outlook 2014

My last Running Report goes back to the end of ...2012 - that’s more than one year I didn’t write on my running. I could blame it on the new professional challenge I started back in January 2013, working with UN-HABITAT in the occupied Palestinian territory. But a year later the job remains more than ever challenging and yet I write again. So there must be another reason. It may be the simple fact that running and especially racing didn't go that easy and successfully as in previous years - in the year of turning 50. No new PR’s, no cups or podium finishes, no longer distances covered in a race in 2013. On the contrary, a new record of 3 DNF races in one season: Olympus Mythical Trail (ran 85 of the 100k), Lakeland 100 (ran 60 of the 100 miles) and - for the second consecutive time - the Spartathlon (only 93 of the 246k). Other races I started as well finished were the hilly and winding Jerusalem Marathon (in 3:24:07 - 4th in my age group), the unforgettable Boston Marathon (in 3:05:33), the first and rainy Palestine Marathon (5 days after Boston in 3:30 - 5th overall), the tough but magnificent 80k Braveheart Cyprus Trail (in 13:40), as well some shorter local races, including the Tel Aviv an Jerusalem night runs, and the Wine and Desert Half Marathons (the latter finishing well as 5th in age group). I also logged endless training miles in and around Jerusalem, often late after or early before long working hours, including a 70k training run in the Jerusalem forest on a hot Sunday morning. Also ran a hot 35k through a canyon in the desert; another 35k along the shore of the Dead Sea as well a 70k loop along the coast, between Tel Aviv and Netanya. Whenever it was (very) hot, I was forced to a slow or even walking pace. To overcome the sadness not participating in my 8th consecutive Athens Classic Marathon on 10th of November - due to work -  I ran a solo marathon on the trails of Jerusalem Forest, including 1000m elevation gain over 42,2km in …4:21:95. Marathon numbers mania… 

“Running is a sport that unites us. 
All backgrounds and ability levels. 
This event is trying to break us but we are strong. 
We are runners.”
Last year’s first prime race however was the iconic Boston Marathon, the longest standing marathon in the world, launched one year after the first Athens Olympic Marathon in 1896 and at its 117th edition in 2013. 
Due to the workload it wasn’t easy to follow the same training schedule as for the New York marathon in 2009, my best performance ‘so far’.  As a consequence I never reached training targets to finish another sub-3. Yet I was determined to give it a try, knowing what adrenaline and testosterone can achieve on race day. That Monday on 15 April, the weather conditions were excellent. So I started out fast on the early downhills and crossed the halfway mark in 1:28 - still on track for a sub-3. However,  the engine sputtered in the second half and Heartbreak Hill ruled out the last hope on a timely finish. Crossed the memorable finish line a bit disappointed in 3:05:33 - however blessed to finish long before the horrendous pressure-cook-bombings at the finish line, approximately one hour later. Despite this coward terror attack on the spirit of the marathon I enjoyed Boston city a lot and in particular its runnability along the shores of the sea/river/universities. Never seen so many, so young and so handsome recreational runners in one city - definitely a place where I could live and work (to do a Phd on the runnability-indicator for prosperous cities - anyone in for sponsoring it?). No doubt the Boston marathon will live on and the people who lost their lives or limbs should always be remembered as part of the unbreakable spirit of the marathon. 
Just finished the Braveheart Ultra in North Cyprus
The second sign of weakening performance compared to previous years came with the Braveheart Ultra race in Cyprus, officially called The Two Castles and an Abbey Trail Ultra. It’s a scenic race in the North of Cyprus including some rough and very steep sections, as well a daunting ascent to a castle at the peak of the race. The race is very well organised and I can highly recommend it to all lovers of trail racing, off the beaten track and with the best value for (little) money. I started out well and kept a pole position until 50k in the race, but than suffered from heat and dehydration and finally collapsed around 65k in the race. After the race director reanimated my depleted body and mind, I walked the final 15k to finish in more than 13 hours overall. 
Once more sun and heat badly affected my performance, as I had experienced in my first Spartathlon attempt and would face again in my second attempt later in the year. Also in my second attempt to finish the gruelling Olympus Mythical Trail as well in the iconic fell running race Lakeland 100 I couldn't find the right strategy and tactics to overcome sun and heat, dehydration and a bloated stomach. 
In the Olympus Mythical Trail however, I could have finished if I really wanted it. I survived a horrible first 35k with thick fog, blistering wind and prickly snow going up and roaming the peaks of Zeus’ mountain, with nothing more than a short and a t-shirt covering my freezing body - I know I should have known better... And when I got lost for more than one hour in the fog, at first I feared to loose the race and later on I even feared for my life, honestly. So when I finally got back on the course and started the descent to lower and warmer areas it already felt like a victory way before the finish line. I picked up many runners and feeling strong until 70k in the race. Then energy levels and mental focus dwindled and I quit the race at Prionia aid station, only 15k away from the mythical finish line. I simply could not add any suffering for the final 15, infamous to all OMT runners as you endlessly circle around the finish area. I believe the race director is now reviewing this final tantalising section. I was actually proud with my 85k and over 5000m elevation gain in  20 hours - recovering soon after with some lamb chops and some more beers.
The Day After the race was much cooler and better to run
Pride however did not occur at the next A race, the 100 miles long iconic race around the Lake District in northern UK. The Lakeland 100 is probably one of worlds most difficult fell running races. It’s not only its distance; it’s not only the endless ups and downs totalling more than 6000m elevation gain; it’s  also the mental focus needed to orientate yourself on a totally unmarked course, during day and during night. I chose this race to be sure about cool racing temps so you understand my state of mind entering the race in the midst of a heat wave, with sun and temps above 25C. So once again, after going through the night relatively well, I struggled with proper fuelling and completely depleted towards half-way mark. I had to dig deep to ad another 10 miles on unforgiving terrain and handed over my bib at mile 60. And yet, some co-runners in a similar or even worse condition (with dollar sized blisters and swollen knees) managed to continue and ‘walk to the finish’ in overall more than 40 hours - while the winner, Stuart Mills finished in 22h or so. Seeing some of them some hours after the finish, I admired their determination but also felt pity for the physical state which might need a long recovery. I really wondered how much suffering and agony is worth the accomplishment of finishing and returning home with a medal. I couldn't bring it up when I felt totally spent, although I have to admit my own surprise the fast recovery after handing in the bib. Only some hours after I enjoyed a nice meal with some beers, and the next day I went back to the cursed mountains - now covered in clouds and with low temps! - and walked/ran another 35k!
The Lakeland experience would have been excellent if I learned some proper lessons from it for the AA race of the year, the second attempt to run from Athens to Sparta, in the footsteps of the messenger Pheidippides.
Before the start of Spartathlon 2013 with my best supporter
On 26 September at 6:30 I was really psyched up to complete the Spartathlon. Unfortunately the weather forecast was sunny and warm, but not as warm as last year. I was well trained with some monster weeks of running more than 100 miles and I had a sound fuelling strategy that would get me through the first day. The first 50k went very well and contrary to last year I didn't suffer too much to reach the first big check point at around 80k in the race.
However, after a brief break I couldn't resume running at the pace I entered the station and slowed down to first a shuffle run and later on nothing more than a walk. I was not the only one so maybe nothing to really worry about. However my stomach felt so bloated that I had to throw up. Again nothing unusual in a race like this but somehow it felt as if I also threw up my motivation and self-esteem. The negative thoughts quickly took over and than it becomes very hard to see and keep yourself going for another 160k or 100 miles, especially when your appetite for something so basic as water is completely gone - how on earth can I keep going without drinking - compounded by the strict cut-off times. At the 93k Check-point in Ancient Corinth I decided to take a break and drink a beer - the only beverage that goes down if nothing else goes down - and see if I could get back on my feet before the time was cut off. Unfortunately that miracle didn’t happen so I finally handed in my bib, only 13km further in the race than last year. 
Apparently I didn't learn anything from the Lakeland experience and, when I gave up in Ancient Corinth, I made a bold resolution NEVER AGAIN to race this or any ultra race of 100 miles or more, at least not in sunny and warm weather conditions. I somehow acknowledged the ‘fact’ that I have reached the limits of my physical and mental running abilities. I was running races that seemed bigger than me. I was running the edge and falling of the cliff. I was lucky enough to fall with no injuries and now I should wisely listen to the warning sign not to challenge my limits any further. 

Now, less than 6 months onwards, I rise up and ... signed up for the third (and last) attempt to reach Leonidas’ statue in Sparta. 
WHY? Why not! - could be the simple answer. What nearly but finally didn't kill you should make you stronger, no? And - what would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail? 
All very metaphysical reasons, I know. As if it is only a matter of mind over body. Maybe it is? Of course you can’t even think to enter ultra races without a serious bout of physical training - something that is currently more than ever constrained by my job. But training and physical preparedness alone will not get you to the finish, that’s for sure - look at all the well (if not over-) trained athletes that DNF in the tough ultra’s. Of course I will have to find better fuelling strategies for ultra races in warm and sunny weather conditions, but again I’m not the only one struggling with this issue and others have found the key to unlock their personal best response.
Stuart Mills collecting the winners cup of Lakeland 100
I recently got intrigued by UltraStu’s blog. UltraStu is the nick name for Stuart Mills, the second time winner of the Lakeland 100, in a stunning time of 22h.... AT THE AGE OF 50 - my age! In many ways UltraStu is a non-benchmark as he is mocking all race and ageing stats. Yet I found some inspiration in his Race Focus Energy model. You can read it all on his blog but let me explain what I learned from it. The elicit Prof. Tim Noakes, author of the iconic ‘Lore of Running’ and ‘Waterlogged’, already demonstrated that there is a decrease in muscle activation initiated by the brain when fatigued. I repeat: by a fatigued brain, not necessarily fatigued muscles! This refers to Noakes’ theory of the Central Governor, lets say the brain that is holding back your body from potentially damaging physical activity. I repeat: potentially damaging! Mills argues that Race Focus Energy (RFE) is required in order to activate the exercise muscles above a threshold. This is translated into his training advice to a) maximize the size of the RFE tank prior to the start (and even allow to top up/refill during the race) and b) minimize the use of RFE during the race by maximizing the positivity of mental focus. Mills doesn't entirely denies the importance of physiological fitness and preparedness but argues that at least 50% of the success to win or finish a race is related to the mental fitness and preparedness, by a) be totally aware of the race demands (something I use to overlook or underestimate), b) be confident in your preparation to meet your goals  (something I definitely could improve), c) be within the present moment during a race (and thus NOT thinking about the long way ahead) and d) simply enjoy the journey (a daunting task in the first leg of the Spartathlon). UltraStu even considers reading and writing on running as a workout in the TOTAL training for a key race. Let this be one of the reasons why today I preferred writing over running!
I won’t say I found the magic bullet but I believe this simple RFE strategy might help in achieving my ultimate dream to reach Sparta and other far away destinations.
On my journey to Sparta I have set some milestones to test my physical and mental state and focus.
After finishing Tiberias Marathon with its lake and monument 
I started the new running season with the Tiberias Marathon in Northern Israel, on the 10th of January. A finishing time of 3:20 was far above my PR and average time but quite logic given the unspecific training of the previous months and weeks, focussing more on shorter races and trainings. Also the half marathon on Ymmithos mountain, on 2 February was completed in a modest time of 1:50 - 9’ above my PR on that course. My next target is the marathon of Tel Aviv, where I hope to run a bit faster than in Tiberias but certainly not aiming at a PR. One month later I will race for the second time the Jerusalem marathon, only useful for running hills as fast as possible just below the lactate threshold. I also signed up for my second Palestine marathon, 3 weeks later, but I might have to trade if for the 7th World Urban Forum in Medellin/Colombia. No problem, as I have already signed up for something much bigger 2 weeks later, a 144k ultra trail from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, including some serious hills and rocky trails. 
This should be a serious test for my second participation in the bi-yearly 180,1k long ultra trail race from Ancient Nemea to Ancient Olympia. Two years ago I finished this epic race in just over 20 hours and a shared 3rd position, a completely unexpected result. Looking back to that race I can safely say that all stars were aligned, with cool temps, covered skies, good physical preparation as well a strong mental focus and a large RFE tank, which was regularly refuelled during the race, thanks to the unique journey and the wonderful organisation and race support. I entered the race with the only ambition to reach the finish within the 30h cut off time and I will start with the same ambition this time, regardless the outcome of the first race. My current workload simply doesn't allow the training volume I could achieve two years ago.
The last test before the S-race in September is now staged for Iceland, as I signed up for the 55k Laugavegur Ultra Trail Marathon, together with an Icelandic running friend I have met in Boston.
Now the goal is defined and the milestones are laid down, it’s time to throw in the physical and mental training required to achieve the goal and interim targets. But how much and what kind of  training is required and possible in combination with work and family? When I started training for the classical marathon it was relatively easy to do your homework based on the many training plans available on the running web. This is however different for ultra’s. There are no clear cut training programs for a 144, 180 or 250k ultra. For this kind of ultra-humane performances we are all one of a kind. Some Sparta runners will swear by high mileage training - up to 200k per week or more - others will make it to the finish with a much lower weekly mileage. Some will incorporate speed and tempo workouts, others will simply log the miles at even pace. Some will train to walk, others wont. Some will run many B and C races, others will only focus on the one and only A race. The only common denominator I can see  - more clearly now after reading UltraStu’s RFE theory - is the high amount and importance of mental training to get prepared for races of 100 miles and more. In case of the Spartathlon and other daunting ultra’s I have wondered why runners deemed less fit than me could finally make it to the finish. In one of my previous blogs I even alluded to crypto-religious dimensions I believed key in the determination of some of the finishers, as if running to Sparta is a kind of post-modern pilgrimage. Now I am convinced it has more to do with mental focus than with religion per se, which is a relief for a secular humanist like me. 
Except (or better said part of) of physical and mental training there are two other new year resolutions I have made to reach my goals: pick up reading/writing on running and optimising my body composition and fuelling. By writing this blog and reading/implementing Tim Noakes’ new theory on nutrition - The Real Meal Revolution - I hope to hit both flies with one hand. 
Will keep you posted.

Frank D’hondt,
February 2014, 

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