Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Running Around

Autumn Running Report

Running out of 2012

On 12.12.12. - the last double digit day before 3001 - I ran 12k. Only 12 km. There was no point in running more. Four days earlier I’ve ran 121,6 km or 75,5 miles in 12 hours. In a stadium. The stadium of Megara, the ancient city between Athens and Sparta, where I’ve passed along some months earlier on my debut Spartathlon. In laps of 400m. That makes ‘running around’ 312,5 times the same lap. It was my first 12 hour race on track. And, I finished second overall, after my friend Leonidas, but first in my age group of M45 (and according to the 'Deutsche Ultramarathon Vereinigung' my 'age graded performance' was 134,4 km). This year 'Running King Leonidas' surprised many by running further, higher AND faster, with sub 2:50 marathons and winning a mountain race and a 100 miler. And now also a 12 hour race. These are considered to be very different running disciplines and usually you have to sacrifice speed to run farther or longer. Not Leonidas, now aiming to run a new PR on the Boston marathon and to finish a debut Spartathlon. These two races also happen to figure high on my running calendar for next year - yes I do remember to have said I probably won’t run Spartathlon again - so it looks like we’ll stay connected

[By the way, friendship is one the best merits of ultra-running. Paradoxically, whilst running - and ultrarunning in particular - is considered to be highly individualistic - it does create strong bonds among peers. The reason is quite simple: only (ultra)runners know what its like to take joy and understand the meaning of ‘pain’. While the modern (wo)man is taught to avoid pain and suffering, running can get you back on the healthy track of learning and benefitting from pain. Sunshine after rain always feels nice, no? Same with running. You simply feel better after stressing your body and mind, or at least you appreciate more the true happiness of ‘feeling alive’. This can be for a short distance with high intensity; it will be for sure the case after a long distance, regardless the intensity. I will never forget the last 20k with Odysseas at Olympus Marathon, nor the last 40k with Dinos at the Olympia Race. But ‘joy after pain’ is not always for granted. Often its just ‘pain after pain’; you’ll have to risk it, again something we try to avoid in our modern lives. And when you engage your self in races where all participants take the risk to aim for joy through and after pain, you feel connected by default. That simple!]

My preparation for the 12 hour race was certainly not very race-specific. Since the (the first leg of) Spartathlon of end September I didn’t run run any longer distance non-stop than 52k, when I completed a training run from Athens to Sounio, along the Attic riviera. Moreover, since completing my sixth Athens Classic Marathon in November (see further), I didn't ran any further than 20k and I even included a biking week on the beautiful island of Naxos, where I’ve logged around 250 km to marvel the nice beaches and - of course - climb its highest mountain , Mount Zas (or Zeus), with a cave at the base where mighty Zeus allegedly was raised (so now I have seen where he was born - in a cave on Psiloritis mountain in Crete - where he was raised and where he reigned over his kingdom - Mount Olympus of course - and even where he was worshipped most - Ancient Olympia). As a matter of fact, two weeks before the Athens Classic Marathon, I had started a 24 week training plan for the Boston marathon, due to be held on 15 April, and to which I happily qualified to participate. Upon personal advice of my favorite running author, Matt Fitzgerald (‘Brain training for Runners’ and other great books runners should consult), I also included more advanced strength training, engaging a personal trainer, my friend Kostas Rigas, who is also running marathons, but much faster (2:40 something in Berlin last year). The strength trainings are twice a week, on Tuesday and Thursday, and include upper and lower body workouts which leave you ‘joyfully’ exhausted and or sore. 

Therefore, the Athens Classic Marathon wasn't meant to be a hunt for a personal best, rather a training and just for the fun of starting and finishing it with some of my best running friends.  However, once the start-gun went of for the 30th time, you go with the flow of the day. The weather conditions were not as favorable as last year but still fairly good for marathon racing. I kept a decent pace throughout the race, didn't push too hard on the hills between 15 and 30k and could open the turbo for the last 10, finishing for a sixth consecutive time in the magic Kalimarmaro Olympic stadium after 3 hours and 3’, 12th overall on 9000 something participants but - surprisingly - second in my age group (M45-49); however acknowledging that there were much faster men above 50! It also turned out to be my fastest marathon of this season, so good reasons to be satisfied with this unexpected result. And what a great feeling to walk away with no pain after the race, to run a 5k recovery run the next day and resuming the training schedule as nothing has happened the following days. Apparently my body (and mind) got used to the abuse, at least for marathon distances. 

[I am a marathon runner
And my legs are sore
And I'm anxious to see what I'm running for
From the song “Marathon Runner”, performed by Yellow Ostrich (nice song by the way)]

So, less than one month after the Athens Classic, I drove to Megara, at 5am. The race started timely at 7am and the first 10-20-30km ticked away ‘easily’, largely helped by the gorgeous weather with cool temps, a watery sun and almost no wind. This however changed throughout the day with more wind and rain in the later stages of the race. The thought of running hundreds of laps was intimidating before the race but I’ve decided to block out any negative thought during the race, which worked pretty well.  The downtempo lounge chill out music on my mp3 also helped in keeping the pace steady, lap after lap. The first half of the race hours you run together with the 6 hour runners, so you have no clear idea of your position, although it was pretty clear from the start that Leonidas would reign sovereignly over his kingdom - by moments he was like flying around the stadium. And flying would surely be better than running on this soft tartan, which might be good for running a couple of laps but not for hours in a row - simply too bad for your joints. Already after 2 hours I felt pain around the right knee, due to an imbalanced running gait. Luckily, running direction is switched every 3 hours, so pain only returned around the other knee some hours later. After 6 hours, joints were sore at both sides, so the pain was better balanced. The first half you run with your legs and lungs, the second half you have to rely much more on heart and mind. The mind in particular. I needed to improvise a strategy to keep turning around like a hamster. I decided to try this: run 10 laps in a steady pace before taking a short break to eat, drink and stretch. It worked until the very end for me. I even could eat some home made pumpkin pie and try out chocolate flavored soya milk and vanilla flavored rice-milk, as a very welcome alternative for the sweet isotonic drinks and cola usually consumed during ultra’s. Moreover, the breaks in between the 10 laps-lap shortened in time towards the end. I probably owe this to my friend Ioannis, who was managing the time-keeping of the race and informing me about my position: “you are second but the third runner is closing the gap on you”. Although I only started this race with the aim to keep running for the entire 12 hours and if possible to run at least 110 km, my my competitive mode was aroused and once I figured out who was the 3rd runner, I didn't let him come any closer anymore, quite the reverse. Towards the very end some runners seemed to have tapped into a reserve tank and they were passing me several laps, up to a point I wasn't so sure anymore about my final position. Yet it became clear they picked up the pace too late and when the long awaited whistle ended the race, I was confirmed to have finished in second position, while my much appreciated Suunto Ambit watch showed no less than 125 km running, an average of 10,5 km/h for 12 hours. Despite the sore legs and cripple knees, it felt good to climb the podium, next to king Leonidas, and to be awarded with a special medal and a cup. Immediately after the award ceremony - and not able to drink or eat anything - I drove back home in agony. Also back home I could not take food but a Belgian brew provided just enough carbs and painkiller to make it to the bed. All night long I turned and tossed, and next morning I could hardly walk on a heavily swollen knee. So in this case, similar to my successful first 100k race earlier in this season, it turned out to be a pain-joy-pain sequence. Nevertheless I resumed my strength training on Tuesday (focusing on upper body thank god) and felt nearly euphoric to be able to run the next day, the 12k on 12.12.12 I’ve mentioned at the intro. 

[By the way, I finished the Megara race on baby-feet, with no blisters at all. Quite a pleasant surprise I can tell you. I ran the entire race in my Asics Noosa Tri shoes, those multicolored flashy ones often used by triathletes for their final marathon leg. I’ve tried them  for the first time during the 24 hour Athens Running Festival in March but soon developed some hot spots, that would have turned into blisters if I didn't quit halfway. Later in the season I also used them for long training runs, but experienced problems with the elastic laces that are used by triathletes for easy transitioning. Only after replacement by normal laces I could fully enjoy the greatness of this shoe; a performance shoe with a relative low heel drop but sufficient cushioning.  Throughout this season I have tried many different types and makes of running shoes, but mostly lighter and more minimalistic shoes. In earlier reports I already acclaimed Nike’s Free 3’s, but this year edition(s) dont fancy me that much, although, for the first time, I managed to run a marathon race in them. I’ve also tried the Nike Free 5 for longer distances - only once before they were never returned with my drop-bag by the Spartathlon organizers - but no thanks. The Merell Access barefoot was a better match, especially on trails. Also the Sketchers GoBionic is a real minimalist footwear compared to Nike Free: super lightweight, zero heel drop and super flexible. However I don't see myself running long distances or technical trails in them; they are more suitable for light training as well for recreation purposes (walking and even going out). For the trails I’ve also tried out two Inov8 models, the XT Tallon 212, which is a very lightweight trail shoe with decent traction, and the Mudclaw, which is more rugged and better suited for mountain runs. My shoe of the year however is the Saucony Kinvara 2, so not the latest model. This shoe is for me the perfect compromise between minimalist and more traditionally cushioned footwear. As stocks are running out, I ordered three pairs to be safe for a while, in white, black and red uppers. Saucony is not by coincidence one of the few brands only specialized in running sports. One last remark about running shoes: its probably even more important to improve your running gait and the pounding of the feet in particular, especially for longer distances. Minimalist shoes helped me to transition from heel striking to horizontal mid-foot landing. I don't see the point of fore-foot striking, but mid-foot substantially reduces the pounding of the feet and the shock to absorb by the tendons, calf muscles and knees. Once your running gait is bullet-proof, you can probably race in any kind of shoe.]

Happy endings in both the Athens Classic Marathon and the Megara 12 hour race in particular flushed away doubts that had crept into my mind after a unsuccessful debut at a 24 hour race (Athens Ultramarathon Festival) in March and the Spartathlon in particular. Already in October I've reported on the Spartathlon race on this blog. The Megara race - similar to the successful Olympia 180k Trail race earlier this year - confirmed once more that my body performs optimal in cool weather conditions and that heat is my worst enemy.  However, paraphrasing Stephen Kaggwa’s famous quote, “Try and fail, but don't fail to try (again).”. That’s why I have decided to give Spartathlon another try. Obviously I will need to develop a strategy to befriend my worst enemy and to further adapt my body to running in heat and humidity. My future work environment might help on that...

Looking back on 2012 - my last race on 30 December, a 12k city-run in Leuven/Belgium won't probably change the overall picture - I can assess this years performances from two different angles. The ‘thumbs down perspective’ is that this year marked the very first season in  which I could not finish some prime races. “Did Not Finish” or DNF in runners lexicon is for many runners the most feared outcome. We accept that most of us cannot outright win races, so finishing a race is the most important motivation to appear at the start in the first place. Until 2012, I never ‘DNF-d’ a race. But if you constantly push the boundaries of your limits, one day it has to happen. It happened the first time with the 24 hour Athens Ultrarunning Festival, where I pulled out the race after ‘only’ 96 km and 11,5 hours of running. However, technically I didn't DNF here, as the records just memorize that I’ve ran 96k in 24 hours. The first ‘real’ DNF came with the 100k Olympus Mythical Trail race. There I handed in my bib number after 62 km and about 12 hours, with at least the same amount of time ahead of me if i could and wanted to finish. I believe I could have done it, but for the first time I didn't want it, because I couldn't see the joy through or beyond the pain. One of the reasons was for sure the heat in the lower parts of the race, which I couldn't cope with very well. This race was planned as a serious training for the Spartathlon and I also didn't want to risk any serious injury by overstraining my joints only 2,5 months before THE race. However, it didn't really help, as I also DNF-d the infamous 246 km long Spartathlon. Of course, how could I know that I would participate in probably the hottest edition ever, with less than 25% of the qualified and experienced runners crossing the finish line in this ‘historical’ 30th edition. Lesson of all this: finally I seem to have found my limits. Maybe not absolute physical limits but rather limits in overruling my will to stop when exhausted or in pain. And I’m not unhappy with this ‘new reality’. I was looking for races that are difficult to finish and I’m happy to have found them. 

But this year was also marked by three podium places in ultraraces I could never dream to ever participate, let alone to finish some years ago. The fist surprise came with my first attempt to run 100 km, in Psatha-Aleppochori in February, finishing 7th overall and first in my age group M45, in 8 hours 57’, more than 90’ faster than the official qualification time for the Spartathlon (read  more in Running Diaries Nr 4). The second and to date biggest surprise came with the Olympia Trail Race in May, a 180,1 km long race over roads and trails, including mountain passes and river crossings. So longer than a classic 100 miler, the ‘standard distance’ for ‘real ultra-runners’. Starting the race with the sole ambition to finish, I surprised myself and others by claiming a shared 3rd place and a first age group ranking in 20 hours and 14’ (read more in Running Diaries Nr 5). Olympia Race added a holistic new experience to my (short) running career, with a nice crystal trophy that will remind me forever the beauty of running in tune with body and nature. With this result I was supposed to be able to finish Spartathlon, even within a decent time. But on my way to Olympia I had the weather gods on my side, while on the way to Sparta they turned against me. In Megara however, I was lucky again with the weather but nevertheless I didn't expect to finish second, let alone to run the 117th best time overall and 27th in M45 in this discipline worldwide (see http://statistik.d-u-v.org) And of course I ran many other races and no less than 5 official marathons (Limassol in Cyprus, Antwerp and Torhout in Belgium, Jungfrau in Switzerland and finally the Athens Classic for a 6th consecutive time), in a consistent time of around 3 hours and 5’ (with exception of the Jungfrau mountain marathon - with probably the most beautiful mountain run finish in the world) and with the last one as the best performance (3:03). In Limassol I finished 13th overall and 1st in my age group, while in the Athens Classic I finished 126th overall and 2nd in my age group. Three ultra-running cups and some nice age group rankings in ‘ordinary’ marathons is a result beyond my expectations. Moreover, I could run many races and debut in ultra-distances without any serious injury, including daily training and some long and adventurous training runs, and that’s the biggest cup you can earn at the end of a long and intensive season. 

The combined main lessons learned from both the failures and successes is that a) nothing is for granted and b) nothing is impossible. Therefore I have challenged myself for next year - while ‘proudly’ entering the age group M50 - with two targets: a) running faster than ever and b) running farther than ever. 

Boston marathon will be the prime race to achieve the first goal, while there can’t be any other more challenging race than Spartathlon to achieve the second goal. Luckily the two races are well apart in time, so my training can be easily modulated around those two prime races. Of course I have more races on the radar for 2013, but except of the Jerusalem Marathon on 1 March - making it the first upcoming marathon race - I have not yet paid any race fees, not knowing how the next year will envelop work-wise, as new horizons are looming. 2013 should also mark a breakthrough for a 'running related project' on which I have been working quite intensively the last few months, but that has to remain a mystery until the team is ready to launch 'it'. All this provided the world will NOT stop spinning around by 21.12.12., as predicted by some of our species. If so, I’m glad I took all what I could take in this ending year. I hope you did the same and if not (entirely), I hope there will be a new year in a different world to try again, fail again, then try again, but never fail to try (again)! 

Frank D’hondt,  Athens, 20.12.12 

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