Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Quick Book Review: Why We Run by Bernd Heinrich

Bernd Heinrich is an Ultra runner. A good one. He has held a number of records, mostly after he tuned 40. He is also a Ph.D in biology. His book is basically a story of his running life, more specifically a buildup toward his 100km record run in Chicago in 1981, intersperced with scientific information about endurance in various species, from the Hawk moth and the honey bee to the camel and, obviously, humans. He expands on how/why humans eventually developed the ability to do what he calls persistence hunting: the ability to run a prey to exhaustion.

One of the points Heinrich believes is key in explaining why humans evolved to be able to run such long distances is our ability to see the future in our mind's eye. Most animals just give up the chase after a few miles. Humans can maintain their focus over extended periods of time and keep their eye on the prize for as long as it takes.

I read the book in one day. I have to admit I seep read some of the finer details of how the honey bee maintains its internal temperature, but as a whole the book was very interesting. His attack on the world record was deliberate and mostly based on what he knew about endurance in animals. He knew a lot. You constantly have to remind yourself that this happened in 1980, before Gatorade and Gu even existed.

This book reinforces the fact that running is something we are born to do. Racing is basically a playful re-enactment of the hunt and this is something that comes from deep within us.

Another point Heinrich emphasizes is the fact that running is not all about VO2Max. Yes, our performance is ultimately limited by genetics, but for most people, the limiting factor is the mind. Before you reach your physical limits, you need to overcome many obstacles, most of them mental. You need to decide to train. You need to want to compete. You need to set goals that are realistic, yet help you go beyond what you know you can do. You need to plan your race, not just hope for the best. During the race, we all know what we have to deal with in ultras.

So all in all, a good read. Two thumbs up.

"You have to make the mind run the body. Never let the body tell the mind what to do. The body will always give up."

General George S. Patton
1912 Olympian, Modern Pentathlon

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


There's no way around it, I'm tired. My body (brain?) struggled to get me through Haliburton. This was my second year running and my first year running ultras. In the last 12 months I've run one marathon, four 50k and two 50 milers. I think this was a full season, so I've decided not to race any long races until Rock and Ice in March. I've accomplished a lot in the last two years and it's time to take a step back.

So I'm actually TAKING A BREAK FROM RUNNING for at least two weeks. I'm one week in the break; I hate it and I feel like shit. My back hurts when I lay down, which never happens when I exercise. I feel like I'm gaining 5 pounds a day, but I can't stop eating, because I have all that friggin' time available. On top of that, my mom sent 3 huge boxes full of sweets (1 box of fudge/mashmellow/cookie squares, 1 box of plain fudge, 1 box of date squares) for the kids. There are a few date squares left, but I should be done soon. I called her last weekend to say thanks and ask her not to do that again. I'm afraid to get on the scale. I'll wait two weeks after I start running again.

I've thought about going out on my bike but just the thought of it makes me gag. Don't judge me. Riding a TT (Time Trial) bike in Toronto just plain scares me and hurts my ass because of the shameful state of the roads, specially the cycling lanes which basically cannot be used on a TT or road bike. Maybe swimming. Swimming has grown on me last year while practicing the Total Immersion method. I kinda miss it a bit.

In other news, I've decided to get a personal trainer for the next year. I had a long phone conversation with Derrick Spafford last week and he agreed to take me on as a client. We will be starting a new training program after my little break.

I have two big goals for 2010:

Do well at Rock and Ice
Run my first 100 miler (Haliburton?)

I feel that having access to the experience of a runner like Derrick will help me reach both goals. Derrick has run the Rock and Ice twice, so he understands my particular brand of craziness. He also trains David, who will also be in Yellowknife so we can get each other all worked up with anticipation.

I am still really excited about Rock and Ice. I go to Mountain Equipment Coop every weekend and look at all the stuff I'm going to have to buy: GPS, -30 sleeping bag, stove, food... My Xmas and birthday lists are growing by the minute.

This is it for now.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Haliburton 50 Miler Race Report

After finishing the Sulphur Springs 50 miler, I remember thinking: "That wasn't so bad!". I would be punished for this case of hubris. I don't remember ever sitting in a race. Before the end of this race, I would have sit at least 3 times, one of them on a rock between aid station 5 and 4 wondering how I as going to find the energy to finish.

I arrived at the race site Friday afternoon around 3PM. I got my kit and setup my tent. I hadn't been out of the car 5 minutes that I'd made new friends, all of them as or more excited than me about the upcoming race. One of them was proudly wearing his Haliburton 100 Miler belt buckle. I looked at it with a twinge of envy. No buckle for me this year since I was running the 50 miler. As I noticed I had forgot my pillow, he just ran to his tent and brought me one. Another guy was attempting to finish the 100 miles for the 5th time. Unfortunately, it wouldn't happen this year.

The whole weekend was like that, either meeting amazing people for the first time, putting a face to an online identity ("I'm RabidChipmunk", "Haaaaa! I'm JD!") or reuniting with people I'd met a previous races. Before dinner I found Derrick Spafford, who was bringing my brand new Dion Snowshoes, which I bought from him for the Rock And Ice Ultra.

Dinner was a blur of war stories from people sporting Badwater, Marathon des Sables or Himalayan expedition gear. The sense of community was overwhelming. After the traditional pasta and a few speeches, one by one, everyone stood up, introduced themselves and announced which distance they were going to run.

Then I was off to bed. I taped my feet, then I read "Into Thin Air" by Jon Krakhauer until about 10 and went into a fitful sleep. My alarm rang. It was pretty cold, but I took my checklist out and started: nipples: check, Excedrins: check, Bodyglide: check.... Soon enough I was out of my tent and walking toward the start. There I met Chris Mcpeake, a fellow blogger, also running the 50 miler and his wife Kim who was racing the 26k later.

Then it was the prayer and the start. I was glad I had my Petzl head lamp. It was pitch dark. I just remember running, talking on and off with Chris. After a few miles Chris picked up and proceeded to run an amazing race which I'm sure he will write about on his blog. Given my Sulphur Spring time, I was expecting to run the course in about 11 hours. My right Achilles felt ok, but it was a bit tender and it would be for the whole race.

The first 25 miles, or 40k, just kind of happened. It felt like the course was rolling hills, rarely flat, but I saw no reason to push since I was making great time. At every aid station the volunteers were just amazing. The trail markings were perfect. At any given time you could basically see the next flag. I got to the turn around at 4:56, feeling fantastic because I had held back quite a bit and I felt like I could maintain the same pace till the end. Sub-10 maybe? I was exactly where I wanted, except for one thing: I had missed the Shrine and therefore had been unable to leave my offering to the forest goddess. It felt heavy in my pocket. I sat down, took some rocks out of my right shoe and took off toward the finish.

One thing about this race that was different from other races I had done, some aid stations are far apart, like 10k. At he pace most of us are going, that's an hour and a half, maybe even more. It's a long time when minutes start feeling like hours. And after a very short time, I realized that the course had not been rolling hills, it had been downhill with a few uphills. Even the dreaded "mulch" at Sulphur would barely qualify as a hump on this course. It was just ridiculous. The hills were unrelenting. You would climb forever in a gnarly trail full of roots, turn a corner near the top and then there was another one, even steeper. I did not remember going down those huge hills. I kept hoping it was over. It never was. Then fatigue set in and I started tripping over rocks and roots. Again and again. Where was all that energy that I thought I had in the bank?

I was devastated. Running a short out and back at 55k, a guy running in the other direction tells me theres a bear up by the turnaround sign. I just kept running making a bit of noise. As I got close to the sign, I looked around, didn't see anything, ran to the turnaround line and ran back to the aid station. This section, between AS 5 and 4, is about 10km and it crushed me. I swore in French, I swore in English. I heard a noise that sounded like a sob, but I was alone so it couldn't have been. It was as if the course was mocking me.

I was wondering what I had done wrong. Did I eat enough, too much, not the right thing? Maybe I didn't drink enough. Then again, maybe I drank too much? I was doubting every decision I had made.

Yes, I did sit down.
Picture by David Bohn

The only thing that told me that maybe, just maybe, things were not that grim was that nobody was passing me. There were a couple of guy which would pass me, then I would pass them, but never anyone new. I must not have been doing as horrible as I felt I was doing. After what felt like forever I got to AS 2. A loop around the lake. Kill me now. At AS 3, about 6 km from the finish, I drank, ate and then walked in the lake and submerged myself completely. It felt so fucking good. Then my thighs started to cramp and I got out of there pronto and started running. My mood was improving. I overtook a guy and we started talking. We got to AS 2 again and just blew out of there. I was getting excited, we're like a mile from the finish. We ran (yes ran) up a long hill, we turned and then we saw it. The finish. We picked up the pace and we basically sprinted (?) the last few hundred meters.

As I stopped running, I felt a sudden emptiness. Things went from total focus to being finished. A girl said something, there was a camera, someone put a medal around my neck and I almost started balling right then and there. I couldn't talk, afraid I was going to start crying. I turned around and this guy is coming to the line, looking at least as tired as I felt but his number is below 100, which makes him a 100 miler. He runs across the line, turns around and goes back out. I couldn't imagine it.

I sat down with a fellow and we talked about the race, yelling encouragements to runners coming to either finish the 50 miles or turn around for the 100. After a while, maybe 45 minutes, I felt ready for a shower then dinner, which I ate with Chris and Kim. We talked about the race and then I decided to hit the sack as it was getting dark, around 8. I started reading, hearing cheers when runners showed up at the 50 miles line. I would think about those runners, now running for 14 or 15 hours and my eyes would blur with tears. I went to sleep around 10pm. I slept fitfully, waking up whenever a 100 miler would finish.

Around 7:30 am, I grabbed my chair and walked over to the finish line, where a group of people were waiting for the next runners. We kept a kind of vigil, talking about the race, comparing blisters. A runner would show up, everyone would get up and cheer until they finished. I saw this big guy finish, walk away and stand there, tears just pouring out. Finally around 11:45, the last runner came in, his girlfriend waiting for him. He finished, went to his pack looking for something, dropped to his knee and proposed. The whole weekend has this dream-like quality about it.

It felt strange to leave, after the Awards Brunch. I might not see all those beautiful, crazy people until next Spring. My head was spinning for the whole drive home.

In the book I was reading, I read this sentence about mountain climbing. Jon Krakauer say that "climbing is like life itself, but it is cast in much sharper relief". I think this applies to ultra running as well. Last weekend was so intense. I learned so much about myself, about things I need to change.

Haliburton scares me because I know I'll be back. As someone said, it got under my skin and now I know I will have to come back and try the 100 miler. I have unfinished business there.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Man, Oh Man!

You know what I mean. I work on the 3rd floor.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


I just came back from running the 50 miler at Haliburton. I finished in 11h 11min 26sec, pretty much the time I had in mind at the start. The course was difficult in a way that was almost Zen-like. I felt like it had a personality and it was trying to tell me something. Those are the facts and they are the only things I'm ready to share them with you. They also mean nothing.

As for the rest, I'm still trying to understand the weekend. I've seen grown men cry. I might have cried, I'm not sure. For me, at this point in my life, this was a life changing event and I was not expecting it. This was so much more than expected.

I'll see if I can come up with a race report that makes sense to anybody else.


Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Shoe Dilemma

Anyhoot. Today I went out for a quicky (damn you taper) and decided to try my La Sportiva Crosslites. I just happen to love those shoes. They look fast and they FEEL great. I ran almost all my trail races with them including my only 50 miler. The only problem I had with them is that because they fit so well, they become a bit tight after 35-40 miles.
La Sportiva Crosslites

I haven't worn them in a long time. At Creemore, I forgot the insoles and had to run with my road shoes. Then, I turned my left ankle and for some reason, the Crosslites were just killing that foot so I had to use the Wildcats for a while.

La Sportiva Wildcats

Today, though they felt just fantastic. I had all but decided to race the Wildcats at Haliburton, but now I think I'm going to start with the Crosslites and send my Wildcats ahead in a drop bag, just in case I feel a bit tight later in the race. I KNOW I can run 50 in the Crosslites. I have never run more than 20 miles in the Wildcats although I have to admit they have a bit more support and the soles are a tad more cushioned.

Tomorrow, I'm going to run with the Wildcats and make the final decision.

Ain't this fun?

Friday, September 4, 2009

One week to Haliburton

At this time next week, I'll be packing the car to leave for the Haliburton Forest where I will be running the 50 miler. I feel ready both physically and mentally even though I'm a bit tired after a long season that started back in March with my first ultra, the Seneca Creek 50K.

My goal for this race is to finish in one piece, without doing anything that could jeopardize Rock and Ice. R&I is 6 months away, which mens that training will start soon, probably mid October so now is not the time to wreck myself. I want to enjoy this race and then rest for a few weeks to allow my body to recover as much as possible.

My taper is going well. I'm a lazy bastard, so I don't feel that overwhelming urge to overdo things. I know a few people who are probably doing back-to-back long runs this weekends. My view is that there's nothing no gain at this point, all I need to do is no f@ck it up. I'm doing one last medium run today (20-ish km) and then I will just maintain my fitness and blood volume by doing a few short quality workouts next week. I'll probably carbo load starting Wednesday, with Friday consisting of only "low-residue" carbs to minimize my chances of having to take a dump with the bears. That's the plan. That, and trying not to gain too much weight. Hunger doesn't go away just because you reduce the mileage. Carbo loading will add a few pounds, but I've added more than that before Sulphur so I'm trying to be careful.

I was re-reading my pre-Sulphur post and I definitely don't feel as hyper as I was back then. I've run 50 miles before and I know this is going to be hard. That being said, I feel like I should have gone for the 100 miles but really, that would have been stupid (see above reference to not jeopardizing R&I). Still, that's something that is in the back of my mind.