Lessons I learned in ultra running

  1. If not now, when?

Some say racing should be a progression. In fact, there are ultras that require you to finish certain distances before you can join them. 42K before 50K. 50K before 50 miles. 50 miles before 100K. In my opinion, ultra running is not about timing or muscle maturity. It’s about heart and commitment. In the last few kilometers of the race, you won’t be thinking about cadence or heart rate or footwork. All you’ll think about is finishing the goddamn race! So why wait for someone to tell you that you are finally ready or qualified to run that ultra? Besides, last time I checked, craziness and suffering is still something personal. There is no perfect time and conditions, only a moment of unbridled enthusiasm.

  1. Take it by feel.

When I downloaded Sage Canaday’s 50K training program, I took comfort in the fact that despite the prescribed miles and workout, I can always go “by feel.” I think essentially running is supposed to be that way in order to be enjoyable. I think what attracted most of us to this sport is the freedom that it offers. We do not have to wait for teammates (or have them wait for us). We do not have to wear a uniform. We do not have to maintain any equipment or reserve a venue/court/field. We do not need an opponent. We run because we just feel like running. So, it is really important to listen to your body and to pursue running only when it is still pleasurable. My favorite ultra runner, François D’haene, said it best: “Motivation and performance, for me, is linked with pleasure so I don’t abstain from things that I enjoy. Let’s take pleasure in our activity, our life and our few guilty pleasures, too.”

  1. Simulate.

It’s not enough that you log in the hours that you are on your feet or increase the distance that you cover. Preparation for a race, especially an ultra, is all about race-specific training. You must simulate race day – course, food, hydration, even the outfit and gears. If it is a mountain race, find a mountain with a similar altitude and trail. If it is a road ultra, run the highway stretch with the same undulation. If it is a night race, run at night. If you expect scorching hot temperatures on race day, run at high noon during training. Aside from increasing your confidence, simulation will make certain skills instinctive and certain instincts controllable.

  1. Slow and steady finishes the race.

Arguably, no one wins a race by being slow, but definitely, one can only finish an ultra by being persistent. The basic element of running is movement. No matter how excruciating or gradual, you must move. Put that foot in front of the other, because every step counts. At 50K, you will thank your 30K self for being deliberate and motivated. This also goes for all other aspects of ultra. You must steadily nourish and hydrate yourself. You cannot wait for a stimulus. Be consistent. Be relentless.

  1. Runners are kindred spirits.

Runners toe the ultra line for the same reason: they trained and believed that they deserve to know if every minute of their preparation is worth it. There is collective respect and empathy among ultra runners. If misery loves company, suffering breeds cooperation. In my first ultra, I was handed a banana and offered a bowl of porridge (by another runner’s crew) without my solicitation. I, in the same vein, gave my last energy gel to a fellow runner who I thought needed it more than I did. It is this sense of community that makes runners return year after year to races which they have already finished or won.

  1. Appreciate the lowest low and highest high.

They say ultra goes beyond the capabilities of the flesh. It is in the realm of the mind that one’s endurance is determined. If marathons give runners the “wall,” ultras will give runners “delusions.” Initially, the delusion that you will be able to finish the race as strong and good as you started it. Then, the delusion that you can still make up for the time you spent at the aid stations or over-thinking the race. Eventually, the delusion (or truth) that you have not prepared hard enough for the race. The pits of sadness and self-doubt are so strong that others may not be able to recover from them. But there is also the promise of the “second wind,” that moment of complete commitment. Ultra runner extraordinaire, Jared Campbell, perfectly described it in this wise: “Once this state is reached, one can focus on moving through the motions and not get stressed by the minutia, knowing that stress won’t render anything constructive. Find the silver lining and press onward.” It is this feeling of extreme depression and elation that makes ultra so alluring, empowering, and addicting.

  1. You could get hurt, so what?

Sure, you will be sleep-deprived, develop wrinkles, get dead toes, experience chafing, sunburn, muscle pain, blisters, bonking, hypo- whatever, etc. The suffering is infinite and diverse. But those are certain and foreseeable in what you have signed up for. If you have anticipated and prepared for them well enough, you may be able to avoid them, but the likelihood of that is nil. I suggest that you don’t fret about it and just suck it up. Besides, all wounds heal and leave a scar. It’s up to you if you make it a badge of honor or a sorry remembrance of your craziness.

  1. You don’t need a race.

Ultra running is basically running more than 42K. That’s it, pure and simple. Whether you achieve that during a weekend fat ass run or in a lottery-based, elite field race, it doesn’t matter. You don’t have to be “officially” an ultra runner to run ultras. Ultra is just a distance, not a status to be conferred or a position in the hierarchy of runners. You run ultras because you want to and you can.

NOTE: As I run more and longer ultras, I know I will learn more lessons and will probably change my views here. For now, let’s pretend that I know what I’m saying. LOL

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Signs that you are addicted to long distance running

1. You have multiple pairs of one kind of running shoes.

TNF Men's Ultra Guide. Best. Trail. Shoes. Ever.
TNF Men’s Ultra Guide. Best. Trail. Shoes. Ever.

2. You have bookmarked Strava and you have a premium account.

3. Your dresser or medicine cabinet has different bottle sizes (and brands) of petroleum jelly, insect repellant, and sunblock.

4. Your grocery list includes energy bars/gels, nuts, and baby food (even if you do not have a baby!).

5. You buy salt but not for cooking (and in larger amounts than a regular customer would).

6. The skin in your arms and between mid thigh and ankles is darker than the rest of your body. And the tan lines are pretty obvious.

7. Although not necessarily your favorite fruit, you eat banana whenever you can.

8. iRunFar.com is your porn site.

9. You have at least one dead toenail.

May you rest in peace, my toe. LOL
May you rest in peace, my toe. LOL

10. You do not make appointments on Saturdays, because that is reserved for your long runs.

Nordin’s words of climbing wisdom

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Look at the mountains. They are a great source of inspiration.

Nordin, my Mt. Kinabalu guide, was the most patient of all the guides during my climb. And I declare him so, because I consider myself the slowest and the most difficult climber to deal with. LOL He has been doing this job for 18 years. Guiding every single day, he has developed not only impeccable English, but also the best motivational strategies for climbers like me. Here are some of the things that he shared along our journey:

  1. Don’t feed the squirrels. You are not their mom. LOL
  2. Resting entertains the thought that you might not make it to the top.
  3. Just because steps were laid out on the trail, it doesn’t mean you have to step on them in that order. Look for an intermediary surface and use it to make your ascent easier.
  4. Do not step on stones too long. They might not be able to take your weight that long; they might start to roll or crumble.
  5. Climb with foresight. Don’t just plan the next step; plan the next five steps.
  6. Don’t look at your feet, because that posture blocks your air passage and makes you slouch.
  7. Look at the mountains. They are a great source of inspiration.
  8. When I told him I suddenly have my period again (yes, that’s how comfy I was with Nordy), he said that I was just peeing blood and it happens when we do strenuous activities. (Whaaatttt???!!)
  9. If you use your trekking pole, that’s already 50% effort taken off your legs.
  10. Love your health more than your ego.

Nordin never once complained. He was like a coach or a psychotherapist. Other climbers envied me, because unlike their guides who let them move ahead, Nordin was always just two steps behind me, giving me a pep talk when needed.

I told him that when I return for my second climb, I will specifically ask for him to be my guide, but I will then make sure that I will be fitter and less of a diva. LOL

7 surefire ways to be awesome while traveling

In all my travels, I do these activities. They reflect my personality and give me the utmost happiness wherever and whenever I do them. In essence, these are also the reasons why I travel.

  1. Bring “pasalubong” (a welcome gift) from your country and give it to the person whose presence/company you most enjoyed during the trip. I usually bring with me a t-shirt with “Davao” or “Pilipinas” printed on it with the aim of giving it to the most awesome local I meet. The recipient could be your tour guide, who swallowed a Lonely Planet guidebook for you; or your porter, who carried your life (okay, maybe just your overloaded bag); or the owner of the guesthouse, who made you feel at home. To see their faces light up with gratitude is priceless, I tell you.
  2. Send an unsuspecting friend a postcard. Since I already imposed upon myself to send postcards to my family when I travel, so why not send one to an oblivious friend or a random stranger, right? I call this my version of the traveling gnome prank.
  3. Visit the highest elevation of the place. Before going to a certain place, I always google the highest structure or the highest mountain (if it has one). I know I am not the most fit to take on a challenge like this, but the view is always worth the effort. So why do this? Because as the famous architect Cesar Pelli once said, “The desire to reach for the sky runs very deep in our human psyche.
  4. Visit a local bookshop or library… and of course, read. Being a purist at heart, I find joy (and awesomeness) in reading books. I ask the librarian for classics of native authors (e.g. Rumi’s The Book of Love) or the bookshop saleslady for bestsellers of local authors (e.g. Dumb Luck by Vu Trong Phung). Sometimes, you have to excuse the translation though, but the story plots are usually out of the ordinary.
  5. Watch a show. Be it a symphony orchestra or a ballet company or an acrobat team, you know that the show will give you goosebumps in the end. This activity usually costs the most in my itinerary, but I love to see people who are insanely good at what they do and usually people in these shows are the passionate ones or the crazy-talented types.
  6. Go to a restaurant with no English translation in its menu. This is the ultimate daredevil challenge for me and I usually do this at the last day of my trip (because I cannot afford to have diarrhea while visiting museums or watching a show). For restaurants, this is a test of how effective their food plating and photography is. So, order, take an instagram, and pray to the heavens for an awesome (and tummy-safe) meal.
  7. Go to their most sacred place. Coming from a very religious country, I know how religion can give its followers hope. And it is such a sight to see people, both the desperate and the thankful, converge (sometimes in large numbers) and pray to and affirm the existence of someone/something. It is mind-boggling (yet very moving) for me all the time.