Stretching the elastic around the pegs

My oh woe is me (broken ribs) post just before Christmas was demoted to the Vauxhall Conference by my younger sister falling and breaking her collar bone and 3 ribs a week after me. This left me with an ebbing tide of sympathy but no ebbing on the pain front.

You could speculate that we are slightly dyspraxic or just pushing the envelope of adventure.  Or stupid. The choice is yours.

The biggest social impact of the ribs was that good sleep was a hard thing to come by. This, coupled with what you might benevolently call my psychological dependence on running, lead to some moments over the Christmas break where I was on the short list for crankiest f**ker in the neighbourhood.

After a while I decided that I’d rather have sore ribs for longer than to have to endure any more days without running so I pulled on my shoes and did a few 10 mile runs around the hills to the south of Cork City. The up side of the enforced break was that my random running of the past 4 months can now come to a natural end and I can start some specific training for an ultra marathon.

I think I’ve already said that another pop at the Passatore in Italy is on the cards (100km 30th – 31st May 2015). There are a few reasons for this; not least of which is that I ran the whole thing injured last year so even if I complete the same half arsed plan as last year I should make a better go of it. I think I’ll consider something else as well for the last few months of the year to prevent the random tail end to 2014 that started as enjoyable but lead to the eventual drop in motivation.

Now, the training plan. Or lack thereof.

If you’ve ever completed an ultra marathon (or marathon) or are considering the daft idea then one of the first things you’ll normally do is start to search for a training plan and then start into it with the sort of conviction that someone with OCD (or a heroin addiction) would be proud of. Like a teenage boy who finds a  bag of porn mags in a hedge you may appear normal on the outside but in your head you’re focused on only one thing.

As your race unfolds most of you (or from where I sit in races- just outside the top 24-33%) will start to realise that the saying Men Plan and God Laughs might be a good name for a running club for delusional fools like you. Some vital part of the plan  – vital as in you forgot it completely – will normally render your efforts sub-optimal (as they’d say in a management review of your work performance).

Why does this happen? You did what it said on the tin. What gives?

The main reason is because you are you and not the ideal man or woman in the training plan. You have a unique set of characteristics than mean that some things will work for you but other things just don’t. This is your ability.

When I talk about ability I don’t just mean the ability to put one foot in front of the other faster than other people for a long time. That is obviously useful but if you read the stories of other runners who do extraordinary things this is often one of the things they focus on the least. I really mean the other limits of your ability. The ability to change your perception of the  shape of the world around you so long distances and long times become irrelevant, the ability to meditate on continuous small efforts in training and to convert these into a bigger outcome, the ability to change the metabolism of your body so you can continue to function on low calorie inputs relative to the energy outputs.

In a sport like running where the objective is to search out the limits of your ability most of us are pre-conditioned to hook our carriage up to the first snake oil salesman that rolls into town. Buy these shoes, drink this, eat this, rub this between the cheeks of your arse, wear this watch, sleep more, sleep less, stretch, don’t stretch, piss as you run, stop and walk. The list of advice is as long as it is ridiculous.

Consider this allegory:

You’re on a grass lawn standing on a red circle that is just big enough for your feet. At your feet  you find  a mallet, a length of elastic and 5 timber pegs. The pegs are about 0.5m in length. Each of the pegs has a word etched on it. The pegs are called fitness, strength, equipment, food and mind. Your job is to spread the pegs out in a pentagram star shape,, work out how far they need to be from the circle you’re standing on, hammer them into the lawn and then stretch the elastic around them. On your first go you are able to drive in the fitness and strength pegs quite a distance from where you stand but you can’t reach as far for the others. As you stretch the elastic you realise that the long distances between the fitness and strength pegs and the others means that the elastic snaps.

You start again and repair the elastic. You change the location of the pegs and try again. This time the elastic snap because one of the other pegs is in the wrong position.

You look around you. There are 20 more people on the grass lawn all trying to solve the same problem.

Over time you learn that  your elastic is different to theirs and that even though you try to copy other people around you it just doesn’t quite seem to work. You see some people give up and quit and never complete the job. Others can get 4 of the pegs to fit but not the last one. It just seems beyond them.

If you’re very smart you’ll realise that even though you’re all at the same task nobodies elastic is the same so no two methods work the same. No two people have the same ability.

In reality you could add in several other pegs called sleep, family, sanity, work and other hobbies but you get the drift.

If you’re training for an ultra marathon the first thing you realise is that you’ll have to be able to run a long distance. So you set about hammering in the fitness and strength (lungs and legs) pegs as far away as possible. Then you realise that the mind peg needs to be in place as well. At this stage you have no more elastic left to make it around the equipment and food pegs so your race end up with the slow and sorry death march or DNF that means you to cross from hero to zero in the pub storytelling competition.

So, for this year my plan is to work on the other pegs a bit more. To stop trying to run 20 miles on a jelly baby  (this works up to about mile 45 but is very unsightly from there to the end), to try and finish with my feet intact. I have moved from the traditional shoe to a minimal shoe in the last part of 2014 and now need to move to a minimax shoe (minimum shoe, maximum cushioning – Hoka or Altra).

On the running front I’ll still make a decent effort on the amount of running I do but I’m going to use the dog to help with walking endurance as well. The industry secret in ultra marathons is that without walking breaks it all falls asunder (for mortals).

At the moment I’m doing about 3-5km per day, everyday with the dog. This is 1,000-1,800 km of low impact lower aerobic exercise each year. As a form of aerobic fitness and strength training it looks like low hanging fruit to me. This is normally broken into morning and evening walks so as long as the television is crap and the dog still needs his crap every day then this requires little effort.

The food area is one that is harder to address. Too much is as bad as too little in this arena. If you adopt the hoover up anything and everything approach then you’ll either be a bit plump at the starting line or bloat yourself out during the race. On top of this you have the whirlwind of food advice doing the rounds – run on fat, go paleo, use gels, drink protein shakes, eat normal food, eat chocolate. And the opposite to all of these as well.

If I can remember anything about the Passatore from last year it was that the food on offer changed  as the race go longer. As the race is entering it’s 43rd running they may have got something right in relation to food. I won’t bore you with it here but I’m going to try out some of the foods they offered on some of my runs over the next few months to see if they have any benefit for me. If nothing else it’ll teach me how to drink sparking water while running with a nutella sandwich.


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