Last Thursday, the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival hosted its first ever Trail Running Night. Due to the great line-up of films, the show sold out and unfortunately, they had to turn people away at the door.
Along with Rich Wheater (author of the Vancouver Trail Running guidebook), I was invited to be a speaker. I was asked to speak for 30-40 minutes and not having much a reference, I wasn’t sure what exactly to talk about, so I sort of rambled on for a while about my experiences. I’ve had some people ask about the show and my presentation, so I’ve decided to post my speaking notes. I haven't edited them, so they are incredibly rough and likely have a tonne of spelling mistakes, so I apologize to the grammarians and perfectionists reading this.
I accompanied my talk with a slide show and obviously, what’s written isn’t exactly what I said, but it’s what I based my talk around. It’s pretty long and I apologize if I put anyone to sleep, but that was a good chunk of time to fill!
I want to thank everyone who came for their kind comments after the show and for supporting the night. Alan Fromanek, the festival director was very pleased with how it all went and assured me that there will definitely be a follow up trail running night next year. I can’t want to see what the filmmakers do in 2012!
Anyway, thank you all for coming out tonight to the Inaugural Trail Running Night and, most importantly, thank you to Alan and everyone at the Vancouver Mountain Film Festival for hosting us.
It is an amazing testament to the growth and current state of the trail running, ultraunning and mountain running, I never know how to label the sport, that they can dedicate an entire night to our passion.
Although to be fair, it’s also ABOUT BLOODY TIME.
Don’t get me wrong, I get excited by watching people base jump, free solo and kayak down the Amazon, but after walking, running is probably the single most universal activity.
Let me do a quick poll, via cheers, how many of you know someone who’s BASE Jumped?
Okay, how many of you know someone who’s kayaked down the Amazon?
Although you’re a biased crowd, how many of you run?
How many of you know someone who’s run?
That’s what I thought
I’m sure we’d get the same response if we polled the crowds at the tiger night, the climbing night, or the skiing night.
Truth is running is all around us. Think about a Holywood movie-a couple run towards their love, we run away from things we’re afraid of, we run errands, we run around aimlessly, we run for a cause, we run to catch a bus, we run for the cure, we run to set personal bests, we run to see if we can cover the distance, we run to explore and some people run to win races.
Running and hiking are probably the single biggest participation outdoor activities out there. They may lack the thrill and excitement of some of the other sports featured at this festival, although after watching some of the movies that are coming up, that’s debatable. It’s definitely a sport that we can all relate with.
I think it’s fair to say that we’re running creatures. In fact, some people have argued that WE ARE BORN to RUN.
Why Do I Run????
I arrogantly entitled my talk “Why do I run?” I say arrogantly, because the more I think about the, the more I realize that there isn’t actually one right answer.
My answer is different every time I put on a pair of shoes and my answer would change over the course of a run and that’s what I like about it.
It’s a very personal act.
I think the same can be said for any passion. It’s not something that can be verbalized, it’s a feeling, a drive, a desire, to see what I can get my body to do and where my body can take me.
When I think back to some of the places I’ve run, I’m blown away and I also consider myself incredibly lucky.
Running encompasses a large part of my life. It’s highly meditative, it dictates what I eat and drink, when I sleep.
I proposed to my wife on a run, I have some of my deepest conversations with friends on the trails and we share a lot of laughs, it’s how I frame the world.
It’s allowed me to explore my backyard and new cities and experience them in ways many people never get to. Have you ever woken up jet lagged in the middle of the night, or early in the morning, in a new city, before the traffic gets going and put on your shoes and just run?
You lose the agenda and tourist guides and just go exploring-you develop a sense of sites, sounds and flavours of a city. You also see corners that you likely never would have ventured down if it weren’t for running.
Running has given me an excuse to travel. I’ve run all across Europe, in France, Switzterland, I’m heading to Japan in May, I’ve been to Nigeria, run in Morocco, I’ve run in China and that says nothing about my runs around the country and in the US.
Most importantly, it’s allowed me to understand myself.
Generally, if I were to summarize it, I guess I run because of the simplicity of the sport, the places my feet have taken me and where they might lead next, but more specifically, I run because of a pure curiosity about myself.
Some people may consider this selfish and even I question it at times, but at the end of the day, I simply love running and it’s a choice I make.
It’s amazing how powerful it is to consider our decisions as choices.
I’m often asked how I balance law school, or articling with my running, and then people tend to ask, or talk about the sacrifices I make, but I really don’t see it that way.
The only answer that I can think of is that, it’s a choice I’ve made. Taking ownership of it that way is incredibly empowering.
Not all choices are good ones …
and some are better than others, but at the end of the day, at the end of a run, or at the end of a race-I can look back on the decisions I’ve made and live with the consequences, because I’ve taken ownership of my choices.
Anyway, because this is a film festival and we’re all here to watch video clips, I want to start by showing you a video of me running through the Chilcotin mountains in 2010.
I want to thank Brian Goldstone and Angela Percival, from Arc’teryx, for putting that together.
That was an interesting run-
2010 was my first year of ultra running and only a couple weeks before, I dropped out of a race because of a back injury. I was questioning what I was doing with sport.
I’d toyed with the idea of racing an ultra for a long time, but frankly, I was sacred. I’d run marathons, raced triathlons and done an Ironman and they all hurt-I couldn’t imagine how bad it would hurt to run and race for even longer.
Anyway, we had planned to run 30 or 40kms that day, a solid run, but nothing that scared me too much, but as we were flying in, we had to change plans due to the conditions. I had 3 or 4 gels with me and maybe a half litre of water. I did have Brian and Angela following me on bikes, but they had to lug these huge rigs, along with their packs through the mountains, so I’m not sure how much help they would be out on the trail.
When the plane landed, in a an unknown to me spot, we roughly mapped out a route and I just started running. We’d run towards things that looked interesting. I had no idea how long I’d be out there, or where I was going, but it was beautiful and I enjoyed every single step of the way.
I ended up running for almost 8.5 hours that day, running up and down peaks, along scree slopes. and following rivers.
It was my longest run to that point by almost 3.5 hours and I never really got hungry or thirsty. I was a bit tired by the end, but it was an incredible day. It was as if the surroundings and were feeding me and I felt stronger and stronger all day.
I was incredibly inspired by it all and that drove me.
I was super fit at the time and had had some race success, but that run changed my perspective of what I was capable of doing and it really sold me on my love of long runs in the mountains.
It really struck a cord with me. It was the culmination of searching for the right sport through years of training.
I had been a x-country skier, a triathlete, a duathlete, a marathon runner, but after that run, I felt like I had finally found my niche. I wanted to be an ultra runner, more specifically, I wanted to run mountain ultras.
It’s funny to think of one run as being such a crux, but it really was. Since that I’ve run, I’ve taken a lot of the lessons that I learned that day and applied them to by general approach to running-and I’ve never enjoyed sport more.
So what did I learn on that run?
1) Plans are over-rated
Coaches may hate me for saying this, but fixating on plans simply doesn’t work for ultra distance racing.
Don’t get me wrong, if you want to be successful, you have to have no doubts about where you want to go and be clear with your goals, and you definitely have to have an idea of how you think you'll best get there, preferably written down or mapped out in your mind, but in almost every race you end up having to deal with Plan B, C or even plan X. You have to learn how to be adaptable.
If you have a plan A sort of day, you’ll have a great race no matter what you do. What we actually train for are the 99% of races, or runs, which aren’t Plan A days.
As an example, last summer, I raced the CCC, a 98km mountain race around Mont Blanc, in Chamonix France. It attracts some of the top European runners and I’d trained hard for it. I knew the route and I had planned my day around it and I’d focused my previous three months on having a great day there..
As we were standing on the startline, they announced, in French, that they had to change the route due to inclement weather and a nasty rock slide up one of the passes.
They took out an entire mountain from the race and, instead, they sent us deep into a valley. We ran along a highway for a bit, and it was steep, hot and frankly, quite ugly.
That change and section of trail really affected people. It threw a huge wrench into their plan and they ended up not being able to cope with it. Not only did they have the biggest drop out race ever at the event, but a lot of great runners had very average races. They couldn’t cope.
As with any outdoor activity, you’re always at the mercy of the weather and it’s up to you to deal with it.
Racing ultimately comes down to problem solving on the fly and who can deal with the ups and downs-over the course of 2, 5, 8, 20 hours of running, you have to adapt your plans.
The same thing applies to training plans. Having a training plan is a great idea and I encourage it, but at the end of the day, a training plan is just a best guess. Some of them are more informed than others, but they’re still guesses.
How can a coach or advisor really know how you’re going to feel, or react to certain stimulus and stresses? We all live complex lives, even pro athletes who have all day to train and recover and we are all very individual.
The best athletes and coaches adapt their plans daily and that may even mean adapting as you’re running.
In order to do this in a way that really benefits you, you absolutely have to know yourself as an athlete and you have to know what your goals are.
2) Know Thyself
As I said earlier, it’s great to have a goal, but in order to reach that goal you have to focus on the way to get there.
I would conservatively say that I’ve averaged 10 runs a week for the past 5 years, so say 2,600 runs. In that time, I’ve probably races less than 50 times. Racing is only a small fraction of my actual time running.
What I’m getting at is that I don’t run just to do well at races, or even because of races. If I only ran to race, then I’m not sure that I would log as many miles as I do, I’d simply just do as many races as I could and that doesn’t interest me at all.
What interests me is figuring out what I need to do to be the best runner that I can be, given my life choices.
I’m very competitive and racing is what I use to focus me. It’s my test to see if I’m applying myself properly. I want to show up on the startline of a goal race knowing that I’m as ready as I can be.
I currently work with Jonathan Brown, who finished 4th at the Sydney & Athens Olympics in the marathon. He’s been an incredible help and his knowledge, experience and low key, hard work approach to training have been invaluable.
I train following a general outline, with the basic notion being train as much and as hard as I can, given everything that’s going on in my life.
I try to get in one harder workout, one tempo run and one longer run a week-but I go largely on feel.
If I feel good, I go hard, if I feel rough and have a workout scheduled for that day, I’ll either change the workout, change my expectations, or do the workout on a different day.
If I get a session wrong, or I’m too tired to do it, I think what I might have done differently, but I don’t dwell on it, I move on.
I’m not an analytical person, I’m very much an emotion/language based thinker, so that’s how I train.
Some people love numbers and statistics, they actually overwhelm me. I get caught up in them and I get competitive with them. I absolutely want to see a round number, so I might go and do an evening jog of 30 minutes on Sunday, just to make sure that I got in 120 miles that week. This is a ridiculous way to think. Maybe 118 miles would have cut it, or maybe I could have done 123 or more miles. I find numbers artificially limiting.
I also find that, with mountain running, because you don’t fix into a pace. A real focus on pace times is a waste of time, it’s all about effort. You’re never sticking to a set pace out on the trail.
Instead, I really try to focus on having a memory bank of thoughts, cues and emotions to draw on on race day.
Because of that I’ll do some workouts that may not make sense-for instance, I’ve done 100*35 seconds hard/25 seconds easy-or I’ve headed out for a 2.5 hour run on smashed legs and stayed for four or more hours, with almost no food or water, just because it felt right.
You can’t go wrong in training for an ultra if you switch things up. Over the course of 50 or 100 mountain miles, you’re hiking sections, your’re bombing downhill at other times , you’re running a tempo pace—getting a sense of what you’re body can do at a variety of paces is invaluable.
I try to get a sense of what it feels like to run a given pace, what are my thoughts, what does my body do? When do I need to hike, when can I run harder?
Basically, the training allows you to show up at the start line, competent to handle the challenges of an unpredictable day.
It’s easy to be confident, but confidence is often masked by dilusion. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting, training with and getting to know some of Canada’s top endurance athletes and they’re not all confident, what they do all have is an incredible drive to be competent.
They become competent through years of racing and hard training, yes, they have genetic talent, but a lot of talented athletes never become competent.
I like to think of it as a video game. You go around collecting talisman’s and other little bobbles, like mushrooms, and you store them in your pouch. You may never use them, but you know that they are there if and when you get tested.
It’s your competence, you’re bag of tricks that actually allows you to get the most out of yourself.
Spending the time really listening to myself, while pushing the limits of what I can do in training has really changed my perspective and it’s improved my racing. I used to be quite anxious at the start line and while I still get butterflies, I’m rarely anxious when I feel competent.
I hate to say this to people that are new to the sport, but endurance takes a bloody long time to develop. This isn’t something that’s happened over the past 2-3 months, I’ve been doing endurance sports for a long time, but it’s only recently that I’ve really taken ownership of my training.
That said, I’m not sure if the results would have been the same without my previous experiences.
I started “training in high school” and then I moved out to Victoria to train with the National Triathlon Centre. I did that for 5 years, before I ditched the speedo and simplified my life and focused on being a runner.
Over that time, I’ve sought out some of the best coaches and training partners I could. My first mountain race was the Jungfrau marathon in Switzerland, it was the world mountain running championships and although I’d run a 2:29 marathon in my first marathon earlier that year, I had no idea how to run a mountain marathon, so I sought out the World Mountain Running champion, Jonathan Wyatt and sent him an email over his blog, asking him how he trains.
He was doing the same race and he ended up writing me a training plan for the race. It’s mostly a testatment to Jono’s great personality, but it shows that curiosity and a willingness to seek help pays off.
As I’ve moved into longer and longer runs, I’ll examine the blogs and training logs of some of the top runners and although they aren’t always reliable, I mean it’s a blog, of course people lie on them, I’ve picked out a few themes.
-the training is incredibly simple
-they all run a lot
-they are consistent
-they get strength from hills
-speed work is HIGHLY overrated
-they just love being outside
I’ve adapted those themes to fit my training.
As I said earlier though, it’s a slow process.
My first year just running, I was averaging 10 hours of running a week, gradually, over the next 5 years, I’ve slowly increased that to the point where I’m now regularly running over 20 hours a week. I’ve gotten stronger over that time, but because I progressed slowly, I haven’t had any significant injuries, or time off from running, so I’ve been able to build on my fitness.
It hasn’t be a conscious process, more, I’ve slowly figured out each year what I’m capable of. I push up against my limits, nudging them forward and my results have progressed at the same rate.
This process breaks down run by run.
I’ve started countless runs, tired and exhausted, but I head out and slowly, as I get going, I warm up and by the end of the run, I feel invigorated and fast. and I end up running further and faster than I thought I could when I first went out.
I’ve really learned to take these runs step by step and that’s how I approach ultra races.
If I were to sit back at the start of a race and think about the fact that I’m trying to hammer 50 miles against some of the best athletes in the world, it would probably be overwhelming.
Instead, I focus one step at a time, trying to make every step count.
I think about my form, I try to think about my emotions, my cues, I think about nutrition, I take in the world around me, I try to stay in the moment, while trying to move forward as fast as possible and, as I proceed, the miles start ticking away.
When I start to get distracted, or tired, I use a few tricks. For instance,. I count my steps. I start at 100 and count my way down…If I make it all the way through, I start again at 90 and so on. It’s a trick I heard Peter Reid, three-time Ironman Hawaii champion said he used and it works. By the time I get to 80 or so, I’ve forgotten about my fatigue.
Another trick I use is, if I feel good ---EAT---If I feel bad---EAT—the idea being that you’re fueling ties in directly with your energy levels and emotions.
It comes back to the power of choice. You can sit there feeling miserable about the task that you’re underatkaing and suffer for the next 2, 3 or 10 hours, or an accept what you’re asking your body to do.
It’s not easy, don’t get me wrong, a lot of those steps are painful. Your quads and back hurt, your gut is a mess from eating gels and drinking coke, but if you remember that it’s your choice to be out there, then you maintain some control over the situation and it becomes much more enjoyable
I’ve been told 2 great pieces of advice for ultra racing:
1)Just go fast so you can get the fucking thing over with—which is very good advice and
2) I was told before the CCC, my race in France, to just enjoy the day, by Peter Watson, who may be in the crowd tonight and he was right.
It’s amazing how much your perspective and mood can affect your performance, even through rough patches-so why not smile when things get tough, ultimately, we all run because we enjoy it!
Thank you very much-that’s my talk
I’d be happy to answer any questions now, or at intermition, or after the show if you’d like.