Category Archives: Trail running

Pilgrimage

pilgrim

1. a person who journeys, especially a long distance, to some sacred place as an act of religious devotion

2. a traveler or wanderer, especially in a foreign place.

3. An idiot who looks like they just got off the boat and haven’t a clue as to where they are. (Urban Dictionary)

Barcelona Marathon is now only a few days away, and my training has been erratic at best.  My regime that is yet to go viral in Hollywood, consists of 10ks here and there, mostly to the office; the occasional jog during a kids’ party; cross-training (a plunge into the pool during the daughter’s swimming lesson); and a 110k trail run.

The latter took place a few weeks ago in early February, as if that made a difference in the era of climate change. The Pilgrim Challenge was my first ever ultra race (that I finished. I’m still writing about the other one), and I had spent more time thinking through childcare logistics than systematic training. Still, I was less nervous than at the start line of a Saturday park run. Pace would be irrelevant on this historic route through South Downs – all I had to do to was to put one foot in front of another, and I have over thirty years of demonstrable experience in this. It is a skill that has only ever been compromised after three consecutive pisco sours, or at 4,500 metres altitude (the ultra I didn’t finish). Surrey is about 134 metres above the sea level and as here I can’t even find Gatorade, except the cherry flavoured one (yuk), my Camelpack carried just plain water.

I’ve been asked many times in the past few weeks by people at work, what is an ultra.  I say it’s basically the only sporting event where you see some people finishing off their fags while others pack their backpacks with Snickers bars before setting off for a run that is still going on when you leave the office. So far, I haven’t convinced anyone to sign up.

But everyone should! It’s a completely unique feeling to check your watch at 17km and know that you’ve barely started. The distance between each well-staffed check point is what most people would consider a full race. And the check points themselves are what most people would consider a kids’ birthday party before kids started to drink green smoothies – loaded with sugar in its various glorious forms.

My arrogance for having ran in the Andes was quickly taken care of by the muddy hills of Surrey.  Who knew there were hills in Southern England? Luckily,  I have no healthy survival instinct running downhill – the right playlist will turn me into a human avalanche on steroids counting aloud the number of black and yellow backpacks passed. The people carrying them were most likely to be training for MDS (Marathon de Sables), the real shit among many ultra-runners. And there I was – there I was among seasoned pilgrims, elite runners and people with a goal to qualify for Rio Olympics – and not feeling completely out of place.

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Check point one: Some were feeling more victorious than others

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The Pilgrim Challenge is a ‘multi-day’ event, which means spending a night on a floor of a school hall and having the opportunity to bond with other runners over the dinner, shower queues and breakfast. Obviously, there’s no drinking or staying up late. To add to the Christian summer camp feel, we had an evening of listening to speakers.  After a sports massage (another great perk), I crawled into my sleeping bag thinking about the women’s MDS 2015 winner, Elizabeth Barnes and what she said about work life balance. There isn’t one. There are work life choices, and you make them. She certainly did, as she cut her management consulting job down to three days a week to be able to train professionally before she became an elite athlete. I wonder if we could have her speak at our next work away day.

I’ve heard lots of motivational speakers, but none of them have told me that life is too short for spending it in an office.  First you’re too young. And one day you’ll be too old. Now I’m in that in-between part when you do a lot of admin and don’t have ANY time. Reading my old diary entries to my daughter have made me realise how big a part sports and running in particular has been in forming my sense of identity, but time after time I have turned down opportunities to make any serious commitment in favour of something more sensible.

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My pilgrimace

Arguably there are some things – like getting a cash ISA or having a pension – that fall into the category of ‘more sensible than getting up at 6 am to have a cold shower and then run 33 miles, having just run 33 miles the day before’. Some of them are also less ache-causing. I’m still recovering from an inflamed tendon that was probably caused by changing into my road runners for no better reason than that I thought my trail shoes were a bit muddy. Since then, I’ve consistently gone against the physiotherapist’s advice to cut down the mileage. I’m hoping this won’t slow me down in Barcelona as my focus returns to pace.

But the Pilgrim Challenge, on the other hand, wasn’t a race. It was a runway.

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Heart Says Yes, Head Says No

I’m often asked what I think about as I run. Usually the people who ask this have never run long distances themselves. I always ponder the question. What exactly do I think about when I’m running? I don’t have a clue.
– Haruki Murakami, ‘What I Talk About When I Talk About Running’
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“Don’t stop until you get there.”

San Pedro de Casta lies about 80 kilometres from Lima. The road climbs some three kilometres up along a narrow mountain roller coaster to the little village that is home to 500 people, donkeys and cows. It is an access point to an ancient site Marcahuasi, which is famous for eroded rocks mystically shaped into people and animals – inspiring generations of archeologists and UFO believers.

This was the route of last Saturday’s training run. One that I never completed. Which is not to say I didn’t see all kinds of mystical things. I started suffering from a bad ‘soroche’, altitude sickness, less than a kilometre from leaving San Pedro de Casta. Even writing about it gives me a headache.

Of course I’d heard of soroche, but I tend to take a lot of confidence in having generous reserves of physical strength supplemented by mental stubbornness and, if everything fails, a pain threshold far, far higher than the threshold for higher tax rate. And the six years spent as a management consultant on the 9th floor in London – how’s that for altitude?

So I equipped myself with a coca-toffee sweet – coca leaves being an Andean folk remedy for altitude sickness – and was pretty much as battle prepared as I was seven years ago when I confidently waddled to a labour ward with a pill of ibuprofen.

Now I just smile and nod when soon to be mothers tell about their plans for natural birth. And now, I also know that people warning me about altitude weren’t necessarily lambasting my physical condition. Nothing to do with my resting heart rate. Apparently even Olympic athletes get altitude sickness. What happens is that your body isn’t used to the reduced levels oxygen that is available at heights of 2,500 metres and above. In some cases fluid builds up in the brain or lungs, which can even be fatal. Soroche has been described to feel like “flu, carbon monoxide poisoning, or a hangover”. Pretty to the point, I’d say, although my preferred choice of conjugation would be ‘and’.

As I rapidly fell behind the group, in between taking photos, I used the voice recorder in my phone, because that is how much I care about this blog. On retrospect, Felipe, who later tried to call me, had a point in questioning the foresight in leaving my other phone that had network  (but no Spotify) in his car. Yet on the other hand, I bet Haruki Murakami wished he had thought like me.

Here is what I thought, as transcribed from the ‘black box’:

“3500 metres… never felt like this before. Is this the point where you turn back? Or maybe there are rewards for stupidity? Probably the oxygen is not going to my head… Oh my god, those cows – I should ask how do they do it? Absolute hell. Oh dear. Ouch. These fucking insects are going to eat me alive.

Why can’t I just go to Virgin Active, like normal people? I can’t see properly. I see everything like it was a filtered Instagram picture where the saturation and contrast are just off… There are people up there, I can hear them. Are these insects getting bigger and bigger? Is that a man in an orange coat or is it just a rock? Oh God… next time I want challenge, I’ll just wrap a plastic bag in my head and run up and down the stairs to Malecón. 

The lethargy I felt was worse than in all of the last year’s team meetings combined. There is a four minute clip about wanting a sausage with proper mustard, or alternatively a Peruvian ‘sanguiche’ with ‘salsa criollo’. No eternal light. No Heaven or Angels. Just a sausage with mustard for me, please.

I found a rock to lie on and slept for a bit, until someone told me to get up. Sleeping could lead to unconsciousness.

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…Ok so, I’ve moved 5.3km. That’s 300 metres progress in the past hour. I feel so ill… There were two girls returning, they said they couldn’t find the group anymore. They said the best thing to do was to turn back to the base, and that’s what I’m doing right now, and I already feel better. My legs are fine, my heart is absolutely fine, my breathing is fine, but it’s just this bloody head! I’m not even sweating, and why would I? I haven’t been able to run apart from the 20 metres for the photographer…

I thought it would feel like shortness of breath, but no, it doesn’t feel like that all. You feel like you need to vomit, only if your brain didn’t explode first. There’s a shortage of oxygen in my brain. A shortage of reason as well. I have to go down, find the bus… it’s a bit of  a defeat, you have to return, but I have no desire to go much higher and then get lost anyway.  I’m not running. I’m not sure I can ever become an ultra marathoner. I’ll be happy to run on the asphalt. Bring on the traffic lights, dog shit, congestion, people on your way! 

…Then again, I’d never have this view again, and I’ve never in my life seen anything like this. There’s something depressing about the remote beauty of these mountains. I feel like Ninny, the invisible child, in the Moomins, who wept at the enormousness of the sea. 

Beautiful but so big. I’m thinking about love and my relationship and these mountains. Impressive… make me feel so small and lonely. Part of me wants to carry on, but part of me tells me that I haven’t prepared. I don’t know if I could have. But now I’m so sorry I didn’t make it. We didn’t make it. About leaving in the past a future that never got the chance to be the present.

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San Pedro de Casta seen from above

Some obstacles are external, some are internal. I find the latter harder to bear. It took me glorious four hours and four minutes to complete 10k – two weeks earlier I had run 42k faster. Turning back implies failure and, for a moment at least, a lesson learned is a bitter consolation prize. Yet I don’t know if the winner feels any sweeter than the surviver, who returns to the base to the relieved applaud of her worried companions. Those are your friends. But if your attitude to life is ‘better to be sore than sorry’, you also deserve some background noise from people who kept their wanderlust in check and were just more capable of controlling their carnal incontinence.

I wish I never climbed that mountain. I wish I never fell in love with that person.

Yeah. Whatever.

That next mountain training is just over a week away. I wonder what the view will be like from there? (Any tips on how to cope with altitude, please comment.) There are those who say life is not a sprint but a marathon. I’m starting to think life is a trail run.

Hey, you think this is Chicken Run?

“I have nothing to do with her running metaphors.”

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Jack (or Jill) of All Trails

Having ran the 42k last week, got a diarrhoea for the following two days and then my period, I thought I had a fairly good reason to put my feet up. I mean, really up: about 2,500 meters above the sea level, and  join a group of experienced trail runners for a 3 hour vertical jog.

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Picture by the SRT, although I failed to get the name of the photographer and will stand the risk of being sued.

I’m more of an asphalt person even if all “long-distance” (over 1500 metres) running in my childhood took place in the Finnish forests. Still, back then nobody with any self respect or healthy concern for their social status would self identify as a cross-country runner.

But now cross-country is back – with a vengeance. Trail running (or fell running in the UK) where backpacking meets running usually happens on a mountainous or at least hilly terrain with a lot of mud/snow/scree. As my very last challenge in Peru, I’ve signed up for a 50k ultra-marathon in Cordillera Blanca, the Andes. Yeah, I know. Never been in altitude. I thought I could start with having the right kind of shoes. Although I’m someone who reads a lot of running magazines and blogs (Google ads think I’m a 65+ multilingual female), the technical language and the expected level of knowledge of shoe anatomy left me bewildered. Besides, in a few months I’ll be worrying about snow and rain, instead of jungle undergrowth, and then I won’t be able to afford (yet) another pair. I email the training organiser for a recommendation and get a pair of Salomon Speed Cross 3.

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A custard apple a day…

I meet the Salomon Trail Runners (hence the recommendation), who I found on Facebook, at 5.30am on Saturday and introduce myself. Having spent my life in Finland and England, language barriers have meant that I’ve not had to endure a life time of jokes about my name – just some phonetic abuse. This has changed in Peru. “Dulce?” they say and “On a good day,” I respond. Having also satisfactorily responded to some questioning about my vital numbers and running CV, I feel socially approved. “No – it’s just that yesterday there was someone emailing me who didn’t even know what kind of shoes to wear!”

Just imagine the ignorance of some people!

We head out of Lima, and two hours away hides a little village called Callahuanca, which is Quechua, and means ‘divided rock’. It is also known as the land of ‘chirimoya’, my absolute favourite fruit in the whole world that I didn’t know existed before I came to Peru! Mark Twain apparently called it the most delicious fruit known to men and quite rightly. I love it for its bubble gummy flavour as well as for its texture. (Daughter thinks it’s completely embarrassing I buy the same fruit from the fruit vendor every single day.) It satisfies my sweet tooth, fills me up and is apparently one of the healthiest fruits out there. On top of this, because training in high altitude increases the production of harmful free radicals in the muscles, what a better idea than supporting local farmers and taking home a few kilos of these green antioxidant powerhouses. How many super foods can just one country grow?

Apparently I’ll be ok, as ASDA sells these as ‘custard apples’, but I can’t imagine they compare to the ones in Callahuanca. I may need to take some seeds home with me in any case.

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Callahuanca is popular among trekkers and mountain bikers.

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My gym last Saturday.

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There was some undulation…

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…and even a pool with ice cold water waiting for us after 9km. 

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