Sunday, June 26, 2011

Bon Courage

If you've ever been running in France at some point someone will probably say 'Bon courage' to you. It doesn't have an exact English equivalent, but I would say it means something along the lines of be brave, stay strong, hang in there, good luck and you can do it - all rolled into one phrase.

Courage - the English word is easy to understand. Why keep running, why not stop?

Steve Prefontaine said

"A lot of people run a race to see who is fastest. I run to see who has the most guts"
Steve Prefontaine - the good don't always dies young, but sometimes that do. Plus that moustache alone should make him a hero

Ultra running is just that. The fittest and the fastest don't always finish, the ones with the most guts do.

Stories Of 'Ordinary Madness'

Every race or event has there stories. Not so much the short runs, but when you go long, over hours and days ordinary people start to do epic things. The Trans Aq this year was no different. Here are few snap shots.

A young Japanese competitor injured his knee a day or two in, not just a niggle, but a swelling and haemarthrosis. Forced to slow down to a walking pace and hobble, he kept going all the way to the finish line. Bowing his head every time someone passed him out on the trail. The cheer that went up when he crossed the line and everyone patting him on the back, showed how much everyone respected him for what he had done.

A British guy, again injuring his knee on day 2, unable to bend it, but again just kept going all the way to the finish.

Another British guy, twisted his ankle, an old injury, strapped up he kept going. Maybe the demons of abandons in the MDS and a previous Trans Aq kept him going. But he finished this one, the demons vanquished for a while.

Another British guy, went the wrong way on day 3, the long day, added approximately another 3k to the total distance for that day (took him to about 62 or 63km for that day if I remember). The race leader also went the wrong way on that day, but he abandoned after that. The fittest don't always finish, the ones who want it and have the most guts do.

(Plus there is some luck, one person bitten by an insect and having an anaphylactic reaction had to abandon, not much you can do about that).

'Conquistadors Of The Useless'

Of course, carrying on in the face of major injury seems illogical and insane to the outsider looking in. And in everyday real life if someone had a haemarthrosis or oedema and swelling or ankle sprain I would tell them to stop immediately, rest, ice, elevate, as well as taken all the usual painkillers and anti-inflammatories. In ultra runs, you only end up doing the very last of these things.

But why risk permanent injury, it doesn't make sense in the real world. In the hyper-reality of the event though, it makes perfect sense.

Even in my own case, I injured myself, blood coming out of my right heel, eventually turning into an open wound. Even now, three weeks after the event it is still healing, I tried running this morning and had to curtail it and return home. But during the event it didn't even occur to me to stop, I didn't even get medical treatment on during the event as I didn't want to get a time penalty. Again, sitting here in the middle of everyday life this doesn't make sense, but out there on the trail it made perfect sense.

Why do ordinary people keep going and push themselves? Because the demons are chasing them, the demons of possible failure, the demon memories of previous abandons, the demons of unfinished business. And these are all self imposed demons. No one back at home cares whether you finish or not, you could go back and say you had to abandon, and they would say 'Oh well, are you going to do it again then, cup of tea?'. The demons are all constructs in your own mind. They will chase you down the trail, down the fire breaks, across the black top of the fire roads in the forest, over the sand dunes all the way to final stretch on the beach. And when you see the ocean, it looks bluer than it did a few days before. You left the demons behind, don't stop, don't look back, you've out run them; for a while at least. When the state of grace fades, they'll be back and the next challenge will form in your mind.

To the outsider it can seem like you are a conquistador of the useless. No prize money, no fame, no acclaim, you could of stayed at home and been a conquisatodor of the mundane. This only seems useless if you are the type of person who is content with the comfort, who never looks to the horizon and wonders 'what if' and 'could I do that'? Bon courage to all those who think this and attempt to reach their goal in whatever their chosen field is.

All is mythic. Everyone has their own story. The reason you hang in there, and you stay strong and have courage is because ordinary life bumbles along. In the words of Neil Young

'It's better to burn out than to fade away' and 'Rust never sleeps'

These are the moments you will look back, did I do that, yes I did that. 'When I get old hope I don't sit around thinking about it, but I probably will', Glory Days indeed. Even if it leaves you with 'nothing but boring stories mister', what's the alternative, no stories at all?


These events are exercises in transformation,  internal alchemy. You are defined by the things you do. I read something by strength coach Vern Gambetta recently

'Define yourself, do not let others define you'

So to all you Trans Aq finishers, bon courage, to all of you out there defining who you want to be, bon courage, and to all of you about to push your limits in some fashion, bon courage. Keep moving forward, because moving backwards ain't no move at all.

The Trans Aq was only 3 weeks ago, but already ordinary life is over taking. It becomes harder and harder to capture the essence of what it is.To try and take an experience and verbalise it.

Michael Herr in Dispatches (page 30 for those of you following along)

'This is already a long time ago, I can remember the feelings but I can't still have them. A common prayer for the over-attached: You'll let it go sooner or later, why not do it now?'

The final word goes to Steve Prefontaine again

'You have to wonder at times what you're doing out there. Over the years, I've given myself a thousand reasons to keep running, but it always comes back to where it started. It comes down to self-satisfaction and a sense of achievement.'
Simple as that. Stay Frosty and if I see you on to road somewhere, bon courage! Yes, you are a runner, this is what you do. And as the years fly past, it will begin to seem like a series of dreams.

*Conquistadors of the Useless is the name of a book by Lionel Terray about mountaineering and stuff which I need to buy and read at some point.
And yes, this post does reference a Bruce Springsteen song as well.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Hotel Ultra Run: Some Run To Remember, Some Run To Forget

Your hand hovers over the button. You pause for a second. Then. Click. Your in, you've paid for it, you've entered an ultra run.


The first time you did it, you could rationalise it, someone asked you to do the event with them (thanks Dad!), but the second time you entered, it was your decision, no one asked you to do anything. So why?

And people ask you why, and you fumble around for an answer. If you look quickly out the corner of your eye, you can almost glimpse the answer, but then its gone.

Of course, the question wouldn't even arise if your hobby was playing Sunday football, or golf or fishing or running a 10k. But you're not. Ultra running is like mountaineering, everyone wants to know why. It seems outside the realm of everyday activity.

I can tell you up front, there is no answer. The answer is the act itself. Being in it and doing it. Living it. But the reason people sign up in the first place. Having said there is no answer, I'm going to give it a go, try to explain why people sign up in the first place. The first few explanations are quite prosaic, feel free to skip to the hurt locker moment section.

The athlete - the easy answer

This is the easiest reason. Someone is a really good athlete, maybe they run a marathon in 2.30, may be they've  run trails their whole life. Genetically gifted, they are in it to win. Though again it doesn't make sense why they've entered an event that has no cash prize, little chance of sponsorship and you can't make a living from. So even for this group the answer is not so clear cut.

Tough Of The Track Types

These guys are the seasoned runner. They've tried everything, every weekend you'll see them doing 10k and half marathons and all the big city marathons, they are most likely to be a member of a running club. They aren't necessarily the fastest, but they are dedicated. They've had enough of the carnival that is the big city marathon with tens of thousands of people crowding onto the roads, it's a logical extension of trying to run them all. They can be the most logical and prosaic of runners, its just another event to be done and overcome, like an exercise in geometry, another puzzle to be solved by training.

Interestingly this group also seems to be the ones who try an ultra run once, hate it, and never come back. They can become the 'never again types'. It could be because the training is somewhat solitary, and most clubs don't cater for it. But mostly, it seems they can't cope with the broken rhythm. Unlike, a flat road marathon, you can't switch off and get into your 'zone' and run. And there is a group of runners who hate this idea, the fact the trail makes you concentrate, the fact that some hills have to be walked. Tick the box, and do another one.

Souvenir Hunters - skip over this section to avoid getting angry

There a small group of people who do these things because it is the done thing. Something to talk about in the bar after a hard day of banking. I've heard stories of people turning up to the Marathon De Sables with no intention of doing it or even getting passed day 1, they get their photo taken at the start line and then abandon. Then during meetings they can tell clients 'oh yes, I've been to the MDS'. If I meet them, I will palm strike them or hit them with the wet kipper of reality. I hope this is a small minority, and they don't ruin it for everyone else. As they are taken up a space that a true runner could have had. Anyway, putting this group to one side, most people do it because of the hurt locker moment.

The Hurt Locker Moment

You're in the supermarket. The isles are full of stuff you don't want, you look around, everyone is on autopilot, like shopping drones, they're already dead. A small child is crying, a parent is scolding them or ignoring them and a couple is trying to have an argument without anyone hearing. Fuck, is this it, is this all life is going to be? You just had the 'hurt locker moment'. Named after the supermarket scene from the film.

Most people who enter ultra runs are not super athletes or even seasoned runners. They are the ones who came face to face with the hurt locker moment and acted upon it.

The hurt locker moment can strike at anytime during routine everyday activities. Maybe, you're sitting on the commuter train watching everyday as the newly built housing estates rush passed the window, and past the advert that says 'Feel like your wasting your life commuting' ( yes a real advert, oh, the irony, the commuters have to go past this advert everyday into London, attached to the outside of a new apartment block complex) maybe you're sitting in traffic, gridlock in the city, windscreen wipers and rain, maybe your sitting in your cubicle at work with people you have nothing in common with all around you. You get up, go to work, come home, watch TV that you have no interest in, until one day something breaks. It's the hurt locker moment.

Turn on the computer and search. Maybe it was an article you remember half reading, there's a spark of something you have to pursue. With the internet, something that was once hard to find, and diffuse and esoteric is now easy to find. These things are gaining in popularity, a reaction against the humdrum. Next thing you know, you're in the desert.

Because in modern life, there are no more frontiers, you can't head west, there is no unknown territory, you can't be an explorer anymore or go the the new world. There are no more discoveries in the most literal sense. But all these things can be experienced internally. Every individual has there own internal map, there are personal discoveries to be had, there are mental frontiers to be explored.

You want to find your limits, modern life doesn't let you, it protects you and cocoons you and wears you down in the most nefarious way. You want to turn the Blackberry off, and answer to no one. You want to simplify.

Run, Eat, Sleep, Run, Eat, Sleep repeat. Routine.

And be careful what you wish for. The trail will be break you down. And deep down you want it to. You don't tell anyone, but you want to find the limit, at what point will you break? The attrition is one way. There will be parts of you left on the trail, in the forest, in the desert that you will never get back. And you wouldn't have it any other way.

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms"
                          - Henry David Thoreau

Marathon Monks - missing the point - Siddhartha already tried this so you don't have to

If you don't know what the marathon monks of Mount Hiei do, then have a look at the video clip below. (The youtube link below this is much better and in depth, but that video can't be embedded here so you will have to click on the link to see it)

longer video on the marathon monks

You can take it too far. An exercise in flagellation. Some see it as some kind of atonement, they run because of something in there past to make amends, they want the pain to wash their sins away. It's an escape, like some French foreign legion moment, they want to forget. This is a flawed reason, in the words of Tony Soprano "There is no geographical solution to an emotional problem".

Or they think there will be some kind of spiritual awakening. If you watched the marathon monk videos above, you know the crazy things they do. 80km a day, every day for a 1000 days, wearing a pair of straw sandals, a crazy hat (only a matter of time before Raidlight make a version of this hat) and a lantern. In this Tendai sect of Buddhism, if the monk fails, he is meant to kill himself (it's a Japanese samurai culture thing). If he makes it through all this, he then gets to sit down for 9 days without food, water or sleep. I believe, it used to be longer, but too many of them died! Now with no disrespect to the monks they may have missed the point, this path does not guarantee any satori or break through. Siddhartha (Gautama Buddha, the Buddha, Shakyamuni Buddha - all the same person) already tried all this ascetic stuff on his road to enlightenment so you don't have to. He hung out with all the crazy ascetics, who sat in the middle of fires, and then starved themselves to the edge of death to look for meaning; and he realised it was a waste of time. He then pursued the middle way, of meditation.

Don't go looking for answers on the trail. People sometimes ask if you had any type of break through or spiritual experience on these type of extreme events, and the answer is no. If you switch off, or zone out, you will step on a pine cone, or fall down a hole or go the wrong way. So, in the way people ask you the answer is no. But in the purest Zen sense the answer is yes. Because, when you run, you are in the present moment, you must concentrate when trail running or you will fall over, there is no switching off. When you eat, just eat, when you wash up, just wash up, when you run, just run. Like a moving koan. And then the pain will kick in, you drop you sachet of energy drink and you're wondering where the aid station is; as it should be, the everyday concerns of making it through.

Average Joe

"because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awww!"
                                                  - Jack Kerouac

Most people who enter ultra runs are 'normal', not superhuman, but there not average, because who wants to be average. In the marathon monk clip, one of the monks says

"When I was a salary-man, my life was passive"
This makes sense to me. Everyday life can seem disempowering, who's in control? Some boss you have no respect for? Ultra running is a chance to be active, to take responsibility, to do it on your own terms. To take a lead role in your own journey, because ultimately only you can wake up and make that decision, and do the training, and pack the rucksack and run the distance.

And on the trail, in the camp, you will meet like minded people, and the camaraderie, and living outside, stripping life down to the basics will connect you. You will never see most of them again, but you will remember them. Unspoken.

Because, whats the alternative, take up Sunday football or fishing, or sit at home watching formula one and decay? But everyone else does that, and you don't want to be like everyone else. Maybe it is an ego thing, but you want to be different and live life on the edges.

There is a moment just after you finish the race and just before the crashing come down of 'what do i do now?'. In between these two moments, there is a space, and in this space you feel invincible. And it may only last a millisecond, but for that moment you are bullet proof, anything is possible. And you might be walking down the high street, or you might be sitting in your car, or you might be at work, and that feeling will flash over you; and you'll smile to yourself, for a second you're invincible again, alive again; and average people are walking by and they will never understand. And that's okay, it doesn't make them bad people. And over time that feeling will happen less and less, and it will fade, and you'll know, you have to go back...

"And did you exchange a walk on part in the war for a lead role in a cage" - Pink Floyd.
 Yes, you need to go and listen to Pink Floyd 'Wish You Were Here' right now!

There is no other life 

Everyone has their own personal reasons for ultra running or taking part in any extreme event. Possibly, none of the above reasons apply to you. When someone asks you why do it, you might mutter something about the challenge and fitness. The real answer though is always more nebulous and hard to grasp, and you might not even be able to explain it to yourself. And there is no need to justify it to anyone else. All you need to know is this is what you do, this is how you define yourself. This is who you are.


In the high seat, before dawn dark,
Polished hubs gleam
And the shiny diesel stack
Warms and flutters
Up the Tyler Road grade
To the logging in Poorman creek.
Thirty miles of dust.

There is no other life.

-Gary Snyder 'Turtle Island'

Gary Snyder wrote this about loggers in the Pacific Northwest of the USA. I think you can apply it to the trail or running. Thirty miles of dust, there is no other life, what else are you going to do?

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Once Upon A Time In Aquitaine. (The Greatest Ultra Run You've Never Heard Of Is Over)

The 7th Edition of La Trans Aq is over. And possibly this event will never run again, which will be a loss to the world of ultra running and multi stage events; as quite simply this is one of the most special races there is. I've been luckily enough to take part in and complete two Trans Aqs (that's 2 stars next to my name), some people have done all seven.

In some ways I don't want to tell you about this race, I want to keep it a secret. I don't want it to turn into the Marathon De Sables (MDS), where there's a two year waiting list and it cost several thousand dollars. But that's just selfishness on my part, maybe this race will never run again so all of this is a moot point. So I might as well let you know the secret.

But what is the trans aq, why is it so special, and where is it and how did it come about. To answer this I must start at the beginning.


Aquitaine is in France
Aquitaine is in the Southwest corner of France, think Bordeaux, and that's where its at. The terrain is pine forests, beaches ocean, lakes and sand; and being in southwest France it can get warm.

What Is The Trans Aq

It is a 6 stage multi endurance event, about 220km in distance. There is one long stage on day 3, it was 58.4k this year, a night stage on day 4 when you run up and along the Dune Du Pyla (biggest dune in Europe) and then into the forest with just a head torch for company. The other stages all take place in the pine forest mostly, with some running on the beach and around the edge of lakes.

You carry your own food, with a drop bag of 3 kg at the end of the third stage which can contain whatever you want, but sensibly should contain your food for the next 3 days

But these are just the facts, this is not the story...

Once Upon A Time There Was A Runner Called Gerard

Gérard Caupène is the runners runner. To say he's been there and done that is an understatement. His achievements include 240 km solo without any assistance in the Sahara desert between Araouane and Timbuktu in 2003. 203 km in 24 Hours in 2002. 31st place at the "Marathon des Sables" in 1998. 100 km PB 8h53 at 24 years old.

With a mixture of Zen mind and French flair, almost mythical stories of him running on sand with trainers with specific holes cut in them to let the sand drain out, and of course, no socks.

Maybe, he saw the MDS and knew he could do a similar race in his region of Aquitaine, and try to avoid all the things about the MDS that he didn't like. Who knows.

He made his money from selling scalextric in France (strange but true), and had organised large scalextric racing events, world championships with specially constructed tracks. Combining his organising skill and knowledge of ultra running the Trans Aq was born.

He funded it himself with his own money. It wasn't about making money, he'd break even at best. The event is cheap in comparison to the MDS, racing the planet and even a 1 day ironman events. It was about the spirit of Raid running and the trail.

I don't know anything about organising races, but I think a multistage race must but the hardest type of race to organise, compared to say a 24 hour race where you run in a circle of even a long 100km run, where you only have to deal with marking out one course for one day. A 6 day run with all the trail markings, moving of camps, gaining permissions from various people to run across their land, medical support and aid stations and a million things I haven't even thought of must be a logistical nightmare.

But he did it, and people turned up to run for 7 years.

The Gestalt Race. The event that is greater than the sum of its parts.

So you're running in the forest in Franc. And in peoples mind this seems easy, but its not. As Gerard says, it doesn't have the romance of running in the desert. However, the challenge is the same, it is as tough in its own way because it sneaks up on you and leaves you shell shocked because you wasn't expecting it.

"The MDS has one day of sand dunes, trans aq every day is sand, it's like someone dropped a pine forest on top of a beach." - Welsh Arthur*, no.111, Team Alf Tupper
And the stages are designed to push you. The design is psychologically clever, Gerard will see how far he can take you, distance is almost irrelevant. You didn't come to the trans aq to run on cycle paths and roads did you? Just when you think your safe, you'll take a right turn and be on the dreaded rollercoasters of sand, up and down, up and down; but you wouldn't have it any other way. You'll learn a new language of classification for paths and from S0 (no sand) to S5 (soft sand everywhere), you'll spend 6 days looking at road books looking at S2, S3, oh no S2 has become S5 because of the dry spring.

Race briefing: No, the guys at the back haven't been doing some painting and decorating

But its not just the terrain, 'The map is not the ground.'

Corkscrews & Black Fly

The two volunteers have been standing in the forest for three hours being attacked by insects. The head torches bounce towards them like slow moving tracer. They get the bottles of water ready, offer to top your water holders ups, they notice that your English, shout go, go, go and your away.

The volunteers hold this race together. They volunteer their time and holidays to be part of this race. Always positive, always there for you, many have done this race and others like it, they know how you feel. Many have volunteered for all seven editions of this race, a honorary cork screw for every edition on their name badge. They set up camp, have the aid station ready, provide medical support, and in the case of the night stage, can end up on the go and awake for well over 24 hours.

There are only 10 or 11 English people on this race, and to my shame I don't speak French. However, you never feel excluded. Of course, some of the volunteers can speak fluent English as wells as German and many other languages. Even, when their is a language barrier, the communication of concern and support is obvious.

In everyday life you are faced with negative people on a daily basis. On this race though, everyone is positive, there is a 'you can do it' attitude from all the volunteers and participants. You have to take responsibility for yourself, this is France, health and safety culture hasn't taken over (imagine a ride on a Zodiac boat in England without a safety briefing,  no signing of a waiver and no one wearing a life jacket, in France your an adult - deal with it!). But the organisation of the race is spot on, with aid stations, control points, camp set up and start times.

One thing you can say about the French, they always look stylish. And Raidlight has no need to sponsor this race because everyone is using their gear anyway

If you did it, you did it

The first person in and the last person in get the same t-shirt, the same medal. If you did the distance, you did the distance, you finished it. Maybe you had your personal battle, a twisted ankle, a swollen knee, maybe you fell in a swamp. If you made it though, you know how that feels. You will get cheered across the line, bravo, you made it. In the banquet at the end, everyone goes up on stage and gets their t-shirt, medal, bottle of wine & resin pot (found scattered through the forest, used to collect resin from the trees a long time ago). Last person goes up on stage first. No cash prize. The spirit of raid running is here.

(Why you did it and how you did it are subjects for another article to follow soon!)

“Always watch where you are going. Otherwise, you may step on a piece of the Forest that was left out by mistake.”  - Winnie the Pooh

Breathing Out

And it will come to you in flashes and fragments like a dream you once had. The beach, the sand, running in the forest alone at night, blood, blisters, the guy who paced you up the beach, the wild boar crossing your path, Run Like Hell playing on a loop in your head, a glow-stick, in a zodiac boat crossing the bay; and then your back in the room.

Most of the wounds will heal. Right now, my right achilles is healing nicely, I change the dressing on a daily basis, and my left foot doesn't feel broken anymore! You're left with scars and memories.

Standing in a t-shirt that says 'finisher', stand back, the forest is darkening in the background as the sun falls. There is wine in your hand, and the ocean crashes but your can't see it from here, an Um Pa Pa band is playing. Remember the moment. Most of these people you will never see again. In the marquee laughter and conversation. Stand back and soak it in. It's already history.

And a long time from now, in conversation someone will ask and you will say 'I went to Bordeaux once, I went to Aquitaine once'.
'What were you doing there?'
'I was running in the Trans Aq'
'What was that like?'

There is no answer. Once I went to Aquitaine and ran with 140 other people. And if you weren't there I can't explain it. Once I was a runner.

Steve Collins** Team Alf Tupper

"There are other Annapurnas in the lives of men."[and women]
                                        -Maurice Herzog (first person to climb a 8000m peak - Annapurna)