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Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Comrades Marathon on shoe string mileage - Part 2

In one of my previous blog posts I asked: “Anyone ever wondered how far cross training mileage (on a bike) could reasonably take a multisport endurance athlete to a comfortable ultra-distance marathon finish?”
In that blog I related my running and cycling activity levels in the run up to Comrades, including the taper, but did not reveal the ultimate outcome. The running mileage was low but the question was whether the cycling mileage and the overall fitness would more than make up make up for the deficit.  Weeks after the 2015 race, this is what I shared….
"A few weeks ago I nervously decided to go into uncharted waters by taking a shot at completing the Comrades Marathon on low mileage, relying almost completely on the endurance that I developed cross training in cycling. 
Fast forward to this day, I stand proudly with a bronze medal around my neck after surviving groin and hip issues from early on into the race and fighting to stay on course like a warrior. As an endurance athlete like many others, I have learned to accept the trials that come with this territory and used the mantra “pain is temporary, glory forever” to keep me going.  
The issues were not new - I had the exact hip and groin challenge during the second half of the 2014 Two Oceans Marathon – and finished just in time to make the bronze medal cut-off. The concern I had at Comrades 2015 was that the onset was too early into the race (before the 15km mark), the terrain more testing and the distance much longer. My prayers were answered when I met my seconds at around 22km into the race and they had remembered to bring my massage stick. This stick, together with the foam roller, is the most important item in my ultra-distance running tool box. The stick instantaneously relaxed my tight groin muscles and although my right hip grew increasingly cranky from around 30km into the race, it was only after half way that it began to threaten my ability to complete the race. 
After half way, I prepared myself mentally to put up a big fight. I conceptually divided the course into two half marathons, took a very deep breath, set my sights towards Pietermaritzburg and got on with the programme. The sub-11 bus caught up with me at around 25km to go and left me a bit disheartened because I simply could not keep up. I knew that I was on track to finish but it took me a while before I checked my watch to estimate my finish time because I was preoccupied with the hip – massaging it with my right thumb, left thumb and right palm as I ran, and all the time making sure that I keep my normal running gait. Eventually at 17km to go, I looked at my average pace and how much time I had left to finish and was pleasantly shocked that I had more than three hours. I calculated that to get to the top of Polly Shortts at 10:00 was safely within reach - and so I had renewed energy. Up to that point, my fixation with the hip pain made me grossly underestimate my pace and lose focus on everything else. I reached Polly Shortts at 9:58 – content, under the circumstances, that I was only about 28 min off my original race plan. Because the pain was becoming hugely unbearable, I slowed down after that but kept a close eye on the time to make sure I was not cutting a sub-11 finish too fine.  
There is something special about the Comrades Marathon finish. When you enter the stadium and go through the narrow passages, all aches and pains literally disappear. You start feeling like you are floating on air and you are on an out-of-body experience trip. You see this mass of happy people, making huge noise, some calling your name; and you also see the huge flood lights that brighten the area and project some bit of dust in the air to complete the glow. The real magic, though, is at the end of the narrow passage when the finish area widens up, almost swallowing you as you complete your last turn. Ahead of you is the clock that continues to tick in large red numbers and as you get closer, there are no words to describe the sense of accomplishment. Those few moments towards the finish line wrap up all the long runs, morning runs, afternoon runs, gym sessions, massage sessions, speed sessions, hill sessions, tempo runs and qualifiers, in just a few, triumphant steps. 
You are home! 
I completed in 10:54, hugely relieved and thankful that I have managed to reach the finish line in one piece. I did not feel hugely fatigued at any point during the race and after the run, my quads, hamstrings and calves felt a lot fresher than ever before. 
And so the verdict is ..... Spending more time on my mountain bike and less on my legs is not bad for Comrades at all. I completed within the top 50% of the entire field that started and I believe that I could have done better if I did not have serious niggles. The other good thing is that, unlike before, I do not feel at this stage of the season that I’ve “had enough” of running and I need a huge break. This implies that I will be able to participate in trail runs – the trail season is exciting and starts gaining momentum around this time.  
The only thing I will do differently next year is to never stop running completely when I increase my cycling mileage. This will minimise the time, effort and frustration to get the joints and mechanics back on form to be able to absorb the high impact associated with running. I am confident that my hip problem was resolved and would not have surfaced if I had maintained my runs between December and March. Completing the Comrades Marathon 2015 is an exciting breakthrough for me as it removes a lot of the anxiety I had about going full multisport endurance."

Friday, April 20, 2018

Comrades Marathon on shoe string running mileage

Anyone ever wondered how far cross training mileage (on a bike) could reasonably take a multi sport endurance athlete to a comfortable ultra-distance marathon finish? This knowledge is particularly useful when running is temporarily out of the question due to injury but the heart is stuck at the Comrades starting line. I toiled with this question for many weeks some time ago when I was faced with an overwhelming sense to run the Comrades Marathon even though running was not part of my training for most of the 6 months preceding the race. Unfortunately I do not have the answer but I can relate my story. I have come across this piece that I wrote a few years ago and that I thought would be great to share..…. Enjoy.
"For the first time this year I will be towing the line at Comrades with low running mileage. And so the verdict is out there whether this will work or not; if it does, then I would have cracked a personal multisport training plan that will allow me to take part in mountain biking endurance events without sacrificing my Comrades green number ambitions. If it does not work out, well I still would have learned a lot and would be confident to preach “what not to do”. The Comrades training plan I have used before is my own – optimised for my personal/professional circumstances – and has consistently delivered expected results across all my 6 previous finishes. It starts in earnest on the 1st of December each year and gives me exactly 6 months (or 24 weeks) to train. In contrast, my current plan is 9 week long and crunches the entire build up, peak and taper in 2 months.

Before you start shooting this down as completely insane let me also provide perspective on the mountain biking training I did from December to February: 
-  Averaged 13 hours a week on the bike (indoor and outdoor) per week;  
-  Peaked at 17 hour a week, twice; and 
- Climbed over 35 000 m of altitude on outdoor riding.  
Running is a lot less forgiving but to loosely compare, I peaked at 8 hours a week on my Comrades training and averaged about 6.5 hours a week. The point I am making here is that I was not sitting around twiddling my thumbs over the first 3 months while Comrades runners were hard at work. Nervous and anxious as I am, I feel that at this stage a few factors still make my Comrades attempt this year a bit promising: I have ran my fastest 10km in a long while at pace 5:08 (51 minutes) a week ago and have ran a qualifying time of 4:15 at conservative pace 4 weeks into Comrades training. But the verdict still remains out there and we will know on May 31st for sure. I have ran close to 350km so far and have started tapering. The plan is to run the remaining 150km as safely as possible while ironing out a few niggles, especially around my hip area. "
Look out for the update!

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Small World! – A Comrades Marathon Story

Every Comrades runner has an interesting story to tell – some tales more bizarre than others, but for a 90km race with more than 20 000 runners and thousands of nervous and tense supporters on the route, it is not difficult to understand why.

I have many stories but the one I like relating is about my lost cellular phone. It was a 2010 double down – an odd run because 2009 was also a down run. I was not particularly battling, I took the first half of the race really easy but as expected, the last 20 kilometers are always testing. At about 15km to go, just after passing a very busy water point, I looked up and suddenly this hill came into my view – literally out of nowhere. I do not know why it took me by surprise – it was Cowies after all – but at that point I immediately decided to find a bush and take a pit stop – use the break to regain my composure, I guess. I tackled the hill and after a few minutes, as I started descending the other side, I realised my pouch was open and my phone was missing. I was not in the habit of carrying a phone during runs, but for Comrades I used to because it made seconding easier.

It is widely understood that under extreme physical exertion such as in ultra-distance running, when resources get scarce, the body tends to give lower priority to the brain function. I tend to believe that. Under normal circumstances I would have just kept going, forgot about the phone and tested my luck. But on this day, I decided to turn back all the way down to the base of the hill where I took a pit stop to find the phone. In my limited thinking capacity I thought no one was ever going to find the phone and I could not imagine my seconds worried sick, trying to reach me. That I was left with only 15km to run was obviously not a factor that immediately came to mind. As I was running down, everyone was shouting at me, trying to get me to face the right direction because stories of runners found going the wrong direction by mistake are plenty.

I got to the pit stop and did not find the phone. My heart sank as I started climbing Cowies again. At the other side of the hill I started asking runners for a phone so I could call my sister who was manning the “nerve centre” from home, as I called it. I made a call and that calmed me down completely.  To cut the long story short – the phone was picked up by a fellow runner half way through Cowies hill, he put it in his pouch, ignored it as it rang many times, and only picked it up after he had completed the race. At the finish another fellow runner kindly allowed me to use his phone, I called my sister who then directed me to where the runner was waiting for me. I could not thank him enough!

I boarded my return flight to Johannesburg the next day and this particular cabin was unusually lively and happy – I suspect it was because it had quite a few foreign runners. Stories were related and I remember I was still standing up and facing everyone when someone else started relating a familiar story: “Did you hear about this one lady who ran Cowies twice. Apparently she lost a cell phone, ran down Cowies looking for it and we are told she still made it to the finish, can you imagine!”
I could not believe my ears! I got the phone out of my bag quickly and flashed it around: ”Oh that was me!” I exclaimed, smiling broadly, embarrassed and in complete shock!
Small world!!

That year I finished 11h26 and I still remember these events like they took place yesterday! The runners that assisted me in getting reunited with my phone demonstrate the real spirit of the race. What is your story, Comrade?

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Watch this space...

It has been a while since my last blog entry and this is not from lack of material to share – quite the opposite. My schedule tends to get hectic and when I get a moment to spare to put some words on paper, I am overwhelmed by the scope and depth of what is available to me and I end up battling to pick the best logical place to start. I play around with a few ideas and how they will all connect through a common thread – the next thing the time is up. My next attempt is obviously more complex and takes even longer, because without fail, there is additional new material to consider. A life of a recreational, multi-sport athlete is eventful in many ways. If the body is in the best of form, focus is on reaching new limits, travelling to next adventure and doing all the planning required to make the lifestyle work. When grounded, especially by injury, a whole new learning opportunity opens and almost consumes you as you fight to get back to the field. But I am not complaining.

And so while the last few years have been eventful in many ways, my blog, sadly does not reflect this fact.  In the next few blogs I am going to write about a few events and journeys that I would like to highlight amongst others: my mountain biking journey and Cape Epic attempt, A few Comrades runs (each with own unique challenges), Transcape MTB, some interesting injuries of my right leg, fantastic trail running events, MT Aconcagua climb in Argentina and my recent diagnosis of the External Iliac Artery Endofibrosis.  Because this is looking back in history, the blog entries will not necessarily follow a sequential timeline. And with benefit of facts that I did not know at the time, this will make it particularly interesting for me and hopefully for the reader too.  

Watch this space.


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