Imagine one second the path you have been walking on for the past 10 years has completely changed, you feel attacked by many obstacles you’ve never seen before.
In 2019, I felt a lot like Frodo:
As in the character Frodo, in the final episode of the ‘Lord of the Rings-The Return of the King.’
On his quest, he is dehydrated. Hungry as hell. And wobbling like a drunk on too much beer. his eyes hurt, his head throbs and his will is all but broken. He’s not even sure he wants to go on.
Terror and dismay gleam from Frodo’s big, expressive blue eyes. In the distance, he can see his goal. But it seems to him like he’ll never get there. He turns to Sam and says in a defeated tone, “Sam, it’s the Eye,” referring to the eye of Sauron – the enemy he must destroy.
And Sam turns to Frodo in a soft, encouraging voice and says, “Let’s just get to the bottom of this hill, Mr.Frodo.”
How does it relate to this race or running you might be wondering. Well, this is I felt for about a year since November 2018 where everything in my running life started to turn sour.
When everything feels wrong
My heart rate during easy runs had been creeping up slowly and steadily since November 2018, after Oxfam Trailwalker. Not only that but my resting heart rate went through the roof, 15 bpm higher from my baseline. So what did I do? I did what someone stupid and/or someone without a coach would do, I kept pushing harder…. until I could no longer run. First it was my post-tib tendon that was inflamed. Then it was the hamstring, then it was something else. There was always something.
So I stopped running for a couple of months and gave up my semi-elite entry to Tokyo marathon 2019 that I hardly earned.
I went back to the basics, easy runs, every other day. Things were still not as they were. After a 20k run, my legs were aching as if they ran 40km. My heart rate was still high. Easy pace didn’t feel easy. I could barely finish Ome 30km road race as my legs were dead after 15km. I was very depressed. My identity as a runner has been shattered. I started to ask myself, maybe humans are set to run a certain number of kilometers in their lifetime, above which the body will say stop.
Maybe my body had reached the lifetime mileage limit. Maybe I’d been running too much and I just should stop.
But I’ve got my own personal Sam. I simply said to myself: “Let’s just get to the bottom of this hill, Mr.Frodo”
Plan to rest instead of being forced to
When I was a kid, I liked to play with elastic bands. Those you find to tie up opened packaged food for example. I would pull them, very slowly, until they eventually ruptured and snapped my fingers back. I’ve always liked to see the limit of things (my own included). The elastic is useful because its length is extendable and it recovers back to its normal size. But if you go too far, it will break and snap your fingers along the way.
The body is like an elastic. If you pull it too far and not let it recover, it will eventually break and will become useless.
In 2018, I kept pulling the elastic band over and over …. until it ruptured. It is really hard mentally to stop pulling because the longer the elastic is, the more invincible you feel. My mind went a direction but my body had stopped following for a while already. I just completely ignored all the signs. The elastic was clearly getting thiner and thiner. Yet I chose to pretend it will never crack. Just like my self 5 years old, except that I was 35. In a nutshell:
- Too many races (2 marathons under 2:45 within 3 weeks, one 71km and three 100km ultramarathons)
- No planned off season between races.
- Easy runs were not easy (shameful as a coach I know… )
- Emotional stress on top of the physical stress (work etc)
- Not enough sleep
Here is the thing: it is sometimes not enough to “listen to your body”. Because what the heck does it mean anyways ?
“It means you should listen to your pain” I can almost hear. Doesn’t it? Skeletal muscles are the fastest to recover. Usually all soreness will be gone without a day or two. But things like tendons, ligaments, bones, fascia etc. The parts where blood flow is low, these take 3 times longer to recover but you don’t actually feel it… until it is too late.
Ligaments, tendons takes three times longer to recover than skeletal muscles.
And because overtraining is a very gradual and slow process you might not feel it. And as day passes, yesterday’s norm becomes today’s new norm of feeling. And so on so forth, you keep repeating this vicious cycle until it’s too late. So these are the lessons I had learned the hard way:
- I will not make any hasty decision about race entry after completion of an A-race
- I will plan one off-season per year.
- I will always wear my heart rate monitor during easy days. Keeping my heart rate low (I go by the MAF method, 180 – age, to which I subtracted another 5 beats, so 139 bpm, MAF stands for Maximum Aerobic Function)
- I will keep my pride in the closet during easy runs.
The recovery and Kung Fu Panda
The hardest part for an alcoholic is to admit they drink too much and that they need to drink less. It was hard for me to admit I needed recovery, and that I needed to slow down. But I eventually stopped lying at myself and decided to slow down, about 1min per kilometer slower, going by heart rate. Then after 5 months or so. My fitness started to come back gradually. Under Sarah’s suggestion, I had signed up for Yakushima 100k just in case, without real hope. But hope keeps us alive. One of my favorite Disney anime scene is from Kung Fu Panda. And one of the reasons is that it carries one of my core value in life:
We have to let go the illusion of control over things we do not have control and focus only on the things we do actually have control, and believe in it.
So I did everything that was within my control to make it happen. I had overworked my body for too long so it was time to let it repair. I went back to the basics. Just like what I did when I started running, and I told myself even if I’m not ready for the race, it’s ok, I will just pass.
Then from September to December, I had gradually build up my weekly volume (130km per week) as well as the intensity. Starting with short and fast on the track then doing more tempo work. On the long runs, every other week it was either flat, long, fast (built up to 50km @ 4:08 average pace) or long, hilly, hard (last hilly run was Mitake that I ran up over twice in a row, Mitake is the steepest road of the Kanto region). And for once since a long time, I felt I was ready.
Plan for Chaos
When Superman was first created, he didn’t have as much power as we know today. He was just a guy that possessed a greater than average strength. He could not fly, nor shoot laser from his eyes etc. Then rapidly, authors started to gave him more and more power, strength and speed, as this seem to please fans… until it no longer did. Superman was suddenly too strong. No one seemed strong enough to oppose Superman. So came Lex Luther and Kryptonite, Superman’s arch-nemesis and weak spot respectively. Do you see the point? On one side we have good and order, on the other, evil and chaos: without Chaos there is no Superman.
Finishing a marathon is like being Superman. But finishing a marathon without its share of pain, and chaos is meaningless, just like Superman without Kryptonite, the Batman without the Joker. So that’s what training is all about. We prepare ourselves to face the Joker, to meet Chaos. Because it will be there.
63km into the race, I had been running for 20km without any food nor drink. All alone with no one, no other runner nor volunteer around me… Did I get lost? No impossible, the course is just a loop around the Island, and there is only one road. The pamphlet said “one aid station every 5km from half way mark”. So was it a lie? I was getting very thirsty and hungry. There were vending machines but I had no money. One thousand things went through my head “maybe I can just drink the water on the ground from the rain”
Then a car that looked familiar drove pass me, it was my wife Celine who wasn’t looking for me, but for a coffee shop. I felt like Clark Kent who got some kryptonite removed from his chest by Lois Lane. She gave me a bit of water she got left, and after a couple of kilometers, I found an aid station. They had just arrived… I was realizing that the three aid stations I did not see had not come yet, I had actually passed before them. Chaos was in good shape. I was not. Unfortunately for me, Chaos had lot more tricks up its sleeves…. and I had not prepared for it….
Although the fuel I got from the aid station at about 65km felt good, it didn’t change the fact that my legs were shot. The hilly course and the lack of energy intake during the last 20km had probably contributed. But hey, it’s only 35km left right? just like 7 laps around the palace right? that’s nothing right? 朝飯前だ！Time dilation in all its splendor showed its ugly face again.
At about 70km, I had to stop to walk as I was cramping very bad.
Now what? was I yelling inside me. Well, Chaos heard me. It threw a 40km/h cold headwind and a 8mm/h rain at my face. My body was shivering, I was getting really cold. My legs could not move. I’m going to DNF I thought. What’s the point to keep going right?
I grew up watching Dragon Ball, just like millions of kids around the world. But the main character Goku was not my favorite one, it was his rival Vegeta. Those two are badasses in different ways, they are embedding different values. Vegeta fights to win. He fights to prove he is the best, period, he values winning and pride the most. Goku on the other hand, fights for the love of fighting. He cannot care less about being the strongest. He just wants to fight against strong opponents and become a better fighter, to best himself. It wasn’t until recently that I started to like Goku again. Because the reason why I run is not to win, it is to best myself.
So I thought I would try one thing to keep moving. I can no longer run at 5:00 ~ 6:00 pace, but I can walk and I can run “fast”. I can run hard by engaging different muscles, my glutes in particular. Which is why I tell all my padawans that the glutes are the main muscle to engage when running and that they are the most important for runners. So I ran hard 400m (maybe ~4:20 pace), walked 100m and kept doing this about 60 times.
“Let’s just get to the bottom of this hill, Mr.Frodo”
I told myself I would keep doing it until I see the finish line or until I fall flat out on my face. Whichever comes first. After a few hours of battle against myself, I finally smiled at Chaos. I crossed the finish line, after running for 100km, climbing 1600m, first place in 9h05min (out of maybe 400 runners)
Somehow I was not really satisfied… or was I?
In one of my favorite books 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos by Jordan B. Peterson, the rule #4 says “Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today”. Today, despite all my efforts, I could not beat my best time from 2016, which was my main goal. As I have given my best, I have no regret though. But I could not help having a bittersweet taste in my mouth. Throughout all this journey where lots of sweat were dropped, I have learned a lot in my quest of becoming a better athlete but especially to become a better coach. Everything I learn from running goes beyond a physiological and mental perspective. It is a lifestyle, a way of thinking, a way to become a better person, and these are the values I would like to share with my athletes and to the running community. Rule #7 of the book “Pursue what is meaningful, not what is expedient”
A friend of Chaos named Sarah
Some days you feel lucky, and on some others you feel the world is against you and you can’t stop thinking “why me?! ” I have been coaching her for some time now and it seems she has befriended with mister Chaos. Most runners I know get running-related injuries, but it’s not the case for Sarah. In the course of a year, she managed to fracture her cuboid bone (I didn’t know that bone existed until she told me), dislocate her shoulder, get iron deficient anemia and… bruised muscles in her chest area during a ski trip 2 weeks before the race.
In the face of adversity, Chaos, nothing seem to stop her from moving and remain fit. I would give her elliptical workout sessions when she could not run to maintain her fitness. Although it was boring as hell, she never complained about it and even asked me for more. The only thing she keeps complaining about is that she feels she doesn’t push hard enough. She told me once “I need to suffer in order to feel good”, although I do not necessarily endorse this way of thinking, those words got stuck in my mind.
Two days before the race she would tell me that breathing was still painful. After all she’s been through, I thought, if I don’t make it to the finish line today, I want her at least to have a good race, after all she’s been through that would not be too much of a demand I felt. Well, Sarah won the women’s race as well. Not only did she win in an outstanding time of 10h07, but as opposed to me where I was completely broken, barely able to move a finger, she was jumping around like a pokemon like if she had run a lap or two around the palace “my legs are fine, a bit tired but nothing terrible” she said to me. Chaos has made her so strong that she probably doesn’t even realize it. I’m sure she didn’t join the race to win. A couple of days before the race, we had a coffee and she told me “I don’t run to chase a PB, I just like the lifestyle of running”. Sarah has been running since she was in a child, and I believe it has been helping her in many ways throughout her life.
“You might be winning but you’re not growing, and growing might be the most important form of winning.”Jordan B. Peterson
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3 thoughts on “Yakushima Ultramarathon 100km – Jan 2020”
Awesome report Harrisson! Love the personal growth story. Your ability to reflect on things is one of the many reasons you are a great coach!
Congratulations on your first place win! Pretty awesome however way you look at it!👏
An achievement, Harrisson. Well done. Sounds like not just an athletic achievement too.
The frankness of it all is something which I am glad to read about… especially in practice.
After all, who judges a judge? Who teaches a teacher? Who coaches a coach? Quite often, no one. Imagine if we grew up with our parents agreeing to every idea we had as a 5 year old.
Keep enjoying, keep sensible.
What a great read! Humbling
Keep it up badass!