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9 weeks into training! I have really enjoyed it and it’s been great to have a training goal (I'm not just saying that because I work for the company :D). I’m sure this applies to many others: It’s not just about the race but about the journey getting there. Besides experiencing the race and the desert adventure, for most of us it’s a reason for keeping in shape, having structure to life, leaving the office on time etc.
I'm not that busy organising races yet, so I’ve been training generally six times per week, 2-3 cross training sessions and 3-4 running / hiking sessions, and at least one rest day. Pretty much as what I typed in to my training plan (the previous blog). Cross training has been mainly circuit training / strength sessions and the runs / hikes have consisted of shorter week day runs, including beach sprints which, as odd as it sounds, I quite enjoy. On the weekends I’ve been doing back to back days with about 50k total distance. Sometimes more, some times less. The long ones bore me out but I’ve been lucky to have friends to join at least for some part.
So I felt like I was getting a good base and started thinking about transforming myself into being a donkey (= carrying heavier backpack).
CHANGE OF PLAN
If didn’t quite go like that. My knees started to disagree.
That’s not a surprise. As I told earlier in my blog, I have a rheumatoid (joint) arthritis and it has flared up as a result of training. I have had this pretty much all my life, and no kidding… running for extended periods of time doesn’t go well with arthritis! I have run ultras and stage races in the past but there’s always a chance that my body decides otherwise. If I was sensible I would be grateful for the fact that I can run 10-15 km. Not aim for 250km. So here we are. Knees are swelling, even my hands are swelling. Great.
How do you get rid of knee ache?
In Finland we have a saying (which actually refers to headache but knee is also OK). If your knee is aching, put a tooth pick under your toe nail and kick a wall. Preferably really hard. And just like that you won’t have knee ache anymore!
As much as beer is great for recovery it also fixes pain. At least until the next morning. However both of these options have rather short term effects and as you can guess are not official 4 Deserts advice!
SO WHAT NOW?
I see three options:
I’m quite competitive with myself when it comes to sport and a bit of “do it well or don’t it at all” character so it’s hard to stay motivated … but I’ll try to be a bigger person. It’s hard to know what will happen but I’ll try option 3.
So here’s what I did this week:
*Brilliant Olivia Chiu, a good friend and a 4 Deserts competitor who also happens to be a great physio!! helped with Plan B: More careful and focused strength work and weekends sessions as knees allow. Reduce running. No more long back to back weekends! My request: Replace it with biking and paddling to keep up cardio – and for mental health.
I’ve also got great tips from Hong Kong based podiatrist Brock Healy, who is a star when it comes to finding an ideal running shoe for your foot type.
40% RULE AND CAMARADERIE:
Many 4 Deserts competitors battle with injuries or a fear of getting injured at some point. It’s important to respect rest days (the number of them depends on your fitness level and plan). If it looks like an injury is looming, stop doing what you are doing and consult a physio or a sports physician, preferably someone who understands ultras.
While it’s never recommended to start a race being injured, issues can occur. If you are training alone and feeling stressed and worried, the main thing to remember is that you are not alone. When you join a 4 Deserts race you will have so much support. Camaraderie in these races is indescribable. It’s incredible how much extra strength you find from yourself with the support of others! This morning I saw a quote from an ex-navy seal which I thought was apt: when you think you've reached your limit, you have just about reached 40%.
While battling this I’ve had to remind myself that my problems are relative to others. While I think of my inflamed knees, I also think of Camel (Kam Hung) Fung, a Hong Kong based competitor who is training for the Gobi March 2017. He’s an amputee.
All of us will be challenged by something. It wouldn’t be great if it was easy.
GEAR CHOISES: BACKPACK
Let’s move on from one first world problem to another: which backpack? The two most important equipment items are backpack and shoes. I’m still deciding on between two (or more!) shoe models ....
...So I’m not going to cover that yet! Hope the below helps anyone who’s deciding on the pack.
Training with the backpack:
The Sahara Race, just like any other 4 Deserts is a self-supported race. Admittedly wanting to carry a 7-9kg backpack over 250 kms is not the first thing one dreams about, but there’s a sense of satisfaction in the idea of living out of your backpack for the week. This was Mary’s idea for the races when she started the race series 15 years ago. Back to basics, to push your physical and mental limits.
There’s a fine line how much training with a pack you want to do. It’s good to get used the weight and you can also use the pack to do your strength training exercises. However it’s not recommended to do all your training with a heavy pack as that can lead to an injury. But carry it enough to get stronger and used to it – there’s not much shopping around the Skeleton Coast, if you find that your pack gives you chaffing in the middle of the race (!).
Choosing a pack – a session in the park:
I was going to write more about this but remembered then that we have this expert article that lays out the essential considerations when choosing a pack.
To start with I identified the models that I thought could work. I asked friends around who already had backpacks from past stage races and borrowed them for a trial session. I ended up with OMM 25, OMM 32 and Osprey Talon 33. I packed a few bags of rice and a couple of towels, plus the bottle holders and bottles with water to make this resample race packing as much as possible.
Off to a nearby park. I strapped the first pack on and went for a short run. I came back, switched the load quickly to the second backpack and did the same run. Came back, changed to the third backpack and did the run. This worked well as I could feel the difference easily with quick switching – and the park staff was amused.
Here’s what I thought:
The pack is a bit longer so you can really tighten it around your waist. However it was bouncing around my shoulders and I couldn’t make it tighter. Works nicely for a hiker or someone with broad shoulders but not for me. (Consequently it say it’s men’s model). This pack is also a bit heavier but it has a proper frame and netting against your back.
The pack is pretty snug and it’s easy to tighten so it doesn’t shake around too much. The straps are soft and cushioned but for me they go over my trapezius so I felt the weight quite a bit on the side of the neck/ traps. All in all thought very comfortable. And lots of pockets for equipment you need to access easily.
Basically the same design as OMM 25 but the back part of the backpack is a bit longer. Works equally and generally better for taller people. Both OMMs are very lightweight.
I continued the trial at the RacingThePlanet store another day (yes, brought my rice and some cat sand as weight). I added a few more packs for comparison:
Raidlight Runner Light 30:
Comfortable pack but the lower part of it is larger so the bottom part can get quite heavy and bulky. Lots of pockets so a practical design. I know many people who love this pack but I opt to not to use it for myself.
WAA Ultra Equipment:
This is only a 20L backpack but it comes with an extra front pouch (that could also be worn at the back). Also quite a comfortable design but unless you are very strict with your packing, you will run out of space. Because of the snug size, this pack is a favorite to many experienced ultra runners.
Inov 8 Racepac 25:
Had the most comfortable fitting around my shoulders and I really wanted to get this one! But when I started running with the pack bounced against my upper back between the shoulder blades a bit too much. I thought my lungs would not be happy about that after 40km.
So which pack? I think I will go for the OMM. I’ll have a couple more runs with the 25 and 32 to make the final decision on the size. (Thank you Lene Larsen for lending yours!)
A couple of reminders for backpack shopping:
So…. A few weeks have passed since I signed up to “race” 250-km in Namibia. No more requests to join the volunteer team but a few have requested to do my mandatory equipment check. CP Captain Tony Brammer has promised it’s going to be thorough – I better not show up with patches wrong way around or with a small whistle!
I’m happy to report that training has started to take some sort of shape. When you change sports or start it all over again, it always takes a while to get into the routine and start liking it. But I think it’s gradually sinking in. My legs have got use to it: a 15k run no longer hurts my hips or muscles the next day and the couple of times I’ve gone paddling, I haven’t been able to keep up with others, so as annoying it is, it must be a good thing!
I think I had a highlight of my training this week. It was early morning and I ran from the south side of Hong Kong island, over the hills and then along a flat Bowen Road that overlooks the city centre. I was overtaken by a woman. Crap how annoying! I blamed the big backpack that I was testing and didn’t like. Another woman goes past. Now this is really annoying. So I speeded up a bit and passed them, but towards the end the other woman passes me again. We got to the end of Bowen together where she turns around to go back and shows her PREGNANT belly! And it wasn’t a small bump. It was a proper at least 5-6 months pregnant bump that looked like it should slow you down. I should probably look at my pace again! But good on her!
Friends Are the Best & Worst
I’m lucky to have a few 4 Deserts veterans living in my neighborhood. As much as I value their tips, I (secretly) think they get satisfaction of telling me what to do J But so far we are still friends.
Here’s a few:
Lene Larsen – Atacama Crossing 2015, Gobi March 2015 and The Last Deserts 2016:
“Don’t forget to run in the sand – it makes your ankles strong”.
Andrew Strachan – Gobi March 2008, RacingThePlanet: Namibia 2009, Iceland 2013
“Fix yourself a standing desk. You’ll find your legs and back tired first but you’ll be much better prepared for being on your feet.”
“Don’t train too much. You’ll be fine with a couple of times a week!” [This is my personal favorite!]
Ali Chaudhry – RacingThePlanet: Namibia 2009, Australia 2010, Nepal 2011, Iceland 2013, Madagascar 2014, Atacama Crossing 2015, Gobi March 2016, The Last Desert 2016
“Put lubricant everywhere. I mean EVERYwhere!” [Ali developed a rather personalised walking style for ignoring his own advice in Iceland 2013.]
Jo Eades – RacingThePlanet: Namibia 2009, Australia 2010, Gobi March 2014
“When I did Namibia, the best training, besides a few runs on the beach, was tackling the twins [these are 400 meter peaks in Hong Kong]. They’ll get you strong for dunes and step training helps when you’re sliding backwards in the sand.
Ross Eathorn, Personal Trainer – Sahara Race 2009, Atacama Crossing 2012
“Everyone’s different - what works for one may not work for another person but it’s good to have some kind of a structure in training.”
It’s great to be able to absorb their experience and views, and just talk about training in general. It makes it more interesting and there’s always something you haven’t thought about.
Despite Ross’ advice, I decided not to opt for a personal trainer so I can keep living in my dream world (ha!), but I’ve begged and begged and managed to find friends to do some of my training sessions with, and identified a couple of training groups to make this all it as fun as possible.
Measures and figures:
I don’t use a GPS watch that much but I think it’s good to record some mile stones along the way. Let’s say in the beginning, half way and towards the end.
Speed: I started by noting down the time of my first longer training session which was a combo of running and hiking. It was 3 hrs and I covered 18km with 600 meters of elevation gain and loss. It’s obviously not a flat run so I figured the hills compare to the soft sand and dunes in Namibia. So let’s say around 6km / hr will be my starting pace, which hopefully then equals then a medium / tired pace in Namibia. Although that could be a little optimistic with a heavy backpack.
Heart Rate: When I studied physiotherapy years back we did a lot of fitness testing. Since study times, I’ve used a heart rate monitor very little. I believe more in knowing your base HR levels (rest HR, max HR and the basic training levels, usually around 70/80/90%) and training based on how you feel. But of course it’s good to check those here and there. Just as speed, a heart rate is an indication of fitness level and it can be motivating to keep an eye on both.
During my first long run (and not having used a HR monitor for a long time) I noticed that during a 3-hour run, my heart rate was more or less 150. Whether it was uphill or downhill or flats, it stayed around that mark. Occasionally it reached 160 but didn’t go above it.
A good example comes from the 100km Trailwalker races that I completed in 2007-2009. Kobi Jansen who was our team’s captain used to insist on walking ALL uphills. Looking back, that was just the right thing and allowed all four of us finish the 100km-race, even that year when the temperatures were around 30C mark. Pacing is going to be the key in order to finish something as long as 250-km.
But then again on shorter week day runs I think it’s good to really work on getting the heart rate up (and down). Nothing beats interval training, as awful as it can be.
After a couple of weeks “warm up” I drafter a training plan. In brief it’s about short but more intense training sessions on the week days to build strength and speed and then building up the distance on the weekends.
The Namib Desert is full of sand. It’s the oldest desert in the world so that’s obviously not going to change. That sand is going to slow everyone down and make it much tougher – and drive me mad.
Trails in Hong Kong are quite the opposite. Although it has some of the beautiful trails in the world (see yourself):
... the government here likes to pave trails. All most of the common trails are paved – where there is no pavement is where they ran out of concrete!
Why am I talking about pavement? Well it makes running much quicker. So as preparation (both mental and physical) I’ve decided to find awkward places to run from time to time. I’m lucky to have a few beaches around but for those who don’t have, it could be a swamp, snowy trail, soft forest track.
For those who live in hot countries, I think training in heat is also good. It makes your training runs slower but it builds up stamina. Whether the race is in hot or cold environment (for most part the course in Namibia is not particularly hot).
Below is what I came up with:
1hr bootcamp / gym
Short Run / Intervals
6-13km / 1-2 hrs
1hr bootcamp / gym
Short Run / (Intervals)
6-13km 1-2 hrs
14km < / 3-4 hrs
14km < / 3-4 hrs
+ Stretching in the evenings (although this is often replaced by snoring!).
A “couple” of notes:
The “plan” is to change the plan. When I’ve followed this for 4-6 weeks, I’ll see how it all feels and make some modifications. The changes include:
I presume all the above is going to suck at some point. If it happens, I will then take a day off and go to movies after work - or have fatty hamburgers and a few beers. Relaxing either way!
I think that’s it for now. I feel like at this point I still enjoy writing more than training. But as they say: “Do what I say, not what I do”.
So here we are: I have FINALLY decided to jump to the other side of the fence by signing up for the Sahara Race (Namibia): 250 kilometers, 7 days, self-supported by my own feet. For anyone who has signed up too, don’t worry, I’m not going to be conducting customer research or spy and expose you for penalties – I’m going to be SUFFERING, LIVING and LOVING it over the 250 kilometers and 7 days like the rest of you.
Since I shared the news, some of our past competitors have asked to join the volunteer team. Just for the sheer pleasure of driving past me by 4x4 is my guess! (Haha I hope this doesn't turn into a Dacar Rally.)
I obviously have a few obstacles to tackle, like how to get ready for the race in just over three months, but what I do really look forward to is having the time to enjoy the race from a participant’s perspective and selfishly focus on me (thank you my dear colleagues for letting me slack this time!)
There are lots of amazing things to experience (pictures can never bring justice but below is a few to give you a better idea): The Namib Desert (the oldest desert in the world by the way) and all those incredible things along the course: huge waves and strong currents of the Skeleton coast. Numerous seal colonies, and the cute small black seal heads that keep popping up and down in the waves. They are seriously funny to watch! Historical ship wrecks on the foggy coast, including Henrietta on Stage 2, which is partially covered by the sand. Huge golden and red sand dunes (we have added a few more to the 2017 course). All that deserted red landscape with canyons and valleys where the course leaves the Skeleton Coast. A random diamond mind from earlier this century and its rusty structures in the middle of the desert. The ever so happy local team who love chanting their traditional African songs as they set up the tents (or when they sneak out to play football), and a local Himba tribe who wears nothing but leathers and their handmade jewellery, but are some of the most beautiful people on the African continent. And just as important, I’m looking forward to not rushing around but let my beloved colleagues do it J. Instead I’ll focus on having endless chats with other competitors, enjoying the sun rises and sun sets around the camp fires – and of course a good tent gossip! Looks like there’s a great bunch (and still many signing up) - Between us we share over 30 nationality flags! www.4deserts.com/sahararace/competitors
What I think will be challenging for me personally besides the obvious (distance, challenging terrain and testing weather) will be blisters. Just for the record, I lost SEVEN (!) toe nails in my first 100km Trailwalker. But that was long time ago there’s lot you can do to prevent them. The second thing maybe limitations on what you can fit into the backpack. Don’t get me wrong. I love getting back to basics and I find a week without showers or changing clothes incredible relaxing. But I’m used to having a heavy warm sleeping bag and lots of food (just for the record, it’s never been any different to competitors. I enjoy the same orange packs as you). Anyways keeping the weight of my backpack could be challenging!
So I signed up pretty late (a couple of weeks ago). Just less than 4 months to the race. I do admit that being an organiser for living, I may not be most organised in my personal life – ad hock things do happen. All the time.
Typically the first things to determine when you decide to sign up for a multi-stage race are:
1) Motivation – why do you want to do this?
2) Your current fitness level and;
3) Your goal/s and based on that;
4) Your commitment (ie training plan)
So why do I want to complete the Sahara Race? Besides the points I mentioned earlier, I have always loved sports. I was more active before I made my hobby my living, but being active has always been part of my life. When I was just over 2 years old, my parents noticed that everything wasn’t quite right. My feet were starting to crow in a funny direction, swell and I seemed to be in increasing pain. Six months later after lots of tests, I was diagnosed with a severe juvenile arthritis. The doctors said that I may never be able to run, and even walking could be difficult. A couple of years followed with regular visits to hospitals, intense treatments, medication, shots and I started slowly getting better. Thanks to the great level of healthcare we have in Finland and an incredible amount of patience and love from my parents to go through all this I am what I am today. For all of my teen age and adult life I have been able to do sports and enjoy it. Arthritis is an autoimmune disease that will always stick with me and it does from time to time remind me of its existence but all in all I consider myself VERY lucky. And that’s why I try to keep in mind that being healthy and being able to enjoy sports is not something you can take for granted. But while you can, make the most of it.
Current Fitness Level
"Do you compete and organize these races at the same time?" is a question I’m often asked. It's a common assumption that race directors are fit. This is probably a false assumption – at least in my case it is. There’s enough to do just managing the various aspects of the 7-day race. If we are lucky we could sneak out to mark the course, pick up markers etc for a while. The days in the office can be quite long too. When the races get close we can easily spend more time at our desk than traders at theirs.
But I try to exercise as much as I can. Usually in the mornings as it starts the day in a really nice way. I think about running related things a lot, so much of my free time I like to spend on water. Currently I paddle a boat faster than I run. That’s kind of a problem… so I’m going to try to change that (quickly) to get FROM THIS:
[By the way, Salameh Al Acra holds the trophy for several top level stage races including the Sahara Race 2014 with an overall time of 22:44 and the MDS so even to finish in double that time I would be very happy!]
#1 My first goal, like every 4 Deserts competitors’ goal should be, is to finish. There are so many factors that affect a 7-day ultramarathon in the middle of nowhere, that no-one can show up and state that they are 100% going to finish. Exhaustion, stomach bugs, dehydration, injuries are some of the challenges.
The number two most common reasons for withdrawing in our races are:
2) Stomach issues (caused by dehydration, exhaustion, bugs etc)
So I thought I would take a modest approach and as corny as it sounds “listen to my body”. If it wants to walk I walk and if it feels energetic I might run, or in the context of the desert, shuffle.
2# My second goal is to train as well as possible in the time I have so I can “enjoy” the race. Train well doesn’t mean train a lot. Or not train enough. But lazy as I am I’ll try to train smart.
3# My third (secret) goal is to do as well as possible. I don’t know yet what that means so more about that probably towards the end of my training.
First Training Run:
Seven years with the race series, it’s not going to be hard to make a training plan, but as most things in life, sticking to it will be challenging. I did my first run a week ago on Sunday. You know that feeling when your GPS watch vibrates and you’re glad to know you’re making progress? I thought I had covered the first kilometer but no… that was just the GPS just registering! Someone reminded me to try to find my inner Chi and the enjoyment in running. I think I found my Qi at some point but probably because I happily forgot myself into a slow pathetic shuffle - at times just standing around. But it’s all about the time on your feet right? Right.
I did manage to cover 18k, and did even enjoy it, but not a surprisingly, the Rigor Mortis during the next couple of days was equal to the experience – I felt dead and stiff. Also the amount of chocolate that went down alongside with full meals was pretty incredible. I’ll start eating healthier soon.
I’ve done a few more runs and cross training sessions but by the next update I’ll share a more precise training plan. That's all for now, speak soon!