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I’m supposed to go and drain a blister, but ended up to the cybertent – this is more fun. So Day 1 went well.
The highlights were:
#1 Waking up at 6m to the sound of the 4x4 fleet heading out to the course. Was soooo nice to turn and keep sleeping!
#2 OMG how nice it is just to lay in the tent feet up having finished the day! No work or duties. Such luxury.
But yes the course is beautiful and had fun company and good conversation so that first 38k went quite quickly. I shuffled most of the way and walked a bit where it got soft and pointless to ‘run’. That confirms that the foot was pretty good – lets hope it will last this way. Actually before leaving the hotel, I gave my running shoes a good beat up: a bit of hair dryer and then smashing with a gold ball. As violent that was it seemed to help a little too.
At the finish line Scott from tent 4 and I pulled out our socks to investigate any damage. It was like Christmas. “Look look what I got. “ Scott got no presents luckily. I got one bloody blister but luckily only one.
Anyway its still early days. Let’s hope tomorrow goes well, for everyone in the field. No one pulled out today and everyone was pretty quick in.
Tomorrow is 39k and we head towards the coast. Past a diamond mine that has opened their operations again so if you see me as inactive I have gone digging.
THANK YOU all for the lovely messages. It means a lot to read them. I may not write emails back as the cybertime is limited but I will keep updating the blog.
Love you all.
I have just arrived in beautiful Namibia, in Swakopmund on the Skeleton Coast where the 4 Deserts is keeping base. It’s good to be back!
Lots have happened in a short period of time. It was only until the last weekend when I had to admit to myself that doing the race may not be a good idea. For those who have followed and encouraged me for the last 4 months I thought it would be good to explain, which I’ll do in the end of this blog. Uncertainty aside I have been preparing like everyone else. The last training run was on Saturday and then started packing.
The Art of Packing
Packing for a 4 Deserts race is an art itself and as much as it can be daunting to see how heavy your pack may get, it's also quite fun. It’s amazing how quickly you know how many grams each item weights and how much energy anything edible has. Although I’ve done many many mandatory equipment check for others, packing your own gear is always different. We all know what the mandatory gear is but I find entertaining is what extra people bring – more on that below.
Here it is, all laid out expect food. To answer one of the most common questions: Yes it’s all mandatory – really. But actually much of this stuff you’ll wear so what’s in the pack is not that heavy. Pick as light gear as you can.
Food I packed separately into daily packs, Day 1, Day 2 etc to make it easy for those who check it but more importantly find and manage it myself when tired. Food items weight easily most, but the good thing is that you eat your way towards a lighter backpack. I ended up making my own breakfasts of muesli, fruits, mild powder etc. Freeze dried for evening and in between: snacks, bars and energy / electrolyte powders for the course, noodles and recovery shake for arrival at camp and a big freeze dried meal for evening. Around 2200-2300 kcal per day so a little extra. (2000 is required per day).
The challenge with the recent developments is I was no longer sure how much I’m able to run. The longer you spend on the course the more snacks you need and less food at camp. One of the “advantages” of this job is that I’ve become quite good at cracking a packet of noodles open and eating them dry. Yum - All the things you learn! This “back to basics power bar” works OK if the day on the course looks to be longer.
The above is all mandatory so the photos aren’t going to vary that much from anyone else’s. But what could be interesting is what extra goes into the pack. Obviously as little as possible but some comforts are useful, see from 1-5, in this order:
When you write this all down it ends up being a long list – This doesn’t weight more than 1.-1.5 kg extra but let’s see what actually goes in on the start day??
Start Line Decision
Now…on to the hot topic: to start or not to start? I could explain this for hours but or say it in two words: Shit happens. The below picture describes perhaps best what going on - this time:
So yes ironically knees are now fine but it’s the ball of the right foot that is not. Having super high arch feet, the second thing that hits the ground after heel is the joint of the first metatarsal. So all pressure goes to that small area…for each and every 250,000 steps of this race. This is nothing new but usually I don't have this issue until the first 50-100kms of any race. At the moment I can do about 15km before it starts. And this final week the foot has just been quite sore.
I’ve had to go through a few pairs of shoes and orthotics recently to find the right pair and as my feet are ergonomically a mess, I suppose all this has aggravated them too much. If it was just the pain that could be managed but having rheumatoid arthritis any damage I do I have to live with it after the race. So the outlook at the moment is that I may not start, or if I start it’s quite likely that I won’t finish. It’s a decision I need to make in the next couple of days.
I have prepared a bag with little arts and crafts items. Shoe sole material, cushioning etc. So it’s going to be a creative day of trying to make things a little better! Tomorrow I will head for a little stroll and will then make my decision. What ever it is, it will be the right decision. If it’s not this race, there will be other races.
After all the training and being fit and strong otherwise this is SUPER GUTTING. But it’s a FOOT race after all. Besides work this is pretty much the only thing I’ve managed to think for the last couple of weeks. Then again they say that the sun will still rise the next day? Hmmm.. This will be a great race regardless and if I won’t run past checkpoints, I’ll be there to support everyone else.
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”.