It’s not often that we think of making it 400m around a track as a demonstration of grit and determination. But for my friend Ali*, this was the beginning of how this gentle individual’s quiet, inner power came to be.
Two years ago during a meeting with a lawyer at the Justice Centre, a non-profit organisation supporting refugees in Hong Kong, Ali was invited to join RUN. At the time, he weighed 100kg. But his invitation had little to do with his weight. RUN – “Rehabilitate”, “Unite”, and “Nurture”, formerly the Hong Kong programme of Free to Run – supports the most vulnerable of refugees and asylum seekers in Hong Kong through sports, of which Ali qualified.
At first, he wasn’t sure about the invitation. “I was scared,” he recalls. “I had never really run before, and it had been years since I had played any sports.” But call it faith or intuition, something in him told him to sign up. And with a little encouragement from the lawyer, as well as Virginie Goethals, RUN’s managing director, he did.
Every Thursday evening, men and women of RUN, staff and volunteers meet at the Aberdeen Sports Ground to train for an hour. It was on this 6-lane, 400m track that I met Ali last year.
“I didn’t know what I was signing up for,” he chuckles. “It was difficult,” he says, remembering the first session. And it didn’t stop being difficult. “For one year it was difficult. Every time my whole body hurt. During – because it was hard to breathe – and after. One little touch would be so painful.” “I would dread every Thursday,” he confesses.
But something in Ali told him to keep going. And he did. At first, the change was physical. By the time I met him he had lost about 22kg, and it’s something that still motivates him. He has a goal weight, and it suits him to track numbers. His approach is meticulous, you see: “I write down my training schedule, so I can see what I need to do every day,” he says.
His training outside of the Thursday sessions now consists of average distances of more than 20km at a go in the mountains near his home. He has since run races through RUN too, including the China Coast Marathon – his longest race distance yet. He recounts running it side-by-side with a RUN volunteer, and so far, it’s his favourite race of all. Why? Because running, he reflects, is not entirely individual. “Friends really helped me,” he explains of his motivation to keep running, especially at its most difficult. It is good friends at RUN, a true community, that he gets his boost. His advice for beginners? “Find friends to run with.”
He continues, in a modest way typical of Ali, to reflect on his running of the past two years. “It changed. From something in my head, to something in my heart.” For Ali, running started out as a process of methodically logging numbers in weight and distance. Now, it’s a passion, from which he continues to see physical, mental and emotional reward from his consistent hard work. “Sports is important,” he says firmly.
But meticulous as ever, Ali imparts this profound piece of advice: “Without planning, life doesn’t make sense.” He is in the middle of working through his latest goal of running one race a month. “Twelve races in one year,” he smiles. And his positive psychology brings his planning even further afield, to future marathons in Boston, London and Paris.
Truly, the most remarkable thing about my friend Ali isn’t his ambiguous immigration status, or even that he lost a lot of weight running. What makes him special and one to admire, is his quiet humility combined with a deep resolve and inner power. Grit is at the core of how he looks forward to what the future holds. And it all started with running 400m around the track.
I am running Gobi for RUN - please support me by supporting my friends at RUN at the following link: http://bit.ly/sparkraise-run-alex-da-roza
100% of donations go to RUN, to support existing participants, and to be able to add new participants to the programme. Any amount is much appreciated; below is only guidance as to what donation amounts would cover:
*Not his real name.
When I signed up for my first 4Deserts race in 2016, I only planned for the physical preparation. I made a training schedule for the week - Monday, rest; Tuesday, run; Wednesday, weights and Muay Thai; Thursday, run in the morning and evening; Friday, rest; and weekends, back-to-back long runs. After all, how else are you supposed to prepare for a 250km footrace across the desert carrying everything you need for seven days? By physically training for it, of course.
But what I didn’t quite realise at the time was that running isn’t just a physical exercise - it’s a mental one, too. And by that, I don’t mean it’s nuts. Well - most people might think so of ultramarathons. But the point is that physical preparation is only part of what you need to run your best.
I run best with a quiet mind. And I love those runs: when I’m not thinking of anything in particular, my body is relaxed, and I’m breathing easy. I love every song that comes on my MP3, and I can enjoy the scenery and the moment. It’s meditative. It’s nirvana. I could run forever, it’s so effortless.
The truth is though, that it’s far from effortless. In fact, I’ve only ever experienced that kind of run maybe twice, and anything even remotely close to it only a handful of times. So it doesn’t seem to be totally attributable to the pinnacle of any physical preparedness, which, while obviously important, can only take you so far.
Take the training schedule I came up with, for example. It’s a basic formula that I’ve found works for me, which I used again as a basis for my training for Namibia in 2017, and that I’ve used this time again for Gobi. It works for me - to a point. I’ve also since learned to factor in physical fatigue, which is going to happen now and again for various reasons: working full time, not getting enough sleep, my diet or fueling system, any biological reasons - basically, the fact that I am not a robot.
It turns out equally important to factor in, too, is the mental aspect. Sometimes when you’re focused on a big, long-term goal that is always at the forefront or at the back of your mind, you have to give yourself a break. Even one that is a privilege to be able to do, and one that you are really excited for. When I’m tired I like to take the time out to remind myself of the wonderful experience each race brings, seeing old friends and meeting new ones. And to remind myself, chill out. That’s just scratching the surface: the mental aspect of running goes much deeper than just a bit of fatigue and taking a break from getting caught up in the pressure of training now and again.
So how does one experience running in quiet perfection? Sometimes it feels like the stars need to be aligned for that. But we are more in control than we think, and it doesn’t take the universe and cosmic occurrences to align the body and mind. You know when people say it’s all in your head? Well, it really is all in your head. The mind is so powerful that anything can be agreeable in an agreeable state of mind, and anything can be disagreeable in a disagreeable state of mind. It’s not necessarily the situation that dictates how something is - it’s you.
Over Easter, Moose and I were in Japan, holidaying and - what else! - running in Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo. Osaka and Kyoto running was amazing. Tough, but a few good, solid 25km to 35km runs with some pretty impressive uphills in and around shrines on quiet mountain trails, in weather that, though warmer than expected, was certainly still pleasant. Tokyo for me though, was a different story. It should have been a final, flat, easy and beautiful run in the city, with an exciting 798m section over a suspension bridge beside a bit of traffic, including, we saw, real life Mario karts! Or at least people dressed up as Mario and company in go-karts. Instead, it was a horribly frustrating, seemingly never-ending 20km run for me. I couldn’t find my rhythm, and the more I struggled, the more it festered and ate away at me in the first 10km. What was the problem? My legs were fine, and my lungs were fine - physically, there was no problem. But it felt like I couldn’t catch a break in the pace, Moose taking the lead was bugging me, and the car exhaust was starting to get to me. It wasn’t until Moose realised something was up that we stopped for a short break, and it came out that an email I had happened to open that morning right before we set out was bothering me. Then really bothering me. Until I was ready to explode. I didn’t even mean to, or even really need to check my mail then.
Being born of the year of the tiger under Chinese astrology, this year I am apparently supposed to watch my temper. And I feel like it’s true! Yes, there are a few things that I may not have a lot of patience for, but generally I do like to think that I go with the flow. Not lately, though. In Tokyo, I wasted a lot of unnecessary energy mentally exaggerating the seemingly bad qualities of the email, then Moose taking the lead, then the cars around. Everything was disagreeable in my disagreeable state of mind, and it needn’t have gotten to such a level that we actually had to stop and turn around. Like I said, physically there was nothing wrong. But it was my mind that had stopped me from running further than what I was capable of.
So the mental training I am working on is peace of mind. Focusing on my breath, and letting thoughts in but gently letting them go again. It’s meditation on the go, and easier said than done. But like physical training, it can be achieved with commitment and practice, and my Tokyo run is motivation enough for me not to let my mind get away too much again. My two experiences of running with a quiet mind in total nirvana were perhaps then not fluke instances, but ones in which I had the mindset to shut off and let everything go, so I was present, and just running.
Today’s training: 20km in 2 hours and 10 minutes in and around Discovery Bay with a 9.3kg pack.
I’ve always been an active person, but weight training has been a real game changer for me - for my running and fitness. After starting to run in 2009, for a time I was constantly falling victim to injury. My knees, especially the left, were a problem. They would get swollen and sore, and it was uncomfortable to squat or go up and down stairs.
So I went to get it checked out.
The first physio I saw told me to take 6 weeks off from running and Thai boxing (“high impact sports”), and treated my left knee with acupuncture and electro-therapy. 6 weeks passed, and the acupuncture and electro-therapy had done nothing. “You might have a meniscus tear,” she said. “Worst case scenario, you might need surgery.” What?
The second physio I saw almost waved me out of his office. “It’s tendinitis,” and gave me a couple of stretches to do before and after my runs.
The third physio was just right. Surgery was not the answer because it was tendinitis, but it was still something that needed to be addressed with more than just a bit of stretching. We did strengthening exercises, he answered all my questions about the mechanics of the knee, and never once told me not to run. Slowly, my knees became less swollen, sore and uncomfortable.
But the real turning point was weight training. I started sessions two years ago with my good friend Don right before preparing for my first 4Deserts in Atacama, and I’ve never had the same problems since.
What I realised as I got stronger were the reasons why people generally have issues with their knees as I did: (1) a lack of muscle supporting the knees from above and below (the quads and the calves); (2) a weight disproportionate to the frame carrying it; or (3) both. It’s not because of overuse that you might have knee problems - it’s a myth and total oversimplification that running is bad for your knees. In fact, it’s from underuse. Specifically, underuse and underdevelopment of the muscles around the knee required to support it, even if you are an active person. Two, four, or six weeks of rest isn’t going to build up those muscles or make it better, but weight and strength training will.
So Don and my sessions are once a week, do-it-yourself style, and super low-key in a park with a set of kettlebells he picked up from our illusive “si fu” and original master creator behind the workout. (Illusive only to me because I’ve never met the master himself, but he’s actually a friend of Don’s.)
We call it the Playground of Pain. Whether it’s a reference to the weights, or because we do it at 5:30 in the morning, I’m still not sure. And it’s not just for leg strengthening. This is also an upper body, full body, and core strengthening workout that has made me and continues to make me a stronger and faster runner. When I hit the wall on long runs, I don’t have a lot of fat reserves to draw on: I’m a 5’4, skinny little nobody, and the best (only) reserve I can rely on is pure muscle and a strong core.
So welcome to the Playground of Pain. This is our workout. Excluding the short run to and from the park, the workout takes one hour, once a week. Consistency is key, and as Don once said to me, “Don’t be scared of the weights.” Don’t be afraid to go heavier because together with the rest of your training routine, it will only make you a stronger runner, and stronger all round.
20 leg raises
20 side crunches (left and right, 20 each side, elbow to knee)
20 side crunches (left and right, 20 each side, elbow to hip)
2 minutes skipping
As many chin ups as possible (beginner: 3, intermediate: 5, advanced: 10+)
Weights: (15lbs, 20lbs, 25lbs, 30lbs, or 35lbs)
10 kettlebell swings
10 shoulder press
5 bicep curls, 5 bicep curls with press (left and right, 10 each side)
10 windmills (left and right, 10 each side)
10 overhead tricep extension
3 Turkish get ups (left and right, 3 each side) with lighter weight
2 or 3 Turkish get ups (left and right, 2 or 3 each side) with heavier weight
Repeat from 2 minutes skipping. Short breaks (less than 30 seconds) only where there are spaces above.
Cool down after 2 sets:
1 minute plank
30 seconds side plank/one-legged side plank (left and right, 30 seconds each side)
1 minute scissor kicks
Physio: Doug Tahirali, Sports & Spinal Physiotherapy Centre, Central, Hong Kong.
Doug works with top trail runners in Hong Kong and Asia including Stone Tsang, among other professional athletes.
How do I love ultramarathons? Let me count the ways... One of them is how much there is to learn. Every race and training bloc you learn more about yourself and your body, and about what works for you - including with diet and nutrition.
I’ve never been on any kind of diet in my life, I have no diet restrictions, and I’m lucky not to be allergic to anything. Apart from having a slightly weak stomach, I’ll eat pretty much everything and anything. Just everything in moderation, right? (Says the girl who loves ultramarathons!) So I’m definitely not the type of person to buy into fad diets, or fad anything for that matter. And until my first 4Deserts race in 2016 in Atacama, I barely knew what a calorie was or how to count them.
That all changed of course when training started, and then it was and continues to be a process of learning by doing. I learnt pasta in the evenings is reliable for fueling my workouts the next morning; and I learnt I recover quicker if I have protein after a workout, which is especially important for days I either have two training sessions in one day, or have an evening session followed by an early morning session the next day.
But having not paid too much attention to food before, it wasn’t a natural place for me to turn to in thinking about performance. Number one in my mind was the physical and mental training, and what I could be doing differently to improve. Longer runs? Strength training? Cross training? Heat conditioning? Fair enough, especially at the beginning when I think training does need to start with building a good, solid base for physical fitness.
But fitness and food undeniably go hand in hand. And the more I read about training and ultramarathons for guidance on how to approach my own, the more diet and nutrition also snuck into my consciousness. “Eat & Run” by Scott Jurek, legendary ultramarathoner, is a favourite book of mine about his life, career as an ultra athlete champion, and journey to becoming vegan. “Finding Ultra” by Rich Roll, another legend and favourite book of mine, is about his life transformation through physical and spiritual rejuvenation, also in part through becoming vegan. Was there something to having a plant-based diet?
So after a two-week recovery following Sahara (Namibia edition) in May 2017, I started incorporating more vegan options into my diet. I didn’t cut out meat and dairy entirely - a complete 180 change in your diet is a very difficult thing - but figured something gradual would be doable.
To begin with, I generally don’t eat so much meat, mostly because I’m too lazy to keep it and cook it myself at home. So aside from some prosciutto in the fridge, during the work week, the largest of my meat intake will normally be what I pick up for lunch. I’m not going to lie: cutting down on meat and cheese, even just at lunch, wasn’t an easy thing. A burger from Beef & Liberty, some Vietnamese pho, chicken noodle soup, sushi or a roast beef and brie sandwich from Great were no longer easy lunch options.
At the same time, I was getting back into training for Hong Kong’s Oxfam 100km Trailwalker in November. Plenty of time to prepare, but what happened over the months until then was that I didn’t have as much energy as before and couldn’t keep up with the same volume of training as I had for Namibia. I felt weaker, and had lost a bit of muscle. I thought it was weird, but ignored it and continued as I thought I knew how.
The point of realisation for me was ultimately Trailwalker. My two friends and I finished together as the seventh all-women team (top 20%, and top 15% against all categories of teams overall), but as with any ultra race, it wasn’t without its ups and downs. One down being that, besides the fact that I had come straight off an 11-hour flight from London the morning of the race for an afternoon start, in a post-race pow-wow, my teammate and close friend said, “Alex, I think you hit the wall and never came back.”
She was right. Any time in training too that I had hit the wall, there was no coming back. I had zero reserves, and I felt like a skeleton running on empty. Maybe I was anaemic? Nope, my blood work came back from the doctor and I was in fact, the opposite of anaemic. There was no shortage of anything, and all signs pointed to being healthier than the average. I think I almost sounded disappointed over the phone with the doctor, because then I just couldn’t figure it out. What was going on, and why the fatigue?
Finally, I realised trying to go vegan, even gradually, just wasn’t working for me. For one, I wasn’t doing it properly in that it isn’t just a simple matter of cutting out meat and dairy. I hadn’t really replaced it with anything, and I wasn’t consuming enough calories as I should have been.
Even though I didn’t know what I was doing, the exercise was important for opening my eyes to what I eat: processed food and too much sugar make my stomach bloated and uncomfortable, so maybe I don’t have the sensitive stomach I’ve always claimed.
Since December, I’m back to eating what is normal for me: everything and anything - veggies, some meat and some dairy. I feel much stronger this January, I’m 1kg heavier with muscle, and cranking out a few 30km here and there has really given me a boost that I’m in a much better position than I was in the last 6 months of 2017.
And that’s what I love about this sport: the learning never stops. I’m still intrigued about what a plant-based diet could do for me as an athlete. I’m still working out what works for me. And vegan or not, I still believe you do still have to eat your veggies.
Post-workout protein: Sunwarrior Warrior Blend Plant-based Protein (chocolate).
Have you ever run on a long, windy road up and down a mountain with hardly a care in the world? Okay, that’s only partly true: it was still 15km one-way from 310m above sea level to 1,685m - so an elevation gain of 1,375m and then loss of the same over 30km in one go. So there was a lot going on in my mind, but traffic, a normal concern of the road, wasn’t one of them.
I was in Chiang Mai, Northern Thailand, with my best friend Moose, and we were seeing out the end of 2017 with a run up Doi Suthep to a sacred temple and to Bhubing Palace, near the peak of Doi Pui, in Doi Suthep-Pui National Park just outside the city. Moose had plotted the route, and mentioned vaguely it would be about 1,000m up. I generally have an eye for detail (it’s my job), but in certain situations I don’t. Specifically in situations when you’re better off not knowing or asking too many questions - I think it’s called survival instinct.
We started out just as the sun was rising, and first needed to get ourselves to Chiang Mai Zoo at the bottom of Doi Suthep. Running through Chiang Mai, we were encouraged by the sight of cyclists on the road as if they had just finished an even earlier traverse up and down the mountain. By the time we reached the Zoo, we’d already seen a few cyclists, but no runners. Except one dressed the part outside the Zoo. He wasn’t running though, he was sitting. Hmm...
We set off at a steady pace up the incline. There was perfect cloud cover, and the road was smooth with green on either side. Both of us plugged into our music, there was nothing else but to run. And it was beautiful! It wasn’t easy - running uphill obviously takes effort - but we took turns pacing. Moose is much taller with much longer legs, so there are times I hate following his seemingly effortless stride. But that morning I was grateful when he took the lead for his sensible, steady pace up the mountain. Even seconds on the pace made all the difference, because we really had no idea where, how far, or what the top even looked like. I mean, we knew it was 15km, but neither of us had our watches. GPS? Heart rate? Pace? Who cares, we were free styling!
A few cyclists passed us. But one ahead caught my eye. He was moving slower than the others who had passed us earlier, and I was determined we catch him. I thought he was going slow enough that it would be a quick win. But we followed him... and followed him... and followed him some more.
An hour in, an increasing number of cars and pickup truck taxis heading to the temple drove respectfully past. It was amazing: the road was wide, and there were signs every now and again indicating the road was for vehicles, cyclists and pedestrians to share. We may have been the only runners on the road, but I didn’t mind. People were peeking out the back of truck taxis giving us a wave and thumbs up. We were celebrities! Or maybe just the oddest sight (who are these idiots running up the mountain?). I got a boost anyway.
We ran almost non-stop. A couple of walking breaks less than a minute at a time, we pushed on until finally we were gaining ground on the cyclist who was no longer disappearing from our view around the bends. At last, we were on his tail. Had he slowed down? Never mind that, time to reel him in! With all the energy I could muster, we passed on his right. Victory! - for about 5 seconds. We were suddenly on his radar, and there was no way he was going to let a couple of runners pass him by. So he kicked it up, cycled past, and we never saw him again.
Two hours in, and traffic was picking up as we neared the temple. More traffic only meant more people waving to us, or well, who am I kidding, more people giving us odd looks. But just as I was about to burst into tears from the sheer effort of running up a mountain continuously for two hours, a perfectly timed thumbs up! In moments like this, a bit of encouragement can mean so much, no words required. And I kept going.
11 kilometres. We reached the temple, and climbed the stairs for a quick look (and for a true first summit!). A break, an iced coffee, and a few small bites of a granola bar. “4 more kilometres to the palace,” said Moose. Okay. High five, and off we went again.
“Running down is going to be amazing!” we kept telling each other for encouragement, besides really believing it. At last, two and a half hours and we reached the palace, second summit accomplished! Another break, this time for some real food. We sat down to share a plate of rice and morning glory. You don’t want to be too full because what goes up must come down - there was still the journey back down - and what goes in, ideally, must not come up. But the truth is that after a point of serious physical exertion, you tend to lose your appetite. But eat we must, and eat we did. We savored every drop of salty goodness from the morning glory, shared a bottle of coca-cola (our second of the day - for the sugar and calories), and before long, were heading out again before we got too cold.
So was running down amazing? How do I put it... It was as amazing as burning quads, tired legs and sore toes pounding downhill could be. Downward... Sure, we had more fans (or maybe just spectators) as the morning wore on. Downward... Sure, the view was beautiful. Downward... that rice might be coming up right about now. Downward... where did all those cyclists go? Downward... another bend in the road? Downward... how much longer to go? Downward... Moose, where the f- is the Zoo!? Another two and a half hours, downward, downward, downward... There was the Zoo.
Today’s training: Muay Thai at lunchtime, with a plan to run 10km road tonight with pack, but nixed the run. Headache today with not enough quality sleep after yesterday’s double day (morning weights, and evening hill repeats with Free to Run).
January may be an arbitrary marker of time, but it is coincidentally fitting and I would say good fortune that my body is ready at the beginning of this new year to get back into some serious training, this time for Gobi March 2018!
The Gobi March is part of the 4Deserts series of 250km self-supported multi-stage races across the driest, oldest, windiest and coldest deserts in the world, founded by Mary Gadams. This year, the Gobi March will take place in Mongolia from July 29th to August 4th.
Gobi will be my third 4Deserts race following Atacama (October 2016) and Sahara (Namibia edition, April 2017). But I am especially excited for Gobi because I will be running in support of Free to Run (www.freetorun.org) (to be newly outfitted as RUN), an organisation that uses the power of sports to support and empower refugees in Hong Kong.
Every Thursday evening I have the privilege of training with these most wonderful of people who I am fortunate to call my friends. So I hope you will follow me in my journey for another exciting challenge in the desert, and support my friends, who as refugees in Hong Kong are not allowed to work or even volunteer. Running provides an important opportunity to overcome social isolation and a chance to develop mental and physical strength. This is true for all of us, and I am so happy to be able to bring all my friends together and share my passion for ultra marathons with a purpose. Watch this space!
Sunday’s training was at 6:30am, 3 hours road, 30km with pack around my Discovery Bay neighbourhood on Lantau Island in Hong Kong. Last hour was tough; last half hour, even tougher! Company for the last 5km to 10km very welcome should anyone want to join me!!