No Limits

Live your life to the fullest

Tag: running

Ultra Lesson 1: You can much more than you think

I am on a desert, spurting like crazy, much faster, much further that I thought possible for me. They can catch me in a second if I only slow down for a moment. My right side aches like hell. I could vomit any time. I hardly get any air. I feel like I could fall dead any moment. I am looking at my watch every couple of seconds to check my alarmingly high pulse. I just can’t give up now, I will run till I drop dead.

What happened?

I am on the stage 1 of my ultra running challenge: 100km of Namib Desert. It is a stage of 15km which we run just before the sunset in the evening heat. On the first stage you don’t really know who is who. The optics can be very deceiving. At the first glance I and a friend of mine have found only one person who can be worse than we. But the run will unveil the appearances.

You can feel the nervousness before the start. At first we go up a steady slope, the track covered with soft, light sand. The people run like hell. My pulse jumps up over 90%, but I feel good. I made a 4 day regeneration break before the competition. After 2km I am around the position 10, but I feel I can overtake some people in front of me. The first half goes up the hill on a soft soil and I can see the marathon runners getting tired, unaccustomed with these conditions. So I take them over being on rank 6 at the moment.

Then there is the short, muscular italian in front of me. My pulse jumps to over 95%. I am wondering how far I can go under this load. The soil changes. Sharp, loose, slag rocks pave the track. Very difficult to run. You can sprain your ankle any second. The italian goes like a running machine with short steps and a very high rhythm. I can’t get closer to him. But, just before the summit, his battery goes off for a moment and he does several steps walking. This is a sure indicator for his energy being drained. I use the moment to catch and pass him.

Then I realize I have overtaken everybody in the sight distance. I am fifth. The one running before me I can’t even see any more, nothing to win forwards. But there are several people in my neck. I can see them, they can see me. There is a lot to lose backwards. I am still before the half distance and have been running over 90% of my pulse up to now. Usually you can run maybe 5 minutes with that load. I have 45 minutes behind me.

The food and water station. I pass it without stopping. Now it goes down the hill, light, long, steady slope.What to do? I can’t catch up anybody in front of me, they are gone and away. But I should at least try to keep my position.

It is much, much harder as it sounds. I have exhausted my power in order to reach this position and I am running at my maximum speed 5:10 up to 5:30 min/km. My pulse is 92-95%. I didn’t even know I am able to run with this speed such long distances. I feel like a haunted animal. The people behind me can catch me any second if I am inattentive. I can’t allow myself to slow down even for a moment.

I have to somehow manage the remaining 7km. But the situation gets worse. They are getting closer every minute. The marathoners can roll very good, achieving high speed. The sloping track favors them. I am spurting like crazy. I am looking back every minute. I want to defend myself, to somehow run away, but I can’t. I can feel a sharp pain in my liver, paralysing my entire right side. I could vomit any time. I hardly get any air. I feel like I could fall dead any moment. I am looking at my watch every couple of seconds to check my alarmingly high pulse. It is at 95% now. I am at my maximum speed, surprised I could run so fast so far. How long can I endure this torture? It is going to be a long agony.

It is about 3km left. One of the followers gets as far as 2m behind me. I can hear him breathing. His steps are closer and closer. If I now give up then all this suffering was futile. What can I do? He just is faster than me. Even if I manage to keep his pace now, how am I going to manage to survive the remaining 3km and finish before him?

With the last bit of energy I speed up to 4:20 min/km (later it turns out my max speed was even higher: 3:89 min/km). This is crazy. It is as if was finishing a 1000m run, but I am on kilometer 12. Of course I can’t run like this to the finish, but I am speculating on the psychological effect. It is only to show the follower I could run faster and there is no sense in trying to pass me, I would stick and prevail on the finish anyway. My strategy shows results: The follower falls behind. I slow down after 200m and never tries again to overtake me. But he stays in striking distance to me.

It’s getting darker after the sunset. I can see the blinking lights marking the route. There is no time to get out my headlight. I am running in dark. Maybe 500m to the finish we abandon the sandy road and run cross-country through the thorny weeds around the lodge to the finish. With the last scrap of strength I finally reach the finish line. One hour thirty, I made 24 seconds over my most persistent follower. I am tired to death, but unbelievable happy.

I am much better than I thought I am. Much faster than I thought possible for me. I was in such a situation for the first time in my life and I am amazed by the effects. And most happy I am because of the fact I left the fastest woman behind me. On the other hand it costed me much energy. I am completely exhausted, but this is just the beginning of the race. We still have 85km to run. I am afraid I will have to pay an expensive price for this during the next days of the race. What if I have massive sour muscles tomorrow and no will to run?

What have I learned this day?

You can much more than you think you can. If put in a precarious situation, and if you are convinced there is no choice, no way out, you will achieve the unbelievable. You can do wonders if you have to. Your body and mind can do much more than you are used to under normal conditions. Leave your comfort zone and find out how much. You will be surprised!

Taking on the marathon (Part 4)

We get up, eat some pasta and before sunrise we get to the gathering point in front of the parliament. From there the buses take us to the town of Marathon, to the local olympic stadium. I drink some tea in a small café before I enter the overcrowded stadium.

We are in the very last starting block. That is because we didn’t have any reference time from a previous marathon in order to be sorted into one of the blocks closer to the starting line. There is a colorful variety of people around us from all over the world, from apparently well-trained to people from presumably Weight Watchers, where you wonder how they are going to finish.

Jack has over half a kilo of sports food taped to his arms and legs, since he doesn’t have any pockets. He is prepared for all contingencies. I only have 2 or 3 power gels and aspirin in the back pocket of my shorts. We finish the drinks we took with us and go for the last time to the restroom. Nobody wants to lose time on physiological necessities during the run.

The atmosphere gets hot with every minute and finally the blocks are starting one after another. At 9:15 our last block comes to start and up we go. The pulse goes up immediately after so much waiting and excitement, but we stabilize quickly and have trouble keeping down our speed to 6min/km, as we assumed to run. We go down to 5:40, sometimes 5:20 in the first kilometers, carried on the wings of freshness, on the wave of the adrenaline push. From the very beginning we take over hundreds and hundreds of people. We chat with each other, we chat with people around.

There is an endless stream of people to be taken over. We run like on a fast lane with 6min/km, apparently much faster than most of the people around us. This gives us a good feeling and additional power. Only a few pass by us. We drink on every food station and eat according to our plan using our own food and the food provided by the organizer.

The Athens classic marathon is feared by its profile. It’s pretty hilly which it keeps it from appearing in the finishing time comparisons for normal marathons. There is a long ascent between km 17 and km 32 with several short but sharp valleys in-between. Our speed drops to 7min/km and more but we are overtaking people by hundreds all the time. We reach half-distance (21km) in very good shape. Apparently too good for Jack, since he decides to speed up a little bit. I decide to keep the pace since there are 21km to go. In my final test I have run 32km and I know you can break in suddenly after 25km so it’s better to save your energy for the last 10km. Jack has done maximum of 25km in his preparation so he is lacking the experience (or maybe the imagination) to be wary about this problem.

I lost him from the sight for a while but I catch him up around km 28. He is seemingly worn out, I slow down and we keep going together. There is only 4 km left to the hill summit. We keep observing our speed, and looking more and more intensively for the distance flags, which mark the course every kilometer. Our speed drops to 7:30km/h at that point. We start to feel our muscles and Jack starts complaining about a blister.

Finally we reach the summit at km 32 and the descent begins. Jack says with a smile: “only 10km to go, just one hour and we are home”. My answer: “If I had told you 3 months ago that you will say this to me on km32, you would call me crazy”. Jack laughs with understanding. This situation seemed so unrealistic just 90 days ago. 3 months of preparation and there we are. We have changed our reality, our perception of the world.

Now the seemingly easy part, gentle descent to the finish in Athens. We speed up. We know, if we can keep the speed for the last 10km, we will reach our time goal. No stress, just keep going. Only an injury or collapse can stop us now. We are running through the suburbs, masses of people on the street side. Emotions rising with every minute. I feel like in a trance, with a tunnel vision directed to the front, towards an imaginative finish. I start to feel dull pain in the ankles, knees and also hips but the fresh adrenaline I am showered with allows me to ignore the pain graciously. I also ignore the view of injured or stretching runners at the street side, runners who gave up or are taken care of by the medical stuff.

On km 42 I see a well-trained runner with a circulatory collapse lying on the crossing. A tragic view. 2 km prior to the finish he fall out. But we keep going. Time for the energy gum, which dissolves in the mouth getting the energy directly through the mucous membrane into the blood. The final energy push for the finish. I promised Jack to keep his slower speed until the stadium, since he is limping a little bit due to his huge blister. The last street down the hill before the stadium and we are there. I start to sprint setting myself off from Jack and overtaking several runners on the very last meters.

We are there, finishing time 4:28. What a feeling! We get the finisher medal and move to the resting are. We are in the legendary marble stadium built for the first olympic games of the new era. It has a form of a horseshoe and is filled with thousands of frenzy applauding people. What a moving moment!

I notice Jack turning his back to me. I think maybe he is offended because I sprinted, but we agreed on sprinting in the stadium. He turns back with tears in his eyes. He is crying with happiness and he feels ashamed of crying in front of me. This is definitely a major achievement in our lives. Maybe the first on our conscious quest to excellence.

We take some pictures, eat and drink something in the catering area and proceed to the changing area. Jack is completely wasted so he takes a rest. I go to get our changing sacks.

When I come back I can see Jack lying on the grass, eyes closed and a smile of endless happiness like a buddha. The day before we were visiting the museum of marathon. And there was a picture of the first marathon winner, radiant with happiness after his victory. This guy looked in comparison to Jack as if a person nearest to him just died.

Jack was so wasted he had trouble to descend the curb. He needed half a minute to find a way to do it avoiding pain as much as possible.

The biggest lesson I have learned that day: In July 2010 running a marathon was impossible for me. It wasn’t just a limit of my mind. It was objectively impossible for my body at that time. But I learned that, after 3 months of preparation, an impossible thing can become not only possible, but even absolutely doable. This rule applies to all the aspects for our lives and will guide me for the rest of my life. With enough time and preparation we can achieve much more we think is possible and certainly more than it is possible for us now.

Some of you may say: “yes, with enough time”. But let us the necessity of time investment not stop us from achieving our dreams. The time will pass anyway, the only difference is, if we will have the result achieved at the end or not.

What do you think about it? Your comments are welcome.

Taking on the marathon (Part 3)

…I apply the medication and decide also to go to a physiotherapist. They give me additional exercise. I interrupt the running training and switch to a bike for a while. It seems to help. And I manage to finish my preparations according to my schedule…more or less.

With the progressing training our ambitions grow. At first we just want to finish in the time limit. It means running the marathon in 6 hours. Then we think we could be able to run it in 5 hours. Finally we set the goal for 4h30.

The big day can come.

There is one thing you should know about running a marathon. It is a question of energy. The amount of energy stored in your blood system is enough for more or less 20-25km depending on your running economy. That’s why most marathonis have their crisis between 20-25km, they encounter the so-called “wall”, when they often feel knocked down and unable to continue. But you have to run over 42km in order to finish a marathon. So either a miracle happens or you will have to somehow supply the missing energy to your muscles. How? There are two ways to do it. Either you take it with food during the race or your organism will provide it from your stored energy in your body fat.

For the first method there is some habituation necessary. You need to eat and drink during you run and you can train it. Usually there are food stations every 5km on a marathon course, but you have to plan carefully where you will eat what and where you gonna drink. You also should take some energy gels, bananas and power bars with you.

For the second method you must train your body to extract energy from your body reserves, meaning burning enough fat for your high energy consumption during the run. How can you do it? Long runs will do it and even better are long runs with empty stomach, for example before breakfast. It isn’t always pleasant but it works. Your body just gets accustomed to processing your body fat.

So, there is a lot of logistics to think about running a marathon, but there are also several limits you have to cross: both physical and mental. First of all you need to be able imagining yourself running such a distance. Then you will have to be willing to absolve the heavy and systematic several months long training. Then you will have to overcome one or more injuries you will encounter during the training due to the overload, continue nevertheless and believe you can still run 42km in several weeks despite of the pain you feel right now and not being able to run at all. Then there is the energy limit I wrote about you need to break through. And then there are the crises you have to get through during the run. Not to give up during the first kilometers overwhelmed by the long, long distance you still have to go, when you first feel the fatigue. Then one or several walls, where you need to have iron will and continue despite of feeling not to be able to. Then the view of  people at the street side giving up due to fatigue, injury or just lying and being helped by the medical personnel. But one more limit, you need to cross, the ultimate limit I will write about later.

We join a group of experienced marathonis going to Athen for the race and sightseeing. Talking to them learn us respect and modesty. We are bloody beginners. They have several marathons in their legs. The leader of the group even won some marathons, with his best time 2:14. Most of the people have been running for years, also in winter. Constantly 70km a week and more, much more than we ever did. But there are some other originals. Among them a truck driver, who doesn’t train at all. He just goes for a marathon from time to time to get really tired. Once, he tells us, he run a marathon having hangover from a drinking party the night before. All this seems unimaginable for us.

I start to feel worried if we are able to finish the marathon at all. If all the people running it are like those guys, then we definitely aren’t. I asked an older couple how they judge my chances. And I get comforted by the woman with the words: “I am sure you will finish. I would say 4h30.” This is exactly what I wanted to hear. Now I can go to sleep, early, since we get up at 5:30 in order to get transported to the starting line in the town of Marathon on time and get all the logistics organized.

Read about the day of the marathon in the next post…

Taking on the Marathon (Part 2)

…and in fact I get an automatic registration confirmation asking me to transfer the payment to the organiser’s bank account.

I transfer the money and meanwhile ask around on different marathon forums if somebody is taking part in the Athens Classic Marathon and if they got another, manual confirmation (meaning I am not really registered) or is the one I got the only confirmation I am about to get (meaning I may be lucky). I depict my situation and the fact that I have managed to send out my registration in spite of the registration being over for 4 months already. The forum users are really outraged about it and bawl me out: “What kind of a sick mind would do something like this? Do you really think you will succeed with this? etc.”

But lo and behold, after two weeks I get a confirmation of my money transfer together with the official starting numbers for me and my friend. Now I am pretty sure we are really registered and the preparations can go on. Of course I don’t post anything about it on any forum. I don’t want to scandalize people there.

Six weeks before the marathon, midway through the preparation, we are going to run the Warsaw Marathon. Or more precisely, we are going ro run in the Warsaw Marathon, but go off the race after running a half marathon, i.e. 21km. Jack just run such a distance a week before for the first time in his life. I tell him we are going to run this half marathon course under 2 hours. He goes: “No way, last week I had 2:30. I can’t see how you imagine me running 21 kilometers under 2 hours”. My best time up to now is 2:10 but a lawyer friend of mine, a half marathon runner, has told me if I can run 2:10 on myself I will for sure run below 2:00 at the competition. I tell Jack there are several reasons why we are going to manage this goal. First of all we are going to run under race conditions, i.e. be under influence of adrenaline driving us to more speed. Then there will be people around us keeping a constant tempo. And we can and will run behind a designated pacer, which gives us a guarantee of the specified time if we can keep his pace.

On the day of the Warsaw Marathon we are in best shape up to then. But after ten kilometers Jack tells me his pulse is 95% of his maximum. That usually means he will need to pay a visit to emergency room if he runs for 5 more minutes under this physical load. But we have at least 60 minutes to go and we can’t slow down if we want to stay under 2 hours. I ask him if it is ok if we continue with this pace. He says he will tell me as soon as he can’t any more. So we continue and eventually manage to reach the 21km landmark and stay under 2 hours. Jack definitely crossed his physical limits but thank to his mental strength he manages to keep this high pace.

After the race he tells me it wasn’t due to the adrenaline, it was due to pheromones. I am pretty astonished by this statement. He says he was following the pheromones of a girl running in front of him and this stimulated him to this extraordinary performance in spite of the pulsimeter indicating his critical state.

But the preparation is far from easy. For the first time in my life I am running such distances and on top of it with such an intensity. I do stretch, I do additional exercise but my body begins to protest to this training regime. I suffer more and more pain in my shin bone. As it gets unbearable and I can’t do my training any more I decide to go to the orthopedist. He informs me I can forget about running a marathon in this state. There is no way I could do it in 4 weeks and I should focus on getting back to health now instead of wasting time with this futile endeavour. I have to accept the reality, he tells me. I get some medication and exercises to apply.

So I am in a pretty precarious situation. Four weeks before marathon with a terrible pain in my legs while walking, making me limp and with a doctor telling me no way I can run this marathon.

What to do?

More in the next part of this story…

Taking on the Marathon (Part 1)

It is end of July 2010. While procrastinating on a weekend, I am watching the European Championships in marathon taking place in Barcelona. Not really an exciting competition. Two hours of dull watching others running. Never actually watched a full marathon on tv before. I remember thinking “some day I will run my marathon”. I have been telling this to myself for several years already, moving this challenge from year to year and again, like many do. Someday.

Yes, I go for jogging from time to time, but marathon…you need to prepare for this at least a year. Well, maybe 3 months would do, if you are in shape and prepare really intensively, but who would take such a burden?

Suddenly the reporter says: “This year we have the 2500 anniversary of the marathon run”. I think to myself: “2500 anniversary? Bullshit! How can he know?”. But…wait a second. There was this ancient battle of Marathon. I scan through my scattered, holey, incomplete school knowledge and I believe to remember it took place 490 BC. As the legend says: After the battle was won by the Greek, a messenger run from the battlefield to Athens to inform the king about the glorious victory. He arrived, said “we have won!” and fall to death due to exhaustion. So 490 plus 2010 would in fact make 2500.

Isn’t it the best year to run my first marathon? Would there be a better opportunity in my life time? Wouldn’t it be great to run the first marathon on the original course from the town of Marathon to Athens?

But…you need at least 3 months of preparation if you start with the level I am on to manage the time limit. And the marathons take place in spring, summer and early fall, so it’s surely not enough time for the preparation. Let’s check the website of the Athens Classic Marathon. This year the classic marathon takes place on October 31st, in exactly… 3 months! What a good fortune! It is enough time for the shortest preparation program if I start right now.

I feel the wave of excitement and resoluteness like I have never felt before in respect to running a marathon. I find myself thinking: “This time I should really do it”. All the circumstances seem perfect. And I may convince my best friend Jack to take this challenge with me. And we can connect it with an interesting travel to Athens. Yes, this seems the right thing to do now.

I am calling Jack and saying: “We will be running the marathon in Athens this year” and I explain him all the details.

He goes: “Are you crazy? I have run maybe 500 meters in my life altogether”.

I was a little bit surprised. He really looks good, much better than me: six-pack and so on. He has a body of Adonis. I thought he was in a good shape, but apparently running and working out are completely different things.

I remind him of the last challenge I invited him to and he gave up on, later regretting it. Then tell him about the 3 months preparation program, which he could use and manage to run the marathon in spite of his inexperience.

He says: “Alex, you will kill me some day, but I will see what I can do. Let me gather some data”.

Later that day he calls back and informs me there is a stamina test you have to pass in order to physically be able to use the 3 months preparation program. You need to be able to run one hour straight with the speed of 8 min/km or quicker. He promises he will do the test tomorrow in the fitness club and let me know if he passes or not.

Next day I ask him: “And? Did you pass?”

He: “Yeah! But it was a ‘massacre’! I could run maybe 5 minutes with the power of my body and the remaining 55 minutes I run only with the power of my will. I was tired to death!”

I: “So, you passed the test?”

He: “You can say so, but…”

I: “Ok. I will register us for this marathon.”

The very same evening I go to the website of this event and try to find the registration form. It is end of July. The only information I can find is the information dated March 20th saying the registrations are closed and all the starting slots are already allocated. No space for more participants.

In my first reaction I feel surprised and helpless, somehow defeated. Apparently I am not the only person having the great idea of running the 2500 year marathon in the original location.

But the word “impossible” is missing in my dictionary. I know the registration form must be there, but is not linked in the menu. And in fact, after several trials I find it through a URL manipulation.

I register both of us, hoping they will accept this registration despite the registration period being over for 4 months already. This time I count on the greek chaos.

More in the next part of this story…