Category Archives: Training

Staying lean when training for an endurance event

One of my mini goals that I set, when I decided to run Tarawera, was to not gain weight while training. To stay lean (and to look lean).  To look and perform like an athlete. Other mini goals included (the most important one of) not getting injured and also to be a ‘better’ vegan, to recommit to cutting out dairy and eggs, and to also 100% commit to no meat.

I’m really happy to say that I achieved all of those mini goals. I worked really hard last year on my running technique, my lower body strength and transitioning from a heel striker to a fore foot runner.  I progressed gradually, listened to my body and have spent a lot of time with my foam roller and in the yoga studio.  As a result, I have not been injured or had to see a physiotherapist at all in the past year and a half.

I have also returned to veganism at home and 95% of the time while I am out – which in turn has helped with the first mini goal – to not gain weight/to lose fat and gain lean body mass – because it is so difficult to eat out and socialize as a vegan, I socialize less, drink less, snack less (I used to be so guilty of mindless nibbling at cheese plates!) and in turn that means less temptation, and more chance for cooking nutritious wholesome meals at home.

I also saw a nutritionist when I decided to run Tarawera – to talk about this goal of not gaining weight, of decreasing fat, increasing lean body mass, and ensuring a ate well given the hard work I was going to be doing. I saw Becky Jones at Food Savvy – she specializes in sports nutrition so understood my needs, my questions and was very vegetarian/vegan friendly.

Two great things came out of my nutritionist appointment:

  1. I learned to constantly consider how much protein I am getting each meal, and to ensure I eat enough.  I learned how much protein was in each serving of food, and found I actually was not eating enough! So every day, particularly after a run or hard workout, I made sure I ate enough protein.  This actually meant decreasing the vegetables, rice and pasta I was otherwise eating – I originally thought I would still be hungry after, but vegetarian forms of protein (chickpeas, lentils, tofu, quinoa) fill me up so much that since eating more protein, I feel fuller without feeling heavy or like I overate.
  2. I learned to think of food as nutrients.  As building blocks and a foundation for my training.  Everything I eat needs to have a purpose – candy, alcohol, chocolate – not only are those full of calories but they are empty calories – they don’t give you protein or good fat – they just add up without any benefit.  So I learned to think of my food as fuel, both to help me have enough energy and fuel to get through a workout, but also so that I was not consuming unnecessary and empty calories that would lead to fat gain, or fat retention.

After focusing on the above two, it became (relatively) easy to make sure I did not put on weight during training.  I also found the MyFitnessPal iPhone app to be incredibly helpful in ensuring my intake did not exceed my output – making sure I did not eat too much during or after a workout, that I was actually taking in more calories than I was burning in any day. MyFitnessPal, plus the above two lessons from Becky, and a strong focus on this mini goal – I was away!

Now, why this goal of mine?

To be honest, I’ve never been ‘fat’ or large, but like many people (men and women) I’ve never felt truly happy with my body. In high school and university, I was somewhat active, and was generally a size 10 (US 6). I’ve always been that, even after I started really getting into exercise and gyming lots, I always kind of stayed that size, and a similar weight. I would ‘lose weight’ (fat) when training intensely, but the minute I started training for a marathon I would seem to put it back on again. I was training more, so I was eating more.  I was putting all my energy into running, so I was doing less strength and resistance work, and not very much high intensity interval/metabolic work.  I always thought ‘I am running 30km today, surely I will go down a dress size this week’. But it never happened.

I also got injured during training, for both of my marathons, so of course I then exercised less (due to injury) and probably put my energy into eating instead.  I also was not thinking too much about getting sufficient protein, fats, carbs etc. I wasn’t thinking of food as building blocks, as fuel for my exercise.

I never thought I was fat or overweight or not happy, I just knew I was not loving my body, always wished I could tuck a bit in here and there, and I hated wearing jeans. Weird fact about me – I never wore jeans in university, or even my first year of working. I didn’t own a pair of dress pants/suit pants.  I owned several pairs of jeans – I don’t know why though.  I never weared them. I HATED them. Hated how I felt in them and how I looked in them. I just never felt thin enough. And post-Sydney marathon in 2014, looking at the photos of me before the race, during the race and after – I didn’t like how untoned I was.  In my mind, didn’t look like I actually was an athlete. I at least didn’t look like the athlete I saw in my head – my view of me wasn’t reality.  To me, I didn’t look like I was someone who could run 42.2 kilometers in a good time. I put so much work and effort into training for a marathon – why didn’t I look like it!!

Back to my mini goal – wanting to stay lean or become more lean while training for Tarawera – it honestly wasn’t about having a flat stomach or a small waist or getting down to55 or 58 kg. It was about looking like an athlete and feeling like an athlete. Performing well on the day and not carrying any unnecessary fat with me over the finish line. The number on the scales don’t matter, but the fat and lean body mass percentages do. The more fat you have and the less LBM, the less muscle you have to utilize to help propel you forward. The slower you are. The longer it will take to cross the finish line. Just because you have more fat on your body. I wanted to run as fast as possible and become as much of a machine as possible – so that meant trying to get rid of unnecessary fat and build more LBM – more muscles to make me stronger, faster and better.

Of course, I also wanted to look good in the post-run photos, to not be worrying afterwards about the angle I was standing, whether I need to hold my hand against my hip so my arms look more lean, to suck my stomach in…all those things play some part. I wanted to look like I worked out, like I gymed, like I could run 60km in a heartbeat.  I wanted my training to be reflected in my day to day life.

But really, at the heart of it, I just wanted to run the 60km the best I could. And push my body to see what it really could achieve. Could I get lean while training for an ultra marathon? Could I do that on a vegan diet? Could I do that while working a (sometimes crazy) full time job? Could I also get through the holiday season with self-control – watching my cake, candy and alcohol intake? All of it was a challenge.

And my results?

A challenge that I overcame. And won at. I went from a size 10 to a size 6-8 (US 2-4).  I went from 20% body fat to 12% in 14 months (10-15% is what many professional female long distance runners have…men will have below 10%).  And I own three pairs of jeans, three pairs of pants, and I love to wear them.  And honestly, besides the gains (or, losses really) in my body measurements and skin fold measurements, I felt so much happier and healthier mentally.  Happy, inside and  out.  Because while I am happy with my body, I am happy because I got there, I achieved it, I got there through hard work, through eating and living a healthy life, through improving and watching my nutrition, through sweat and tears – not starvation.  I feel strong, lean and like a real athlete.

How did I do it?

  • I cut back on alcohol – I had one or two at Friday night drinks, and one or two on the weekend.  I didn’t have any alcohol during the week and even over Christmas and New Years I refrained.  I offered to sober drive, and I made a lot of iced tea and drank sparkling water.  It was hard to start with, but after two months, I stopped really craving or wanting a drink.  Once a glass of wine after a long week no longer became my reward, I didn’t need it as much.
  • I also stopped going to Friday night drinks – so I could avoid the chips, the cheese and crackers, the other nibbles that I didn’t need and didn’t do my body or muscles any good.
  • I made sure I always had a good breakfast:
    • During the week = Oatmeal with 1/2 scoop of protein powder, soy milk and a banana
    • Pre-long run = Two pieces of Burgen toast, peanut butter and banana (or jam)
    • Sunday = I would no longer treat myself to a scone, to dumplings, to pancakes or brunch out – I started eating brunch/breakfast at home – a smoothie, eggs on toast (before I cut out eggs again), scrambled tofu, baked oatmeal
  • I made sure I didn’t over eat following a long run.  My go to meal post-run would be one of the following:
    • Scrambled tofu with mushrooms, avocado and toast
    • Green smoothie with protein powder added in
  • I kept up my resistance and strength work at the gym – two upper body/ab sessions per week, on top of my running program.
  • I tried to avoid processed carbs such as pasta, pizza, bread (except for Burgen bread, before or after a long run only), scones, muffins, croissants, cookies, cake, etc.
  • I kept an eye on the scales and how my clothes fit, how my muscles felt, how much energy I had.  I found that if I ‘fell off the wagon’ – I would feel worse the next day. So I just focused on the fact that every day was a training day, every day I needed to feel good.  And that it was three months – three months and then I could go back to eating and doing whatever I wanted…if I wanted to.

Before the run, I did semi deprive myself of food (processed foods, alcohol, snacks etc) but as a result, I no longer want the foods I used to crave.  I don’t feel bad about a beer, wine or piece of chocolate every so often, but I no longer binge or feel the need to.  I often have sparkling water instead of beer or wine.  I cook and eat delicious meals at home on a daily basis.  I have experimented with a range of different recipes and ingredients.  I’ve proved my old personal trainer wrong (he was adamant I would have to eat meat to get any muscle definition or to get ‘lean’).  I love how I look, how I feel and how my body moves and functions.  And I love feeling so strong and knowing that my sheer determination and willpower got me here.  Apart from this blog post, and several conversations with my PT, and with my partner, it has been a personal journey, an internal challenge, to learn to love myself and to feel happy in my own skin.  And to get to a point where not only do I love my body, but I do not have anxiety about losing it, about having a piece of chocolate or a glass of wine – I don’t freak out that doing so will undo all my hard work.  I have learned to let go a bit more – something I have always struggled with in the past.

And now that Tarawera is behind me, and my next goals are a wee way away, I am trying to keep it up.  It is of course a struggle now I am no longer doing 50+ km a week.  But it just means that I can focus on the gym, on healthy eating but also healthy living.  We went paddle boarding recently, something I wanted to do while training for Tarawera, but it was an ‘after Tarawera’ activity.  Seeing friends more often.  Having a piece of cake every so often.  Sleeping in and watching Game of Thrones.  Going on slower more social runs and not caring about time or distance.  Travelling, doing winery tours without any guilt.  I can’t say that I have found the perfect balance – finding that balance is always going to be a struggle for me.

I am an all or nothing kind of person – I struggle with balance.  If I have chocolate, I will eat an entire block, but if I focus too much on dieting or healthy eating, I become dangerously focused in that area too.  But do not fear, I am not about to go on a juice or smoothie diet, and am not about to eat lettuce and tomato and nothing else.  My nutritionist taught me better, and my experiences have proved better too.  It will always be a struggle, but that is part of the fun – who wants to be one shape or size or ability forever – we need change and strive for change in order to measure our success.  Whether it is to bench press a certain amount, perform one unassisted pull up, run 5km, 50km or fit into a sleek dress for an event – working towards and achieving that goal is part of the journey.  The sacrifices become worth it.  Or at least that is what we tell ourselves!

Race Report: Tarawera 62.7km

On 6 February 2016, I completed the Tarawera Ultra Marathon.  It was my first ultra. I came out mostly unscathed, albeit muddy, drenched, tired, with two small blisters, minor chafing under my arms from the last hour of running in the rain and some scratches on my right ankle from nearly falling down a bank into the river.  But I was (somehow) full of smiles and laughs, having conquered 62.7km in tough conditions on a tough day.

It is two weeks later, and I am still somewhat speechless about the experience.  When I crossed the finish line, and even the day following, I was completely overwhelmed.  My thoughts were scattered, between “oh my gosh did I just do that” and “that was incredible” to “that was terrible why on earth did I sign up to this” and “thank god it is over”.  Over the following days, people would ask me how it went.  I changed from “it was tough” to “it went well” and then eventually to “really good”, “great” and “amazing”.  But at the same time, I struggle to find much more to say about it, because it was such a huge day, a huge experience and such a huge effort that I can’t truly put into words what it felt like and what it meant to me.

IMG_0904I know it happened, I know I did it.  I crossed that finish line – I have the medal to prove it.  But I’m still struggling to connect my memories with the detail from that day, the detail of each hour, each kilometer, what happened, how I felt, what the course looked like and what I experienced.  A lot of the day is a blur, where it merged into one, and I have little flashes of parts of the day.  Running an ultra puts your body and mind under such extreme stress, that of course you can’t have a perfect memory of what happened.

All I know is that it took me 9 hours, 33 minutes and 10 seconds to run the entire 62.7km.  This was longer than my goal (my secret personal goal was under eight hours, the goal I told people was between eight and nine).  But you know what?  I finished. That was the main goal – to complete the race, to make it across the finish line pain free, to survive.  To mentally and physically push through, and to prove to myself that I was capable of pushing my body to the brink, and that I was capable of testing my limits and joining the ultra community.  Of doing something I had never done before – a trail event, an ultra marathon, an event involving hills! Eating food while running, and enjoying beautiful New Zealand scenery along the way (professional photos that show off parts of the course can be found here).

TUM_2016_004520A lot of people didn’t finish – they either didn’t start or didn’t make it over the finish line.  There was a tropical storm to battle with that meant flights were delayed or cancelled.  The forecast in the week leading up to the race was wet – rain rain and more rain.  I kept hoping the rain would pass, but it was not to be.  I am more of a tropical person, who thrives running in the heat and sun.  So I was disappointed about the rain forecast.

The rain also meant that we were required to carry compulsory gear – seam sealed jackets…another worry of mine.  I had a jacket that I was 95% sure was seam sealed, but I didn’t want to be pulled out half way through the race because the volunteers didn’t agree with me.  My jacket was also a bit heavy, and I wanted to have as light of a pack as possible.  I had nightmares about my jacket and the fact that it might not be sufficient.  I even showered in it for 10 minutes to see whether it was truly seam sealed (and it appeared to be…the water didn’t penetrate through!).  But still…I didn’t want to risk it.  So I splashed out on a $300 Marmot running jacket at the expo the day before the race (I saved $100…totally justifiable).  A big spend, but it put my mind completely at ease.  Totally worth it, just for that mental element.

Me in my sweet new jacketAnd because it had rained the day before the race, and the morning of, this meant a LOT of mud.  I hadn’t trained in mud, and many people (including me) struggled with it.  I had trained in rain, in the wind, in the sunshine, in the dark, on trails, on road, flat and hilly…but I hadn’t combined rain, dark, trails and hills all in one.  It slowed me down in sections, I almost lost a shoe once or twice, and I had to take extra care when running over some of the flatter muddy parts.  Don’t get me wrong it was fun at times – it made it more of an adventure and also gave my mind something to focus on.  But it also meant that some downhill sections were dangerous, with people sliding and falling over. The course essentially became a slip and slide at points, and while I managed to stay upright the whole way through, there were a few near misses.  We also had the heat and humidity to battle against…like I said above, it was a tough day.

Tarawera course copyBefore I get any further I will clarify one thing, something I didn’t know or think about prior to training for an ultra: I did not run the entire 62.7km.  I was not ‘running’ for 9 1/2 hours.  I was at aid stations for portions of it.  And I did walk sections. Everyone walked sections.  It is a ‘run’ but that definitely doesn’t mean you are ‘running’ the entire time.

Also – no one told me there would be THAT MANY HILLS.  I knew there would be hills, but there were so many of them.  So many ups.  So many downs.  Just over 2,000 meters worth.  I think I was willfully ignorant of the course because had I known and understood what the course would involve, I never would have signed up.  Hills for days.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile of the course. A + 2,043 metre (6,702 ft) vertical gain and – 2,177 metre (7,142 ft) vertical loss.

In terms of my preparation, I went into the race feeling so much fitter, stronger and happier than I had ever been for another event.  I had trained really well.  I was thrilled with my training.  I had put so much effort and time into it and had really dedicated three months to training.  As part of this, I had built up a strong level of lower body strength.  I worked on my weaknesses.  I ran various different trails.  I had even run 55km a few weeks previously and had gotten my nutrition on track.  I had trialed a number of different foods to determine what worked and what didn’t.  I had logged hundreds of hours of training.  I had gone through some stressful moments where my work life, my personal life and the demands of training were all too much, but I came through the other end stronger and more determined.

I had previously experienced a dark moment during my 55km run where I stopped, sat down and cried, and didn’t think I could go on.  But I had survived that moment, and I thought my mind was as tough as it could ever be.  I had stuck to my training plan 95% – which I was incredibly proud of (no one sticks to a training plan 100%!).  I made myself do nearly everything Greig told me to do, even though I disliked some of the plyometric jumping exercises, I was forced to run on days where it was hot (and I would have preferred to be at the beach) or raining or when there was 100km/hour gale wind.  I was so prepared, and I went into the race with that mentality of “you can do this, your mind and body is ready.”

In a nutshell: It was a tough day, but an amazing day.  I had my dark moments, but not nearly as dark as I expected.  I realized that my mind isn’t as tough as I had expected – that nothing can properly prepare your mind for an ultra marathon.  But in saying that, I also had some amazing highs and great experiences.  While I was disappointed to have taken 9 hours 33 minutes to finish, I had to remind myself “You signed up.  You ran it.  You finished.  You are amazing – who cares about the time!”  It was also my first ultra marathon.  And my first off road event.  And really, to put my time into perspective, I was 19th woman out of 132 that finished.  I was 101 out of 322 men and women finishers.  The 19th woman last year finished in 8 hours 32.    So I feel pretty great about that.  I was in the top 30% of all participants, and the top 15% of women finishers.

IMG_0952So in light of that background, for those who are interested, here goes my attempt at recollecting that day:

The night before:  Race jitters.

After attending the race expo, registering, attending a race briefing (where the overall message was: be prepared for rain and bring compulsory gear), checking out the start line and taking it pretty easy otherwise, I realize that I need to wake up at 4am.  That meant that dinner needed to be eaten around 6pm, and ideally we would be asleep at 9pm.  I cook dinner around 6:30pm: a tofu, broccoli and mushroom stir fry, with quinoa, washing it down with lots of water and electrolyte drink.  Hydration hydration hydration.

I received text and facebook messages of good luck – I can’t thank everyone who messaged me enough.  It was so uplifting to go into the event knowing I had so much love and support around me.  It helped tremendously.  I also received a message from my Mom about my race number – it was the same as her birthday.  So that in itself made it a bit more special, as I felt like I was carrying a piece of her with me along the day.

IMG_0919I set out everything I need in the morning, having already packed and sent off a drop bag for the Okataina aid station (which had clean socks, a fresh buff, a change of shorts, singlet, underwear, extra gels, extra frooze balls, face wipes).  I didn’t want to forget anything so I write a list of what I planned to eat on the day, ensuring I had enough.  I give a spare pair of socks to Rob for the Blue Lake aid station (if needed) and pack a bag of clothes for after the race.  I make sure my watch is charged, my iPhone playlist is up to date and I foam roll and stretch.  Then at 9pm, Rob and I hopped into bed, I watch part of a TV episode to try and keep my mind calm, and I was asleep around 9:30pm.

2am:   I wake up, wide awake, only to find I am awake too early…time to go back to sleep.

4am:  The alarm goes off.

I wake up, don’t want to get out of bed, one because it is so damn early, two because I am nervous about what the day will bring.  I finally get up, shower, and get dressed.  I taped my big toes to prevent blisters, put on sunscreen (just in case) and also the bracelet my sister gave me for my birthday, which is my name in morse code, and a little keepsake reminding me of her, to help me through any dark times I may experience.  I have a cup of coffee, two pieces of Burgen toast with peanut butter (one with jam the other with banana) and some water.  I watch part of an episode of The Bachelor to try and keep my mind off the race and to help me eat.  I make a PB&J sandwich (no crust), pack a banana into my pack, double, triple and quadruple check that I have everything I need. Hugs, photos and positive words are shared by all in our house as us three girls get ready for the 6am start.

IMG_09235:20am: Rob drives us to the start line.  The traffic is crazy, it is raining, and there are so many people.  I’m nervous but excited.  Not scared.  Not worried.  Just apprehensive.  Rob gives me a huge hug and gives me positive, uplifting and motivational support before he leaves me at the start line.

5:40am: I weave through the crowd towards the front of the pack…trying to get my Garmin watch to connect to the satellites.  No luck (tip for next time – connect it at the house the night before, and the morning before, not 20 minutes before the race amongst 1000 other runners trying to do the same thing).

I stand there nervously, keeping my legs moving, feeling the rain falling down.  Paul Charteris gives a safety message, and words of encouragement for the day.  I love the feeling at the start of a race.  My first marathon, in Jacksonville Florida, it was pitch black, and we all sang the national anthem.  It sent shivers up my spine.  At Tarawera, there is a Maori performance of sorts, and a buzz that you can almost feel it running through your body.  I’m no longer nervous, I’m excited.  I can’t wait to run off into the forest ahead.

IMG_09916am: We start.

It only takes about 30 seconds to get over the start line – some races it takes much longer.  We head off in a pack, and before I know it our flat section starts to go uphill.  We climb through native bush, up and down, and experience mud for the first time in the race.  People’s spirits are high, there is laughing, joking, talking, people are going at full speed ahead (me included).  It is pitch black and our headlamps guide us.  My eyes surprisingly work well in the dark, probably because there are so many other headlamps around me.

After about 5.5km, I am forty (ish) minutes in, and my Garmin FINALLY connects and starts tracking my run.  We come out of the woods and throw our headlamps into a box.  We also see our first spectators – a group of people cheering us on.  I’m feeling good.

Hour 2:

We go back into the woods, and soon enough hit Blue Lake (about 10km in).  I’ve been running for about an hour and twenty minutes now.  There are more spectators, standing in the rain, with umbrellas and rain coats.  People cheering and saying “Go Jen”.  Rob is there too – so good to see a friendly face, even though at 10km, I don’t really need it.  Just nice to know he is there.  I then see the lake – man the lake looks huge.  I know it is only 5-6km around, but really, we have to run it all!

TUM_2016_007750We join up to well-formed walking tracks, which are slightly undulating, mostly narrow, and run the entire way around Blue Lake.  About 7/8 of the way around, we pop out at the road and there are volunteers checking our seam sealed jackets – Mine is in my bag, I have to stop and say “in the pack in the pack, that zipper!” hoping he doesn’t ask to take the entire jacket out and view it.  Luckily he pulls a portion out, and says I am good to go.  I keep running, reaching the Blue Lake aid station at 16.4km (which requires a few 100m running along the beach).

24901093855_4e47378093_oI grab a cup of water, I fill up one of my water bottles and grab a banana and a watermelon.  I then drop the banana and watermelon, so have to go back for more…I say hi to Rob (no real niceties here…it was “Hi, open this pocket, grab my SOS, don’t need socks, yes it’s wet, all going well.”  Poor thing) and kept running.  I am at two hours now. 

Hour 3 – Blue Lake to Millar Road (2:04 to 3:03):

This portion was a lot of road running… I begin to struggle mentally, knowing that I won’t see a familiar face until the very end, as Rob won’t be at any of the next aid stations.  That in itself is a blow that I have to get over.  It helps that there are people standing on the road and outside their houses cheering us on.  There are flat portions which are great, and I take this opportunity to push a bit harder.  I’m focused – the first 15km I was caught up by what was going on, now I focus internally to carry through and keep going.  I see a friendly face, Alan, and run up to him and say hello – we chat briefly, and it is nice to see someone I know.  He tells me to push on and not be held back by him, because my strength is the road (I remember to tell him later my strength isn’t road…it is flat, whether on road or off road!) but with those words I push off ahead, knowing how much off road running is to come.

TUM_2016_000893Millar Road aid station (22.8km) – three hours in:

I reach the Millar Road aid station.  It is manned by people dressed as Santa Clause – and it is such a party! I grab a cup of coke, deciding ‘why not’ and guzzle that down, just as a photographer is yelling “Jen Jen look here Jen!” (with me thinking “oh god please don’t take a photo of me eating or drinking coke!!!”.  However I look up and smile – laughing in the process.  It’s crazy how little things like that stick with you, and make your day.  Alan catches up as I am eating some watermelon and filling up my water.  We grab a photo with the photographer, and Alan sets off ahead of me.  I am soon after, running past Austin Powers before entering into the forest – I pass a sign that says 18 kilometers to go – mentally that sign and warning haunted me for the next portion, knowing how far there was to go with no one else around.

TUM_2016_000858Hours 3, 4 and 5 Millar Road to Okataina (aka the worst three hours ever where I decided I never wanted to run another hill in my life) (3:03 to 5:50):

We set off into the woods and the scenery and landscape is quite different in this section. It also changes at various points – we are in the woods, we are in the open, we are on mud, dirt, then a very light clay section – and there are two solid and gradual climbs.  In other words – I was in hell.  I set off good, running pretty strong, happy, focused, and I put my playlist on – cue “Midnight City” and “We Own the Sky” by M83.

This was a long slog.  I expected it to take me two hours – it took me just under three hours.  I tried to focus on all the hard work I had put in during training, telling my legs they were strong enough and could do it.  But they were tired, they knew how much there was still to go.  I passed a few people, a few people passed me…it was hard to keep going mentally and physically.  I had to force myself to stop looking at my watch because it was depressing how slow this section went.  However, I needed to keep tabs on it to make sure I was eating.  During this section, I had a gel, a banana, another gel, some frooze balls – I was beginning to feel sick, the gels were messing with my stomach.  The coke was also playing up, a bit too bubbly.  My shoulders hurt, my legs were tired.  I also missed people.  There were no supporters, no one cheering us on – it was getting hard.  I want to stop but know I can’t = I am in the middle of no where.  Even if I want to stop and pull out, I have to keep going to get out of the woods. I  have a brief moment where I want to cry, but I tell myself to pull it together.  While this feels difficult, it is nothing compared to the despair I felt in Makara MTB Park a month ago.  That helps.

At about five hours in, I see pale pink balloons hanging from the trees – that little moment is magical.  I look up.  I smile.  A feeling of happiness and joy floods into my heart and mind.  Just ahead are two people who had hiked 5km in from the next aid station, with a sign that says five km to go – they were cheering us all on, despite the rain.  I can’t explain how good it feels to see people – to know that this part is nearly over.

After that came the descent – we pretty quickly come down 450ish meters.  This was the hill I had been warned about – the one that ruins knees – the one I had been training to beat.  It is muddy, but it is also (finally) fun.  It is a symbol of that portion being over, with people, and an aid station, up ahead.  The trail itself reminds me of Wilton Otari Bush, and I hoon down.  So happy to go down hill – I speed past others taking it slowly, just wanting to get it over.  I feel great – no knee pain, no soreness, no tightness over those kms.

Okataina Aid Station: YES.  I was out of the woods!! To a HUGE crowd – the biggest and best aid station yet.

24807609041_1deda7726b_oMy knees hadn’t given in, my TFL and IT band hadn’t played up.  And there was food! I had salt and vinegar chips, watermelon, a banana, ginger beer.  I found my drop bag and sat down, wiping my face (best idea ever to include face wipes in my bag!) and changing my socks. Oh my gosh – fresh socks.  Magic.  Brought my mood up so much! And just to sit down! I was in heaven.  I took my camelback bladder out of my back, knowing I only have 9ish km between each aid station to go, so I can rely on my two water bottles.  I chatted to some other runners here, I was taking my time.  I then asked for a peanut butter sandwich, I grabbed this and set off.

Hours 6 and 7 (Okataina to Humphries Bay):

As I leave the aid station, people cheer “Go Jen” “You got this Jen” and “doing so well Jen”.  My legs feel great.  Better than they had felt all day. I am also very happy that I removed the camelback from my backpack – my bag feels lighter, I feel faster, and I feel more mobile.  I feel great….that is until I try to eat my peanut butter sandwich.   The volunteers used Pics peanut butter on white bread, instead of Fix & Fogg on wholemeal bread (what I had trained with).  And there was too much peanut butter in it.  I bite into it and chew…and chew…and chew…for a good five minutes until determining there was no way that I can stomach it….I can’t swallow it.  It was heart breaking – what do I do? Do I hold this sandwich for the next 10km? Do I throw it and litter? Do I keep trying? I drank more water to help wash it down with – to no avail.  I then freaked out – I need food, I need fuel, I need to eat this.  I decide in the end, to discard it – the peanut butter was dripping onto my hands, and I couldn’t digest that.  Bye bye sandwich.

Hours 6 and 7 I pass a lot of people.  I stop caring – we are all struggling, passing is no longer a win.

Hours 8 and 9 (Humphries Bay to Tarawera Outlet):

This section is beautiful.  I am running along a lake, through the forest – and some parts in the forest make me feel like I am in a fairy tale.  My right hip flexor starts to feel tight, so I stop to stretch it – someone stops to ask if I am ok – I am, just stretching.  I am also dying to pee – but the track is so narrow – there is a hill on my left and a lake on my right…no where to hide.  I keep going – my music helping my mind escape as much as possible.  I reach the Humphries Bay aid station at 49.2km – about 7 hours and 50 minutes into my run – this aid station is 70s galore! There is all the usual offerings, plus pizza.  I can’t think of anything worse! I told my friend Lauren I would have a bite of one, for her, but there are no vegetarian options.  I pass.  I eat a bit more solid food here than I had planned on doing, just because the gels are starting to make me feel ill, and starting to get too sweet for me.

24533326649_4a5004f899_oI set off knowing there is only 13km to go, and only one more climb.  It is nearly over.

I reach 55km and think “Yes! Home straight! This is the longest you have ever run – enjoy it!”  I get a bit teary.  It is overwhelming knowing that I am now running more than 55km, and also that I only have 7ish km to go.  I can’t explain that feeling.  Those emotions, and that feeling of achievement, helped me power the remaining 7km.

Hour 9:

I get to the Tarawera Outlet aid station at 57.3 – There are only 5km left, so I don’t bother stopping – I have enough water, I can do this, my mind is completely focused.  I run straight through the aid station, actually bumping into people and a volunteer yells out “Clear the way runner coming through” before giving me a high five.  My mind is completely focused now – I am going to finish this.  I know I should probably eat or have a gel, but I only have 30 minutes left (by my calculations) – I tell myself I have enough fuel to get through.  And I do.

From that point on, I run my heart out.  I give it everything.  It is mostly down hill, with a few short sharp uphills – I run straight up those and straight down.  I am doing 5 minute kms at some points.  I am on fire.  I think back to the 3km race pace run I did a few days previously – I now know why I did that – to help me smash out the last three km today.  I feel happy, positive, determined.  I feel like I am in a race against the clock.  And I want to win.

I pass so many people – yelling out “on your right” – they stop and let me go by, telling me good luck.  I am on cloud nine.  I then hit stairs – who on earth puts a set of 20 steps in the middle of the forest! Only to walk up, go across a bridge of 5m, and then have to come back down again.  And in the last few km of the race! WHAT IS THIS!!! I race up, but get stuck behind someone coming down.  I try my best to hold back and be polite, but in my head I’m thinking “hurry up hurry up hurry up MOVE MOVE MOVE”.  Soon we are down the bottom again and I’m off.  I look at my watch – only 1km to go.  You got this.

I pass the falls on my right – I think how beautiful it is, but I don’t have time to stop and take a photo, I have to finish.  I stop listening to my music, and I hear people.  I hear Tim speaking on the microphone.  I see a few pacers who have walked into the forest to meet their runners.  And I start seeing signs – 500m, 300m, 100m, 50m…I run.  I run hard and fast.

9:33:10: I come through the forest, past the finish line and into the crowd of people.

I can’t stop! I run right past Tim and the woman giving out medals, and have to be called back!!!! I turn around, and receive my medal.  Rob jumps over the fence and gives me a hug – I am so glad to see him.  Tim asks me how my day was.  I (believe) I tell him it was tough, but I enjoyed it.  And that I am really glad it is finished.  I am all smiles, I am so happy. I can’t believe I am living this moment – I am standing at the finish line of the 62.7km Tarawera Ultra, with a medal around my neck.  A finisher.  A happy, uninjured, strong finisher.

IMG_0937I can’t remember much from that moment – what I said, what I did.  I just remember being so incredibly grateful to Rob for being there, standing in the rain for two hours waiting for me.  Knowing he was at the finish line helped me run those last kms faster – I was dying for a big hug, and the faster I ran, the faster that happened.  I also remember feeling so grateful to everyone I ran with on that day, who put themselves out there, and tested their own limits.  And to my friends, family, colleagues and supporters – everyone who believed in me and put up with me.  And to the volunteers, the organizers, the supporters.

IMG_0953Thinking back to the info night that I attended mid-2015, Paul Charteris was right.  It is a tough day.  It is amazing in parts.  It sucks in others (he didn’t lie or sugar coat it).  But it also changes you.  It sticks with you.  And in many instances, it is life changing.  I learned so much about myself in the process.  Immediately after the race, I decided there was no way I was going to do it again.  But I’ve already decided I am returning for 2017, to complete the 62.7km once more.  Who knows, one day I may do the 100km.  But now I know what to expect, I know what the day entails, and I want to go back and take it on once more.

Remember why you started

I recently moved offices at work, albeit temporarily while a colleague is on maternity leave for the year.  This meant I got to upgrade from an internal office to an external one (YAY!) with a beautiful and very distracting view of the harbor.  In doing so, I had a big tidy up, and found a post it note that I had written to myself some months prior. Post it note

I  wrote this note the day after I attended the Tarawera info night on 17 June 2015.  One of the speakers, I believe it was the Tarawera founder, Paul Charteris, told us to think about that very question: Why do you run?

Why do I do this?

Because logically, why do we put ourselves through physical exercise, exert energy, put strain on our muscles and joints, take time away from our families, spend money on an event where we essentially pay to put ourselves through hell? Have I sold it?

Because really, there are so many reasons to run, that you forget about the above, about the pain, the hard times.  If you run, you don’t think of any of the obstacles or the terrible things that may come with running.There are so many reasons out there: stress release, getting out and enjoying nature, to explore new places, to get a tan, to look good, to exert built up energy, to collect medals and tshirts from events, so that you can eat cake, drink beer and not feel bad, because it is a chance to catch up with friends, for the competitive aspect – there are so many reasons, and all of those apply to me in one way or the other.

FullSizeRender(12)For me, there are so many reasons why I run.  But when I truly thought about it – why I have the urge to run, versus why I run when training for an event – it is the thrill, the achievement, the internal challenge and struggle against the little voice in your head saying no, and that great moment in life when you overcome that challenge, you surprise yourself and carry on.  That moment when you realize that two weeks, two months or two years ago, your body and your mind could not do what it just did.  Those moments, running faster, running further, overcoming a tough time or a dark  moment, running a familiar course with more ease than normal – that is what it is all about.

To me, running is empowering.  If you are in the zone mentally, with the right music to listen to, perfect weather, a beautiful day, and you are in the zone physically, where you feel good before, after and during your run, you can get to a point where you are on cloud nine, you smile, you laugh, you feel like you are a machine.  You feel powerful, inspiring, energized, and like you can do anything in the world.  I’ve had a number of these moments, where I am out running and feel unstoppable.  Like the world is my oyster and I can tackle whatever it throws me.

That is what was behind the post it note.  And that is what I tried to capture in so few words.  And funnily enough, it really helped me to actually formulate those reasons in writing.  To put it down on paper, to look at it and think ‘huh’.  It helped put running, my passions and goals in perspective, and because I wrote it down, that passion and reason for running has stayed with me throughout my training for Tarawera.  It helped me through the dark times, it helped me continue to believe in myself, it helped me go running when it was raining or when I was tired, because I had to.  I couldn’t give up – my post it note wouldn’t let me. 

And it is so fitting that I find it now, with four sleeps to go until Tarawera.  Essentially, that info night convinced me that I wanted to run an ultra marathon.  I wanted to do Tarawera, it belonged to me.  I wrote that note, and that made it even more concrete: I could do it. And now, half a year later, and after three months of intensive ultra-specific training (and 375km of running in those three months!) I am about to finally run that event.  And those words and the passion behind them have stuck with me so strongly.  Even more so this final week, excited and nervous, waiting impatiently for the big day to come round.

IMG_0782And recently, I have found new reasons to run, and to run the way I do.  To sacrifice parts of my personal life to work towards an ultra marathon, to make changes to my life in terms of diet, work, socializing, drinking, exercise – because I have discovered how powerful your own determination, your own goals and your own love to run can be to others.  Inspiring others through a simple act of just getting out there and running.  Doing what you always do, but for a bigger cause, on a larger scale.

My first marathon, I felt the pressure to run for others, not just for myself.  I was so scared and nervous the morning of the race that I became upset and worried that I couldn’t do it, I doubted myself and my abilities.  My Mom told me that I could pull out if I wanted to, or walk if it got too hard.  My response? “But others expect me to do it! To run it all! To do well!”  That is not the right response.  You can’t run for others.  You should never have external pressures on your performance.  Because running should be a passion, you should have internal reasons for doing it.  You may have an audience, and at times you may want to beat others or impress others.  But you should always be competing against yourself, not anyone else.

FullSizeRender(11)In saying that, your running can inspire others.  I have received such positive support from friends, family and colleagues during my training.  I have received messages from old friends that I haven’t spoken to in years, who have been following my blog posts and are “blown away” by what I am doing, wishing me luck.  I also have close friends who are now challenging themselves to do something they never would otherwise, like a half marathon.  So thank you to everyone for reading, for supporting me along the way, and for being part of my journey.  The love and support help so much, as do the messages of support, and the comments that I myself have inspired you.  It is overwhelming, and it helps make the struggle worth it.

And to those who do run, or have any form of passion – remember why you started it in the first place.  Get back to those roots, because you never know what that might lead to.

Last HIIT session before Tarawera

This past Wednesday’s HIIT session was not a fun one. It didn’t help that I wasn’t looking forward to it before I even began. It was raining, windy and stormy, you couldn’t see the hills there was so much cloud. I was tired and had gotten so used to doing my interval/speed sessions at lunch time, I didn’t feel like doing it after work! Especially not after consuming a glass of bubbles at a work function just before.

But rather than saying “It’s ok Jen just go home the weather sucks” I knew I had to say “No Jen…Tarawera is in 10 days, you can’t get complacent now, every bit counts, there is a purpose to this session and if you don’t do well on the day you will only have yourself to blame.”

So I made myself go. I guilt tripped myself.

Then Greig told us that we were doing 4x500m, with 60 seconds rest between each, followed up a run as hard as we could all the way to the top of Mount Victoria (the scenic route).  We could then cruise back down and finish with another 4x500m.

At that point I thought “I really should have gone home.”   But I couldn’t…I was there, others were there, he gave me a pat on the back and it began.

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The view of Mt Victoria from HealthFit on Wednesday night – no visibility whatsoever!

The dreaded 500m repeats – they were actually pretty great! I hadn’t run in three days, and while I had done lower body strength stuff, I had gone for a sports massage on Monday from Back To It with the Amazing Alice and she had made my legs feel incredibly refreshed and rejuvenated.  So Wednesday night my legs felt fresh and free, and the repeats were great! Funny how beforehand I was dreading them, but during them I was loving it! I probably didn’t push myself as hard as I could have…but each time running around the building I felt strong.  I also kept up with/got in front of Liz, who is an amazing runner, super speedy and great at 5km and 10km events, someone I usually keep up with to begin with then fall behind, so it was a really nice feeling to be coming ahead of her at the finish of each.  (To Liz’s credit she said she was on antibiotics…but my brain chose to ignore that on Wednesday).

My repeats ended up being 2:01, 1:50, 1:53 and 1:51 – 22 seconds per 100m, and times that I am pretty happy with given I was probably only pushing at 90%.

Looking back through my Garmin times, I did 500m repeats in August 2015, with times of 2:00, 1:54, 1:57, 1:56, 1:56, and in December 2015 (one month ago) my 500m repeats at the same spot were all between 1:57 and 2:03.  So Wednesday was great – comparatively I was flying, and it felt like it too!

But that wasn’t the end of it…our 500m repeats were over and to Mt Vic it was.  This was the bit I wasn’t looking forward to – Every time I have run up and down Mt Vic, I had calf pain, IT band pain, or needed to stop and walk portions because I didn’t feel fit enough.  But this time round, I ran the entire way.  It sucked.  I didn’t want to do it.  It was raining. I was hot. We were running essentially in the cloud.  I was thirsty.  But I thought “If you can’t do this Jen, there is no way you can do Tarawera.  Seriously, stop being a wuss!”

So I did it.  I made myself run the whole way.  Despite my brain saying “no”, “this is stupid” and “why are you doing this to me” I kept going.  And got to the top – ran to the top of Mt Vic to the lookout – to be greeted by no view whatsoever – just cloud.  But hey, I did it, as did the others.  It was great to get up there and have a rest, pat others on the back and say well done, before making our way back down the hill.  And it was a pretty solid run (Garmin data available here), average pace of 6:29 (I took it slower than normal coming down as I have had a tight IT band in the past few weeks).

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The Mount Victoria portion of Wednesday – 6.5km from HealthFit, to the lookout and back down. SO HUMID.

Lucky for me, that took us past 7pm, which meant that I was late for yoga and had no time to do another 4 500m repeats…I almost wish I had done one or two though to see how my legs were after the run up Mt Vic (an elevation gain of 207m).  I felt pretty happy after Mt Vic, because I didn’t walk, I didn’t have pain, and it reinforced in my mind that I can do this, I am ready and there has been purpose behind everything I have done to date.  Even tacking Mt Victoria on Wednesday night had a purpose – making sure I wasn’t getting too complacent with my ability, and to continue pushing myself mentally to get over the bad weather, get over my lack of drive and energy, and just push.

It also helped my Strava stats for January, bringing me to 139km for the month and a total elevation climb of 4,481 meters.  I have run more than 139km in a month before – when I was training for my first marathon in 2014.  Many people training for ultras will run MUCH more than 139km in a month, but remember it is my taper month, and I am also injury prone so spend more time in the gym and doing speed/strength work than just hitting the pavement.  But I don’t think I have EVER climbed 4,481 meters in a month – I used to avoid hills at all costs – hated them.  So that is epic.  That is three times the height of the Willis (Sears) Tower in Chicago! Almost as high as Mont Blanc! Now that, in itself, doing that in training (!) makes me so happy and proud.

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The start of the taper

With every event, whether it is a 10km or a 100km race, there is always a peak in training, and there is always a taper.  Or at least, that is the idea.  For those who don’t speak run lingo (and many don’t), a ‘taper’ or ‘tapering’ is the reduction of exercise before a race or an event. And it is important.

When I first started running I didn’t appreciate the importance of the taper period, and I didn’t actually taper as I was meant to (sneaking in an unplanned run or gym session when I shouldn’t have!).  I would struggle to slow down and decrease my exercise, mainly because I was doing it so routinely up to that point, it felt weird to stop.  I also always had this fear in the back of my mind that by reducing running and increasing rest, I would somehow lose my fitness and lose my ability to run that long distance.

But I know now, that is not the case.  You actually do yourself more harm than good by carrying on and not resting – you increase your risk of injury, you continue increasing muscle fatigue and creating micro tears in your muscles.  In the lead up to a race, in the ‘taper’ period, your muscles need to start resting and recovering for the big day where you will be putting it all on the line and (in my view) going out at 110%.  It’s taken me time to learn that the taper is good, it is necessary, and it will help.  It won’t make me go backwards, it will only help me go further towards my goal – a PR, a new distance, or a great day out running an event.

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Love this quote – because the journey is just as important (if not more important) than the destination

However, tapering doesn’t mean just stopping and going cold turkey – it is a gradual decrease, to condition your body and allow it to receive an adequate level (and balance) of rest and exercise over that time. For the Tarawera ultra, my taper is three weeks.  This is the same as my marathon taper, but obviously the content of those two tapers is different.

 

Many running coaches believe that for a marathon or ultra, you should decrease to 80% of your normal training volume three weeks out, 60% two weeks out and then down to 30% the week before.  Three weeks and two weeks out, the training still ‘counts’ in the sense that you are still working on keeping your fitness and your ability up, but you are also aiming to reduce accumulated fatigue and allow you to feel fresh on race day.  I keep up my workouts and my long run, but slowly decrease the duration or mileage, and decrease the frequency.  I will add back in some speed training and lighten up on those weights at the gym, so that my muscles don’t feel as tight and fatigued for days following.

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Keeping up my plyometric work – damn hurdles

I am already one and a half weeks through my taper – it is 12 days till race day.  For me, my taper period looks like the following:

  • Change my long Saturday runs (24-55km) to a shorter run at race pace (so really pushing myself during the run) followed by a tough hike (to allow for a longer duration but less impact on the knees and body)
    • Last Saturday = 20km on-road run at race pace followed by a 2.5 hour hike (three weeks out)
    • Yesterday = 15km off-road run at race pace followed by a 3 hour hike (two weeks out)
    • This coming Saturday (one week out) = no long run
  • Getting back into intervals by eliminating my Wednesday lunch threshold run (I worked my way up: 2km, 4km, 6km, 8km, 12km and 14km) and replacing that with interval training:
    • 2 1/2 weeks ago = 8x800m with 90sec rest (three weeks out)
    • Last week = 8x400m with 90sec rest (two weeks out)
    • This coming Wednesday = 10x500m with 90sec rest (one week out)
    • Next Wednesday (three days before the event) = complete rest

I am still doing my lower body strength sessions and metabolic sessions, but starting to take it easy and decrease frequency and duration. And of course this entire tapering period occurred after my main peak, my 55km run. It is the fine tuning phase some would say. The time to rest, recover and begin to mentally visualize the finish line.

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Practicing my finish line pose – thoughts?

Mentally visualizing the finish line is the easy part for me – I haven’t actually seen the finish line in person but I have on the website and via Instagram.  Ever since my 55km run when I realized I was both physically and mentally prepared for the ultra, I’ve just been so ready to do it. To run Tarawera. Get it over and done with. Time won’t speed up fast enough! You work and train so hard to increase your fitness and physical ability to do an event, once you get there (which should always be prior to the event itself) it is so easy to think ‘can we just get this over with already!?’ That is me right now.  Just wanting to get it done.  Which is great in some ways – feeling mentally and physically prepared for an event (I’ve gone into some events not feeling at all ready but giving it a go regardless).

But it is also bad because it means on my long training runs I am completely unmotivated – I don’t want to run 21 or 15km or go for a 3 hour hike, I just want to run the event itself, the 60km race.  I want the rush of adrenaline from race day, I want the excitement and new terrain.  Because currently I am bored.  I am even bored of the music and the podcasts I am listening to.  But I know that the taper and the decrease in running serves a purpose, and I just have to get through it.  It will help my body be sufficiently fueled, hydrated, refreshed and rested for the big day.

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On my 2.5 hour hike two weeks ago trying out all my gear together

Part of the taper has been my time to wear and re-wear my race day clothing, my shoes, my socks, my hat, to ensure that everything fits well, there is minimal chafing and that I am going to be comfortable on the day.  I lost my Nike cap on my 55km run so I purchased a new one at Lulu, so I have been wearing that during every run to ensure I am comfortable with it and to see how hot I get when I do wear it (as I may not wear it on the day!).  I’ve also been wearing my Ultimate Direction Jenny ‘Ultra Vesta’ on all my long runs to ensure I am ok wearing it and that it works with stashing my food and gear – I have been putting SOS hydration powder into the two 500ml water bottles, which are on the front of the vest for easy access, and then plain water in my 1.5L bladder in the back.  The vest fits quite a bit of food, and has a nice spot for my iPhone in the front.  I can get two gels in my sports bra, two in the back of my shorts and then two sandwiches and some frooze balls into the backpack itself – it’s amazing what you can fit in it when you try!

I have been trying different foods on my long runs that will be available on the course – chips, pop corn, ginger beer, water melon, oranges, jelly beans.  Things I don’t usually consume on a run and never would normally, things that feel odd buying at the supermarket (so much junk!) but will be there on the day if I want them.  I want to make sure I have had them in my training to ensure they sit well with my stomach in case I do want to grab a piece of watermelon or a glass of ginger beer on the day.

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Grocery shopping the night before a taper Saturday run/hike

I have also been looking after my body a lot more than I usually do.  I am getting weekly sports massages.  Rolling out.  Stretching.  In the morning, in the evening.  Warming up more before my intervals and before a gym session.  Making sure I get enough protein in me to repair my muscles.

And I’ve been trying to learn to trust myself more during the taper period – trust my instincts and trust my body.  Know when a niggle is just a distraction or when it is something more serious.  Know that while it may be tough it is all worth it.  And that there is a purpose behind doing 8 rather than 5 400m intervals, why I am doing the plyometric work at the gym, why I have to do yoga during the week – because there is a purpose and I just have to trust it.

Because that is the most important thing at the end of the day, to trust in yourself, to trust in your goals and your ability, and to trust in the process.  If you don’t trust the process, you won’t have true unfettered faith and confidence in yourself on the big day, and you won’t know that “You got this”.  But (I think) I 100% trust myself right now.  I’m at a point where even if my legs are saying no, my mind is saying “you can do this, you have to do this, don’t ask questions just go.”  Which the entire process, but also this period right now, the tapering and the rest, the cabin fever but mindfulness that comes with it, has helped me achieve. The ability to breathe, to keep going, to live in the moment, to love myself, to run like I don’t know how to stop, and trust the process.

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Interval day and runner’s high – my 8x400m

My text conversation on a sunny (but windy) Wellington summer evening…yesterday Wednesday 20 January 2016 at 6:15pm:

Me:   “Just finished running, stretching in the sun.”

[Insert picture of one foot on top of a bent knee with Waitangi Park in the background]

Rob: “It’s windy! Must have been hard running in it!

Me:  It wasn’t too bad

         I’ve run in a lot worse.

         It was awesome actually. Awesome running session. So great. Oh just so good.

This was right my interval session yesterday, while I was lying on the ground, stretching and letting my heart rate slow down. The day prior, Tuesday, I wrote about the lows of running and the exhaustion of training. Less than 24 hours later, cue Wednesday and my interval session, and you’d think I was a completely different person from the above exchange, loving running and training and all that comes with it.

And honestly I felt like a completely different person writing that, because although I probably was (and am) still slightly exhausted, I did have a truly epic training session. One of those where even before you put on your running shoes you feel great, and when you start it feels good and you know you are going to have an amazing time out there and that by the end of the session you will be the definition of ‘amazing’.  Where it all goes right and you have a smile on your face the whole time. You push yourself mentally and physically but it is so rewarding. You finish strong and happy.  Afterwards, you are invigorated, energized, thrilled with what you achieved and even wanting more.  You have found that nice little sweet spot where you feel exhilarated.  Classic case of runner’s high.

For me, yesterday evening’s epic training session started with being a beautiful day, and while my legs were tired, my hamstrings were tight (I had been walking awkwardly around the office all day unable to move my legs normally) and I was feeling my glutes from that morning’s technique session (A skips, stride outs, B skips and the like), I was SO looking forward to getting out of the office and hitting the pavement, enjoying the beautiful sunshine and warmth on my skin.  I also was looking forward to getting into my new Lululemon running gear – I rewarded myself recently with one of their swiftly racerbacks in baby blue (I believe they call it heathered caspain blue) and running caps (in this gorgeous watercolor pink, white and blue pattern, again with an odd name).  That paired with my trusty lulu run speed shorts, I am like a walking (or rather, running) advertisement for the company.

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Kitted out in Lululemon and stretching it out pre-run

So what was my epic Wednesday training session?

This Wednesday’s entry in my training program required 8x400m intervals with 90 seconds of rest in between each.  In November, at the start of my training program for Tarawera, I was doing some interval work on a Wednesday, but with a 120 seconds of rest in between each.  That is quite a long time for me…90 seconds is what I am more used to training with, with 60 second resting being more of a challenge that I use when I am really pushing myself.  But today it said 90 seconds so I was more than happy to keep it with that – just enough time to catch my breath and get ready for the next set, but not too long that my breathing and heart rate is completely back to normal.

I chose to do my 400m repeats around Waitangi Park, because it has an almost perfect 400m track around it – it is more like 410 meters, but if you start at one of the lampposts near the Chaffers building, run towards Te Papa, turn left, then take the second sand track (the wider one by the skateboarding park) on the left, and run around back to the start, finishing one lamp post early, that is a (almost perfect) 400m loop.  Which is great because it means that regardless of the weather and what direction the wind is pointing, each 400m will be in the same conditions so you can test yourself and hold yourself to account.  Waitangi Park was also full of other people exercising – two gym/group fitness classes, one person doing yoga, some people playing soccer and then near the end of my intervals, the HealthFit Strength class was out in the park taking their session outside.  So I had to dodge some people once or twice, but otherwise it is a circuit that is familiar to me and that I am comfortable doing, and am happy running around.

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The 400m loop around Waitangi Park

My first interval I did at about 85 to 90%, as didn’t want to blow out too early, but wanted to set a minimum time that I had to beat each time.  The last time I did 400m intervals around Waitangi Park was in August 2015, and I was averaging 1:40 to 1:45 per 400m. And lately, when I have been doing interval sessions, I can struggle to complete it in a positive way – I have to purposefully convince myself to run each lap, telling myself ‘just one more’ in order to get through it.

This time, I KILLED my 400m intervals.  My warm up was 1:39, and with every single lap, I never strayed above that.  I didn’t enter the 1:40s at all, and even though my legs were tired and my hamstrings tight the entire time , I managed to push through it all and run strong every single lap.  And after a few, I knew I had it in the bag – I had a ridiculously large smile on my face the entire time and it felt like I had this new found strength and power in my legs with an ability to move faster than I’ve ever felt before.  My legs just did it.  And there was this natural flow on effect because of course, by achieving a great time each lap, my confidence was boosted and I then went into the next lap more positive than the one before.  By the end, I was ecstatic and felt like I could have done another 8!  It was just what I needed to help my preparation for Tarawera on a mental and emotional level.

My splits ended up being as follows:

  • 1:39 (warm up)
  • 1:35
  • 1:36
  • 1:39 (I ran 410 instead of 400 by mistake, so slightly longer time)
  • 1:34
  • 1:37
  • 1:35
  • 1:32 (YES!)
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Sunny Waitangi Park in downtown Wellington 🙂

Because I am a bit of a nerd when it comes to breaking down my training and analyzing my pace and the like (though really to become a faster runner you have to start analyzing your runs in more detail), I calculated that on average I ran 4:02 per km, which is 24 seconds per 100m.  My last round (1:32) was 23 seconds per round.  Early to mid last year, I was aiming for 26 seconds per 100m in my interval work, which is a pretty fast pace for many people, but would have ended up with 1:44 for each of those 400m laps and a pace of 4:20 per km.

When you look at those numbers, I’ve made quite a gain in being able to somewhat maintain 4:02 per km.  All while training for an ultra marathon which is meant to be about endurance rather than speed.  I know I have done and can do faster – April 2015 I was running 400m around Waitangi in 1:33 to 1:36…so I can get lower…after my ultra though! One goal at a time.  Right now my goal needs to be to have more sessions like yesterday, where everything works in perfect harmony.  I need to focus on obtaining and retaining that euphoric feeling where I feel like I can run forever – that will be the key to crushing Tarawera in 16 days time.

Exhaustion

I was originally going to write a post about how training for an ultra marathon has been invigorating and life changing, about how it has really helped me deal with work stress and other issues that pop up in everyday life, and about how the discipline and focus that comes with running applies to all areas of life.  Essentially, I was going to write about how I feel that I am winning at life – winning at work, winning at exercise, winning in my personal life and winning in self esteem.

Rob and me having coffee

This is me winning on a Sunday morning in the sun 😀 😀

However, that was before Sunday night’s unexpected emotional breakdown, where I was definitely in no winning state, and realized how utterly exhausted I was after bursting into tears for no reason at all.

Well, it wasn’t for no reason – I will admit, I was tired, I was hungry, and I was involved in a heated debate that I didn’t really want to be part of.  It was a Sunday evening and I had a week of work to ‘look forward to’, I hadn’t eaten in six hours and I had been socializing for several hours (outside, in the cold, and not drinking whilst others were) when all I really wanted to do was curl up on the couch and watch The Bachelor and fall asleep by 8pm.

Most people would have been fine in that situation – they would get by or they would even enjoy their evening and have fun.  They might have a drink, or two, or three, they would have a smile on their face and get involved in the debate or remove themselves from it and start up another conversation elsewhere.  But most people haven’t been training for an endurance event 6 days a week, with 6am starts most mornings and getting home after 8pm (to run, gym, yoga, stretch, foam roll etc) as well as working a full time job (40 hours per week, but more like 60-70 hours last week) and trying to keep their relationships (boyfriend, friends, family) alive.

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Finding time when I can for restorative yoga at home – legs up the wall

I am in the latter category…the category of crazy people who one minute is running on adrenaline and ‘runners high’ and the next is exhausted and can’t string words together.  I am the person who on Sunday couldn’t handle the totality of the situation – whether it was the lack of food, the tired mind, the tired body, or the stress I was feeling about needing to organise my week and make sure I had lunch planned the next day – I just lost it.  And afterwards, I realized why – I’m not that regular person just getting by.  I am an endurance athlete training for an endurance event.  All of my energy is going into that event.  My physical, mental and emotional energy is being drained daily and replenished by the love and support of those around me (as well as through gels, protein shakes, quinoa, bananas, peanut butter, smoked tofu, frooze balls and other edible goodies) and it is a finely tuned balance that is difficult and tiring to maintain.

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SO MANY GELS

A byproduct of this is that I require much more sleep than I ever used to, and a restless night really affects me.  Being awake past 10pm affects me more than it ever has. Not only do I get tired but I stress about being tired and how that will affect my performance the rest day and my training run on Saturday and what’s more, if that will affect my performance on the big day.

I also can’t make decisions in a rational way or in a hurry – on Saturday evening I popped into the grocery store to buy pumpkin and eggplant for dinner (in order for Rob and me to make a DELICIOUS recipe from Deliciously Ella –  I purchased her first cookbook and our goal is to cook one meal out of it every week and make our way through the entire cookbook, this week was her Coconut Thai Curry with Chickpeas…SO yum.  Sorry where was I…).  Oh yes in the grocery store.

Rob texted me the shopping list (pumpkin, eggplant) and said that he also wanted cookies…and popcorn.  So I then spent over five minutes in the cookie aisle agonizing over what cookies to buy because (1) Rob wanted cookies but (2) didn’t specify the kind of cookies he wanted and (3) I don’t buy cookies because (4) really I like homemade cookies and (5) I also didn’t know what type of cookies he felt like but (6) if I did buy cookies then even though I didn’t feel like cookies at the time I might want cookies later so (7) I had to think about what type of cookies I might want to eat as well even though (8) at that moment in time I didn’t want any cookies (this is the kind of thought process that went on in my head while standing in front of the Tim Tams…).  I ended up calling him and asking what he wanted because I didn’t want cookies and none of the cookies were on sale and so I asked him to decide because I couldn’t make a rational decision.  In the end we got Rolo chocolate and no cookies…

On top of this, I have become even more weird about my food than ever before, as I make a concerted effort to ensure I get sufficient levels of protein, natural carbs and good fats in me every day.  I log my food, I log my exercise, I log my socialising, I log my work.  My log is the fun police.  My clothes are too big due to the running and gyming and subsequent logging of controlled eating.  I stretch in my office, I have a foam roller at work and I wear compression clothes 80% of the time – even wearing compression calf sleeves underneath my work pants the Monday after a big weekend run.

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My 2016 planner which essentially contains my life. It is both color coded (green = exercise, pink = friends and Rob, blue = travel and public holidays) and detailed (it includes my kms, what exercises I perform at the gym, what I eat and what I drink).

Let’s just say, all of this, even taking out the running and gyming itself – it is exhausting.  Thank god I have a training schedule to keep to because if I had to decide on a day by day or even week by week basis what I was doing – I wouldn’t survive.  I barely get by as it is.  I mean, I have been too exhausted to even sit down and write a blog post – not emotionally exhausted but just the fact is I have no time, after working, running, eating, logging my eating, unpacking my gym bag, repacking my gym bag, prepping lunch for the next day, doing laundry, texting my boyfriend and messaging my Mom and sister every so often (but not often enough) and trying to see one friend per weekend if I can fit them in.

There is so little time left for anything else.  And obviously when I do fit in those other things…my mind can’t take it.  I can’t take five hours of socializing on a Sunday evening, My body has  had enough and is saying no, no friends, no drinks, no fun.  Not for the next 19 days at least, until the run is over.

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A carefully constructed, nutritious and delicious (and non-fun) dinner – smoked tofu, broccoli, peas, coriander, sunflower seeds, avocado and tahini lime dressing

I knew that cardio could negatively affect your immune system, and I have experienced that when training while sick, how weaker you are when you try to exercise, and how much slower you are at recovering after.  But I never expected it to be such an emotional rollercoaster, not while out of my running shoes at least.  Nor did I expect it to have such a big flow on effect into my personal life – but I guess part of that is because I am determined, stubborn and focused, I don’t do things at half speed, I go at things 110% – if I am training for a 60km race I am going to train the hardest I ever have and put everything into it.  Really it is my stubbornness and my drive that made me exhausted, and led to Sunday’s demise of ‘rational normal Jen’.

So I guess in the end…training for an endurance event like Tarawera really has taught me something that I can translate into every day life.  Yes it has taught me discipline and focus and has been an amazing outlet to let out some steam and a way to explore more of New Zealand’s beautiful scenery and nature, but it has also taught me to learn to say “no”.  To learn that I don’t have to say yes to every opportunity, to every person that wants to catch up or have a drink, to every piece of work that comes through the door, or to every extra curricular activity that comes my way.  To learn to look after myself, cherish myself and my one body, because it is the only one I have.  Learn that it is ok to be selfish, it is ok to put myself first, and that people will understand.

More than anything I need to keep my eye on the goal, the main goal, the one goal, and I need to change my mindset and learn to think in the following way: “Jen, you are in training mode.  You are training for an endurance event, an ultra marathon.  Live your life with that in mind.”  Because there are only 18 days to go, and once it is done, I can do whatever I want and live my life however I choose.

So world, I am giving you notice now, for the next 18 days, I am putting me first (so please don’t take offense!!).