What do Grey Wolves, African Wild Dogs, Spotted Hyenas, Lungless Spiders and Homo Sapiens have in common? According to Wikipedia we all evolved through a technique of hunting faster prey to a point of exhaustion leaving us standing over our withered and bewildered quarry before delivering the coup de grâce. This method of hunting is known as Persistence Hunting and has been a topic of conversation in running circles since the publication of Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run in 2009.
The basic principle is simple enough; a cheetah may be faster than a man over a short distance but if compelled to run away from a predator for extended periods of time without rest or water, the cheetah becomes exhausted – and easier to catch and kill. Thus the theory of how man was born to run. It’s instinctive and our hairless (or near hairless) bodies combined with our efficient method of using sweat for thermoregulation give us an immense advantage over nearly all land animals.
Why am I telling you this?
Well, as mentioned previously I do, on occasion, help out on an organic farm in Sotkamo in Finland where much of my day is spent tending to basic husbandry. Today it was primarily shearing sheep and helping a little black lamb unstick its head from a wire mesh fence but other characters in this play include two Border Collies, a herd of cattle, a multitude of wandering chicken and seven mischievous pigs.
Now, as anyone who has ever tended pigs will tell you, pigs have character. They are inquisitive and clever…and very gamesome. This usually plays out with esurient oinks as I approach with a bucket full of rye seeds or the farcical spilling of the water trough as soon as I have filled it. Occasionally however, the little piggies love to reenact their favourite movies such as The Birdman of Alcatraz or The Great Escape and reduce much of my work day (or free evenings) to a slow motion Benny Hill skit. Queue Yakety Sax and off we go.
Today’s game was different however. Usually the farm has more hands on deck to reduce the amount of running required for the corral but my little adversaries chose their breakout when I was alone, so I was left to round up the porcine fugitives with only my trusted sidekick Joeppe (one of the Border Collies) to assist.
Two of the culprits quickly dashed for the buxom of their enclosure when they saw me bearing down on them but another dashed out to the strawberry beds. What followed was ten minutes of me chasing the pig back towards the pig pen only for an overexcited Joeppe to turn the hog away again.
I quickly grew tired of the game and felt another strategy was called for – but what to do? It was at this moment that I remembered Christopher McDougall’s book and the concept of the persistence hunter. I grabbed an old yard brush (my own tribal spear, may as well look the part) and began to run at a leisurely enough pace after the animal. Needless to say it saw me coming, dashed off at full tilt only to have me quickly on it’s tail before it had time to catch it’s breath. A gentle jab at it’s derrière with my tribal spear and off it would dash again with me following once more, Joeppe in tow. This went on for the better part of 45 minutes in a general circle around the tool shed until the hog began to wilt. Much as I hoped it turned tail for the pig enclosure and all I had to do was pick up the pace, overtake, and open the gate. The animal jogged in and slumped down in a puddle. Defeated. For my part I wandered the fence to find the breach and close it up asap. I too was a bit deflated but simultaneously exhilarated. It worked. I outran a faster animal using time and distance to my advantage. The recent hours of long runs on country roads certainly made the affair easier and I inadvertently got a workout in today after all.
So, there you have it, whenever anyone asks me why I run or rather why I run so far or for so long, I will proudly tell them this story. I found a very practical use for endurance running down on the farm.
Batman and Robin, but which is which
This last week has been a dedicated study in patience and resolve. In my endeavor to become an ultra runner I have endured a roller coaster of emotions and physical states, Winter training, Summer training and then, surprisingly, Winter training once more – and this in the last seven days alone – and finally I have come face to face with the dread spectre that is Over-Training and his evil sidekick, Fatigue.
In my resolve to go straight from traditional Marathon distance to 100K I have steadily increased my overall weekly mileage at a rate that I thought I could easily manage. Yes the training period was a little light on time but I felt confident that I could make the transition and, though it would no doubt be painful, the satisfaction of completing my first 100K would make up for the sacrifices in home and social life.
It isn’t the time spent at home preparing dinner with my wife or the coffees or beers in town with my friends that would determine my success – it is the sole decision of my body whether I would have the strength to keep putting one foot in front of the other.
Over the last few weeks I have been clocking morning and evening runs most days and letting my body decide if and when to run. Simple enough system when the only tempting demons are an extra hour in bed in the mornings or the chance to put my feet up – and keep them up – after a day studying Finnish. However, this last week saw me hitting the pavement in Sotkamo where I venture on occasion to work on a friend’s organic farm, and where the road runs are a little in the way of spectacular.
I figured I could just apply the same system, listen to my legs, see how we go. What I hadn’t figured, or hadn’t figured correctly, was the impact that early starts to run, followed by a day of physical labour, followed by another run would do to my system.
Now the work isn’t all that physical: feeding animals – or chasing when they escape (more on that later), mending fences, some renovation work, maybe some baking – but it’s time spent on your feet, burning calories and energy reserves that you don’t necessarily feel depleting. So when I headed out to run on Saturday I felt good, a little tired but I figured that fighting gentle fatigue is the start of the battle. Surely I’ll meet that stranger on the road many times during the race. No sooner had I passed a familiar house on the road marking the first 2K of my run when I was seized by a sense of nausea followed in turn by wrenching and, to my surprise, vomiting.
And then I was fine.
So fine in fact that after a moment taken to compose myself and wonder if that actually had happened I was off again, though at a somewhat chastened pace.
Now I have heard that vomiting is a hazard of ultra running but in my pride I always felt that my stomach was made of sterner stuff and though many runners wear spewing up last night’s meal as a badge of honour I hold firmly to the belief that if you are puking, something has gone awry.
I wish that was the only bizarre incident on that run however, as I made my way back to the farm I noticed a familiar car heading right for me. My wife, the farmer’s wife and our French housemates (visiting the farm with us that weekend) pulled up in our red Ford Focus and informed me that some cows had escaped from their enclosure in a nearby pasture and were chewing up the neighbour’s garden. I quickly jumped in and we made are way over to find the errant animals contentedly munching in bovine oblivion. The neighbour wasn’t too put out as nature had yet to call among the herd and we were able to, rather quickly, usher the animals to their side of the fence (which we electrified the following day).
On the route home my wife jokingly asked if I would like to finish the last leg of my run and was a little taken aback when I said yes. So over she pulled and out I jumped.
Later that evening, after gorging on home made pizza and a few beers I suddenly felt an overwhelming need to sleep take hold. Usually I am among the last standing (and usually the last talking) but I couldn’t keep my focus; I was just too tired.
The next day saw me struggle to wake, struggle to drink my morning coffee, my feet were made of lead and we had a long hike planned for later in the day. The thought began to slowly dawn, as the coffee hadn’t taken hold, that maybe I was doing too much.
Later, while looking out over the lake that surrounds Sotkamo from one of the hill peaks in the nearby countryside I realised I hadn’t it in me to do the 100K. Not enough prep time, not enough training, just not enough!
I was a little heartbroken at the realisation but from the outset I said I would do what my body told me and my body was saying no!
So sadly, for now at least I will not be doing the 100K and must console myself with the 60K.
Still, not a bad way to begin my Ultra Running adventure as long as I can keep my training from being interrupted by fugitive cows.
Innocent as grass
Today I notched up another easy 20K on the road from the farm to the junction for Sotkamo. Surrounded by trees, rolling hills and a vast expanse of blue sky it is easy to see why Finland is something of a runner’s paradise, save for the cold north wind reminding me that though I may be done with Winter, she is not yet done with me.
My feet are a little sore, my legs a bit less responsive, not so quick or nimble: this is fatigue. Not the fatigue of a 9-5 sit/type/coffee/repeat structure that just over a year ago I would have called ‘life’, but a more satisfying ‘holy crap I’ve already covered 70K this week and I’m still going’ kind. I’m pushing myself physically and mentally much harder than I have ever before and yet there is a weightlessness to it. A freedom. You make a decision, you follow through. It helps if you actually like the task that you take in hand.
People watch and question because the decision to run 100K is not something most people consider, most usually do not consider running just 10K, and the question is always couched in apologetic and slightly incredulous tones and phrases, but essentially boils down to: Why do you do it? Why do you run?
It’s a good question but one that doesn’t draw an answer to mind quickly, at least, not one that I can articulate to someone who would ask that question; someone who doesn’t run. I can say it’s for piece of mind, to be outside in nature, for exercise and to stay fit. All of which would probably be true and yet those are just sums of a much larger part. The truth is, when someone asks me why do I run the real answer is simple – why not?
Some of the aforementioned nature on the road to Sotkamo
So for the last few days I have been taking it easy (perhaps a little too easy) with my running. Just the odd 10 K here or there. This isn’t to say I haven’t been using up my energies on something productive however, I just thought I’d give my joints a short break.
In addition to the extra sleep I have been indulging in I have also carried a dying adult sheep in my arms, for what seemed like eternity, to an area of fresh, green grass ( a luxury in Sotkamo at the moment – Winter has not fully abated) in the hope of reviving the flagging animal. No such luck. I have been cleaning out cow beds in the navetta, surrounded by a lake of egesta as melting snow and ice had seeped into the barn to mix with the ‘leavings’ of oh so many good, Finnish cows. I have pitched hay into sheep pens and onto feeding tables and had a good many laughs playing fetch with over-excited border collies. Not a bad way to ‘rest up’ a little I think.
That said, the weather has finally turned and the daylight is long and inviting. Even as I sit writing at 10:30 pm the sun has not yet set and light will endure a few hours more.
So, even though I will rise early tomorrow to get some kilometers under my belt, I am going to enjoy these last few minutes of down time before a hard running week commences.
It’s nice they made a pillow with my face on it.
The weather in Finland right now is, well, un-seasonal to say the least. Or so the natives tell me. Light streams through the curtains from 4 am onward but is frequently interrupted by foreboding clouds and sudden snow fall. So much so that you could be forgiven for forgetting that it’s actually May or that perhaps that you have wandered onto the pages of A Song of Ice and Fire and are pounding the dirt roads of the Land of Always Winter beyond The Wall. For the record I should add that I do, in fact, ‘know nothing!’
This said, I am not likely to let a little cold weather get in the way of a good run and with my sights now firmly set on ‘going ultra’ in July, I can hardly afford to let mother nature dictate my training schedule.
So my wife and I decided to get out and enjoy the fresh air and schizophrenic weather together. An easy 10K to bring my training total this week to 70K accompanied by cawing gulls and the hammering of woodpeckers. Not bad, or as the local white walkers put it, ei paha.
Tonight I am feeling the full weight of my decision to ‘go barefoot’. After treading the dirt roads that are the fading veins of my little village here in Eastern Finland, I took some time away from North Karelia to visit my friend’s farm near Sotkamo. Much like my little corner of the world the area is beautiful; big skies, spruce and birch in every direction but with the added attraction of some unique rolling hills.
I have been coming here every other weekend now for the better part of a year and right now we are keeping out of trouble by, and this is not something decided on a whim or as a result of an idea floated over a few beers, building a bakery.
The work is fun and we are kept fueled by home made, organic, Karelian Pies (I advise a trip to Google here) as well as assorted Finnish buns and sweet cakes. The only down side is the need to stay on my feet, constantly. Normally it isn’t something that I think about but after hitting the road for an easy 10K today I am really walking on broken glass. Each step a not so gentle reminder that barefoot conversion are not easy, but probably worth it and I do not regret the decision. The runs here are free and easy with steady declines and inclines accompanied by the rush of a rolling river nearby. Hard to say no, no matter the state of personal decline.
Which brings me to another decision, I came across the below flyer while killing time in the Joensuu City Library.
For months I have been toying with the idea of stepping up to Ultra-Marathons but didn’t feel ready to trek along to the upcoming events in Oulu. Procrastination being the word of the year but despite my best attempts to be my worst self it seems my hand has been forced. The universe is bringing the challenge to my doorstep and daring me to turn away. So the question is not shall I take part; the question is really how far shall I run?
Two days ago I retrieved my Vibram 5-fingers from beneath a pile of discarded t-shirts and sports socks that form the floor of my wardrobe and took the lightweight slippers for their first outing of 2017. This might seem to be a little tardy on my part being that most of us are preparing to welcome the summer but here in North Karelia we still have snow on the fields and semi-solid slush covering our roadways and running tracks. All the same I decided to brave the elements and don my fire-red thin-soles and get in an easy 10K.
Needless to say the air was perfectly cool and fresh, low hanging cloud sweeping across the open sky, fields of migrating water fowl singing or swooping from on high to find food below. The dirt road was cool and soft to the touch and I gently relaxed in to my run questioning myself as to why I had waited so long to recall my barefoot runners from their Winter exile. With their thin soles and minimalist design every stride was a joy until the realities of dirt road running piercingly intruded on my Spring scuttle.
Throughout the long, dark and extremely cold Eastern Finnish Winters the roads require grit to combat the ice and packed snow that makes driving so hazardous in these parts. The dirt roads are maintained with loose chips and sometimes larger stones and at this time of year new layers of grit and dirt are spread to cover the fissures and pot-holes created by melting snow and ice. No sooner had the accusatory thought crossed my mind that I should have been barefoot running weeks ago than I came down on and upturned stone. I winced, slowed, cursed the gods but kept on moving. The weather was just too good to stop. I ran, I hobbled, I walked and then ran a little more. My feet absorbing and adjusting to the varied wet and dry textures along the route. I loved every moment of the run but knew I’d pay for it soon enough.
So, last night, while sinking a few with friends to celebrate Vappu (May Day) the slight swelling on the sole of my left foot was still gently throbbing; reminding me that there is often a cost for the experience – no matter if it is enjoying a relaxing run or imbibing a few with our nearest and dearest – the sore foot or the hangover are never that far away, so it’s important to know when to go easy.
The dirt roads of Liperi – perfect for running…usually