Friday, August 14, 2009

The Power of Visualization


During a track session this week, I was just about to start my 3rd mile repeat and felt the need for an extra push. I was really having to work on the first two repeats to get my legs spinning the first 800 meters, so I was looking for that little bit of extra motivation to bring home the last mile with a good time. I was right on 6:33s the first 2 miles, which for me is pretty darn quick. I wanted to go sub-6:30 on the last one. As I readied myself for the start, I drew on some visualization experiences from Marathon des Sables that made a huge difference in that race. I've included some quick excerpts at the bottom of this message if you'd like to get a taste and perhaps consider some ideas that may help you some day.

Back to the track and remembering this experience in Morocco, I visualized friends from all walks of my life lining up beside me. Friends from Colorado, Atlanta, Seattle, Zurich, and the Twitterverse/FB-osphere took their places and then surrounded me in a peleton as I started what I had hoped would be a fast 1600 meters.

Through the first 2 laps I sat comfortably in this virtual pack -- visualizing faces, visualizing cheers and words of support. For 800 meters I didn't feel like I was running. I literally felt pushed -- pushed by this imaginary force. I'm not talking a figurative push here -- physically I felt stronger, faster, and less tired than I should have at the pace I was running. My stride felt lighter and I didn't notice the lactic acid that was certainly building up. Different people rotated to the front -- blocking the wind and cutting a path through the track.

At the start of the final 800, I visualized that some friends were dropping off -- their job finished. I ran harder now for them -- for their efforts to help me. Lap 3 brought a small group to the front. They fought the wind with all their might -- I fought just to stay on. I visualized hearing words of encouragement shouted from each one -- seeing actual faces in my mind. "I've got your back! I'm on your side! Stay on my wheel!".

I hit lap 4 -- my face showing pain and my lungs bursting. I visualized my best friend, my lieutenant, my Hincapie, take the lead. Everyone else was off at this point. He charged that last 400 meters just like Hincapie's lead-out for Cavendish in this year's Tour de France. I chased to hold on not for me -- but for his sacrifice. We laid it all on the line -- working as a team for a final push around the track. On the final turn he pulled off allowing me to slingshot past. Sweat stung my eyes -- the pain was now too much to ignore. I raced for the finish though -- running hard more for my helpers than for any other reason.

I crossed the finish line like 8 massive Rolls-Royce jet engine were strapped to my back and stuck at full throttle. My heart rate was nearly at 200 BPM and my vision was in a fog. My legs finally slowed down, the jet engines vanished, and I snapped out of my visualization to realize that I was all alone -- on a track outside of Zurich -- on a sunny morning with no one else in sight. My watch read 6 minutes, 8 seconds. I dropped nearly 30 seconds off my mile pace just through the power of visualization and the power of having some awesome friends from around the world whose energy and support I can tap into as an enormously powerful source of fuel and motivation.

Visualization is an awesome tool for the endurance athlete -- for anyone really. Give it a try and please let me know how it works for you!

In closing, here are a couple of visualization excerpts from my MDS posts:

My knee is hurting again and I'm slightly dizzy. The hours of running alone and the intense heat are getting to me. I need strength -- I need support. I begin a series of visualizations -- not quite hallucinations, but not far off either! I see my friend Sean directly in front of me, turning around to look me in the eye every 30 seconds to tell me to stay strong and stay with him. I then see my family off to one side and my friends off to the other. They form a long line, reaching the way out into the desert. They take turns running by my side, telling me to keep pushing hard for the finish line. My wife, my parents and in-laws, my grandmothers, my sister --my coach, my colleagues, my friends, my boss -- they all have a moment to share a cheer or a look of encouragement. My late granddad appears to tell me to "stay tough, boy - stay tough". My body is spent and my mind is at its limit. Everything hurts, but I'm filled with an enormous energy and waves of emotion that are surging me to the finish.

and (from the following stage) ...

As I enter the final 11K, I feel utterly exhausted and still mentally tapped-out from the long stage. The strength of my grandmothers has powered me through most of today's stage. During this last stretch, the winds pickup -- headwinds. I need help - I need support. Suddenly I begin to envision my cyclist friends from the U.S. appear across the desert. They are riding in two large packs, coming from both sides. They swoop in front and beside me, forming a peleton to shield me from the wind. They take turns pulling and each drops back to ride right in front of me -- offering an encouraging word along the way. I see their faces and hear them shout "stay on my wheel Jeff, stay on my wheel!". They are working hard and taking this very seriously - sacrificing themselves to take the wind for me. All kitted out in cycling gear, they are putting in a maximum effort to pull me through the most challenging of moments. I can see them suffering -- riding at their limits and working as a team to aid me at what's nearly my breaking point. The strength I feel from this visualization is surreal. Whenever my mind starts to wander and starts to think about the pain, the lack of a visible finish line in the distance, the headwind, the heat, the hills -- I refocus on my peleton of friends and my energy level surges. An hour passes and the finish line finally comes into view. The peleton quietly peels off to the side and disappears into the desert, leaving me to finish alone.

Happy outdoor play!


Saturday, August 8, 2009

UTMB Course Preview Weekend

UTMB has been my focus race for the past 6 months and with it just over a month away, it suddenly entered the realm of possibility that I could actually journey over to Chamonix by train and run the course in advance. I received encouragement for this option from my coach and one of my great mountain running friends so I took an extra day off from work and enjoyed an easy 5-hour train ride through Switzerland and across the border into France.

Plans called for running the full 103-mile course over 3 days. This is a very popular 9-11 day hiking circuit, so I knew I wouldn't be alone and shouldn't have too much of a problem finding a refuge to sleep in during my two nights out. Unlike the race, where I'll have access to support stops and at least one drop-bag at the half-way point, this dress rehearsal would require me to carry all the sports food and drink needed for 3 days, some extra clothing & survival gear, and basic stuff for staying in a hut, like a sleeping bag liner, ear plugs, and a tolerance for being super-close to lots of fellow stinky trail companions. The weight added up and my pack felt a bit more like a Marathon des Sables race pack than a UTMB pack. With no real worries but feeling a little bit bogged down, I set off from Chamonix at nearly mid-day on a Saturday -- destination, le Ville des Glacier, half way up the Col de la Seigne, which marks the French-Italian border and sits about 35 miles away from Chamonix.

Day 1 brought fantastic weather, stunning views of the Mont Blanc massive, and some unexpected gear and water-finding challenges. I managed to work through these challenges, actually replacing my backpack 3-hours in -- trading my old pack for sunscreen and a few gels, but certainly got behind on hydration and nutrition throughout the day. I paid for it later, but for most of the day the running was excellent and I was happy in my element.

I topped out on what I thought were the final climbs of the day (Col du Bonhomme and Croix du Bonhomme) and started my journey down the valley, where I expected to find the hut I had booked for the night. Soon the sun had set and I was still descending, now in full darkness. I popped on my headlamp, which will be mandatory at UTMB where I'll run through 1, perhaps 2 nights. The descent ended and I discovered that my downhill finish actually included quite a long slog up another valley to reach the hut. As I ran up that valley, the weather changed, bringing me a taste of the storms to come the following day. I reached the hut at 10:30PM wearing all my foul weather gear, but still shivering. I was near delirious and briefly considered just running through the night. Crossing a high pass in an approaching storm without a tent and already cold and dehydrated -- well, these thoughts finally penetrated my senses so I stopped at the hut and barged in at a very improper time for hut arrival. I begged the hut warden to find some food for me and desperately tried to rehydrate to stop the queasiness and shaking. With a bowl of soup in me, I tiptoed into a room full of sleeping hikers, found the last remaining bed, and proceeded to lie awake for 7 hours while 29 people snored, coughed, tossed, and turned their way to a decent night of sleep. I looked at the ceiling all night -- listened to the wind roar -- thought about everything, from 1,000 things to worry about to 1,000 things to be super happy about.

Right as I decided to crawl out of bed after sunrise, the storm started in full -- considering that Objective 1 of the day was to cross a 2500 meter pass, I opted to stay in bed for a bit, where I managed to sleep about an hour -- finally. I then set off for the pass, running until it got too steep and then speed hiking with trekking poles. The day was cold, drizzly, and often full-on rainy. I was running in all the clothing I brought, so I had few options to stop or slow down, else I'd get cold fast. This part of the course, aside from the mid-way visit to Courmayeur, felt remote and raw. Awesome glacier views, trails made for mountain running, and epic scenic beauty that really lifts your soul.

Day 2 was a very long day, so long that I ran out of daylight and lodging options before my planned stopover in Champex. I opted instead to stay in La Peule, a village of one building, which had thankfully just been turned into a mountain refuge. This great little stopover spot is just inside the Swiss border after the big climb over the Grand Col Ferret. I later realized that with my first night's stopover in France and second night in Switzerland, I had run through the Italian section of the route all in one day. Ciao, ciao Italia!

The super-friendly La Peule Swiss hut keeper took care of me with a late night Omelet and my choice of any of the 30 beds (I was the only guest that night). Physically, I was tired, but not wrecked. I managed nutrition and hydration a bit better on day 2, but remained colder than I would have liked. I set off on day 3 with a nearly 10km sprint to the nearest village with a bus station. The section between la Fouly and Champex (about 20km) is in a valley with no serious climbs, which makes it a good candidate to skip on this circuit. I opted to cut out this section to get me on the original route plan for the day and to make it to Chamonix before midnight. As the visibility was terrible (I was in a cloud nearly all day) and the rain continued, I felt ok skipping this valley in favor of my daylight time on the big climbs ahead. Soon I was running again, up the surprisingly steep routes up to Bovine and Catogne to the final climb up from Col du Montets. I began to think in terms of climbs and meters of elevation gain rather than in terms of distance or time. It was an odd sensation as a runner to think ("ok, 2 climbs to go: 800 meters, then 1200 meters -- with the descents, that'll be something like 4 hours" over a distance that would take less than 2 hours when not in the mountains).

The bad weather finally broke its stranglehold on the region during my last hour of running back in to Chamonix. I was ecstatic and suddenly sad about the end of this odyssey.

I ran a strong final hour, really shocked at how good the legs felt, but realizing that it was the mountain views that were powering me -- shutting off all signals of fatigue and pain. Mont Blanc came out of the clouds and welcomed me with open arms into Chamonix. The closer I got to town, the more clouds would lift from the surrounding peaks. A late evening sun lit up Mont Blanc right as I entered the streets of Chamonix. I was on fire -- so incredibly overjoyed. I sprinted my heart out like I was racing for first place in the real race. Tourists stepped aside as I ran at top speed through the streets of Chamonix, backpack swinging back and forth, smile beaming wide. I reached the center of town and suddenly stopped -- hands down on knees, bent over, tears in my eyes. I looked up at the awesome glaciers flowing nearly into town, looked at the final moments of sun on the top of Mont Blanc, and listened to the raging glacial river off to my side. At that moment, the numbers didn't matter -- the run was some distance, with some amount of climbing and descent, for some number of hours. All those 'somes' didn't really matter. What mattered was that feeling in Chamonix, that feeling on Col du Bonhomme, that feeling on Grand Col Ferret, that feeling on every climb, every scenic vista, every ridgeline -- that feeling of love for nature, for the mountains, for the glaciers and rivers -- that feeling that boils up inside you and calls you to these special places to savor life. Oh, how sweet it was -- how sweet it is!
More photos on Picasa here.

Reflections on the course (for those considering UTMB): it's big, it's stunning, and it's seriously mountainous. There are few sections where you can get into a normal running rhythm for more than 30 minutes -- the course feels like it's either going straight up or straight down, with only a few transition bits thrown in. I highly recommend trekking poles -- real ones, not the super-light racing poles. 31K feet of climbing and descending is only runnable for the very elite and much of the time I found myself speed-hiking the climbs, using my trekking poles to power me along, set pace, put me in a rhythm, and keep me upright. I've done mountain marathons where you can run most of the ascent -- that's just not the case for the UTMB route. Lots of the steep climbs seemed in the 1 hour to 90-minute range, so it felt like cycling high passes -- just set a rhythm and stay on it until the top. I tossed the poles in my backpack for the descents and ran all of them but one steep, technical descent late in the course. If you run it outside of the race itself, bring water purification stuff, because it's rarely easy to find clean water as often as you need it. Final thought -- it's the Alps, so despite the season, bring sufficient warm/dry gear. Despite having gloves, hat, shell, two wool shirts, etc., I still got really cold and would have been in trouble had I been injured on the trail. Lesson learned!

Thanks for reading!


Friday, August 7, 2009

Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc -- a journey starts

Like I was a starving and half-crazed fish in search of food after days of roaming an empty ocean only to find a juicy meal perched on a shiny, barbed piece of steel, my journey to prepare for and race the Marathon des Sables in 2008 hooked me on ultra running and has tugged me along ever since deeper into the amazing world of ultra running.

That journey into the unknown introduced me to a wonderful mix of camaraderie, self-drive, and awe-inspiring beauty that is at the heart of the ultra running culture. After each stage of MDS I would sit in the Berber tent with my mates, covered in dust and sweat with an aching body, listening to their tales of 50 and 100 mile running races thinking "I wish I could do that." I know -- a bit odd to be in the middle of a stage race in the desert, a significant ultra race in its own right, dreaming of running ultras in other parts of the world -- but that's how it is.

MDS was my first ultra -- and everyone around me seemed such the veteran ultrarunner. I felt privileged to join this community and honored that these vets would treat me like one of their own.

The long stage of MDS served as an awakening for my ultra running soul. I'll never forget the feeling of running alone near the front for that 50-mile stage, powered by the vastness, surreality, and intense heat of the desert and a mind that grabbed hold of the spirit of all the wonderful friends and family in my life to carry me to the finish line. This was my spirit walk, my walkabout, my journey into the land where the mind is freed and the feet move on their own -- where human flight seems possible and a natural high abounds. Sadly, that event eventually drew to and end, but the spirit drove onward and opened new doors.

After MDS, I worked through a period of post-race blues and then snapped out of it with a commitment to tackle as my first 100-miler the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB). While there are lots of great 100-mile runs in the States that I'd love to go for, UTMB is just a few hours from our home in Switzerland and has a monster course appeal and stunning Alpine scenery that begs me to make the starting line in Chamonix for my first 100. UTMB covers a ridiculous 31K feet (9400 meters) of elevation gain over stunningly beautiful terrain in France, Switzerland, and Italy. I experience a mixture of excitement and fear just watching the Google Earth flyover!

The race is set to start in Chamonix at 6:30pm on August 28th and it has a 46-hour time limit.

Stay tuned to the blog for a glimpse of what it's like to train for UTMB and if all goes as planned, toe the starting line in Chamonix at the end of August.

Cheers from Zuri,