Thursday, January 24, 2008

Finish Line Thoughts

Great 10-mile sunrise run overlooking Lake Zurich this morning with the pig on my shoulders (a term I'm borrowing from climbers and using to describe my weighted backpack from here on. Actually, scratch that. I need to go with a lighter weight term. The Goose is tempting -- but I think I'll go with the duck for now. Not sure why, but a duck sure is lighter than a pig, so lugging a duck around on your back gives much better imagery and Jedi mind-trickery than a pig!).

Anyway, during the great run with the duck this morning, at one of the many moments when my mind started to wander, I immersed myself in thoughts of Finish Lines. Actually, my mind was reliving a moment a couple nights ago when I discovered a photo on the Web of a runner crossing the MDS Finish Line. There was such powerful emotion caught in this guy's expression -- in one simple moment frozen in time -- that it riveted me the instant I saw it and again the next morning when I remembered his complex and powerful expression. It really choked me up just to see this picture -- it was wonderful -- it captured the essence of the experience to perfection. His face said it all -- it told a story far more complex than a race itself -- it was an expression of jubilance, of pain, of triumph, of fulfillment, and of passion. I was so happy for him when I saw this photo and felt like I experienced just a small bit of his residual emotion years after the photo was taken.

It reminded me of the first time in training when the power of Finish Line thoughts hit me. It was during one of my first long runs, while in training for my first Ironman in '96. Nine miles into a 10-mile long run (and this distance seemed insanely long at the time), I suddenly thought of what it would be like to cross the Finish Line in the race I was preparing for. My body and mind were immediately filled with fantastic energy and my emotions were overloaded. I was in tears that last mile, which I ran flat out magically in no pain whatsoever. Eleven years later and that memory won't let go -- it's so powerful that I harness it from time to time when I need an extra push. I never consciously think of the Finish Line in my training sessions -- these thoughts just appear out of nowhere, shake my soul, and then quickly move on. I'm quite the emotional Finish Line crosser -- in Kona in 2000 I nearly exploded in emotions as I jumped in the air with all the energy of a 10-year dream rocketing me upwards in a winning fight against 14+ hours of fatigue.

So this is how the mind reacts during running -- a series of interconnected thoughts make their own little run around your head. My thoughts went from the MDS Finisher photo to my first Finish Line visualization, to a hugely emotional finish in Hawaii, to a conglomerate of finishes I've seen over the years. To me, the most exciting and most emotional aren't the first place finishers. It's the people at the back of the pack -- the people racing for twice the time and who have such amazing stories. The best sporting moment I've ever watched was the last hour of Ironman Canada in '97 (although I'm sure this is easily replicated all around the world in any year) -- to see these Ironman athletes full of such great stories and strong will reach deep inside to make it that last distance after racing for nearly 17 hours and to feel such strong support from a crowd that's larger than the one that welcomed in the first place finishers -- it's intense and a beautiful moment in time. I've also watched some incredible 5K finishes, where people have broken down in tears as they completed an enormous challenge that just happened to take more than three times as long as the first person across the line. Seeing people push themselves to finish when it's clearly taking all their will to do so is a beautiful and powerful sight. Sharing in their joy when they reach their goal sounds such a wonderful chord in the heart.

Today's run was special -- you hang onto ones like this -- makes up for the days that the weather doesn't cooperate or the legs feel heavy.

Now, losing my phone on the run and having to re-run part of my route to find it -- that wasn't so great and took a nibble out of my philosophical mood -- just a nibble though! Left foot is complaining a bit from my long run Saturday. "Ditch the duck and watch more TV dude", says my foot. Hope it feels normal soon (will let the duck rest for a few days). Lots of snow training planned for the coming week as friends join us for some winter fun in the French-speaking part of Switzerland.


Saturday, January 19, 2008

Ice Bath

The post training ice bath is a great recovery tool, but it takes the right mix of courage, craziness, and mind trickery to pull off. In this video I offer arm-chair ice bathers an opportunity to experience the joys of lounging about in icy cold water. I also offer the tricks and tips that help me enjoy(?) a couple of these a week.

So, pull on a sweater, grab a hot cup of cocoa, and see what it's like to take an ice bath.

Training Approach and Recap

One of the best things I ever did with my training for endurance events was to hire a great coach. After more than 10 years of self-coaching, I finally decided last year when I signed up for Switzerland's Inferno to seek out an expert who could guide me in my preparations and help me reach a new level. It was such a great experience working with Lisa Smith-Batchen in preparation for the Inferno that I knew I wanted her to help me prepare for the Marathon des Sables. She's a great online coach and it's a huge bonus that she's actually the first and only American female to win the event in its 18 year history!

Lisa's MDS plan for me started last fall. Coming out of the Inferno in August, I had a strong base which helped me enjoy some great road and mountain cycling in the Alps through October.

As cycling season drew to a close in November, I started back on a running-focused training regime aimed at preparing me for MDS' distance and climate extremes that to this day I still can't comprehend. A key fundamental to Lisa's programs is core training, so in November I joined a gym in Zürich and started back on core and strength training work. I met a great local trainer (Ivo) who helped chart out the details of my core and strength work to fit into Lisa's overall plan for me. Ivo introduced me to several new tools to aid in balance, stability, and core strengthening. I moved away from weight machines to the use of dumbbells while simultaneously balancing on squishy rubber steps and wobble balls. I also learned many new exercises using my own body weight on the Swiss ball. This core training approach gave me renewed energy and motivation for these requisite indoor sessions, while Lisa's overall program placed me on the perfect trajectory to meet some big training challenges that would occur during the final few months before the race.

Distance running came back into my program in October, when my friend Sean and I did some long trail runs in the Alps. This made it relatively easy to transition into 4+ hour-long trail runs in November.
By December, I was doing a 4-5 hour run per weekend -- often with at least half of the run in the early evening winter darkness and often in the snow. In addition to the weekly long run, each week I also ran a couple more times, did 1-2 strength and core sessions, did some indoor cross-training, attended a weekly yoga class, and skied on the non-long run weekend day. (Note: This is roughly the same routine I've followed through January, but the volume has increased.)

In December, I introduced a backpack to my runs ("Backpack, meet Jeff's running -- Running, meet Jeff's backpack. I hope you both get along - play nice."

I like my new Raid-Light pack so much that introduced it to my cooking as well.

I started with just a few pounds (1.5kg) in the pack, but by early January it was up to 20 pounds (9kg). I'll write more about backpack running in future posts. I also added some new activities -- skate skiing, ski touring, and schlittenfahren (sledding)! This led to some really intensive weekends, where I would run long on Saturday, ski (up-hill or skate style) on Sunday, and try not to break my neck while polishing off the weekend with a sledding run.

At mid-January, my long run is 6.5 hours with a race-weight backpack (20lb/9kg). My body is adapting well to the volume and weighted run -- I can't say that it's especially easy though! Recently I've also started my heat acclimatization regime -- more on this in a later posting. I can never focus too much on nutrition -- so far it's going well, but I know that it's getting even more important to stay on top of this to support the final two months of training.

This just about catches us up now! I'll expand on some of the training techniques in future postings. I hope that you're enjoying your wintertime (or summertime) wherever you are in the world!


The journey starts ...

I'm not sure that it's all that important how a dream is born. That is, if it's a good dream and it signifies something you want out of life, what's more important than its roots is that that you seek that dream out -that you chase it with such unbridled passion that you'll make it your own reality. In doing so, you'll likely experience many twists and turns -- triumphs and defeats -- expected outcomes and utter surprises. If you dream of finishing a big race, your dream is often of the finish -- not of the long journey to reach the finish line -- especially not the months (and even years) of preparation it takes to even reach the starting line. In the end, maybe you'll get that Finisher's shirt or medal. Even better though, maybe you'll make a new friend or experience something that enriches your life in a way that will leave you a different person - or some wonderful combination. The beauty of chasing a dream is that the dream itself is often outcome-focused, but the reality that's delivered brings some of the most cherished rewards to you.

Today I want to share with you a dream that I'm pursuing. In the coming weeks and months, I'll share with you the journey to get there and the unexpected rewards that I'm sure the pursuit will bring. The dream is an event some call the toughest footrace in the world. It's the Marathon des Sables, a 6-day running race across the stunningly-beautiful Sahara Desert in Morocco. The route varies each year, but is typically 145-155 miles (230-250 km) in total. The temperatures variations are wide, from just above freezing at night to 120F (50C) during the day. Competitors run wearing 18-22lb (8-10 kg) backpacks, which are full of all their food for 7 days, a backpack, clothing, and survival gear, such as emergency flares and an anti-venom pump. The only things that the race organizers provide is a daily ration of water, large canvas berber/Saharan-style tents to sleep in, and emergency services.

I've dreamed of competing in the Marathon des Sables for many years now. While the extreme nature of the event offers quite a challenge physically, it's the reported camaraderie that convinced me to finally sign up last summer. Chasing this dream also brings a chance to help raise awareness for a wonderful charitable initiative -- more on this in the coming weeks.

The dream becomes reality in April, but the journey is already delivering its bounty. Please feel free to stop by my blog from time to time to learn about what it's like to train for such an event and to see what surprises I'm sure to experience and lessons I'm sure to learn. I'll include many brief video updates on the site as well -- to capture the training techniques, as well as some of the emotion, drama, and entertainment.

Thanks for reading!


About Marathon des Sables

The Marathon des Sables, also known as the toughest foot race on the planet, is a 7 day / 151 mile (243 km) endurance running race across the Sahara Desert in Morocco. The 2008 edition starts on March 29th.

Participants cover the equivalent of nearly six marathons over 7 days. Each runner has to carry everything they will need for the duration (apart from a tent) on their backs. This includes food, clothes, a medical kit, a sleeping bag, a rescue flare, an anti-venom pump, and other survival items. Water is rationed and distributed at checkpoints. Runners can expect mid-day temperatures to soar as high as 120°F (49°C) and nighttime temperatures to drop to the freezing point. The journey requires running on uneven rocky ground and over immense sand dunes.

Mental stamina constitutes a major part of the experience; physical fitness is obviously crucial but the mental challenge runners experience over the course of the race can’t be underestimated. On day four, for example, participants must run across the desolate desert environment to complete a 50 mile (80 km) stage – often alone to navigate, self-motivate, and deal with the occasional sand storm. Many people complete this portion of the race before dark and some will not come in until evening approaches on the second day.

So why do people sign up for the race?

One of the wonderful things about this event is the camaraderie, the bond between people from different cultures around the world who share a passion for testing their limits and experiencing the natural beauty of the desert.

The picturesque Sahara, the elation of crossing the finish line and the sheer excitement of watching and taking part in "The Toughest Foot race on Earth" also contribute to making the experience well worth all the preparation and sacrifice.

Friday, January 18, 2008

About Jeff

Jeff Grant is employed by ING’s Global Vendor Management organization in Zürich, Switzerland. He has the unique opportunity to work with ING colleagues and vendors from across the globe on a daily basis. Jeff and his high school sweetheart Becky have both worked in international roles for ING in Europe and the Americas. Together, they've traveled to dozens of countries in six continents and experienced a variety of adventures, from climbing Kilimanjaro to backpacking in grizzly bear country. Jeff's adventures also include shark diving in the Galapagos, mountaineering in the Andes, rock and ice climbing in the Rockies, and jungle trekking in South-East Asia. In addition, Jeff is an ultra-endurance athlete.

Extreme Athleticism

No stranger to intense training, Jeff has finished 5 ultra-distance triathlons, including the 2000 Ironman World Championship in Hawaii and the 2007 Inferno in the Swiss Alps. He has also completed 10 marathons, including the ING New York Marathon.

His latest endeavor is the 2008 Marathon des Sables, a 151 mile (243 km) run through the Sahara Desert. By far, this will be the most challenging event he has ever pursued. Disciplined preparation and comprehensive training for the 7-day ultra-endurance run are a must and Jeff has taken this very seriously. You can read more about Jeff’s preparations for what has been described as the “toughest foot race on the planet” by visiting his Blog.

In case you’re wondering: why does one become an ultra-endurance athlete?

Prior to becoming an endurance athlete in 1996, Jeff was 65 pounds (30 kg) overweight and leading an unhealthy sedentary lifestyle. Motivated by his concerned family members, Jeff decided to embark on a new, healthy lifestyle and has never looked back. He still cherishes this motivation and the new life that it brought. A key driver in the transformation and one that persists to this day is setting seemingly impossible goals and passionately pursuing them. For example, Jeff committed to an Ironman distance triathlon before running more than an hour. “An unfathomable goal often creates its own energy and magnetism – it takes on a life of its own and that’s what drives you to make the changes and commitments required to reach the goal”, says Jeff. “Athletic challenges often serve a key role in balancing an intense workload with fitness, happiness, and personal fulfillment. Rather than cut back on work intensity or life intensity, I find that when I elevate both of them together, each delivers a higher bounty and equilibrium is reached.”

“Keep in mind that a local 5K running race or a charity walk can serve just as an important lifestyle transformation milestone for some as a week long run through the desert for others. What’s important is to identify and commit to a goal, share your commitment with others for support, and then pursue it with gusto.”