Sunday, 17 November 2013

Acts Of Erosion

The sun was rising over the small town of Silverton, Colorado. 5.50am.

At one end of the main street, an anxious crowd of 140 runners made their last minute race preparations. Nervous laughter. The checking of back-packs and hydration bladders. The tying and retying of trail shoe laces.

Alone by the grocery store, a skinny blond kid jogged easily before slowing to a loose-limbed walk. He carried no gear save a small hand-held water bottle and a few gels tucked into the waist band of his shorts. despite the low temperature of the early morning, he was clad in just a tee-shirt. A lightweight jacket was tied untidily around his waist. A makeshift bandanna kept his shoulder-length hair from his face.

As he paced, he repeated his mantra under his breath. 'Blow it up, Kyle. Blow it up.'

As he paced, he knew that the time had come. For three years, he had been obsessed by this one race - the Hardrock 100. For the previous three summers, he'd moved to Silverton, taking voluntary work with the Mountain Studies Institute. But the work had been of secondary importance. The reason he was here was because of that race.

As he paced, he thought briefly of the thousands of miles he'd logged without let-up on the Hardrock course. He thought briefly of the 100 mile, 140 mile, 160 mile training weeks. He thought briefly of how every step he'd run in the previous three years had been geared to this one race.

'Blow it up, Kyle,' he repeated under his breath, 'Blow it up.'

He understood his task. He was ready.

With its 33,292 feet of ascent at an average altitude of 11,000 feet, the Hardrock 100's position in the US ultra-running scene was legendary. It intimidated even the most experienced and able of the US's elite mountain runners.

But it didn't intimidate this skinny 23-year old. No, it didn't intimidate Kyle Skaggs.

As the race organiser called together the assembled athletes for a final briefing, Skaggs repeated his mantra once more.

'Blow it up, Kyle. Blow it up.'

His immaculate preparation had given him confidence. A string of medium-profile ultra wins in the last year had boosted his confidence, but these fine performances had also brought pressure. He was no longer the unknown trail bum he'd been just months ago. Now he was the 'next big thing on the scene.' With that pressure came doubt.

As he toed the line ready for the start of the race, that doubt became, for a moment, overbearing. His mind reached back to his first long race - the Zane Grey 50 - a couple of years ago. His ambitious early pace had secured 2nd place, but he'd spent hours afterwards attached to an IV drip. In aiming to 'blow it up', he'd literally almost killed himself.

A countdown started. Skaggs closed his eyes and breathed deeply. He cast aside his doubts. 'Just run hard,' he thought, 'and keep running hard.'

The countdown reached zero and a bell was rung. The 2008 Hardrock 100 had started.

'What the hell!' thought the skinny blond kid, 'Blow it up. Or blow up trying!'

He took off. Running hard. By the time he reached the end of Silverton's short main street, Kyle Skaggs was already a hundred yards ahead of the rest of the field.

The Durango Herald carried the following article on the 14th July 2008:


'From Silverton to Telluride to Ouray to Lake City and back to Silverton.
That’s a challenging route for a day trip – in a car.
Kyle Skaggs did the same mountain-town tour in less than 24 hours without a car – just his own footsies.
Skaggs, the modest wunderkind of mountain ultrarunning, won the 2008 Hardrock 100 Endurance Run on Saturday morning in record fashion.
He crossed the finish line in front of the Silverton school, paused for the traditional kiss of the namesake giant hard rock, and stepped into the history of mountain endurance running.

His time of 23 hours, 30 minutes stunned longtime Hardrock organizers and followers – an almost unthinkable sub-24 hour finish in one of trail running’s most rigorous 100-mile tests (at altitude).
He started fast, surpassing previous checkpoint records with each step from Friday’s 6 a.m. start.
And he finished strong, just as faint light started to appear over a still snoozing Silverton on Saturday morning – a half-hour before 6.
“It was just starting to get light when I ran into town,” Skaggs said. “I felt good.”
No doubt.
“I didn’t set a time (before the race,),” Skaggs said as he relaxed in the finish area after a hard-earned shower and a few bites of post-race breakfast.
“I was not worried about splits or anything,” said the 23-year-old from New Mexico – who has been living, coincidentally enough, in Silverton.
“I just went out to run, to run fast,” he said.

Hardrock race director and race founder Dale Garland struggled for words to describe Skaggs’ remarkable run.
“I didn’t think this was possible,” Garland said. “I don’t know if there is a superlative I can use for this. This is one of the great athletic barriers that we thought would never be broken.”
Garland said Skaggs’ race was without flaw.
“There was no weak part of his race. I kept waiting for him to blow up. But he was consistent. Yes, he was consistent,” Garland said, “not to mention talented.”
“The fact that he was here last year and watched Scott Jurek’s run served him very well this year,” Garland said.
“Plus, from the start he was out there by himself,” Garland said. “It was like a 24-hour time trial.”

Around this time last year, I sat down to map out my running ambitions for the year ahead. Or rather, I didn't. Deeply affected by certain events of 2012, I resolved that 2013 would have no bigger picture. Instead of focusing on anything in particular, I'd simply enjoy my running. I'd re-establish a routine after a haphazard year, race often and take on any small challenges as they offered themselves to me.

The decision was a good one. This year has been my best running year since the heady days of my mid-twenties. As someone who's never been particularly arsed about racing, I've raced more than I ever have previously. I've run competitively over 5k, 10k, 10 miles, half-marathon, marathon and 60 miles. I've run across Lincolnshire and supported successful Bob Graham, Paddy Buckley and Ramsey Rounds. I've been largely untroubled by injuries and have explored the limitations that running with a cardiac pacemaker has, or doesn't have.

It's been a year I've thoroughly enjoyed. It would be easy for me to simply repeat this pattern year-on-year for the rest of my running life. It would be fun.

But would it be satisfying? Would it be enough?

The answer takes little consideration. The answer, of course, is 'No'. Self-experimentation is what keeps me burning. Next year would have to involve something different.

2014 came to me by chance.

I'd noticed during the summer that a local lad, Aaron Scott, had gotten into the habit of ending his Twitter training updates with ' #gettingthejobdone'. At first, it bugged me. After all, considering running as 'a job' was the exact antithesis of Empty Miling, whereby each run is done for its own intrinsic value, not for any instrumental gain.

In the days that followed, however, I constantly found myself contradicting the very view of running I held dearest. By instinct I commented on a friend's Fb race update with the words, 'Good work!' Whilst talking to Tam about a promising young runner, I found myself saying, 'He could be good - but he needs to put the work in.' Each time that word - work - stuck in my throat, but I couldn't help it. Empty Miling dictated that each run should be play. But here was I saying that running was something different.

After a while on Google, I eventually located an article that opened my eyes. An article that made me realise that my ideas of Empty Miling were just too simplistic. That, for the last few years - to some extent - I've been wrong.

I've read this article time and time again. Each time I've done that, it's conjured up stories of people who had a passion, an overwhelming desire - who loved running for it's own sake, but channelled their passion into a singular goal. People for whom running was play, but, at the same time, something more focused than play. People who took one event and were consumed by it. Kyle Skaggs at the 2008 Hardrock 100. Pam Smith in the 2013 Western States. And more. Loads more.

After reading it many times, 2014 became clear. 2014 would be the year I devote myself to a single performance. One event. And, more importantly, it would be the year I dedicated the whole of my running to one idea - this one philosophy.

Jeff writes about running in a way that touches me more deeply than any other runner since George Sheehan. His blog site, 'The Logic of Long Distance' is astounding.

The article I keep returning to is called 'Running as Work and Play'. Most of it is printed below. It's fairly long and fairly dense. But read it. Don't just scroll through. It may not be the most important thing you've ever read about running. But it probably won't be far off.

'Common sense tends to oppose work and play. We associate play with something like entertainment--momentary immersion that may be satisfying temporarily but doesn't lead with necessity in any direction. We consider play valuable in itself, but a waste of time in terms of other life functions. We associate work with something like drudgery--boring or painful labour in pursuit of a distant but necessary end ($). We consider work to be a hardship in itself, but valuable in terms of other life functions.

This way of considering play and work leaves little space for dignified human activity. It divides life into moments of distracted entertainment that lead nowhere and periods of unsatisfying labour carried on under the compulsion of ends that are external to the activity itself.

In Democracy and Education, John Dewey rethinks the relation between play and work. He asserts that both play and work seek results; both are oriented towards ends. The primary difference between the two forms of activity is the proximity of the ends that they have in view. The ends of play are proximate and more easily achieved. Play feels freer and more plastic because the proximity of the ends of play allows the free and imaginative selection of multiple means to those ends. The ends of work are remote and require more rigorous planning. Discipline and effort are more central characteristics of work because the more remote and precarious nature of its ends requires careful and deliberate selections of the means to that end as well as discipline to apply those means over a longer period of time.

Therefore, for Dewey, play and work are not opposites but lie on a continuum that is determined by the proximity of the ends of the activity. Play is freer and more spontaneous due to the fact that the end achieved is clearly in view. Work requires discipline and effort due to the fact that the ends it pursues are distant and sometimes in doubt.

As runners know, one of the strange and compelling things about running is its status as somewhere between play and work. We get the satisfaction of both work and play.

Each run is a type of play. Its ends are proximate and can be fulfilled freely and in a variety of ways. We can choose our route, choose to do a workout or an easy run. We can choose to run alone or with a group. As we run, we can choose almost anything to think about, to chat about, to watch. We get to feel the weather, the strength in our legs, cleansing sweat. All of this is very much like play, as each run -- especially for the experienced runner -- is like a jazz orchestra of sensation to be enjoyed. As in all play, each run itself surprises us with its freeness and spontaneity. We return home more often than not with more energy than we left, having experienced true recreation. This is the proximate end of each run, the play function of each run.

Equally, however, running gives us a chance to do work. When we choose a goal in running, we are usually careful to place it just beyond the known horizon of our capabilities. We make sure, in other words, that the goal is sufficiently remote. We want goals that are difficult, ones that can't be captured spontaneously or freely but have to be achieved through choices, effort, planning, and intelligence. Just as much as we talk about running being something that we enjoy and do for fun, we also talk proudly about the sacrifices we make for our goals, the pain and the grind of training, and the way in which we are tormented by our lack of achievement.

To my mind, it's this peculiar balance between play and work that makes running such a satisfying human activity. When our running is going well, we find a kind of synergy between the play and the work. The proximate ends of each run feed into the longer-term and more remote strategies of training. Of course, this balance is not easy to find. New and experienced runners alike can fall in the trap of thinking of running solely in terms of the work function, as drudgery towards a certain end. This way of thinking about running usually leads to being unable to satisfy that end, as the distant goals of training are too remote to provide for the deep immersion and serious absorption in the run that is both the mark of play and a requirement for achieving one's longer term goals. On the other hand, if we see running only as play, as a type of entertainment with no other end besides fun and frivolity, it seems to lose a different sort of depth. We become unable to relate it to the other aspects of ourselves or connect it to other life projects. It becomes mere entertainment and hollow escapism.

There are, of course, wider lessons to be drawn. Running can teach us that work and play are at their best together. The best stretches of life flow with a rhythm in which the proximate ends of our activity sustain us and direct us towards the more remote ends. When these rhythms are out of whack, life feels like stretches of mindless drudgery interspersed with empty interludes of entertainment. Play feels like wasting time, and work feels like pure sacrifice, only externally related to what we want to get out of life. If we can find an interactive balance between work and play, we can avoid such a divided and empty life.'


Pam Smith is a decent runner. She squeezed into the top ten women at the Western States 100 in 2010, but had a disastrous run in 2012. Failing to respect the inclement weather, she became hypothermic mid-way through the race and struggled to the finish in 28 hours 45 minutes, placing 45th out of the 52 female finishers.

Almost beaten, she nearly decided to skip the 2013 race, but when she successfully gained a place through the ballot, she reassessed her situation.

'There was a whole new meaning to Western States for me this time around,' she said afterwards. 'It wasn't just a big race; this was my chance at a redo and the opportunity for redemption. It wasn't about winning, it was proving that I was tough enough to conquer this course. My hunger to do well was off the charts.'

People don't win the most competitive races by happenstance. Outstanding performances require a great deal of work. Pam Smith knew this. Once she was in, she decided to dedicate herself to smashing the 2013 event big-time.

Her approach was all-encompassing, analytical and precise - a far cry from Kyle Skagg's own very different, but equally impressive, version of preparation.

For Pam Smith, every detail and every decision was carefully considered, researched and scrutinized. Come race day, there was no 'blow it up or blow up trying.' Instead her strategy, along with the equipment she used, the liquids she consumed and the food she ate, were meticulously planned.

Smith took the obsession of race preparation to a new level.

Her specific training for the race started 6 months previous. She focused on building her mileage to levels she'd never reached before - 90 miles plus - in a periodised, progressive schedule of three weeks build, one week recovery. In addition, in readiness for the amount of ascent on the Western States course, she religiously trained on hills three times a week, every week, as well as completing approximately one million squats during those six months to strengthen her quads.

Aside from her training, Smith left no stone unturned. After 17 years of being vegetarian, she dramatically altered her diet, consuming meat in regular, albeit small, portions, and restricting her carbohydrate intake to evenings only. By performing each training run in a carbohydrate-depleted state, she reasoned that the increase in efficiency of her fat-burning metabolism that this promoted would be invaluable over the latter miles of a very long race.

As the Western States is always held at the end of June, Smith made plans for heat management too. Studying research that showed physical adaptations occur with repeated heat exposure (increased plasma, increased cardiac output and increased sweat rate to name but three), and that these adaptations appear to be maximal after 9 to 10 exposures, she bought a one-month pass to a local gym about three weeks before the race, and endured 12 sauna sessions of increasing length.

Since she lived at low-altitude, Smith extensively researched the benefits of living and training at altitude, and found them too significant to ignore. Unlike Kyle Skaggs, who was able to base himself on race terrain, Smith found this impossible, having a young family to provide for. Therefore, for months before the race, she slept each night in an altitude tent.

By the time she toed the start line, Pam Smith was ready. Her preparation had been perfect. She was eager to lay her demons to rest.

The race she ran couldn't have been more different in approach to Kyle Skaggs. Whereas he just took off, running hard for as long as possible with no pre-conceived splits and with minimal gear, Pam Smith's journey was a lesson in poise, control and supreme organisation. She'd devised complex but well-tested race-day strategies for nutrition, hydration and heat management, and put together a support team that were highly motivated, knowledgeable and well-briefed.

As the race started, Smith had belief in herself. She could do this. She glanced at the schedule she'd worked out over endless long runs and recces over the course. A schedule for 18 hours and 30 minutes. A schedule that most people, had they known, would have dismissed out of hand, as absolutely impossible for a 38 year-old mum who was a decent runner, but nothing special.

18 hours and 37 minutes after starting the race, Pam Smith crossed the finish line. Not only did she finish as 1st woman, but she finished in the top ten overall, beating many of the US's top male ultra-runners hands-down. It was a truly remarkable performance.

As she slowed to a walk, Pam Smith imagined she could hear onlookers whispering in amazement to each other in the finish line grandstand.

'Can you believe she took nearly 29 hours to finish this run last year?'

'That's crazy! She was only ranked 14th woman!'

'Will there be drug testing?'

Pam Smith carried on walking to the chair that had been provided for her. As she sank into it, exhausted, it seemed the voices just made her victory sweeter.

Once I'd decided to base my running in 2014 on an idea, it was then that I had to pinpoint an event.

One section of Jeff's article stood out in this respect:

'When we choose a goal in running, we are usually careful to place it just beyond the known horizon of our capabilities...We want goals that are difficult, one's that can't be captured spontaneously or freely, but have been achieved through choices, planning and intelligence.'

I immediately thought of the Paddy Buckley Round - the classic Welsh 24-hour mountain round. However, something about it just didn't seem right. A mountain round is dependent on so many factors, some of them - such as the weather - being out of your control. The event I chose needed to be entirely in my hands. No, the Paddy Buckley Round would have to wait until the year after.

In the spirit of the two stories I've shared, the event really needed to be a race. Thinking of Pam Smith's redemption, I looked back to when I was last defeated.

In April 2012, I competed in the inaugural Viking Way Ultra, an off-road race over 147 miles. In the weeks before it, I'd struggled with injuries, but somehow managed to get to the start line. In true Kyle Skaggs fashion, I set out to 'blow it up, or blow up trying.' Whereas Skaggs blew the course record into little bits, I just ended up blowing up. Having never competed in a race longer than 50 miles, I under-estimated the distance, getting caught up in a race early on and suffering badly later. At 50 miles, reached in just over 8 hours, I was in joint 1st. At 81 miles, after run-walking for 30 miles, I still clung to 1st, but only because the lead runner had got lost. Leaving that checkpoint, a wave of nausea overtook me and I was sick several times. Plus, my legs were fucked. I set out from that checkpoint intending to walk for 10 minutes before resuming running, but ended up not running another step for the rest of the race. My splits show the extent of the wheels falling off. Reaching 50 miles in 8 hours, I hit 100 in a still-respectable sub-20 hours. The final 47 miles, however, were torture, taking me over 15 hours - roughly half the pace of the first 50. I eventually finished in 4th place, one of only 7 competitors to complete the race from the 28 that started.

The race destroyed me. Although proud to finish, I was disillusioned at how impossibly hard I'd found it. I vowed never to race over such a long distance again. I spent the majority of the next 4 months recovering.

In light of this, my goal for next year - the focus of my running - the object for this persuading philosophy of work and play - became clear.

Mark Cockbain's a cool guy - a down-to-earth Geordie who doesn't say too much, but is hard as nails. He's an old-fashioned runner - a grafter. During his running career, he completed pretty much every event on any ultra-runner's must-do bucket list. Now that his knees are knackered, he's taken to organising 'extremely hard, low-key ultra races.' The Viking Way Ultra was his idea.

In April, I caught wind of a new event he was organising. I e-mailed him, fishing for information, and he replied that his new race would be a bastard. It would only be open to runners who'd finished a 100 mile race, but as a Viking Way finisher, I'd be guaranteed an entry, should I be up to it.

Between April and September, I successfully dismissed the idea. The pain of The Viking Way still haunted me. Tam said stuff like, 'I never want to see you in that state again.'

At the start of September, an entry for Cockbain's new race appeared one day in my in-box. I ignored it for a few weeks.

And then I came across the article. Running as work and play. An idea came as to what direction my running would go next year. In 2014, I'd explore the concept of running as work and play. I'd spend nine months preparing for a single race - something I've never done before - and that race would take me from coast to coast.

The C2C Ultra starts from Whitehaven on the west coast of England at 7am on the first Saturday in August. Runners will then have 38 hours to run the 140 miles of the Coast-to-Coast cycle route, before finishing on the east coast of England at Tynemouth. It's a seriously low-key event. It's cheap to enter, there are no big prizes for the winners, and although there are timing checkpoints en route, there is zero support provided. Instead support must be provided by the runner's own crew, who will meet them at various points along the route. No pacers will be allowed. Competitors failing to hit pre-arranged time cut-offs during the race will be withdrawn. Athletes actually entering a vehicle at any time during the race will be disqualified.

As a goal 'just beyond the known horizon of our capabilities', I think it fits the bill perfectly.

It's 5am, Tuesday morning, second week of November. As I lie in bed, I can hear the rain falling against the window outside, It's week 2 of my first month-block. Each month, I'll increase the volume of my running, building strength and endurance through relentless consistency. In nine months, I will race.

Tuesday's my big double day. I'll run 11 miles to work over an undulating and muddy off-road route. Once my work day's done, I'll run back the same way. The bed's warm. It's tempting to lie in and take the van to the factory instead. But before my work day starts, I've got work to do. Or am I just going out to play?

Three quarters of an hour later, I'm jogging through the woods at Well. For the first time in a while, my running has a definite purpose. As I skip over tree roots and hop between the ruts of farm vehicle tyre tracks, there's a playfulness in my running that lifts my spirits to highs that rightfully shouldn't be reached by anyone up at 6am on a dark, wet November morning.

I contemplate what I've let myself in for. Will the joy of my empty miles be stuffed out by this notion of running being work as well as play? Will this single-minded pursuit of a remote goal become a chore that deadens the enjoyment of my daily outings? I guess only time will tell.

Running as work and play. As I run easily down the slippery slope into Claxby Psalter, I'm mulling over that article again. Then I think of more words from my new favourite philosopher guru that seem to perfectly encapsulate the decision I've decided to put myself in:

'The rhythm of running imposes a sort of order of habit on daily life. We put our runs into place, then the rest of life falls in around that order.

Rituals and repetitive behaviours make runners seem obsessive or compulsive, and in a way we are -- some more than others. We worry that all of this running is a symptom of a loss of freedom, that we run like panthers pace a cage. But repetitive behaviours are not always obsessive or the mark of psychological damage, and routine or habit is not always dull. Indeed, some form of daily rhythm is essential to the health of every living organism. A life without routine of some sort is simply a disorganized life.

The older I get, the more I realize that freedom is about the establishment of routine. The very nature of meaningful and free action is bound up in repetition. To live a life with purpose is to make choices that lead us to develop and grow along certain channels. If we find the right channels, they deepen and grow more complex and variegated each time we return to them. This process is often imperceptible; our lives and personalities grow through a force that is similar to erosion.

Not to find these deep channels, not to return to them -- to live as if each day were brand new! This sounds lovely, and this advice is doled out often. But such a life would be a life of surfaces without depth, a life of noises and screens and words, but not music, not art, not meaning. The great musicians and the great athletes know
what the runner knows: that talent is discovered and refined through the erosive force of habit.'

It's a concept I'm comfortable with. As a disciplined runner, it's a notion that I associate with.

But in these forthcoming months of work and play, it's an idea I'll be able to explore as I've never explored before.

The race is nine months away.

Nine months of work and play. Nine months of repetition, rhythm, habit and routine. Nine months of freedom.

Nine months of  making deep channels deeper, refining my abilities, creating music, art and meaning.

Nine months of just running, small acts of erosion.

I'm flying as I enter Skendleby. And my heart's soaring. Because I'm looking at the future and I don't know the answer.

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