Anima Sana In Corpore Sano

Climbing the Aosta valley to Tete de la Trenche (Italy), 2019 CCC (UTMB Series race)

I am no Latin student but the above phrase is the motto of a well known sports shoe company. It roughly translates “A Sound Mind in a Sound Body.” I am querying what a ‘sound’ mind and body might mean as more years go by.

In 2021 I only did one race, an ultra*. From results I see I was the oldest finisher. It felt a strange ‘achievement’ for which there were no prizes! Something that I would maybe look up to in others but attributing to myself am not so keen! Not sure I want to be the oldest anything!

How long to continue training and entering competitions? I have no clear answer. Obviously it is a highly personal decision. Those who have stopped training and competing will no doubt have their stories. 

As far as the body is concerned a key thought is to care for it and avoid injury. Learn to appreciate the environment of trails and mountains and the natural way it exercises my body. Avoid as much as possible running on roads and hard, manufactured surfaces. 

About 10 years ago I came across the writings of the coach Phil Maffetone**. For some years I had been following marathon style training plans and thought this could be utilised for ultra running. I pushed my body but would often feel niggling injuries. Subscribing to the ‘no pain, no gain’ philosophy I thought this was to be expected. However running was supposed to be fun. Training was stressing my body and probably mind too much. It’s likely not the only reason but since adopting some of Maffetone’s training philosophy I have been injury free. This is by no means a summary but some of the major takeaways for me have been…

  • Train at a low heart rate (HR) 80-85% of the time. By low he means very low. Idea is that you learn to run (or train at any other sport) at your maximum aerobic function (MAF). This makes for more efficient running i.e. after a time you run at same speed but at lower HR. For me this should be about 120 bpm. In reality for me it is 125-130, still a lot lower than it used to be. 
  • Avoid sugar and refined carbohydrates in their many forms. Eat healthy fats and unprocessed food. I try but fall short. This kind of message is more mainstream nowadays. Maffetone was saying these things decades ago but like the prophets of old was often ridiculed. 

Combining the low heart rate training and dietary advice helps the body burn fat when training. I don’t pretend to be very strict in following this but know it has helped me. 

The more difficult area to address as time goes on is what is going on in the mind. I suspect many older runners just stop one day and it has largely to do with how they think. Rather than the cause of their stopping being some major physical deterioration or life changing injury it is what is going on in their head that is the source of their decision. The effects of stress are subtle. As Maffetone advises add up all our stresses, both physical and mental. They all influence each other. Relationship, lifestyle, work or mental/ physical health issues all impinge on how we will perform physically. In some ways this is counter intuitive. Most runners will attest to the great way that running affects mood and releases stress. This is true and getting outdoors and taking in the beauty of nature will always be good and refreshing. There are no easy answers but there are times to be kind to body and mind. Sometimes you can get similar physical and mental benefits by going for a leisurely stroll instead of a gruelling run. 

Of course our physical strength, endurance and flexibility deteriorates. For me the temptation is to become discouraged because I get slower or take longer to recover. Instead I should accommodate to that fact by adjusting training and recovery. Crucially I need to re-evaluate my goals. I have to accept there will come a time when a 24+ hour race will be beyond me. 

The problem is that after training and doing 20 ultras over past 12 years I still think I should be improving, not deteriorating. Telling myself it’s all about discovering my limits. There is something about the mentality of doing an ultra where the mind controls the body. Finish one ultra and the mind says I can do better next time. The pain, agony, fatigue and nausea are miraculously forgotten a day or two afterwards. Perhaps I can do same thing faster? Maybe there is some other challenge that is more difficult? It is like being fiercely competitive with myself. I am my own worst enemy. 

Can I reconcile a belief in the amazing potential of mind and body with the reality of aging? Maybe I shouldn’t ruminate so much and just get on with it? Whatever my issues I can take inspiration from the likes of legendary Italian mountain runner Marco Olmo***. He won the 170km UTMB outright in 2006 & 2007 at the ages of 58 and 59! The oldest to ever win it. The following year 2008 Kilian Jornet took the title but he was less than half Marco’s age at the time! Marco is now 73. Anyhow whether competing or not I still hope to be lacing up my shoes and be out on the trail for as long as I can.

Meeting Marco Olmo in Chamonix (France), 7 Sept 2019.

* West Highland Way Challenge Race Report (A. Grant)

**    I also found Maffetone’s book ‘The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing’ helpful.

***  You can read some background here 

Once Upon a Time There Was… 

In the following story I have not indicated places, names or dates.

Once upon a time there was a young ‘line up man’, hereafter known as ‘line up man’. He was ‘lining up’ for the world’s first floating bookship. The job involved preparing for all aspects of an upcoming ship visit to a port. Arranging official permissions for public to visit the onboard ship exhibition, customs, immigration, appointing shipping agent, organising concerts, conferences, and all kinds of meetings onboard and onshore. In addition all manner of things that what was home for 140 crew from 25 nations might be needing.

Usually those who did line up went in small teams of 2 or 3 for mutual support. However on this occasion said line up man went alone. He was excited. It was a small, remote island nation the population of many mid-sized towns in the UK. Line up man arrived and found accommodation with some young people from another Christian organisation. One of his first tasks was to find and set up an office. Upon being introduced to the Crown Court Interpreter (hereafter CCI) he kindly said line up man could use his office facilities. The office also seemed part of the Ministry of Information. The arrangement proved fortuitous as the CCI was a mine of information. Anybody who was anybody he knew and could fix or arrange most things. 

The CCI was also a Christian and decided that one of the most important things would be to get line up man to speak at a Bible study he was involved with. This was quite normal as line up man would usually seek spiritual and material support from the churches in whatever port or country the ship was planning to visit. So it was that at appointed time line up man went along to the meeting. As was the custom everyone sat cross legged around the edge of a large room. What was not normal was that the Bible study was in the home of the prime minister of the country (hereafter called PM). It could be said that line up people should be ready for anything. This was such a case. Young line up man said his piece in front of the PM and rest of the gathering. Line up man had been urging the importance of prayer and that there was a ‘spiritual battle’ involved in bringing the ship into the country. Line up man was very surprised at the response. Those attending took the message to heart in an unexpected way. A spokesman for the meeting said that not only would they pray. They would also partially fast for the next 3 or so weeks before the ship arrived! Everyone appeared in agreement including the people line up man was staying with. Whether it was the immaturity of youth, potential embarrassment in front of the PM or more likely pride the line up man felt obligated to join in this proposal.

Now one thing line up man liked was his food and line up was not a relaxing or easy going job. A lot of energy was involved in going round government offices getting permissions, church visits, arranging publicity, dealing with port authorities, ship chandlery etc. etc. Cutting back on food for 3 weeks seemed a bleak prospect. After a few days of eating very little line up man was getting quite faint. He recalls sheepishly going to others fasting to ask if he could break fast and start eating breakfast. It was no problem. However line up man felt a bit shameful when others were not doing this. A few more days passed on this one meal a day regime. Yes you’ve guessed it, line up man was still feeling very weak. Anticipating further embarrassment he then asked if he could also eat evening meal. This was again no problem but did nothing for his sense of letting people down. Nevertheless line up man did enjoy low key visits to a local hamburger place. The two meal a day arrangement proved sustainable (just) till the ship arrived. 

One day while the above was going on line up man got a message from the PM. He wanted to see him and was waiting outside line up man’s office in his chauffeur driven government car. Line up man wondered somewhat anxiously what issue of import would cause the PM to personally come and see him. Had he caused offence in some way? Duly going out he joined PM in the car. There was no problem, rather the opposite. The PM wanted to have a time of prayer with him. The PM was a man of faith and left an impression on line up man. Despite wielding authority he was humble. At other times it became known to line up man that his wife (a princess) and two of his daughters shared his faith. Indeed his wife helped with line up by creating an invitation list for the opening reception of the ship when she arrived. 

On another occasion during this line up time the king of the country had to go overseas to represent his country. Now the PM was of royal lineage and a close relative of the king. When the king was out of the country the PM became the acting king. 

One day line up man got another message from the PM during the time he was acting king. Would line up man like to visit him while he sat on the throne? Not a normal invitation but an offer he was excited to take up! In retrospect it was probably an offer he would be ill advised to refuse. As it was had he not met the PM on several occasions. The offer almost felt like from a friend so this should not be that different. So the time arrived and line up man duly turned up for the appointment. He felt quite grand signing visitors book while waiting. The person ahead of him on the list was the Canadian ambassador.

The time came for the meeting and he was ushered in to the Throne room. The acting king (PM to me) was enthroned at the end of a very long table. Line up man sat at other end of table unsure of what the protocol should be. Impression was his chair was at an angle so there was no direct ‘face to face’. The natural focus was the view from a big window looking out to the ocean. A single tanker ship lay at anchor a few km offshore. They appeared to be alone but there may well have been inconspicuous aides nearby. Exact details of conversation are somewhat lost to line up man’s memory. He does though recall his feelings. The king spoke of his country and its needs. The challenge of representing a small country in a big world. Not really feeling he could relate to such matters line up man responded with what he did know. He began to speak of how they had met previously at meetings and thanked him for this interest and enthusiasm for the upcoming ship visit. At that point line up man was reprimanded for becoming too personal. Did line up man not know that when on the throne the king (or PM, line up man was confused) would only speak of matters of state? Line up man had not shown respect to the office. At that point it was good to be able to focus out to sea and try and forget where line up man was. Why had he not been trained in the art of speaking to kings on thrones?

The time in this small country was not all drama. There was also the mundane. One need was for line up man to have a haircut. Without much thought he went along to a local barber. What he didn’t see before it was too late was the use of the trimmer on top of his head instead of scissors. He was now almost a ‘skinhead’. More humiliation! 

So the great day came when the ship sailed into port. Standing on the quayside to welcome the vessel’s arrival into port line up man’s lack of calorie intake and shaven appearance shocked his fellow crew. One even thought he had spent time in jail. 

Despite what seemed blunders by line up man the ship visit went well. Many visitors from all sectors of society were welcomed on board. Friendships made and people were touched. The international crew had many opportunities to share their lives with the people. An opportunity in part made possible by a man with authority yet who was humble. At end of the visit the PM felt the time had been a great blessing to his people. He assured the ship crew of his prayers and was on the quayside to say goodbye as the ship departed. As for line up man he flew off to his next adventure.

Why I Am Blogging

There is hope! (sunrise run on Ben Vane, West Loch Lomond, Scotland. 9 Dec 2017)

Shortly will be the first anniversary of this blog. It seems appropriate to share how it’s gone as well as my aspirations and thinking behind writing about life, faith and running. 

I started with not much of a plan, just a sense of wanting to say something. Each blog has been different and unpredictable with varying lengths of time between each blog. The creative process involved has been surprisingly enjoyable. Thank you to those who have taken time to read and given encouragement. In our media saturated age I am well aware there is competition for your attention. Choosing the broad themes of life, faith and running has suited me. It has given freedom to write about most things. Some say a blog should be focussed. My decision has been to incorporate the broad (life and faith) as well as the specific (running). To keep the blog within a narrow framework doesn’t appeal to me. Also not sure I could sustain writing about similar things for long. 

So a ‘life’ theme is sufficiently wide to cover most things! You can’t get much more general than ‘life’, a great catch all that gives me freedom! Sharing parts of my history has been helpful personally. Helpful in the sense of becoming more aware that all of my life experience needs embracing. I am being challenged to own my history. As Henri Nouwen says…

“many of us have lost our sensitivity for our own history and experience our life as a capricious series of events over which we have no control“

Reaching Out, page 68.

To the extent I share my hope is to be honest. The bad as well as the good. Sorrows as well as  joys. Living with regrets as well as fulfilled ambitions. My experience and perspectives belong to me. The hope in sharing is that some of that may resonate with your own life. 

Nouwen again…

what is most universal is most personal and indeed nothing human is strange to us

Reaching Out

When it comes to writing about my faith as a Christian it is personal but also I hope relatable. The Bible describes the coming of Jesus as ‘good news’ (‘gospel’). The call to follow Jesus is part of life itself, precious but not always easy to share and express. Nevertheless it would be dishonest of me to separate life and faith. It would also not be right to paint a picture that trust in Jesus leads to the removal of doubts, fears or anxieties. Dark days and sometimes confusion is part and parcel of being human, whether Christian or not. There is also brokenness and a gap between what I say I believe and what I actually believe (i.e. do). What light there is I only reliably find in the Bible as God’s Word to mankind.

The great paradox is that despite struggles there is also great joy and encouragement. I am on a journey with a promising destination. Speaking of journeys and destinations leads me to running.

To write about running could mean a non-runner will not readily relate or share the same enthusiasm. However as mentioned elsewhere (see ‘about’) I view running, particularly endurance running, can serve as a helpful metaphor in travelling life’s path. A path we are all on.

Gingerbread muffins – currently don’t bake but greatly appreciate the results. 

I have never done hot air ballooning but might be interested in giving it a go. Thus far I have exhibited virtually no carpentry skills but admire those who can make beautiful things out of wood. Not sure if assembling Ikea flat pack furniture counts! Nor do I share my wife’s ability and enthusiasm for creating colours and abstract art. My life though is enriched when I am enabled to enter into ‘their’ world as they communicate their passion and demonstrate their abilities or creations. A window of opportunity may be opened to me or my imagination is sparked. That is my justification for occasionally rambling on about long distance trail and mountain running! Pushing yourself to discover your limits is a discipline that demands both the physical and the spiritual.

Thank you for reading and trust you will continue to join me in the future.