Elastic Band Training

Port visitors to the MV Logos

For 6 months when I first joined the MV Logos my work was in the deck department as an AB (‘able-bodied’) seaman. Then for almost a year I was a member of two consecutive training programmes each lasting 5-6 months. Long before the widespread use of computers the programme was known as IT (‘intensive training’). The idea was that a group of men (women in later programmes) would be stretched in a variety of spiritual, mental and physical ways. It involved committing to a variety of goals. Most of the time it meant for very full days trying to achieve these targets. The philosophy was that the experience would stretch us like elastic bands. Hopefully then when the course was over our capacity for all kinds of things would be enlarged as a result. Whether this proved to be so is open to discussion. A few faltered under the stress, as if the elastic had been stretched one time too many. 

So it was in April 1978 whilst vessel was in Singapore I began this course that would dominate my life for coming months. 

An ingredient in the make up of the group was to make them as culturally challenging as possible. Plenty opportunity for misunderstandings and the need for frequent forgiveness! We were 10 young men from 10 countries and 4 continents. We had an older, more experienced and mature leader who graciously led this diverse group. The final ingredient in the mix was our accommodation. We were together in the bow (foc’sle) of the ship. Tiers of bunks fitted to the keel in a small triangular shaped cabin that came to a point at the bow. Each bunk had a curtain to provide some privacy. The confined area was made more claustrophobic with the ship’s anchor chain locker housed in the middle. Enclosed in a large box like structure most of the time the chains were a quiet but ominous presence that dominated our living space. Whenever the heavy anchor was dropped these large chains flew making a huge noise with bone jarring vibrations. Perhaps it was a misperception but it often seemed to me the ship arrived at anchor in ports early in the morning. Our dramatic living environment was further enhanced by being at the bow of a ship designed to slice through icy water. With its sharp bow the ship pitched severely in rough seas. You could literally be thrown in the air from your bed. The MV Logos had been designed to travel from Denmark to Greenland. She was originally known as the ‘Umanak’, after a town in Greenland.

Crowds visiting the MV Logos on board book exhibition

Days usually began about 6:00 am with morning exercises – a port run if in port or aerobics on the aft deck at sea. Whilst the rest of the crew might have time off in the evenings we were taking meetings, studying or doing jobs that no one else would do. Anytime our team could be called on to do whatever was needing done practically. The 15 hours / week goal of practical work were usually spent doing jobs unpopular with the rest of the crew. They included manually moving many tons of books around the cargo hold or setting up or taking down the on board book exhibition ‘tent’ on the foredeck. We were also employed using rags to remove grease from the engine room machinery. I remember once having to crawl into the water tanks to clean them. The tanks were located in the ship’s keel. Feeling that I could not back out was a fearful experience. To this day I have no interest in caving! 

Once a week we had to report ‘progress’ to our team leader on almost 30 different tasks. Long days were filled with trying to achieve these goals. This suited some temperaments more than others. I found it for the most part quite fulfilling. A few goals were only possible due to the unique opportunity a floating bookship afforded. We often had many thousands visit on board every week we were in a port.

Weekly ‘IT’ Report

We’d usually sleep relatively early at 10:30 -11:00 pm but once a week there was an extended time of prayer with the rest of the ship’s company. This went from 7pm till sometimes 2 or 3am or even later. It was mandatory for ‘IT’ people to always attend and stay to the end (one of our goals). The rest of the crew were more or less free to leave when they wished. Follow that with 1 or maybe 2 hours sleep before exercises and another long day. The training certainly lived up to its ‘intensive’ description. We did have to work as a team but there was also a lot of goals to be achieved individually. I suppose this led inevitably to competition between us. Despite our differing cultural and personality types we did form a bond between us and remain in touch with several to this day. 

A sad memory during this time of training was to lose one of our number. Abel, a Mexican, had gone swimming whilst we were in Taiwan and tragically drowned. I had just a few days before been talking with him. He in retrospect had seemed strangely at peace talking about the future in comparison to my uncertainty. In an amazing way several years later in 1985 I was again on board the LOGOS. This time it was in Abel’s homeland Mexico. His family visited the ship and sought me out as one of the few people that had known Abel just before he died. It was an honour to share with them my memories of Abel.

In September 1978 in Kota Kinabalu, East Malaysia we completed the course. I was then ‘rewarded’ with an invite to lead the next group of volunteers in IT. I was honoured but also felt weary and a bit bruised by my own recent experience. My immediate future was uncertain and initially thought I should leave the ship and work with the mission in India. However, after some weeks break I agreed to take on this task. This time I was asked to lead 7 Indian men. If I wasn’t going to leave the ship and live in India, India was coming to me! Again this was thought to make for a challenging cultural mix – and that it certainly was. India is like a continent in itself and my companions came from a variety of urban and rural backgrounds speaking several languages of which English was only one. Six were from south India and one from the north. What we all had in common was our sense of calling as Christians to serve each other as well as reach out to the world around. The programme would try each of us in our commitment to this in the ensuing months. So we began the course in the beginning of Nov’ 1978 in Tuticorin, South India. We set sail with the rest of the ship’s crew on a 9 day voyage to the Middle East.

One of the ongoing challenges from early on was the aforementioned weekly extended prayer meeting nights. We were supposed to stay till the end. Occasionally I would do a midnight round up in our dormitory to waken those who had succumbed to sleep back to prayer. It is not something I am proud to recall and it certainly reflected my inexperience and immaturity. My hope is team members have forgiven me for these and other instances of poor leadership. Suffice to say I was out of my depth.

One of our number before he became a Christian had been in the habit of taking cold baths at 3:30 am. Thankfully he stopped the bathing. However he did not see any need to stop rising at that time, switch on his light and read his Bible for 2 – 3 hours. This had some considerable effect on the sleep patterns of the rest of the team. Once again addressing this issue challenged my leadership abilities or lack thereof! Nonetheless I had great respect for him and his deep hunger for the Bible. I remain in touch to this day.

Intense learning experiences I suppose have the potential to reap both positive and negative effects. To me the positives are the discipline and some habits that have been helpful in subsequent years. The negatives were a legalistic approach to goal orientation and time management. Trying to achieve things which may or may not be important. Nowadays you might call it a tickbox or checklist mentality. It took many years to return to a more normal and phlegmatic way of life. When restless and feeling guilt for no particular reason I need to remind myself God is not standing over me with a clipboard ticking off a ‘to do’ list.

It might sound that this was a year to forget. Yes it was not easy and some things were very tough. Yet it was also an experience for which I am thankful. Those I learned with became companions and brothers. We also laughed, we celebrated and we enjoyed each other’s company.

I also know that in God’s plan broken elastic bands can be tied together and reused. In fact that is His business…

A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.

Isaiah 42:3a NIVUK

The Metaphorical Trail Runner

‘Leaps and Bounds’ by Elisabeth Grant**

Long distance trail running has informed other areas of my life. It doesn’t apply just to running. The same can be said of many areas of human endeavour. They can teach us wider lessons than the activity itself.

Over the past 15 – 20 years I have read books on both the science and art of running and tried to put into practice various techniques. Some have stood the test of time and others have been discarded or superseded. Some have been inspirational and challenging. However probably the most influential voices for me in terms of running technique have been the writings of Phil Maffetone and in recent years ‘The Lost Art of Running‘ by movement coach Shane Benzie. Here are a few ways that over the years trail running has informed me about the art of living. Some thoughts may speak as much about my own age and stage of life. Please note in life as in running I am learning! I fall short physically and metaphorically.

Keep head upright and look ahead.

Too much looking at my feet or just one or 2 steps ahead gives poor posture. It also doesn’t inform where I am headed. Focusing on being in the mud or on how steep the trail is saps mental and physical energy.  

I easily ruminate and become absorbed in the difficulties of the present. Doing so stunts vision or nourishing hope of the future. At the same time it is important to be aware of what I need to do in the present. Life’s challenges are not meant to paralyse me to inaction. Seem to me they are an invitation to do something practically, mentally or relationally. 

Watch that step

Feet should land below centre of gravity. Make contact with the ground like a tripod – ball of big toe, just under little toe and the heel.

This gives good proprioception (maximum sense of where the foot is). Especially so if you have shoes with little or no cushioning. The ‘tripod’ is a good position for impact and loading. On tricky runs downhilł keep eyes several paces ahead. Use running poles downhill to have 4 points of impact and not 2. This means that slips are less likely to lead to falls. Put faith in my feet to find the right places. Foot/ eye and brain coordination is faster than my conscious awareness. 

Life needs to be grounded in reality. Easier said than done. However one aid is to acknowledge to myself how I feel about experiences. The good and the not so good. If I absorb the things that happen to me appropriately then I can be resilient. Not to get hung up by daily ups and downs but press ahead. 

The road ahead

Try to keep a cadence of 180 steps/ minute. If wish to go faster increase stride length and not step turnover. Similarly to go slower or climb uphill, shorten stride.

Research has shown a step frequency of 180 steps per minute is the most efficient use of energy. Feet should ‘kiss’ the ground and not thump it.  

Sticking to regular routines help me adjust to and absorb the changing challenges of daily life. In times of storm good, healthy habits weather well.  

For endurance, train according to heart beat, at a low aerobic rate.

Recording heart rate is the best single indicator of combined mental and physical stress. This form of ‘bio feedback’ is very helpful. It is insightful that a negative thought will within seconds increase my heart rate (HR) by 5-10 beats /minute. Cold weather with not enough upper body layers also greatly increases heart rate. The torso needs to be comfortably warm. Conversely wearing full body leggings when it’s not cold enough increases my HR. An incipient cold or infection will also raise HR above normal for activity. I should take it easy or stop running. Running can help to cope with other stresses in life but paradoxically there are also times when the best medicine is a gentle walk. 

I need objective feedback on my life. Another kind of ‘bio’ feedback. Honest friends can help. Wisdom gleaned from sources such as books, culture and art can also be helpful. As a Christian the Bible has become for me a ‘go to’ source of feedback on matters of the heart and life. 

Every once in a while take a mental scan from head to toe of how I feel. If something not right what can I do about it?

Is head upright? Am I looking ahead? Is head cold/ hot? Tension in neck? Shoulders and arms relaxed? Any lower back pains? Am I taking in and enjoying the landscape I am moving through? Does my HR reflect the degree of effort? If high, why? Consciously lower shoulders, elbows down at waist. Hands unclenched, fingers lightly touching each other. My legs are doing the running. The top part of my body should assist that. It’s a waste of energy being tense.

Travelling through life requires some reflection and self awareness. Problems and stress often come from my wrong attitude, a faulty posture, a lazy approach to life. There is usually something I can practically do? Are there also areas I need to be more relaxed about and not worry?   

Try and keep a relaxed facial expression and smile at people.

It amazes me how many runners have gaunt or expressionless faces. Some do not even acknowledge your presence as you meet them. Running should be fun. Some people really don’t look like they are enjoying themselves. It’s hard to have a high HR and a relaxed smile!

It takes effort to enjoy life as it is. Doing so is good for me and maybe also for those I meet.

** elisabethgrantart.com 

Cow Shed Backyard Ultra 16th April 2022

Field in Wheelbirks farm

My last blog ‘one yard at a time’ shared the plan to participate in a ‘backyard’ run. Decided to do the Cow Shed Backyard Ultra which took place in Wheelbirks Parlour, a farm in Northumberland, England. As Sat 16th April drew near I found myself going through the familiar routine of what running gear to take, food to eat etc. Some things never change! The difference this time is that it was not so logistically complicated. Every hour I return to where I began. It is easier than in a single stage long distance race. In such races the challenge is to anticipate what clothing, food and drink might be needed at a particular time and in places many km apart. For a ‘backyard’ it seemed you just brought everything I conceivably need (!) and have it at my pitch near the start line. Also not needing to carry anything other than adequate clothing whilst running would be a help. 

Once again Elisabeth kindly agreed(!) to support me. The prospect of her sitting in our car in a field was not very comfortable. In addition supporting me for a few minutes every hour for an unknown amount of time would be a challenge. Also there was my need for some degree of comfort to sit, rest and/or eat and drink each hour. These issues prompted us to hire a small campervan for the event. 

We motored down on Friday the day before to stay in the aforesaid field belonging to Wheelbirks farm. There was no running water but organisers provided portable toilets and a few other basic facilities. The field filled up with an assortment of tents and vans as well as those roughing it in cars. The following morning more arrived. 

The main twin-peaked tent beside the start/ finish line had a pavilion feel to it. It got me thinking it was the kind of place to watch a medieval jousting tournament. 

Start and finish

As with other ultras I tapered off training in the weeks before. Planning for a race of unknown length and duration had been a novel experience. My maximum training length was 7 laps, rounds or ‘yards’ as they are known. A ‘yard’ being 6.7km. The actual route was not known so could not be surveyed beforehand either. However we were told there would be approx. 150m climbing and descent each yard. The race involved doing 1 ‘yard’ every hour on the hour starting at 12 noon. Why this distance? If one continued for 24 hours you would cover exactly 100 miles (160 km). In retrospect nothing really prepared me for it more than actually doing it. Pre-race I naively had some thoughts as to what would constitute a good effort. What would happen ‘on the day’?

Competitors also included men and women representing teams from the 4 UK nations – Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland. It was nice to meet some of the Scottish team both before the start and during the race. As ‘backyards’ are very new to the UK long distance running scene most had never done this before. However several were very experienced in 24 hour lap races.

Scottish team
All smiles, ready to go!

12 noon arrived and 115 of us set off. First round went well and had some good chats with fellow competitors. For most like myself it was our first ‘backyard‘. The route was very varied. Pathless routes round clumpy soft fields, gravel farm tracks, soft forest trails and muddy inclines and descents. It took me 50 mins which was what I had expected. On reflection I now see that my training rounds had not been on as rough, varied and often trackless terrain. I see now that 1 round in 50 mins. involved more effort than I had actually trained for. It felt hot on the trail yet the hourly ‘rests’ were chilling in comparison.

Garmin map of the Cow Shed round

Walked from finish line the 50m to my ‘aid station’- a table and chair outside our van. Elisabeth proferring food but didn’t need. Just a sit down and rest. The routine for each hour was that a whistle blew three times at 3 minutes before start of next round. Then two whistles at 2 mins and one whistle 1 minute before 1pm. Rules were you had to be in start corral by 10 seconds before or you would be out of race. The other way to be disqualified is to take longer than an hour for a round. This pattern would be repeated each hour. No supporters were allowed on the course, they had to remain in the start / finish field. 

Rounds 2 and 3 went by with roughly similar timings to my first round, 50-51 mins. This afforded me similar ‘rest’ times. I would start about 1/3rd back in the corral and let others speed off. Why do they do that? This race is not to the swift but to the consistent. By round 4 fatigue was setting in as my time slipped a few mins longer.

A few moments of bliss but oh so short?

There is a lot of psychology involved in a race like this. Robert would always be right at the front literally jumping around at the countdown to each start. As if to emphasise how easy he seemed to find it he also carried a rucksack. Each to his own. I had heard that a key strategy with the elite in this type of race is to give others the impression you are doing fine when you are not. Anyhow Robert would usually speed off at a sprint to be a few hundred metres ahead of everyone, then ease off. For hour after hour he was usually first back in 40-45 mins. Impressive but as said speed is not what is required. 

Back to my own race. Each hour became very hard to distinguish. By round 6 the effort involved mentally and physically was taking its toll. It was like starting a new race every hour but each time progressively more exhausted. Each round was becoming indistinguishable with the same views, people and similar emotions. Reminded me of the film ‘Groundhog Day’ – destined to relive the same experience over and over. 

This is not as straightforward as I thought!

The peculiar knock out nature of the event was obvious at the start corral. Towards the end of each hour some were coming in to complete their round at a sprint. They were being cheered in by the other runners getting set to start again. Remember especially one guy who gave his all to make the hour sprinting very fast. As he crossed the finish line the 10 second countdown for the next round started!

Round 7 and think it took me about 56 mins. My margin for rest was getting very small! Think Elisabeth saw I was pretty spent and revived me by dousing in drinking water. It reminded me of a boxer getting battered by a better opponent (in my case the clock). Each round retiring to the corner for a few minutes only to get up and battered again until finally knocked out. 

I managed to complete the 8th round in 58 minutes. Maybe I could have done another or maybe have failed to complete in an hour. However at that point I could not envisage a 2 minute break and doing exactly the same as the previous hour. It was enough and joined the 33 others who ‘did not finish’ at that point. These 33.3 miles (53.3km) left me more ‘done in’ than in 26-30 hours of running a ‘normal’ long distance race. To complete the humbling psychology of the event I was duly awarded a wooden spoon. It was marked DNF (‘Did Not Finish’). Also given a ’Cow Shed Ultra’ mug. The double meaning of the mug was not lost on me either! Elisabeth reckons that if I start to regularly make soup the ‘DNF’ on the spoon will go away! Not sure the psychological scars will disappear so easily (only joking!).

In most races the winner comes in first and is applauded by everyone present. In this ‘last person standing’ event the winner comes in long after just about everybody else goes home. We stayed Saturday night in the field with our slumber punctuated each hour by the 3, 2 and 1 minute bell. Leaving the campsite sometime after 1pm the following day we watched the 4 remaining competitors battle it out. 3 men (including Robert) and 1 woman moving through their 26th lap.

After 29 hours and 29 rounds there were 2 left; Sarah and Paul. They fought together for 3 more hours until Paul decided he could do no more and didn’t start round 33. The rules are that the last person starting must finish another round, otherwise there is no winner. So Sarah Perry set off on her 33rd round. Delighted to say that this English primary school teacher completed a staggering 137.5 miles or in metric terms 220km. The one and only finisher and winner of the 2022 Cow Shed Backyard.

Sara’s feat is extraordinary. Her resilience beating all the guys who thought they were tougher. It was completed not to the fanfare of crowds. Instead she was greeted shortly before 9pm on the Sunday evening by a handful of people and her dog in the dark. All patient enough to wait 33 hours for a champion. A big thank you to Mark and Hazel Marchant, the volunteers and Greener Miles Running. Their stamina and good humour throughout made this an amazing and not to be forgotten event. Once again a big thank you to Elisabeth for supporting with the discipline required to support me in this endeavour.

It will take a while to know what I have learnt from the experience. Afterward on Easter Monday we visited St. Mary’s Church of England in Barnard Castle. Inside the church there was something I had never seen before – a labyrinth. The ‘Instructions for use’ included the following…

“unlike a maze, it is impossible to get lost. There is only one way in and one way out. The only choice we have to make is whether or not to follow.“

No logic to the twists and turns of the labyrinth. Neither is there any reason to going round and round the same farmland.

…children have abounding vitality, they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say “Do it again”, and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon.”

‘Orthodoxy’ by G.K. Chesterton