I first heard about the Cape Wrath Ultra (CWU) http://www.capewrathultra.com/ more two years ago when I stumbled upon a snippet in a magazine describing plans to hold the race in May 2016. Described as an 8 day expedition race weaving 400 km through the Highlands of Scotland, I knew immediately that I wanted to do it. It appealed both because of the location and the supported nature of the event. I’ve been lucky to travel the world more than most and have experienced some stunning places, but the West Highlands of Scotland rank as one of the most beautiful of all. Moreover, as a Scot I seem to be genetically predisposed to thrive more in the Scottish climate than the desert, jungle or the arctic. And weighing in as I do at just over 50kg makes events where you have to carry all your kit particularly challenging!

Bliss: “supreme happiness; utter joy or contentment”

The first time I experienced bliss during a sporting event was when I did an Ironman in 2013. Having never competed in anything longer than a marathon before I was anticipating a suffer-fest. Instead I experienced more than 13 hours of happiness, elation and euphoria. It was addictive. While my flirtation with triathlon was over, I happily returned to my true love running, and became fascinated by experimenting with the pursuit of bliss. I found out that by running long distances at a slow pace in beautiful surroundings I could achieve even higher levels of bliss than I did during the Ironman. However, I’d never done more than a one-day event before so the CWU looked like the ultimate bliss research lab!

The Project

While the search for bliss was my main objective for doing the CWU, the huge challenge of preparing for an event like that was a major part of the appeal. As a runner I have always been more motivated by the process rather than the goal itself. I love all the planning and preparation. This was so much huger than anything I had ever attempted before and I had no idea if I was being realistic in entering. So my strategy was to do the absolute best preparation I possibly could and take it from there. Over the last months I have spent countless hours researching, experimenting, testing and studying kit, food, the route etc. One particular challenge was the self-navigation aspect of the race so I took myself over to the Lake District to spend a day with the wonderful Joe Faulkner from Nav4 Adventure.

As always my dear friend and coach Bjarke Kobberø from Running 26 helped me plan my training. In reality it didn’t vary that much from my normal training. However we included blocks of long runs on several consecutive days, plus a much bigger focus on hill training. This was a huge challenge as Denmark is as flat as a pancake! There is one “hill” in my local forest – actually more of a pimple than a hill in comparison to Scotland – which I have run up and down endlessly over the last months. I also included strength training with heavy weights into my programme. And while I have gradually increased my weekly mileage over recent months – way beyond the distances I have ever run before – I think that the strength training combined with swimming and regular maintenance physical therapy treatments with the man with the magic hands, Kenneth Ellefsen, has contributed to the fact that I have been feeling good and haven’t had any injuries during my training.

Getting started

I felt happy and relaxed during the last few weeks before the race. I had done the very best preparation I could and my training had gone according to plan. However, the enormity of the challenge I had signed up for hit me the last couple of days before the race. I felt overwhelmed and had difficulty sleeping. So it was quite a relief to finally get started on Sunday 22nd of May. The first couple of days were wonderful. The landscape was incredible. The company of the other runners was inspiring. The terrain was challenging. The weather was kind. All that combined with having to keep an eye on the map meant that the time flew by. Despite the lack of sleep I felt physically good and I was happy.

Crisis

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Photo by SleepMonsters

I’m not completely naïve. I wasn’t expecting to experience 8 days of non-stop total bliss and I was prepared that there would be crises along the way. When the crisis came though it wasn’t out on the route, but in the safety of my tent. Towards the end of day 2 I emerged from a pass approaching the sea as the sun was starting to go down and the scene was so stunning I had tears in my eyes. From there though there was a tedious 8km to the finish and I realised that the day had taken much, much longer than I had anticipated in my planning – over 14 hours. That was the point where I first contemplated the idea that I might not be able to finish the entire race. The next day’s route would be longer with much more ascent and we had a maximum of 16 hours – with timed checkpoints to be reach during the day. When I finally got back to the camp that evening – after 9pm having started at 7am – most of the others in my tent were already in bed. I still had to eat, make my bed and sort out my stuff for the next morning before I could go to bed – and I knew that I had to get up early the next morning to sort out my feet, pack up, eat breakfast to get on the road as early as possible. That was my absolute low point. I was tired, upset, stressed and anxious and as a result I couldn’t sleep.

 

As I lay awake I saw my goal of 8 days of bliss slipping away. In its place I could see days spent with my eyes on my watch and my map, stressfully trying to reach checkpoints in time, irritated with the terrain for slowing me down; late evenings spent fumbling around in the dark sorting out my stuff and trying not to wake my already asleep faster tent-mates; sleepless nights; stressful mornings struggling to get ready and started as quickly as possible.

I can’t remember making a decision, but I set out the next morning feeling more light-hearted and with the idea that I probably wouldn’t make it beyond Checkpoint 2 that day. In retrospect I have no idea whether I could have made Checkpoint 2 in time if I had made more of an effort. Maybe, maybe not. The truth is though that it was with a tremendous feeling of relief that I arrived at Checkpoint 2 after the cut-off time. (According to the rules if you time-out on a checkpoint you are forced to miss part of the following day, but thereafter can continue in the race as a non-competitive participant.)

New Start

That night I slept for the first time since before the start and slept like a log. A bunch of us had timed out on Day 3 and those of us who chose to continue were driven to Checkpoint 1 after a more leisurely morning and were able to start running from there. From then on and for the remaining days, with the pressure off, I had an absolutely amazing time. I

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Photo by Steve

teamed up with three others in the same situation, Charlotte, Steve and Emily, three wonderful, interesting and inspiring people. Compared to those still in the competition we had an easy time of it. But don’t get me wrong – there is nothing easy about that route! The terrain is challenging, you need to keep your eye on the navigation and the days are long. However the surroundings are spectacular, the weather was miraculously good, the company was fantastic and the days passed quickly. Too quickly really!

 

In awe

Out of the 95 who started the Cape Wrath Ultra on Sunday 22nd of May there were only 59 IMG_0842 (2)who crossed the finish line at Cape Wrath on Sunday 29th of May having completed the entire race. And this was a lot more than the organizers had anticipated – something they put down to the miraculously good weather. Of the rest, 17 retired while 19 of us reached Cape Wrath but without having completed the whole route. I am in complete and utter awe of every single one of the 59 who completed the whole course! They have a determination and strength of will that is beyond comprehension. In fairness I can’t single anyone out, but I do have a particular place in my heart for my tent-mates Aly, Paula, Mirjam and Louise. It has been incredibly inspiring to witness at such close hand how those 4 wonderful ladies mustered the resolve and willpower each day to keep going despite the pain and the exhaustion – and still had the energy to laugh and have fun. Wow!

The best organized event ever

I have competed in more events than I can remember and I can, without doubt, say that this was the best organized event – by far – of all. And that is despite the fact that it was also the most complex event I have ever competed in – considering logistics, safety etc. Shane Ohly, Gary Tompsett and the entire event team did a truly amazing job. Despite working incredibly long hours they didn’t only ensure that we were all looked after but that we also had the best experience we possibly could – including those of us who were out of the competition. I thank every one of you!

Mission Accomplished

In the days that have gone since the event I have spent a lot of time reflecting on what happened, including the what ifs: particularly what if I had pushed harder through on Day 3? It always comes back to being happy that I dropped out of the competition that day. Even if I had completed day 3, I’m doubtful that I would have managed days 6 and 7. And the effort of trying to make the time checks would have been incredibly stressful. If I had, by some miracle, completed it would have been a feeling of accomplishment, but I don’t think I would be looking back on it as having been a good experience.

So I may not have completed the Cape Wrath Ultra, but I did achieve my goal! I felt bliss in the glens and mountains of the Scottish Highlands and had a wonderful experience that I will remember for the rest of my life.

Postscript

I did actually cover 271 km including more than 8800 m of ascent which is much, much more than I have ever done in 8 days before so am also a little bit proud of that!

10176152_10202536157538943_1437850482737057782_nWell who would have imagined that I would ever be a cover girl! Not me, but a full-page close up of my face graces the cover of the June 14 issue of the Danish running magazine ”Løbemagasinet” along with the headline ”Kirsten Ejlskov Jensen was an active marathon runner when she got lymphoma, she ran from cancer, through chemotherapy and over the finish line of Ironman Copenhagen three years later: read her story.” Inside there are 8 pages of pictures and article.

I’m pleased with how the article has turned out, but just as I’ve been on the other occasions I’ve had media attention for my story, also somewhat ambivalent. It seems that in the media cancer can only be addressed in terms of victims or heroes. I’m definitely no victim, but nor am I a hero or even exceptional. I know – not know of, but personally know – 6 other cancer survivors who have done an Ironman. One of them, Kaisa, has even been on the podium of the Ironman World Championships TWICE – now that IS impressive!

So every time something is published I feel a little embarrassed and end up doing some soul searching about how I present myself. I should add here that none of it has been the result of any active promotion on my side, but rather due to people in my network approaching me – though I have always said yes when asked. The only active effort I have made is this blog which mainly started as a good way to keep friends and family informed during my illness, and has developed from there.

In a nutshell, I believe that people with cancer are neither victims or heroes, but just people who unfortunately contract an illness and deal with it the best they can. I hate when the media present the victim picture – often in cahoots with the cancer organisations’ very clever marketing efforts – after all, pictures of suffering, bald, cancer patients raise more money than self-sufficient, strong cancer survivors getting on with their lives. But I don’t want to be guilty of contributing to the idea that a person is heroic just because they survive. It’s not heroic and there is very little you can do as a cancer patient to influence whether you are one of the ones who make it. But at the end of the day every time I go through this soul-searching there are two issues I always come back to.

When I got my diagnosis and told my children, who were then 14 and 12, I had cancer their first reaction was “are you going to die?” At least they said it so we could talk about it. I also knew that was what everyone else thought too, they just didn’t say it, which was uncomfortable and upsetting. If you try to tell people that you are not planning on dying just yet, they think you are in denial. So I can understand why many people going through cancer choose not to talk about it openly. The problem is that this contributes to keeping taboos and myths about cancer alive. Yet the fact is that in this part of the world more than half of those who get a cancer diagnosis, survive. (This is unfortunately not the case in the developing world, but that’s a whole other issue). Not only do we survive, but most of us are not invalids. We might have some scars on our souls, but most of us go on with our normal lives again.

The other issue is that I am very passionate about the importance of exercise, not only on our physical wellbeing, but also on our emotional and intellectual wellbeing. Cancer hits you on all three fronts, and I cannot emphasise enough the importance that exercise has had and continues to have for me in dealing with that. And it’s not just cancer, but all the ups and downs that we all go through in life. It doesn’t have to be an Ironman (in fact I actually wouldn’t recommend that unless you’re really keen!) – it doesn’t matter whether it is dance, or yoga, cycling or whatever the important thing is to find a form of exercise that you enjoy and then to do it regularly and consistently.

I’m not heroic. I’m living my life the way I want to live it despite, not because of, having had cancer. I ran marathons before and I would have continued to have run them if I hadn’t got it. I suspect I probably would have got round to doing an Ironman cancer or no cancer. I do it because I think it’s fun and yes, because it lets me prove to myself that I am still me despite having had cancer.

And I will continue to share my story in the hope that it encourages others to prioritise exercise. And I will continue to speak out in the hope that the next time one of my children’s friends are told that someone close to them has cancer, their first thought will not be death. And I hope that I can contribute to gradually changing the taboos and the myths so that those of us who get a cancer diagnosis are no longer seen as either victims or heroes, but just people dealing with life the best way they can.

Ironman 70.3 Mallorca

May 19, 2014

Last autumn in the aftermath of the Ironman, but before I’d figured out my next goal, I bumped into my friend Lise at a race and she asked me if I didn’t fancy going with her to Ironman 70.3 in Mallorca in May 2014 (an Ironman 70.3 is half the distance of an Ironman i.e. 1.9 km swim / 90 km bike / 21.1 km run). Well, Mallorca in spring sounded great, and I was still irritated with myself for dropping out of the half-Ironman back in June so I signed up. And then I promptly put it to the back of my mind.

Of course, not long after that I decided on my goal for 2014, and since then my mind has been really focused on ultra trail running, and I began to regret that I’d signed up for Mallorca. I was still swimming and cycling regularly, but mainly as a supplement to my running rather than with any triathlon focus. I also gradually realised that the race is so early in the season that I wouldn’t be able to do any open-water swimming before which, to be honest, was a bit of a disaster bearing in mind my lack of swimming confidence! Still, I had signed up, paid for the trip, committed to Lise, so I just had to get on with it.

So over the last few weeks, the ever optimistic Coach Bjarke included some triathlon specific sessions in my programme. Nevertheless my enthusiasm for these sessions was underwhelming – I just wanted to focus on running the trails! But as May approached and I had no alternative than to make plans, I began to look forward to it more and more. And since I didn’t finish the only half-ironman distance I’d entered before I just had to finish for a personal record. So I decided just to do my best and enjoy the experience and an active, sunny mini-holiday with my friend Lise.

Hard not to love swimming here!

Hard not to love swimming here!

We arrived on Mallorca 3 days before the race and were kept busy sorting out our stuff, registering, checking-in, attending the race briefing and also doing some easy training including some swimming in the sea. Thankfully my worries over lack of open-water practice were groundless: not only had I not forgotten how to swim out, but I actually felt a lot more comfortable than I ever remember being last season. It was a relief that my hours in the pool over the winter had some impact, even though I’ve been quite frustrated by my lack of improved swimming speed In fact I had a secret hope that I might not actually be the slowest swimmer of all here in Mallorca, without any real expectation!

Anyway, I didn’t want to take any chances of having a major panic attach during the swim – it would be just too humiliating to drop out again, so I did everything I could to be prepared. We checked out the actual swim route – particularly the start and the finish, which I used to do some visualisation the night before. I had used visualisation a lot in the run up to the Ironman last August to help me to control my panic when swimming and it worked then, and it worked this time too!

The big day arrived. The women all started together, right after the pros. I positioned myself at the back of the crowd and to the side. As I stood on the beach waiting for the horn I did my breathing exercises and looked out at the beautiful flat water in the morning sun and I felt happy and relaxed and eager to get started. I walked into the water at the back of the group and then started swimming and immediately found my own rhythm. The route was really straight and easy to navigate and I had plenty of space to myself. Quickly I realised that there were lots of women around me were panicking, hyperventilating and thrashing around desperately. Probably I am not a very nice person, but this actually gave me a boost! I just got on with my swimming and never lost my feeling of being happy and relaxed. I even overtook some people (I’ve never tried that before!). Just after half way the group behind caught up with me and I started to get jostled by the faster guys. Somehow though, this didn’t disturb my calm though it did irritate me a bit when they started swimming over me. For the first time ever I experience a bit of fighter spirit in swimming and just kicked more aggressively so they didn’t swim over me – and it worked! And suddenly there I was already at the swim finish!

A very sweaty day (this is salt!)

A very sweaty day (this is salt!)

I wish I could tell you that the rest of the race proceeded in the same way, but it didn’t. Bizarrely, bearing in mind my strengths and weaknesses, the swim was the best bit and from there it deteriorated. Due only to my own lack of planning and preparation I might add. I knew that the bike route included a climb from about 20 to 35 km and then a downhill for 10km after that. I wasn’t particularly concerned about it, having spent a week cycling in the Mallorcan hills last spring. As usual I had a detailed plan for energy and fluid consumption, but what I hadn’t thought about was the practicalities of opening/eating energy bars of grabbing my bottles on the steep uphill which is probably a piece of cake for most cyclists, but not for me! It was a very warm day making it even more important to keep hydrated, but I got totally behind with my plan. I gradually ran out of energy throughout the bike ride and when I started the run I actually thought I was going to faint! However, I managed to pull myself together enough to decide that stopping wasn’t an option and that I’d better get some fluids and sugar in, which did help a bit. But once the damage is done, it’s done, so the run was a nightmare. Still I managed to get through it by constantly doing deals with myself to run 2 km and then walk 100m. Probably my least elegant running performance ever!

Still, once I crossed the finish line I was happy. I had dealt with my unfinished business with the half-Ironman and in a masochistic way it had been fun. And I was really happy about my great swimming experience. Also I had no idea what time I had swum but I knew for a fact that I hadn’t been the slowest. Later when we checked out the results I was shocked by swim time. Last year that distance was taking me about an hour and on Saturday I swam in 47:44! So I HAVE improved!

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That evening I was happy that I could now also put half-Ironman on my CV as well as the full distance and that I now could turn my full attention back to training for my ultra trail run in the autumn. But the next morning I was already thinking though that I can do much better with some proper focus and planning. So I’m fairly sure I’ll do another one in the future – just not this year!

In February I wrote about my new goal for this year – an 80 km trail race (Trailman 50 miles) in October. For many years my running goals were always about getting faster at a specific distance and it has been a long process for me to accept that that’s no longer realistic. At the same time, though, it has been incredibly liberating and opened the door for much more interesting goals!

My “decision” to attempt my first ultra-run was based purely on a gut feeling: when I heard about the race I just knew that I wanted to do it. Likewise, my decision to tackle an Ironman last year could hardly be described as entirely rational! So I’ve been reflecting recently on what it actually is that attracts me to a particular goal and I’ve come up with a couple of things.

  • It needs to be ambitious. While there will also be a 50km route at Trailman in October, which would be a more logical choice for my first ultra, it just didn’t turn me on to “only” run 8 km more than a marathon. Also, I never actually finished a half-Ironman before doing the whole Ironman, let alone before making the decision!
  • It needs to require an element of experimentation and learning new things and the Ironman was kind of extreme in that regard since I was a newbie both to swimming and cycling! Trailman less so, but there are still plenty aspects that appeal to the nerd in me.

The first “new” thing I’ve been experimenting with this time is training my fat burning capacity. Despite the fact that I have run marathons and done an Ironman, I have never specifically focused on training my fat burning capacity before. I don’t want to dwell too much on nerdy details here (but I’ve included a link at the bottom for the nerds among you) but the general idea is this.

Usually when you run your body uses mainly carbs as fuel. However, your body can only store enough carbs to fuel a couple of hours or so. Therefore, if you’re planning to run for longer than that you ideally need to be stocked beforehand by eating properly in the hours before and then taking in more carbs during the race in in the form of gels or energy drink.

The problem is that there is a limit to the speed that the body can absorb carbs so during an ultra-race it can be a problem to consume enough to provide the necessary fuel. Apparently digestive problems are one of the main reasons that people drop out of ultra-races.

The good news is that the body can also use fat for fuel and even skinny people have more than enough fat to provide fuel for a long time. The body uses fat for fuel when exercising at a lower intensity, but by training the body to be more effective at burning fat you can gradually increase the intensity (i.e. speed) where you are using fat for fuel.

The bad news is that the best way to do this is to go out for a long slow run with the carb-tanks empty and without taking on extra fuel during the run. The most practical way to do this is to run in the morning before breakfast. As someone who gets up half an hour earlier to eat breakfast before leaving for a 5am flight and who has steadfastly avoided morning runs because I hate running on an empty stomach, I was not entirely thrilled by the prospect.

Nonetheless, last week I got up on Sunday morning and headed out on a longish run before breakfast. I was worried that I was going to feel terrible and bonk long before I made it home. I toyed with the idea of carrying an emergency gel in my pocket “just in case” (though I didn’t). In reality it was absolutely fine. While my tummy felt very empty for the first 10 minutes, I quickly forgot about it and I didn’t bonk at all. And it was lovely running in the woods in the early(ish) morning. This weekend I did it again – a bit longer this time – and I had a great run! And was home again before the time I normally would be heading out for my run. Even better was the “aha” feeling I got. I’ve been running for years, but by being open to trying new things I still learn new things about myself and my body and have new variations in my training and for me that is very motivating.

And of course the best part of all is that when I get home from these runs I can eat a delicious breakfast with a totally clear conscience!

PS. If you want to read more about fat-burning training I found this blog post really interesting. It’s in Danish, but he links to other sources in English at the bottom of the page.

One of the things that originally attracted me to running was its flexibility. At that time I was a working Mum with small children and a demanding job which required me to travel frequently. I wanted to get, then later to stay, fit but couldn’t commit to having to turn up regularly at specific training times. With a bit of coordination on the home front though I could fit in runs and I always packed my running shoes when I was travelling.

I’m clearly not the only one who does that. Several times I have read articles that celebrate how wonderful running is for exploring foreign destinations. Clearly those people don’t travel to the same places I do! OK yes, I have travelled to places like New York, Washington DC or Paris with work and explored in my running shoes. Usually, though, my travels take me to places in the developing world where the crazy traffic or personal safety and security issues make running outside inadvisable.
So when I book hotels my first priority is whether they have a fitness centre!

As a result, over the years I have become something of an authority on hotel fitness centres and I kind of regret that I didn’t, from the start, record my experiences and write small reviews of them. From my, albeit, limited experience of fitness centres in Europe or north America, including those in hotels, they have a certain sameness, but hotels in the places I visit are often, what should we call it…..quirky? And their fitness centres are certainly that too!

The ones I like best are those that also have members from the local area, mainly because they are busier which provides entertainment as I pound out my kilometres on the treadmill. In some places people mainly walk, not run, on the treadmills. I guess this is because the middle/upper drive not walk around outside so they have to go to the gym for a walk. In those places I get a lot of attention when I crank up the speed – at home as a middle aged woman I’m never going to be a running star so I soak it up when I can! One guy jogged backwards on the treadmill each day – and told me that it was dangerous that I ran so fast! Danger is clearly different things to different people. Another time a girl was jogging next to me while chatting on her phone, missed her footing and crashed backwards of the treadmill landing on the floor – and never stopped talking the whole time! Oh, and I have many times seen people jogging/walking on treadmills with flipflops on their feet!

At the other end of the spectrum, I was once staying in a fancy, newly opened hotel in Kampala, Uganda which had a huge state of the art fitness centre only for hotel residents. I went every day during my visit and in that time never saw another soul using it. There was a very bored instructor there, who clearly had been told he wasn’t allowed to use the equipment himself. We chatted a lot and he told me he was a runner too and offered to take me one evening to the local airfield where they trained. I didn’t go because I had a work commitment, but I regret it to this day…….

However funny or interesting these experiences are though, they do not detract from the fact that I truly hate running on a treadmill. I know people who run on a treadmill through choice and I just do not get it. During a 30-60 minute treadmill run I go through more mental anguish and turmoil than during a whole marathon (or Ironman for that matter). I have to employ every mental and motivational trick I know to get me through it! But hey, at least it also trains my mental toughness!

So why do I do it? Well, the only thing I can think of that is worse than the treadmill torture is not running at all! I recall one two-week trip I had to Luanda, Angola where I was staying in a small guest house with no fitness centre and where I was advised that it wasn’t safe for me to run outside. It was terrible! I was desperate! (OK, the fact that my suitcase didn’t turn up for 10 days did also contribute to my general state of misery!).

I am writing this from Monrovia, Liberia. I was here for a couple of weeks in January and I’m here again now for a couple of weeks. My hotel doesn’t have a fitness centre but residents can use the one in an apartment block 100 meters along the road. Although the building is right on the edge of the ocean, the fitness room is in a damp, dark, basement room with no window. Oh, and the electricity supply is very unstable so the power keeps going off and I frequently find myself plunged into darkness and the treadmill suddenly stops. And there aren’t many users to distract me (I wonder why?!?) so I churn out my kilometres and train my mental toughness and dream of spring in Denmark and running in the forest.

As a runner it’s a privilege to live in Denmark. We have a moderate climate which means we can run outdoors all year round – it’s never too warm in the summer or too cold in the winter. It rains for sure, but rarely the torrential kind that would prevent running and rarely for a whole day so with a bit of flexibility you can avoid it. Sometimes it snows, but rarely very deeply and the public services are effective at clearly roads and bike paths to run on. It’s perfectly safe to run around outside – even in the dark, without risks of being attacked and the traffic is regulated and safe and as long as you take precautions to ensure you’re visible, there is no real risk there. And most of us live within easy reach of parks or forests or other pleasant natural areas to run.

I just hope I remember this the next time I’m faced with having to go out for a run on a dark, windy, rainy evening!

After New York marathon at the beginning of November, I entered a period where I had no new goal and no desire to have one. That might not seem like a big deal, but I can’t emphasise enough how unusual that is for me. Typically I have my next goals lined up before the current ones are completed and I’d had New York marathon on the calendar long before the Ironman in August.

This time though, I needed some time and space to reflect over – and digest – what I’d been through, before figuring out what I wanted to do next. Here are some of the results of my reflections:

  • Despite having done an Ironman I don’t identify myself as a triathlete. I’m a runner.
  •  Nonetheless, my body functions well when I train like a triathlete and it has a good effect on my running.
  • I enjoy swimming, especially in open water, even though I’m not very fast and I still have an underlying fear of water.
  • I loved the whole process of training for the Ironman, particularly having to learn many new things and constantly push my limits, but also the aspect of having to manage a big project with many different elements.

Perhaps the biggest lesson though was this. Immediately after the Ironman I was really surprised – shocked even -that it hadn’t seemed hard and that I got through the 13+ hours without a crisis or hitting the wall. I’ve since come to the conclusion that our bodies are designed to be in motion over long periods of time. It requires the right training and the hitting right strategy on the day, but if you can find the right intensity, you can pretty much just keep going.

Racing on the local trails

Racing on the local trails

During this period I also had no training programme, which is even more unusual for me than having no goal. For once I was happy to let my feet decide where they wanted to run, and how far and fast. I’m incredibly lucky to live in a town which is surrounded by lakes and forests and when my feet decide, more often than not I find myself on the forest trails. This is the place where I do my reflection and find my inspiration.

On one of those runs, out of the blue, I suddenly knew that my next goal was to participate in an ultra-race (defined as anything more than a marathon). At least it felt like it was out of the blue: in retrospect it is apparent that it was the culmination of my reflections.

Initially I was thinking in terms of a 6 hour race, where you run as far as you can in 6 hours – typically round and round a relatively short, flat route. That was until I found about plans to organise an ultra-trail event in the forest near my home and I knew that was what I wanted to do.

So my next goal is Trailman 50 (very hilly) miles (80.4 km) on 19 October 2014.

A new adventure, a new challenge, a new project!

Kirsten’s Cavalcade 2013

December 30, 2013

Ironman!

Ironman!

I’m not sure whether it is the constant stream of ”2013 highlights” around at the moment or whether it’s just normal at this time of year, but I too have found myself reflecting on my year just-about-gone. And I’m not short of highlights to pick from this year. Kirsten’s Cavalcade 2013 features, of course, an Ironman and New York marathon, but also up high on the list is Etape Bornholm in July. Not just because I snapped up the second place in my age group, but because it is one of the best running events I have ever participated in (I recommend it if you haven’t tried it) and this year the weather definitely contributed, as did the fact that my husband ran too. But my sporting highlights aren’t limited to “events”. This was the year where my relationship with Open Water (OW) swimming started – a truly turbulent, passionate relationship with the low of dropping out of my first OW triathlon with a panic attack, and the high of swimming 3.8 km (twice) and enjoying it! I suspect that it will continue to be a stormy, but hopefully lifelong relationship! Then there was my cycling trip to Majorca where I discovered that I love cycling up mountains in the sunshine! And I can’t leave off the list that feeling of being in peak physical condition which only happens when you manage, for a sustained period of time, to hit the right balance between pushing yourself to the limit, but not tipping over into exhaustion and injury. I hit that point in the run up to the Ironman, just a few weeks before my 50th birthday!

With my beautiful daughter

With my beautiful daughter

Not all my highlights this year have been about exercise though. It’s not that often that my family manages to get together since some of us are in Scotland, some in London and we are here. This year though we managed to all get together twice – in the spring for my daughters confirmation and in the autumn for my Mum’s 80th birthday. Special times with my most special people. And then there are friends. Great times spent with “old” friends, but also a bunch of new friends this year! And related to that, I am both proud and humble to have become Vice-Chair of PACT, a sports association for cancer survivors and a group of the most fun, lovely and inspiring people you ever could imagine. And believe it or not, I have actually done some work this year too, including one of the most interesting projects of my career to date – in Indonesia.

Yes, it’s been quite a year: but as I was running through this list of highlights it struck me that the ABSOLUTE highlight is that in 2013 I lived my life exactly the way I dreamed of living my life when I decided to leave the security of a “proper” job and take my chances as a freelancer. My ambition wasn’t just to have better “work-life balance” – an expression that never really made sense to me as it seems to kind of already assume that there is “work” on one side of the scale and “everything else lumped together” on the other side in some kind of even match. Rather I wanted to scrub out those artificial lines altogether and spend time on projects and activities that I’m passionate about, enjoy and that give me energy, ideally along with people that inspire me and give me energy. And that has been the essence of my 2013.

So with that, I wish you a very happy New Year where you have the opportunity to spend as much of your time as possible doing things that you love and that give you energy, together with people who inspire you.

New York marathon 2013 more than lived up to my expectations!

Running a marathon is always emotional (at least it is for me), but there’s something particular about New York that pushes all the emotional buttons. It starts with Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York blasting out from the speakers as we stand in excited anticipation waiting for the starting gun. Then there’s the first kilometer climbing to the course’s highest point on the Verazzano-Narrows Bridge with a view to Manhattan in the distance and NYPD helicopters hovering at our side, like a scene from a movie. Then the streets lined with screaming spectators and bands and DJs playing all along the route. I’ll spare you the details of the most disgusting toilet I’ve ever had the misfortune to use in my whole life which provoked an entirely different kind of emotion! Soon forgotten thanks to the sight of runners competing despite various physical disabilities and or those fighting to keep going while suffering what looks like their life’s biggest battle. Then there’s the silence as we cross the Queensboro Bridge until we near the Manhattan end when a low noise starts, gradually getting louder and louder until it erupts into deafening cheering. The wonderful sight of my two absolute biggest supporters, husband Erik, and coach Bjarke, standing together on First Avenue. Then the final couple of kilometres through Central Park, the amazing sight of the finishing line, not to mention the incredible relief at being able to stop running once it’s crossed. I had a lump in my throat for the first 5 km and the last 2 km and the tears were close most of the time in between.

Running a marathon is also always hard (at least it is for me), and there’s also something particular abut New York that makes it really hard: the hills! I had forgotten how hilly it actually is. Or perhaps I was just so locked inside my own misery last time that I didn’t notice them. I noticed them this time!

 

NY Marathon altitude profile

NY Marathon altitude profile

 

I started out at my planned pace, but after a while realised that I wasn’t going to be able to sustain it so turned it down a notch and pretty much held the new tempo the rest of the way, though it was hard at the end! I was thankful that my goal was to have a good experience rather than a particular time. The latter would have made me press on for much longer, it would have been miserable and I probably wouldn’t have crossed the finish line sooner. As it was, it was hard, but in a good way. I didn’t hit the wall or have a crisis and when I finished I felt that I had given it my best. My finish time was 3:52:59.544129_10201242056347222_1647278478_n

In the aftermath I’m left with a feeling that at very long last, in terms of running and physical fitness, I’m at least back to where I would have been had I not had cancer. Of course I don’t know how I would have developed as a runner if it hadn’t happened, but I don’t think I would be running much faster at any distance, including marathon, than I have done this season. I never expected that it would take me three years, and along the way I have doubted that it was going to happen. So it’s a big deal!

Somehow it is very fitting that it was running New York marathon that got me to that point since New York was that last marathon I ran just a few months before I got my cancer diagnosis. From now on I am no longer a runner trying to get back in shape after cancer. I’m just a runner.

New York, New York

October 28, 2013

In less than a week I’ll be running New York Marathon. New York is probably the most famous marathon and with around 47,000 runners, I think it’s the biggest. It has the reputation for being a fantastic experience, not least because of the thousands and thousands of fantastic spectators lining the route.

This will be my second time running NY marathon and things are certainly a lot different this time around!

2009
The last time was in November 2009. It was my second marathon ever and I was very focused on running a good time – or at least a better time than my first marathon 18 months before. Objectively speaking I was in good shape and it should have been possible if things had gone according to plan. But that’s the thing about marathons. There are so many variables, many of which you have no control over. I managed to pick up a stomach bug 3 weeks before the marathon and that mutated into a lung infection with a course of antibiotics which finished only a couple of days before the marathon. But the flights to New York were booked so off we went although 2 days before I was still in doubt about whether I was well enough to run. The day before I decided to go for it: mainly because I wasn’t sure I would ever have the chance to run New York marathon again and after all, how bad could it be???

Well, the answer turned out to be: really bad! Sometimes when you run you just have a bad day and if it’s a normal training run you decide to shorten your run, or head home. Believe me, if you already realise after the first km that this isn’t your day, then 42.2 km is a really long way! I hoped that I would feel better after 5 km: I didn’t, but I kept on going. I sort of managed to keep it together for the first half, but after that it was truly awful. To be honest the only reason I didn’t drop out was that the thought of the effort of trying to get back to my hotel by any other means just seemed so overwhelming that it seemed like the lesser of two evils just to keep going.

NY 2009. Glad to be finished!

NY 2009. Glad to be finished!

When I finally crossed the finish line I didn’t have any of the usual euphoria over having done it, I just felt really glad that it was over! Later, when I had time to absorb it all, I felt (1) Really disappointed by my time (3:49 when I had been aiming for under 3:30) and (2) Cheated of the “NY marathon experience”.

 

2013
When I was given the opportunity to run in this year’s NY marathon it seemed like the perfect second chance to have that “NY marathon experience”. My main goal this year was the Ironman, so running a marathon at this point is mostly just for fun, riding on the form that I’ve built up over the summer. This time I don’t have a time goal. I have a start pace in mind so I don’t go off too fast, but once I find my pace, my plan is to run on feeling and focus on having fun without my eyes on my watch.

The thing is this, that in the four years that have passed I might not have become a better runner in terms of speed, but I do believe I have become a better runner in terms of the running process. With the benefit of hindsight I can see that I cheated myself of the experience last time around. I was so fixated on running a specific time that, when things started going off course when I got ill, I got stressed and started doubting myself. With that mental state up to the race of course it ended as a bad experience. If I had instead accepted that everything wasn’t perfect, I could have relaxed and taken easy and I believe I would then have had a good experience despite not having good running legs on the day. In other words, I have learned that if you think it’s going to be hard, it will be hard. But if you decide it’s going to be fun, then it will be fun!

So this Sunday I’m going to have a great day. I’m going to soak up the atmosphere, and enjoy the weird and wonderful sights, sounds and smells for however long it takes me to get to that finish line in Central Park!

Tune in again next week and find out if I reach my goal!

Falling in love again

October 6, 2013

I’ve been in love with running for quite a number of years now. When I finished cancer treatment in December 2010, I naively imagined that I’d be back to my running “normal” within a few months. Well, 9 months later I ran a marathon, but almost an hour slower than my personal record. Disappointed, I did some historical research and figured that it had originally taken me 2 years of consistent and systematic training to reach my “peak” so decided I would give it 2 years. In that period the focus of my training was on getting faster, but as the 2 year mark approached I was still nowhere near as fast as I used to be. Reluctantly I had to accept that it just wasn’t going to happen. So it wasn’t that I fell out of love with running, exactly, but my inability to get back to my previous level seemed like a symbol that I wasn’t what I used to be and never was going to be.

That was one of the factors that influenced my decision to go for the Ironman. To prove to myself that I might not be as fast, but I was still fit and tough and that the cancer hadn’t “won”.

So my focus changed. I was still running of course, but less than usual since that was the triathlon discipline I already had in place. As I was regularly pushing myself outside my comfort zone swimming or cycling, it was a relief to come “home” to running, where I felt comfortable and relaxed and could process all the thoughts, feelings, stresses and strains from the Ironman training. I fell in love with running again and stopped feeling it as a symbol of anything.

Then early this summer I noticed something strange. My running speeds in training were, quite suddenly, getting faster. And it wasn’t just something I was imagining. In July I took part in Etape Bornholm, a five day stage race (running) and was really surprised that I clocked times that were close to my pre-cancer times, and surprisingly came second in my age-group. Then a couple of weeks ago I ran a 10 km race and got a time that was only 40 seconds slower than my all-time personal best (and according to my favourite tool the age equivalence calculator I should be 90 seconds slower by now!). And last weekend I ran a half-marathon 9 minutes faster than the same race 1 year ago, and again while not a personal record, faster than the age equivalence calculator says I should be by now.

When I realised that my running was getting faster again I figured that I’d really like to have a shot at running a marathon again before the winter and by chance I got the opportunity for a start number for New York marathon on 3rd November. So for the last couple of months since the Ironman my focus has been back on running. But while I’m looking forward to running in New York, I’m no longer obsessed about proving anything in terms of finishing times. While I’m curious about how well I can do, mostly I’m looking forward to having a great experience doing the thing that I love.

I do of course realise that the many hours I’ve spent swimming and cycling have had a huge impact on my fitness gazellelevel which has influenced my running. However, I don’t think that it’s the only factor. I also believe that shifting my focus away from the obsession with “getting back to normal” freed my inner gazelle.

Yes – Kirsten the gazelle is back!