"The goal is to become the unique, awesome, never to be repeated human being that we were called to be." -Patricia Deegan

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Emu 18 (not 48) Hour: When the Mystery is Complete

I cried. But I didn't cry right away.

At 4.50am Saturday, nearly 19 hours after starting the Emu 48 hour race, I stood in front of one of my crew persons. He handed me my usual bottle of Hammer Perpetuem. Instead of moving back into the darkness for another lap, I looked him in the eye and quietly said, "I think I'm done."

48 hour race start - a small, strong, and encouraging tribe to be amongst.

Only about 30 minutes before, I'd talked to my partner via Skype. I had wanted another opinion - someone outside of myself or crew, to provide another view of things for me. And I wanted some "Dr Google" advice.

From the moment the race started, I'd been a peeing machine. By every second lap (roughly 12 minutes), I'd have the urge to go. Sometimes I'd hold on as long as 5 laps, before I felt like a 3 year old about to wee their pants. We reduced my fluid intake from 500ml/hr to 400ml/hr or less. We stopped electrolytes (I wasn't taking much anyway), in case my body was trying to pee out excess it didn't need. There was nothing else I could think to do.

As I ran along in the dark, I started to reflect on the fact that the problem had actually started a few weeks prior. But I'd kept making excuses to explain it. Needing to pee 3 times during a 1 hour taper run, I'd try telling myself, "Oh, I must have had too much coffee - and it's cold out." I was sure that if I'd been out running longer, my body would have stabilised. But I also recalled how every time I walked up to town for groceries or another errand, I'd be looking for a public toilet within an hour. Urgently.

So I Skyped my partner back in Perth and explained what was happening in the race and over the past two weeks.

Early hours - the hand-off of fuel at the crew table

The problem was menopause. My pelvic floor muscles have changed due to decreased oestrogen. I had no idea this was a thing.

For the next 20 minutes, I went around the park and contemplated. In an ultra, we can expect that things will change. Get better, get worse, get better, get worse. Change. But this was not going to change. I could no longer hold my pace, as the stops took 45-60 seconds. Once the body gets a little fatigued (say after 14 hours of running), it's necessary to change from running to standing still in a gradual manner. Stop too quickly and one can get dizzy. Similarly, to get moving again after a stop requires a gradual speeding up, as the muscles loosen again. And mentally, the feeling of urgency was killing me. Ten minutes after going to the loo, I'd have the feeling back and then have to start "holding." You know the feeling. Like really holding. Like you've waited way too long. It's that feeling. I was often eyeing off the darker spots on the course, wondering if I might have to make an "emergency" stop. Everyone noticed my fondness for the toilet block.

I now knew that I could continue and nothing sinister would happen to me. I wasn't sick or injured. I had over 150km done. I had just started falling short of my plan. I calculated that even at a walk I could break at least one of the national 48 hour records I was aiming for. I had 29 hours to do less than 130km. If nothing terrible happened, I'd almost surely at least get over 300km by race end.

When you reach milestones like this, they punish you by making you carry a big stick for a lap ;)

But that number wouldn't reflect anything near what I would be capable of otherwise. Sure, these were the cards I was dealt with on the day. Some argue that an ultra runner should persevere no matter what. But I don't need to do that. I know I could. I'm heaps strong :-) For me, the magic is not in just grabbing at a record, but in finding the true potential of my endurance. Exploring. Whether it's running 6 hours, running the 1000 km Bibbulmun Track, walking across the sub-Arctic in the winter pulling a pulk, or running 48 hours.

I was not interested to know how much I could run in 48 hours with a menopausal peeing urgency. In fact, I'd kind of done the math and pretty much knew. There was no magic mystery left. I had my pot of gold for this adventure.

Before the race, I had the image of a mandala come to me. I felt that my race preparation had been like the creation of a mandala. Like it was a thoughtful, detailed, beautiful, attentive effort. A mysterious beauty unfolding. To continue running felt somehow disingenuous to my body and to the spirit of my 48 hour run. Grace could only be found in honouring what was present. Humbly bowing down before it and accepting that the mandala was complete. It was time to dissolve the mandala.

Tibetan Buddhist monks dismantle a sand mandala once complete and pour the sand into a river.

At 5am, my crew person and I went into our trackside cabin. I laid on the kitchen bench in my race gear, shoes on. I wanted to give myself time to change my mind. I didn't. A few times, the longing to be back out there would fill me. I would feel it viscerally in my gut. The craving. I love running. I love the mystery. But neither of those were really on offer. Stop-start running isn't running. I was craving an experience that wasn't on offer. I wanted to make something more out of something that was already complete.

On Sunday at 10am, the race ended for the others. As I walked along the now-still course towards my car, pulling my suitcase, the tears came suddenly and surprisingly. I was mourning, but I couldn't name it exactly. I just let it come. I didn't try to think about it, as I hadn't really slept yet. I was in no mind for deep reflective thinking.

On Monday, I climbed Triglav mountain, the highest peak in Slovenia on a perfect blue sky day. She's a beautiful peak, surrounded by so many others. I could see easily well over 120km from the top. It was a rather ambitious outing after running 153km two days prior. I still hadn't slept much. Occasionally, I felt a sadness/grief/disappointment arise, but didn't dwell on it. I just noted it and moved on.

30km + 2000m two days after a 153k run? Sure! Let's go up there! (Silly girl)

On Wednesday night, back in Switzerland, I finally felt ready to analyse my race and take away all the lessons I could. Other than learning about oestrogen-related pelvic floor muscle issues (which can be either too weak or too tight, for starters), I learned more about the amount of fuel I need when I run so slowly and the impact my body feels on asphalt in my favourite minimal shoes. I was also reminded that I should always, always read my race-debrief notes from previous races for tips going into another race.

I also learned why I cried. I cried for the loss of the mystery. And for the realisation that the mandala was complete and I had thought I could build upon the perfection of grace.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Emu 48 Hour: Creating a Mandala

Today it struck me. The five months of training to build up my running speed and economy after 850km of sub-Arctic walking, the search for the optimal 48 hour race event, the searches for and visits to massage therapists, sports chiropractors, and physiotherapists in Australia, Canada, England, and Switzerland, the daily nutrition for my body, the recruitment of an incredible crew team for the event...everything has been like the construction of one of those beautiful sand mandalas. Admittedly, I have not looked nearly so poised, composed, or mindful throughout the process! But I aspire...always aspire :)

Tibetan Buddhist sand mandala being created

Running for me is often an active meditation. It's a way I experience a calmness of being present in the moment. There is no before or after - just now. But I make no claims that it's always like that! And it took a few years of building up fitness to where I wasn't always just focused on the future - getting to that next hilltop or street light - or just getting home to drink that beer!

I find that running in what might be thought of as "challenging" circumstances gives me a superb opportunity to practice the skill of being in the present moment. There's a curiosity within me. To find a flow and stay in it, but somehow without trying. If I grasp at any particular mental state, I'm guaranteed suffering - either it isn't quite as I imagined it or it doesn't last as long as I want or or or....

The suffering of grasping at the right shoes to wear. At least it's not a colour choice ;)

A mandala is a symbol. It can be a symbol of the (a?) universe. It can be a symbol of a quality or principle, like compassion or wisdom. It can be an offering.

This weekend, I'm off to Hungary, one of my ancestral lands, to run around in circles for 48 hours, gratefully supported by two adventurous people. I have goals - national record-breaking goals, maybe even a world age best goal - but I also have a goal to not be caught chasing and grasping at the goals. Not to chase, but not to refrain from chasing. To see if I can notice that the experience I'm "having" is actually the experience I'm "being." Enjoyment without preconception. A dance like no one's watching.

In other words, to have the #bestdayever. I'll start with today :)

The Nuts and Bolts:

Time: Friday 10am (Central European Summer Time) - Sunday 10am
  Perth time: Friday 4pm start   Calgary and Moose Jaw time: Friday 2am start
Location: Füred Camping, H-8230 Balatonfüred, Széchenyi u. 24. (Balatonfured/Lake Balaton, Hungary)
Circuit: 926.82 metre "round," with plenty of trees and shade in a campground/park setting
Accommodation: Two bedroom cabins for each runner & crew "track-side"
Forecast: 6-8 degrees C by night and 18-19 C by day, no rain, light breezes
Will I sleep? Planned 20 minute catnap if needed on day 2
Crew: 2 amazing people, JC and Anna. JC has crewed me before. They're both athletes.

How do you follow?

Live broadcast link - scrolling down on that video page should also show real-time (within seconds) standings/distances run for all athletes
Facebook for news and photos - they have a 6 day race each May - don't be thrown off by the "6 day" name. This particular event includes only 24hr (starts Saturday) and 48hr

In between watching people run around in circles on your computer, you might find one of these links of value:

Rich Roll podcasts
Saying YES to Your Weirdness YouTube video by JP Sears
Smiling Mind website and Australian-based free mindfulness meditation app for all ages

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Yukon Quest: The After Story

Thanks to the #yukonquestbyfoot, I have a new skill. I can now leave the dirty dishes by the sink all night. Yup, that's right. I'm serious. I can let them sit there piling up all day and then tuck myself into bed and fall asleep easily, whilst all those dirty dishes sit by the sink.

This guy needs to go winter thru-hiking. Then he'll learn what a bad time is! ;)

And that's not all. Sometimes, I wake up in the morning when this has happened, and I eat my breakfast before I do the dishes. I can just turn my back to the dishes and eat my yummy cereal. My favourite meal of the day - with Udo's Oil, soy yoghurt, cinnamon, and chia or hemp hearts. Oops, sorry, I digress. I loooove breakfast!

The Yukon has given me a great gift in this new flexibility.

Maybe you were born with the gene that lets you leave your dishes unwashed, your clean laundry sitting in the hamper, or your car floor full of rubbish. I was not. I think this same gene allows people to leave emails in their inbox for more than a day, too.

A lot of my suffering in life, I have noticed, is when I rail against what is. When I have made a story in my head of what should happen next, of the way I think things should go. At times, I make tough situations or experiences worse through my intolerance to accept what is present - the inflexibility to go with the flow.

Starting at the lower right, I travelled northwest towards the Alaskan border

In the Yukon, I experienced a lot and I emoted a lot. My journey of 40 days took me physically from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory to the Alaskan border, 530 miles (850km) northwest. Emotionally, I think I went a lot further.

I experienced temperatures ranging from about -42C to +2C. The weather was erratic this winter, with extreme highs followed by extreme lows. I started in a low and gave myself a bit of a scare. I got my mojo back and made it to Day 12, when the temperatures started to plummet again towards another -42 degree spell. I came off the trail and went to volunteer for the Yukon Quest sled dog race. It was a perfect fit, given the trail I was thru-hiking. I hitchhiked up and down the Klondike Highway with pulky for a week or so, whilst we helped the Quest race happen.

Day 12. The trail crossed the Klondike Highway and I chose to stop before the next -40C spell.

Once the race passed, the weather started to break (-20 to -25C), so I found myself back out on the trail on Day 22. The weather slowly warmed more, but sunk again by the time I reached Dawson. I sat it out again a few days before I filled pulky with 6 more days of food and made my way to the border.

So many experiences, from northern lights to lynx sightings to pulling all-nighters volunteering for the racing mushers, to stove malfunctions, to soaked feet, to drinking snowmobile-exhaust-laden water. I have enough memories and a diary large enough to write a book from.

For now, though, I'm doing up a series of short videos. As of writing this, two videos are up on YouTube - the "Freakin' Miserable Start" and "From Cold to Carmacks." Part 3 in the series will include my leaving the trail at the next cold snap, volunteering for the Quest, and the angst of wanting to get back on the trail again but without the extreme cold. I expect 5 videos will get me to Alaska!

In the weeks since I've been back in Perth, Australia, I've been teaching my lungs, heart, and tendons how to run again, getting tight muscles loosened with massage, and trying to remember that delicious feeling of peace that comes with letting go.

#yukonquestbyfoot was everything I hoped for. The competition with myself against my own weaknesses was one I couldn't really lose. It was just a matter of how good the PB would be.

Sunrise Day 29 with the moon still up. Exposed camp, but wind stayed down all night. Magic.

Hopefully, I'll take my mental development "PB" on to race a 48 hour event in the coming months.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Yukon Quest by Foot: The Back Story

Jan 14, 2017. In just under a week, I'll set out on a 1,000 mile* (1,600km) solo winter trek across subarctic North America. Though by definition it is an "event," it is my own. It is not a race. It is an event - an occurrence, a happening - in which I will attempt to hike the overland winter route from Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, Canada, to Fairbanks, AK, USA, pulling a pulk with everything I need to survive.

It's not that green right now!
This route does have a race take place over it: the Yukon Quest (YQ) International Sled Dog Race. It's a race for mushers with their teams of sled dogs, who race every February for 9 to 12 days over the frozen earth, rivers, and lakes. The average temperature is -25C. One must be prepared to camp in -50C. Yes, really. My sleeping bag at last year's MYAU was rated at the extreme end (that means survival) to -40C and I was usually shivering within an hour. My sleeping bag this year, the Carinthia ECC 1200, promises comfort for a woman to -27C, comfort to a man curled up to -38C, and survival for a woman for 6 hours at -65C.

Although the YQ trail is roughly 1,000 miles and follows the same general route each year, it is "put in" each winter based on snow/ice/freeze conditions. Sections are sometimes rerouted for safety, depending on the conditions that year.

The traditional sled dogs

In February 2016, I raced the Montane Yukon Arctic Ultra (MYAU). It follows 300 miles of the YQ trail out of Whitehorse (430 mile option in odd numbered years). I prepared vigilantly, researched carefully, and competed hard. I took over 24 hours off the female course record, finishing in under 5 1/2 days. I slept less than 8 hours in total. The sleep dep, hallucinations, -35C temperatures, canker sores, food repulsion, and foot neuropathy were agonising. They were met by beauty, solitude, quiet, serenity, and a deep feeling of connection to wilderness. I wanted to go back, to see more, and to savour more. But the competitor in me wasn't going to enjoy MYAU's 430 mile without going hard. Really hard. For the fastest time possible. I would sacrifice my savouring goal. I wouldn't get any video footage for memories. I'd be left with a few photos wherein I would probably look a lot like I did in MYAU 2016.

The human sled dog, enroute to Pelly Crossing, MYAU 2016. Quite sleep deprived, but still loving where I am.
I knew of an option, but was afraid at first to admit it. To myself or others. It was equal parts exciting and terrifying. And even in my need to savour this incredible extreme winter wilderness experience, I needed to figure out how to fulfil my competitive side. Though competition has always been with me. It's never mattered who has participated in the same race as me. I can't control their strengths. I can't race another person, I can only race to my training, my mental drive, my experience, and my tactical skills and knowledge. I can race the course and the time. I can compete with my strengths, against my weaknesses. My races, as varied as they have been, have always held a personal challenge. I just needed the personal challenge element to take me back to Yukon's winter. I'm literally just not very good with "a walk in the park" ;-)

I knew I wanted to attempt the entire YQ trail. Though the snow and ice route is broken in each winter, only small sections are more regularly used. Historically plied as a postal and goods route and by gold seekers and trappers, its use nowadays is limited mainly to localised trappers and during the two weeks of the YQ sled dog race. This is not a constantly groomed track.

The route always travels through these points, with exact trail set each winter based on conditions.
I went searching online for previous "thru-hikers" - for the fastest known time (FKT) if there was one. That search revealed that a former MYAU competitor, the German Joachim Rintsch, had apparently been first to dream of and complete the YQ on foot in modern times. In 2010, Joachim travelled by foot from Alaska to Whitehorse. I take my hat off to him for being the first modern "pioneer" to take this on - he had no one else to ask for advice and tips. And English is not his native language.

Joachim Rintsch (aka Fisse)
From online tracker data, blog posts and media articles, electronic communication with him, and information from his novel, I pieced together that he took 34 days 23 hours in total (Feb 4 ~11am - Mar 11 ~10am). But Joachim chose to start at least 45 miles east of the Fairbanks YQ start point. Later, he took a road section from Central to Circle, AK, bypassing another 40 miles of YQ trail. So Joachim Rintsch was the first known modern day pedestrian adventurer I could find traversing the YQ route, but he did not complete it as an FKT-type traverse of the entire YQ trail, beginning to end. Removing 80 miles of trail left his accomplishment in a category of its own.

One other person, also a multi-time MYAU racer, dreamed as well to travel YQ by foot. Mark Hines, a British adventurer (check out his books), completed the route over 39 days from YQ headquarters in Fairbanks, starting Feb 1st, 2016.
Mark Hines

Although he aimed for the YQ headquarters in Whitehorse, YT as his official finish line, a mild winter meant the Takhini and Yukon Rivers were unsafe from Takhini Hot Springs ~48km west of town. Though Mark's YQ by foot FKT of 39 days covers the YQ route excluding the easternmost bit, it comprised the official YQ route for 2016. So, it did constitute a complete traverse of the YQ2016. (The first few YQ mushers in 2016 got all the way to Whitehorse, but the rivers were so unsafe that remaining competitors were stopped at the alternate finish in Takhini.) The 2016 trail also contained a reroute along a Yukon River section west of Dawson City due to bad jumble ice, which the mushers were subject to and which Mark therefore followed. The reroute added a bit of distance, an ascent of 800m, and tough windblown side-slopes causing his pulk to do somersaults. I'm very grateful to Mark for generously giving his time and detailed information to help me in my own preparations. I'm going to heed his advice not to slip and crack my ribs at Scroggie Creek and not to try to carry all my food start to finish!

It didn't sound any easier to do the Canadian portion of the route by sleigh in the early 1900s! Brrr!

Though the weather dictates everything up north, it's possible that I might be the first one who gets from traditional headquarters-to-headquarters.... But it's still several days until I leave Whitehorse and though things froze up well here, we've got 4 very mild days of melting weather as I write.

YQ by foot remains a competition of sorts to me, regardless of whether anyone else is present or how fast I travel. It is a competition with one's own weaknesses - of mind and body. It is a competition in which one demonstrates their strengths in pulling a heavy pulk day after day, in organisation, patience, and injury prevention. It is a competition against impulsiveness, inflexibility, and intolerance to accept what is present. It is a competition of sorts with nature, only she is the teammate, rather than an adversary. I will not be victorious against nature, but only with her. If we work together - or more so if I work within the rules she sets out - she will try to see me to the other end of this 1,000 mile journey.

In this era when dystopian ideals seem to reign, when reality TV and social media seem to overwhelm us with disheartening images of the worst of humanity and reinforce a sense of division, perhaps what we need most is to develop a new sense of competition. To compete against our own inflexibility and intolerance and enmity. In extreme environments like the far north, people are generally renowned for their generosity and kindness. Perhaps it's understandable, then, that in my subconscious search to understand and develop these traits, I've come north again. These people and this place can teach me things. In my own "race," I hope to see negative traits fall off the pace and to find kindness and generosity running into the finish line hand in hand with me.

Oh, to hear this fellow's stories around a campfire under the northern lights....
Traversing the Yukon Quest by foot gives me the opportunity to become the first woman to complete the YQ route. I might make it faster than Mark. If I make it. Or I might not. Most importantly, no matter how far I get, I have the chance to compete against my own weaknesses. The prizes up for grabs might be intangible, but are also the most worthy. #yukonquestbyfoot #kindness

Online live tracking will be provided as batteries and charging opportunities permit via my delorme inReach mapshare page. A very short daily post will (battery-permitting) be posted to Facebook.

*My preference to use imperial over metric distance in this instance is a nod to the pioneering adventurers who first travelled these parts. Though, truly, the first peoples of this area, the First Nations/Native American peoples, would have had terminology reflecting distances measured in something other than either. Perhaps by topographical landmarks or sunrises.