Saturday, 29 March 2014

Flocktjärn long run

One of the many fine traditions AIK has is to run to Flocktjärn and back, a run that is approximately 24 km long. I woke up early this morning, as usual when I'm at home and in the company of a cat that craves my attention even when I'm asleep by, say, crawling under the bed and sharpening his claws on the underside of my matress. Strange dreams had plagued my sleep, nightmares where I had to go to work on a Saturday and miss the run.

Luckily for me, I didn't have to go to work when I woke up, and I did make it to training. It was a beautiful day, which might have been one of the reasons why we were as many as 20 runners – some of us in sunglasses and shorts, no less - that met up to run to Flocktjärn. 

The route is pretty hilly, and it didn't help that we had headwind for three quarters of the way. Three. Quarters. Of. The. Way. On a route that could best be described as a circle. Gothenburg, eat your heart out. I hereby nominate Skellefteå as Sweden's real Wind City.

The pace was low, so we didn't let hills or headwind deter us. We marched on with clenched teeth, eyes watering from the dust-carrying wind, struggling to keep upright on the icy roads. We were even approached by blood-thirsty wild animals, obviously hungry for human meat.

Do you see them? Do you see the blood dripping from their jaws?


Okay, I may have exaggerated a little bit. The wind wasn't that bad, there were only scattered patches of ice and we spent most of our time chatting. The only animals we saw were three reindeer running away from us as fast as they could, and Anja, the long-distance running cocker spaniel, who belonged to one in the group and who probably wished she could run after the reindeer.

Time flies when you're having fun, and we were back where we started before we knew it. My legs were tired but they could still carry me, which I count as good enough, especially when you think about how tired they were before we started. Another long run in the pot. I haven't run many of them lately, and it's nice to know that the knee can behave itself so that I can run more of them.

Friday, 28 March 2014

What doesn't kill you makes you _______?

A. ….suffer.
B. ….wish it had.
C. …. want to take up stamp collecting instead.

With stiff legs, I joined AIK for Thursday's intervals on the indoor track. I say ”stiff” and not ”paralysed”, because I could, in fact, move them, albeit in a manner that suggested that I had a bullet lodged in each of my calves, or had my butt bitten by a rabid hyena.

I knew. I knew what was on schedule. I knew because a little bird had told me last Monday. 20 fifty second intervals, with 20 seconds jog in between. ”Short intervals, yey!”, I thought, and was completely convinced I loved the idea. 

It wasn't the first time my legs and I weren't in agreement. From the get go, my left thigh complained that I was asking it to work too hard. About half way, my stomach joined the whining chorus, because misery loves company and my thigh was very miserable indeed. I tried to ignore them, but they only whined louder. I gave up the fight slowly and reluctantly, and dropped my speed. Our coach shouted that we had to run at race pace or faster, but I just couldn't. Monday's tough session had taken its toll on me.

You can't say I didn't work hard
When the intervals were over, we had a chance to catch our breath. Then it was time for some relay training. In teams of three, we took turns sprinting 100 metres before handing over an imaginary baton to one of our team mates.

What a difference that made. Was it the knowledge that it was a shorter stretch? Was it the competition element? I don't know. But suddenly I was running tall, with long, controlled strides, and – as far as I could tell at that moment – fast. We each ran 4 such 100 metre intervals. Both I and my legs loved it.

Now I just hope every part of my body has recuperated enough before tomorrow's long run, when new adventures await.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Round the bridges

There is a race that takes place in Skellefteå every Tuesday for 7 weeks starting in April called ”Round the bridges”. As you can deduce from the title, there are bridges involved. Two bridges to be exact. And you run over them.

The race is 5 km long. Let me tell you why 5 km is not a good distance. Firstly, it's too short. It takes me 5 km just to get warmed up. Secondly, the shorter the distance, the faster you have to run.

Yes, yes, I know you don't have to run fast. There are other reasons why you'd want to participate in a 5 km race, as opposed to just going for an easy solo run. For example:

  1. You've never run 5 km before and you want to see if you can do it.
  2. You like running in a crowd.
  3. You lost a bet.

I, on the other hand, am one of those strange people who want to do well at races. I haven't always been like that. In fact, only a year ago I belonged in the group of people who like to enter races for the shiny medal everyone gets at the end of a race. A collector. I ran at a comfortable pace, safe in the knowledge that no matter how lousy my time was, I'd be rewarded for it. Nothing wrong with that, especially if you're a beginner, because completing a race is an achievement worth rewarding. I'm still like that when it comes to longer races, like marathons and ultras.

This went on until last year, when my times started getting better. I suddenly got hungry. I wanted to know how good I could get. I wanted to earn that medal. Even if I placed at the bottom of the result list, I'd be happy as long as I knew I'd fought for it and given it my all.

So I've been training hard with AIK. I've made such progress as I never thought was possible for me. But 5K and shorter races are still my Achilles' heel. I just can't learn to like the panicky warning signals my brain sends me during such races when it thinks it's going to die: ”Abort! Abort! Code red! No, really! *Blaring WW2 air-raid siren* You are going to die! Do you hear me? You are GOING TO DIE!”

My survival instinct is too strong, I guess. Also, I don't like vomiting. And there is no medal at the end of these particular races.

Yesterday evening saw the beginning of the yearly ”Around the bridges”-specific training series with AIK. During the first such session, the race course is divided in three parts and we run each one, then rest for two minutes before we attack the next part.

First part was like:

fly fly fly posture light forward fast almost there

Then, it was like:

hill heart oxygen lactic acid lean forward posture almost there

And then, it was like:

pain pain pain forward posture? oh screw posture fight fight FIGHT

One thought remained constant throughout the session. I didn't want to run any of the "Round the bridges" races.

When the session was over, I felt light. I had no tension left anywhere in my body, because I had no energy left to fuel any tension in my body. People talked to me and it was like I saw and heard them through a haze. My mind was completely devoid of thoughts. It was a strange sort of transcendence, a neutral state of being where neither positive or negative feelings existed. I just was.

Then I jogged home and looked at my lap times and got hungry for new personal records. I will be running the races.

Saturday, 22 March 2014

Why quit while you're ahead when you can crash and burn?

Flirting with disaster. It's something I excel in when it comes to running. It's exciting. It's fun. And without pushing your limits, how will you ever know how good you can become?

I haven't run further than 22 km in maybe 6 months. Long runs tend to make my knee unhappy, and since it's my knee that gets to decide if I can get out of bed in the morning, I do as it says. If the knee says I have to cut a run short, I cut it short. If the knee says I can keep running, I keep running.

So my runs have been shorter than I would have liked. For someone with ultra ambitions, I have run remarkably few long runs the last few months. My weekly mileage has understandably suffered, and I've been happy to put in 40 km per week, ecstatic if I've managed 50-55 without temporary left-side paralysis. As training has gotten harder and harder and my speed increased, though, I noticed that my knee got quieter and quieter. My theory is that my knee likes my running style better when I run fast (I'll just have to run ultras really, really fast). This resulted in 70 km last week, a week that was, coincidentally, the hardest in my life when it comes to quality runs.

Wise from past experience, I promised myself I would take it easy this week. That was Sunday evening. Have you experienced Sunday evening optimism? It's like with New Year's resolutions, or ”I'll start on my new diet on Monday”. It sounds fantastic in that moment, and maybe you truly believe that you'll make it, but when Monday or the new year arrives, the prospect of training at the gym 7 days per week or going cold turkey on chocolate chip cookies suddenly seems about as uplifting and exciting as spending Saturday night cleaning the cat litter box with your toothbrush.

Monday rolled in, evening came and with it the usual AIK interval session. The focus was on technique and not speed. ”Easy”, you're thinking, and it would have been, if I'd held back. ”Easy” was not how it went down. How it did go down was that I ran as fast as I could to see how close to the 3:30 min/km mark I could get, and also because there were others in front of me and I had to see if I could beat them. Because I was obviously dropped on my head as a child. Repeatedly.

Wednesday should have seen me run a shorter distance than my usual 17. I did 17,1.

Yey! Spring is here! Rejoice!

Thursday I skipped training, as I was at work all day. Instead, I went for what should have been a fun, easy, short run with my friend V on Friday. Fun and easy it was. But it was double as long as I had intended. Because it was so fun and easy I didn't want to go home.

Then Saturday. The AIK part of Saturday's training usually lasts for 1,5 hours, so I often run up to meet the group. That way I can get a couple of hours' worth of training. Today, our coach had planned a longer round that took us to a place I hadn't been before. At no point did it cross my mind to cut my run short. At no point did I remember that I have an evil dictator inhabiting my left knee. I followed the group almost the whole way back to the hockey arena, chatting away the kilometres and admiring the view, then fought off the soft, uneven snow that fell two days ago and which now covered all secondary roads on my way home.

Just kidding!

Tired, but not exhausted, I got there after the longest run in months, having brought this week's mileage total to 67 km. Easy week? Pfft. Why have an easy week and let your body rebuild itself when you can have a hard one and risk injury?

It wasn't my smartest move, but I got away with it. This time.

Sunday, 16 March 2014

End of the week

I average between 50 and 60 km per week. I've tried to increase that over the years but my body has stubbornly refused to let me and gotten itself injured instead. So, after one of the hardest training weeks of my life, with three successful quality sessions (I count yesterday's 5 km-tempo segment in the middle of my long run with AIK as a quality session), I saw that my kilometre total for this week looked like this:

Well, we can't have that, can we. It looked so ugly, what with being so close to 70 km but not quite. My legs felt surprisingly fresh, the weather was beautiful, my stomach was full of pancake-and-maple-syrup fuel. What choice did I have but to go for a run? J and I took the car up to what used to be the ski track, before this freak winter crushed the dreams of a thousand skiers. Nothing remained but a powder covered ice rink. As luck would have it, we had spikes on our shoes.

Not that spikes helped much. It was so icy at some places that, even with the spikes on, I felt my feet sliding backwards a couple of centimetres with every step. We left the track and followed a trail into the woods. If heaven and hell had a baby, this is what it would look like:

Amazing, beautiful surroundings, warm winter light, cool, clean air. Ice, uneven ground, holes, and did I mention ice? But wow. What a feeling to be running trails again. Well worth the trouble.

The sun warmed us up nicely after the run, as we sat on a bench by the car to cool down.

Oh, and this:

An easy week now awaits.

Friday, 14 March 2014


In running, eight times four equals much more than thirty two. You see, what happens when you run eight 4-minute intervals is that you break down your body. Afterwards, your body not only repairs itself; it also supercompensates by building even stronger muscles, so that it is better prepared for hard training next time. So eight times four is much more than thirty two minutes of nausea, sweat and teeth-grinding. It's laying down the building blocks that are the foundation of a strong body.

It is also a mental challenge. Running around a 200-metre indoor track provides few distractions from the physical exertion, few sights or sounds that can break the monotony. All that is available to you is your own brain, and your own brain doesn't want you to do this. Your brain wants you to stop and go lie down on the couch and feed it sugar. So when you're in your 16th loop and you still have 16 more to go, you either need to shut down your brain and concentrate on how your body feels (which is less successful if your body is in pain, because then your brain will suddenly become very convincing that you need to go and read a book instead) or employ those areas of your brain that are mathematically inclined. Count loops backwards. Figure out what speed you're running at. Break down the total into smaller, more manageable chunks. Your brain needs to learn how to put up with hard work. Paradoxically, it is your own brain that needs to teach itself when to shut up.

Eight times four is about trust. Trust that your coach knows what he's doing, trust that the demands he makes of you are not unreasonable. You are putting your training into someone else's hands, but you also need to trust your own judgement, that you know your own body and trust yourself to listen to it if it starts sending you signals that you're pushing it too far.

But eight times four is not only about the hard work. It's also about the camaraderie of going through something with like-minded people. You and your club mates are all out there, fighting just as hard to complete this gruelling session. They inspire you to try harder with their own effort. They help you to keep running by providing you with a good back to follow. They encourage you with words and smiles. We are going to meet at a race somewhere and compete against each other, but on the indoor track we are a team and we help each other become better runners.

Eight times four equals so much more than thirty two.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Up before the sun

This is the scene that unfolds every single morning in the Shaman household:

4.42: Shaman lying in bed, sleeping.
4.47: Cat number one goes to the litter tray, poops, tries to cover up its poop, misses and ends up clawing the wall, the floor, the cardboard box that contains the tray. Everything but the sand in the tray. Produces a lot of noise.
4.48: Shaman covers head with pillow to drown out the noise. Feels blood pressure rising.
4.51: Cat is still digging on cardboard. Noise leaks in through the pillow.
4.52: Blood pressure gets dangerously high. Brain starts an automatic, subconscious effort to send Shaman back to sleep by flooding itself with thoughts.
4.53: Thoughts chosen by brain are not calm, happy thoughts, about summer meadows bathed in golden sunlight and birds chirping, a puppy licking my face or a walk through the woods. Thoughts chosen by brain are about what needs to be done at work on that particular day and the laundry that is piling up in the laundry basket. Something obviously wrong with brain.
4.54: Brain is far from asleep. Brain is more awake than ever. Shaman gives up, gets up to make some breakfast.
4.59:00: Shaman sits down with a cup of coffee and some delicious yoghurt, ready to enjoy the most peaceful moment of the day.
4.59:01: Cat number two goes to the litter tray.

Every. Single. Morning.
Sleeping in is an alien concept for me. I know babies who sleep in longer than me. I'm used to it, and let's face it, I am a morning person, so I don't usually suffer from it. Not that I don't need to sleep in sometimes. Having just recently increased the quality runs from one per week to two, my body needs the sleep to repair itself.

Last night, hill repeats were on the AIK schedule. 36 runners met up to run up and down a 700-metre long hill as fast as possible. I managed to do 4,5 repeats before the 30 minutes of effective training were up. It was hard work, especially while trying to keep all the contents of my stomach in my stomach. As with last Thursday's training, I paired up with a couple of runners I thought I was of pretty much equal ability to, which helped me to keep an even pace and make it to the top each time without drowning my thigh muscles in lactic acid. 

Trail. Soon.

The thing that amazes me the most is how quickly my body is adapting to different forms of training. Less than a year ago, during the first Wednesday trail run of the season (which includes many tough climbs), I had to walk up most of the hills. This year, I can't wait for the challenge. I know I will do better. Especially if my cats let me sleep longer in the mornings.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

A big hard sun

I am so ridiculously sentimental sometimes. Put me in a pair of running shoes, point me in the direction of the blazing spring sun after a long, grey winter, play ”Into the wild” by Eddie Vedder for me and my lower lip might start quivering. On my way up to meet AIK for our Saturday long run, I leaned to the left to compensate for the strong gusts of wind over one of the river bridges. Right then, a tear might have rolled down my cheek. A tear of joy. Feeling invincible.

Few things fill me with such uncontrollable joy as having two healthy legs on a beautiful day. Partly because they're healthy and I get to enjoy them yet another day, partly because of the prospect of all the amazing trail runs that are ahead of me when the snow melts.

The moment didn't last. After approximately 12-13 kilometres, my left knee started acting up again, seemingly out of nowhere. I just about had time to wonder how I would ever build up my long run distances again if the knee starts complaining after only 12 kilometres. And how it was that my 15-km session at the beginning of the week didn't make my knee complain at all. And how it probably was because that day my speed varied between slow jog and bat out of hell. Then, as suddenly as it had started, it was over. I ran the rest of my planned half-marathon on legs that were tired but otherwise happy.

Maybe spring isn't here just yet.

Friday, 7 March 2014

On the indoor track, no one can hear your self-preservation mechanism scream

Thursday evening, seven thirty-ish, the 200-metre indoor track at the hockey arena. Time to run 4-minute intervals with AIK. Last week we did 4 such intervals, this week it is time to increase them to 6. A girl from the group asks me if I want to run the intervals with her, it can get boring to do them on your own. ”Sure”, I say, out of breath from our gradual acceleration warm-up, ”try” and it sounds like I'm daring her to try and keep up with me but what I mean, of course, in the shorthand way of talking I adopt when I don't want to waste precious oxygen on producing words when I can use it to keep my heart pumping instead, is that she can try and run with me without falling asleep while I try to catch up.

Earlier that evening, during my warm-up jog to the hockey arena, several body parts are complaining. My calves are sore. My head hurts. And my stomach is convinced it's getting the stomach flu just because everyone else at work has it (duh, it's not like it's contagious. Oh, wait...). So, when it's time for the intervals, I'm feeling a little apprehensive but I try to look tough, like I am Usain Bolt's faster twin sister or something.

My thoughts during the session go something like this:

1st interval: YEAH INTERVALS BRING THEM ON. It's hard work but not too hard. My calves are sore but I will beat them into submission. Because the best way to deal with strained muscles is to work them even harder.

2nd interval: One lap around the track, two laps around the track...this is getting monotonous. Are we there yet?

3rd interval: Why am I doing this? Oh, that's right, because I like doing well at races. I'll just hang in there, I just know I can do it!

4th interval: I CAN'T DO THIS! Ok, let's count backwards. Only three intervals left. 4 laps, 3 laps, 2 laps, 1 lap...weren't the four minutes up three minutes ago?

5th interval: Am I about to throw up because I'm getting the stomach flu or because I'm running too fast? Was I -gasp!- wrong in my assertion that my calves would like the tough love I'm showing them, seeing as they hurt even more now? And, seriously, why am I doing this? Is shaving a few seconds off my PR at my next race worth this?

6th interval: Let's lower our ambitions from ”I want to keep a 4:25 min/km pace” to ”Dear God/Allah/Buddha/Flying Spaghetti Monster, I am not even religious but please let me survive this and I will sacrifice a cow worm mosquito (sorry, I'm vegetarian) half-dead cactus from my kitchen window in your honour”. Alright, just one more, just one more, just one m-- WHY AM I DOING THIS?

An hour or so later, when I'm home, after a warm shower:
This was the best interval run of my life. WE SHOULD DO THIS EVERY WEEK.

Saturday, 1 March 2014

So maybe I have unconscious suicidal tendencies

Since moving to Skellefteå, my knowledge of ice has expanded considerably. Before, I thought there were only two ice modes: ice and no ice. Now, I know that there are a thousand different variations of ice. Ice that is slippery, ice that is porous, grey ice, white ice, slushy ice, treacherous ice with a thin layer of water on top. I'm sure Northern Swedes have 50 different words for ice.

Looking out the window it's difficult to know what the ice is like at that very moment. The ground may look ice-free or just wet, only to turn murderously glass-smooth the minute you've run far away from home to even consider running back to get your spikes. That minute for me is three metres from the front door. I can run 20 km, but walking back a few metres to get the spikes is too much work.

Also, I hate my spikes. They make my knees and feet hurt. Although, knees and feet, you know what else hurts? A BROKEN LEG. So suck it up.

This morning I took a chance and left the house without spikes. The road up to the hockey arena slash meeting place with AIK was fine, with only the occasional easily avoidable ice patch. But our coach had no intention of taking us to any of those boring safe dry roads. After a short warm-up in the neighbourhood, we headed towards the hills of Vitberget. We kept a manageable pace and even my sore calves seemed to slowly give in and enjoy it. It was particularly fun to chat with my running buddies and plan this summer's adventures. Ah, summer and trail running. Two of my favourite things.

The last bit of the road leading up to the top of the mountain was covered in ice (of the slippery variety).

Ice and uphill running don't mix.

For every step I took to move myself forward, I glided two steps back. The ones in the group with spikes on their shoes had better traction and got to the top about four hours before me, but to the top I got. Then it was time to run back down the hill again.

Ice and downhill running don't mix.

For every very careful step I took to move myself forward, I glided three meters in the same direction. If only there was a downhill three-metre long slope leading to my front door, I might even consider turning back to get my spikes. We got halfway down the hill with no casualties, but then our coach had a little surprise for us. We left the road and followed a well-trodden trail/snowmobile track into the woods. 

Oh how I've missed trail running. I slipped and slid on the ice, I threw my arms to the side to get some sort of balance, but it was all worth it just to be able to run in the woods again. Where the path was covered in snow and I could pick up the pace a little, I skipped and jumped. I loved every second of it.

When the AIK session was over and I left the group to run home, I once again found dry ground. But it felt kind of boring by comparison. We might have done with a helmet in the woods, but you can't say that it wasn't exciting.