Monday 3 November 2014

The Wisdom of Pooh

If you've ever run for over 24 hours in the arse-end of nowhere, you know that Pooh is an inevitability. But I had never really fully appreciated the poignancy and philosophical leanings of the little yellow bear until I had a child. Now, reading through the many adventures of Pooh and his friends on practically a daily basis, I see many lessons that can help us all to become better runners.

With the third edition of the Piece of a String Fun Run due to kick off tomorrow, I have found myself taking advice wherever I can get it. For those who don't know, the concept of the race is that runners do not know in advance how far (or indeed where) they will be running - until they finally cross the finish line. How do you plan for a race like this? Therein lies the game.

Only 2 people have finished each year, making it one of the Toughest Races in the World (TM). I was one of them in the inaugural event, after surviving 130ish miles of floods, mud, wind and rain. Last year's conditions were much more pleasant, but I pulled up short only 10 miles from the finish after a day and a half of running with a knee injury. Tomorrow I will see if I can redress this balance and go 2 for 3 with the World's Most Pointless Race.

In last year's event, the stakes were raised considerably, with bluffs, double bluffs, and general evil conniving on the part of Race Director James Adams. What could he possibly have in store this year I wonder? I have my suspicions...

The beauty of this race is its simplicity; run until we say stop. It really is no more complicated than that. So for somebody whose running philosophy revolves around maintaining an air of general stupidity, who better to advise me than that silly ol' Pooh bear. Here are a few words of wisdom from the willy, nilly, silly old bear:

Teaching my little girl philosophy from a young age (yes that is hand painted)

1) One of the advantages of being disorganised is that one is always having surprising discoveries

Generally speaking I am a very organised person. I'm sure that there is at least some level of OCD in there somewhere, although everybody probably says that. Still, don't get me started on the order of cutlery in the drawer debate (it goes "knives, forks, spoons" people). But when it comes to races, these days I'm really not very organised at all: I don't plan out my splits (I play with data for a living, and life is too short); I don't pore over maps and route descriptions and instead rely on figuring it out as I go (probably explains a lot); and I try not to think too much about kit, other than how little I can realistically get away with without genuinely risking death.

Now in races I am sure that you can improve times by knowing the route inside and out, but when training the real fun lies in just making shit up as you go. My favourite type of weekend runs are ones where I end up in the middle of nowhere and just go exploring. There are so many areas near my house that are yet to be explored, and even more outside of my little local playground. Why limit yourself to the same run week in and week out? Turn your GPS off, head out the door, and go and discover the world!

The Piece of String is the perfect race for the disorganised runner, since organisation is not just fruitless, but is positively frowned upon. Point me in the right direction, set me off, then let me go. I'm sure that I will be surprised to discover that I have no idea where I am...

2) I'm not lost for I know where I am. But however, where I am may be lost

I have a bit of a reputation for my sense of direction which I feel is a little unfair. Yes, I have ended up lost on several races, but this quote sums up my feelings on the situation perfectly; I knew exactly where I was - it was the course that was in the wrong place!

The Piece of String is almost the easiest race in the world (don't let James hear me say that) since it requires no forethought whatsoever. Well, you could plan stuff, but it will ultimately prove pointless anyway. Instead I just need to rely on my natural innate sense of direction and hope that where I am has the good grace to remain where it should be.

3) Did you ever stop to think, and then forget to start again?

This is perfect advice for the Piece of String; disengage brain and just go with the flow. Don't think about split times; it's pointless. Don't think about how long it is until the next checkpoint; it's pointless. Don't think about how much further it is until you can finally stop running; it's pointless. Don't worry about how much food you'll need; well, you get the idea. I'm just going to rock up with the required kit, and run until somebody says stop.

4) You can't stay in your corner of the forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.

This is just a great philosophy for life. Don't wait for cool shit to happen. Go out and make it happen. This is actually the quote that originally got me thinking about this post. Originally I wasn't going to run the Piece of String this year, since I'm not really at full training strength and we have a lot on at home at the moment. But this quote reminded me that I like doing these things for a little bit of an adventure, and I would probably feel a bit sad if I missed the chance at taking part in something that I know from my previous experiences will be a helluva laugh!

5) If ever there is tomorrow when we're not together, there is something you must always remember: you are braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think. But the most important thing is, even if we're apart, I'll always be with you.

This is a piece of advice that I want my daughter to always remember. My whole philosophy to running can be summed as "run stupid". The main tenet of this is to not let the things that we all "know" get in the way of trying crazy things. We all "know" that 100 miles is a really long way, and that nobody could possibly run it. But that didn't stop me giving it a go, and y'know what? Turns out that what we all "know" is wrong. Whatever we think our limits are, we should ignore this and strive to go beyond them. The innovators and the explorers are the ones who test these boundaries every day, and thanks to them our horizons have been expanded beyond our wildest dreams.

6) Always watch where you are going. Otherwise you may step on a piece of the forest that was left out by mistake

Seriously guys, watch your step out there! Tree roots can be a right pain in the ankle!

7) A little consideration, a little thought for others, makes all the difference

One of the nicest things about ultra running is the sense of community between runners. I feel like people are generally very relaxed, and always willing to help other people in whatever way they can. Case in point are the volunteers who give their time to make sure that runners don't die and as many as possible make the finish. Be nice to them, even if you're having a bad time, and don't forget to say thank you for what is ultimately a pretty thankless task!

Ultimately, just don't be a dick.

8) It is more fun to talk with someone who doesn't use long, difficult words but rather short, easy words like "what about lunch"

Nutrition is important after all!

9) Let's begin by taking a smallish nap or two.

I can attest to the power of the power nap. 20 minutes sleep in a car on a hill in the middle of nowhere after 48 hours awake was enough to give me a new lease of life to finish the first Piece of String Fun Run. 10 minutes nap at a checkpoint in the middle of an olive grove in Greece as the sun came up was enough to give me the energy to throw down a 2 hour half marathon at the end of the Spartathlon this year.

Life with a child who didn't sleep for a year has taught me the skill of catching quality sleep in small bursts. A great skill for all ultra runners!

10) How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard

And speaking of children, the only thing that I dislike about running is the time I take away from my beautiful wife and daughter. I feel like I maintain a very good balance, and my wife is incredibly supportive, but it's still sad to know that I won't be there tomorrow when they wake up to get a cuddle.

However, I know that I'm incredibly lucky to have them both, and it just makes it all the better to look forward to seeing them when I'm done.

Anyway, it doesn't matter as it'll only be 5K anyway. I'll be home by tea time!

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