Rob's story

“Right,” said Claire, “Lie flat on your back and breathe.”

“Ok”, I thought, “I can do this.”

As it happens, I can’t. (Or at least, not very well). Apparently something the rest of the human race learned on arrival and relegated to automatic behaviour escaped me for some reason.

This bodes not well for my ambitions.

The past 10 years or so of running events have been a steady progression of increasing distances for me. From 5km to quarter marathons, to half marathons and more recently on to full marathons and long trail events of 5 hours or more. It has also been a long and sometimes painful learning curve.

Once upon a time I thought I was doing pretty well to manage 10-11km, but didn’t think I would ever be able to do a half marathon.

Until I did.

After several years of the 21.1km events I thought, “Well that’s pretty cool, but I’ll never manage a full marathon. Too hard. Too far. Don’t have the self-discipline. ”

Wrong again.

Along the way I have had to learn a lot of things about myself and what I am capable of (or not), when I can push it (and when I can’t), the things I do well enough and the things I really suck at.

With each step up in distance has come a bunch of new challenges. It isn’t as simple as just running more, further. I’ve had to learn to run smarter as well.

For a quarter marathon I learned to manage my energy output and trained by progressively building up speed until I could run a steady pace for an hour or so.

For a half, I learned to hydrate on the move and that running for over 2 hours brings in a bunch more physical demands as fuel in the body runs down, the lactic builds up and the head gets woolly with fatigue. (Not to mention the fun of things like chafing). I also learned the value of having the right diet, gear and training plan.

When it comes to the full marathon, all of the above come into play, plus fueling on the hoof and the head games that come into play deep into the race.

Then I moved onto the long trail runs and that brings in the logistics of training unsupported for 5+ hours, the equipment jungle and the need to supplement the short term energy hits that get me through a road marathon with slower burning fuel while avoiding debilitating gastric distress and the level of mental engagement you need to navigate difficult terrain at speed for hours on end.

In my somewhat nerdy fashion I’m fascinated by the physiology and technicalities of it all, so I’ve researched and read, experimented and practiced; attempting to get some sort of understanding of how I tick and what works for me.

Which brings me to my next uncharted horizon. The Trail Ultra.

It started back in 2006. It was mid-September and one of my colleagues in the office said, “Hey why don’t we have a crack at the Auckland Half Marathon?”

I have this weird thing that goes on in my head in these situations. By background, training and general temperament I’m a contingency guy. Planning, logistics and risk management are my thing.

Then someone puts up a challenge such as this and even while I’m thinking, “Look dumbo, you’ve never run more than 11km and it’s only 6 weeks to race day!”, What I’m actually saying aloud is, “Yeah sure, that’d be really cool, I’m in!”.

So I end up signing up enthusiastically for an event and then the part of my brain that does the joined-up thinking finally catches up and awakens to the realization of what I’ve actually committed myself to.

Generally what happens then is that after a short interlude curled up under the duvet biting my knuckles and whimpering gently, I’m (usually) OK and the training plan begins in earnest.

It was the same with the Marathon. After years of saying that the Half was enough for me and that there was no way I’d ever do a full 42.2k, I saw an advert for the new Queenstown event and it looked so pretty I thought, “Aw yeah, I’ll give it a crack, how hard can it be?”.

As it turned out, it was both more difficult and rewarding than I would ever have thought.

Then there was last year’s Hillary 34k, which I trained my butt off for, but left me with unfinished business, something I aim to rectify in a few weeks.

So now what? Well, the next big hairy goal I‘ve set for myself is to complete an off-road Ultra in 2017. I’m under no illusions as to how difficult that is going to be so I’m giving myself plenty of time to work up to it. This year’s 34k is the kick-off to that process and all going well I’m going to line up for either the 2017 VTUM 60 or the Hillary 80k, depending on how I’m going on projected cut-off times in a few months when the event registrations open and I’ve had a couple more events behind me.

With this in mind, late last year I took a good long hard look at my abilities and my experience so far and decided that to do all this I’m going to need help.

What I’ve found is that as the distance and duration increase, small things take on major importance. The devil, as they say, is in the detail. After 7 hours or more little niggles and discomforts magnify and the effects compound. Minor inefficiencies in the mechanics of running and posture can add up into a big flaming ball of misery further down the line.

My running form has never been particularly good anyway, (especially uphill) and there is only so much you can teach yourself without critical feedback so I figured I needed to talk to someone who had been there, done that and had not only the t-shirt, but the finishers medal and the scars to prove it.

Basically I needed a coach.

This is where Claire comes in. Claire Akin-Smith of Applied Movement is a Movement Specialist with whom you may be familiar from her Hillary Evening Workshops and as an IceBug sponsored athlete. She’s also a pretty accomplished Ultra runner in her own right so I figured she’d be the right person to figure me out and put me on the right track.

This was one of my better decisions!

For the first session I visited Claire at her studio in Oratia. I half expected we’d go for a run and she’d kind of follow me and make helpful suggestions. What she actually did first was sit me down and chat.

We talked about my goals and aspirations. We went through my diet, background, running history, events and injuries as well as my triumphs and failures. Then she had me stand up, lie down, move and bend while she had a good look at my posture and alignment. Claire is a qualified physio among other things and her conclusions appeared to be that I’m bent, twisted, slouchy and lopsided as well as the fact that I breathe funny.

There’s your problem boy!

Ok, some of it wasn’t really news to me, (nor to my wife, who laughed a lot when I told her) but a problem described is halfway to a solution right? Or something like that.

The first piece of homework I was given was to stand up, open up my chest and breathe properly, engaging the core. That and punching myself regularly in the butt.

In our second session I was given a couple more alignment exercises and a running drill. This was a deceptively simple thing, just bringing the knee forward and hinging off the toes to lift the heel, while keeping the posture upright and breathing going from the core.

We progressed to walking and then jogging on the spot and finally transitioning to a run.

All of this was done in simple easy stages that naturally led from one thing to the next under Claire’s watchful eye.

That was before XMAS and so I had a couple of weeks to practice during the break. As it turns out it’s really quite difficult to change something as fundamental as breathing and running, but Claire’s simple drills and stretches are starting to have quite a noticeable effect.

I haven’t really done anything more radical than straighten up and change the mechanics slightly in terms of initiating a step, but the subtle changes in alignment and particularly to posture make a huge difference to the efficiency of movement.

Already I’m engaging different muscles in a different way, bringing in the arms and core as well. Combined with a shorter stride and higher step cadence, running is becoming a lot less effortful than before.

We had a hill session last week and Claire had me trotting up her driveway (Got to love Titirangi drives!) with walking poles extended to get the arms working and help keep the body frame right. Previously I would burn my quads up hills, but aligned correctly and engaging the right muscles in the correct sequence, I’m now trotting up inclines quite happily and arriving at the top with legs in good shape.

The new running style is having a practical effect too. Last weekend, I went for a 20km out ‘n back on Te Henga from Bethells to Constable Road and according to Strava had something like 6 PB’s on that stretch.

So, I would have to say that if you are wanting to improve your running, have any niggling injuries that are affecting your running, or just want to move better and more freely; definitely give Claire a call and arrange a session. You’ll find her details at http://www.appliedmovement.co.nz/

You definitely won’t regret it!

On our next session we’re going to ‘get technical’ and to be honest, I can’t wait. The Hllary 80 is starting to look a lot more achievable.

For now though, you’ll have to excuse me, I need to go punch myself in the butt for a while.