September 21, 2012

The Casual Ultramarathoner

Frank's first ultra, by Glenn Tachiyama
I met Frank Smith at one of the monthly meetings of the Squamish Writers Group almost a year ago. It was November 2011. The monthly assignment was to write on the topic of Gravity, and I wrote mine with running in mind. At the end of the meeting Frank and I chatted about running, and writing of course.

Since I drive from Valleycliffe to the meeting downtown at the office of Goodwin Studios (owned by local poet Jude Goodwin) and Frank was always on foot, I'd offered to drop him off at home in the winter months. He always declined, saying he lived very close. I recall that after one meeting it was absolutely pouring, and he again declined my offer of a ride, repeating that it was close and that he liked walking in the rain. Made a lot of sense to me.

What I didn't know was that he was homeless for a while.

I regularly bumped into Frank at the local library, or at Nexen Beach where I'd be walking Luka, and he'd be running, and we of course met at the monthly writers' meetings. We'd always have a chat, which typically included running and writing. He mentioned he was reading my blog and enjoyed reading about my training and racing.

He told me he'd first started running in 2008, ran off and on for a while, then stopped, and picked it up again at about the time we first met at the writers group. He'd never done a race and said he couldn't help but read the references on my blog to PB as peanut butter, rather than personal best.

In our chats, it soon became clear that Frank is a highly intelligent, gentle and quirky soul who always has a fresh point of view to offer. He's got a good sense of humour too.

Tim, Luka and I ran into him again at Nexen Beach just after I shaved one side of my head; Frank instantly noticed the new do and said that it looked good. When I mentioned it had drawn a couple of strange comments, he said that one of the things he liked most about living in Squamish where he moved in 2011 was that most people here were so different that he'd never felt more at home. I liked that.

In late July Frank said he'd signed up for his first race, opting for the Squamish 10K. This certified 10K, held every first Sunday in August, took him 41:19, placing him second in the men's 30-34 age group.

High on this superb result, though he didn't realize how well he did, he asked my advice about signing up for another race the following weekend:  the Squamish 50. Miles that is.

I asked him for more details about his recent training. He said he'd been running regularly again for the past nine months as he'd slowly ramped up the volume.

"In the last couple of months, I've generally run twice a day, for around 30-60 minutes per run. On weekends I often go on a 2-3 hour run, as well as regular running—sometimes my long run might go to 4 or more hours. On occasions when I feel too sore to run, I take a day off. Much of my running is on trails, although I also do some road running. I guess the above totals something like 10-15 runs a week, for 10-15 hours," Frank said.

While cautioning him with the general advice to run regularly for at least a couple of years before even attempting training for a marathon, let alone an ultra without preparation, I also told him that based on his training I expected he'd be able to cover the 50-mile distance.

First half of the Squamish 50
Arguably, a trail ultra is easier on your body than a marathon on the road. However, undulating trails take more time and of course a 50-miler is nearly double the marathon distance. I also advised him to allow plenty of recovery time afterward.

Frank was keen to sign up and so the following Saturday he toed the start of only his second running race, a 50-miler through the undulating trails of Squamish. He finished, in a superb 13:30. A big adventure for an interesting person, and I was keen to pick his brain. Frank agreed to answer questions via email, or Facebook rather. Here they are:

Me: One of the key questions that intrigue me when people start running is why, how does it feel, and what is it that this runner connects with? I don't think everyone can answer those questions immediately and I think the answers change over time.

And I believe that in many ways we don't have access to the rationale that explains our drive completely, but it's always an interesting journey to try and understand that what we do realize and highlight the questions to which we might keep looking for an answer.

Why does a guy start running in his 30s, and opts to begin with a 10k road race, followed by a 50-mile trail race? What is it that you have discovered in your running travels so far? Of course time is always an issue, so feel free to pick and choose questions to answer.

Frank: "Why?" is a big question in a little word.  Lots of reasons contribute, although of course some more prominently than others. When I started running, I had quit smoking and found myself walking off a lot of newfound energy. I tried running, and found that it helped me in a lot of ways.

How does it feel? The feeling varies, ranging from ecstatic through bored and desperate. Part of the appeal of running has to do with the variety of emotions it triggers, many of which tug at very human roots.

What does this runner connect with? The ground!  Joking aside, running does help ground me. I find that after a lot of abstract considerations, running really pulls me back to basics. You can only get so theoretical when you have to make an effort to breathe and move, such fundamental forces. I also like to experience the different places and times that I go through while running. I find that every mode of transportation exposes different aspects of geography, for example. When I go for a run, I see and hear and smell and taste and feel things differently.

I strongly agree with your comments about the difficulties of answering these questions. My reasons for taking up running recently include its accessibility—anyone can run, it doesn't require specialized equipment or training or facilities. Running affords many opportunities, including physical and intellectual and social options.

I mostly got into running for reasons having to do with overall health rather than athletic performance, so I didn't think much of racing. Recently some friends encouraged me to race. I had run considerably longer distances than 10K, but wanted to start with a race I could confidently finish. After that, I wanted to try a long trail race, and the Squamish 50 happened. I had never run that far before, and I didn't know if I could do it, but with some excellent expert advice beforehand, I managed to prepare for the race and run it while having fun!

(By the way, regarding the phrasing of your question, I technically wasn't in my 30s when I started running— you could say I started racing in my 30s).

Have you always been athletic; even if not in a 'formal' sense, can you describe the sports and/or activities you did growing up?
I was never really athletic, although I generally liked casual athletic activity and had a little bit of ability. Growing up, I played a number of North American team sports. I preferred using my arms more than my legs. I did a small amount of formal athletics but mostly played casually.

You mentioned you first began running in 2008? Why? Who/what inspired you to do that? Did you intend to "become a runner" or was there another reason to try running?
When I started running, I had, as I say, quit smoking. Running helped me keep me my mind off smoking, and I found that it also gave me a chance to get away and think. Of course, running also improves physical fitness and I felt better. I felt motivated to eat better, and the combination of overall improvements got me to keep running. As I ran more and learned, I found many sources of inspiration. Terry Fox stands out.

I did not intend to "become a runner". For me running has been about distinct aspects from the identity. I tried running for a number of reasons including the accessibility and the health benefits, so I didn't really get involved with "running culture" as many people do. More recently I have given some of the common running practices a try.

I never thought of myself as "a runner", and I still don't. That caused a few surprises when I would discuss relatively long runs, then mention that "I'm not really a runner". After the Squamish 50, I felt like maybe I should stop saying that "I'm not really a runner", but I still don't think of myself as a runner. I'm a casual ultramarathoner.

What exactly did you do? For example, how long did you run initially and how far did you get eventually? How often did you run? Did you run with anyone? Got advice through friends, coaching, books, websites, anything?
When I decided to run, I didn't have any running shoes, so I just ran in the non-athletic shoes I had. I got a little distance before feeling winded and sore, and I couldn't believe how anyone could run for five minutes at a time! After that, I looked up a few basic pointers online, and went out for runs periodically, each time trying to increase my distance. After a while I could run for a couple of hours. I enjoyed going for runs without routes or times or other runners.

When did you realize you liked it running? What was it that made you realize you liked running? Or perhaps did you not get there yet until more recently?
I realized I liked running when I had planned to go somewhere but wanted to keep running instead. Running had replaced other interests in appealing to me. With running as a rewarding activity in itself, I made more time for it. I have found many more reasons to like running, including places, people, thoughts, and events.

You mentioned you then ran off and on for a while, before stopping altogether. Do you remember that timeframe more specifically, so how long did you run more or less consistently (assuming you did at the start), and then why did you run a little less before taking a break altogether? 
I ran fairly regularly for a while, I don't remember exactly how long. A number of events have popped up that have prevented me from running for various amounts of time.

When did you resume running again, what triggered it? What did that new start look like, as in what training did you begin with, and how did you build up to running as you describe close to the Squamish 50. What made you stick with it? Did you like running better this time around, or did it feel different?  
After not running for some time, I decided to give it another try. I started off slowly, aiming to maintain a limited amount. As I kept running I found that my endurance grew better than I expected. When I met you, I found inspiration in running and writing and living. I turned around my running and went for longer, better runs. I learned more about training and nutrition and many other aspects.

At some point I also started running with the Squamish Trail Running Club, where I ran with other people, learned more about running, and learned about local trails and courses.

I kept running for lots of reasons. I liked it, I made many new friends, I still wanted the health benefits, and it gave me good chances to get out. I felt better this time around, enjoying it more and running more smoothly.

Describe a typical running week for you as it was in the month before the 10K and the 50-miler.
In the month leading up to the races, I generally ran a couple of times a day on weekdays, going for half an hour or an hour at a time around the trails in my neighborhood. On weekends I would often go on longer runs, either with the Squamish Trail Running Club or on a solo adventure. I wasn't specifically training for the races, I would go on runs through scenic areas or with interesting people.

What prompted you to sign up for the Squamish 10k? What was your frame of mind going into that race?
Some of my friends encouraged me to try a race. I thought I might next year, but Squamish Logger Days came up and I thought the 10K offered a good chance to have fun and try a race. It was my first race, so I just wanted to finish and find out how an actual race would go. I was sleepy at the start, and I felt nervous excitement, then I ran the race.

Describe that 10k experience, from start to finish, and how it compared with your expectations? What was it like to race? Did you sense how fast you were?
It took me some time to get into the swing of things. I ran faster than I usually would, and I struggled to make the race go well. In the latter part of the race, I fought some bodily urges. Then, approaching the finish, I had trouble discerning the actual finish line. I finally crossed, ran off a bit farther, then lay down on the grass for a while.

I found a lot of the other runners quite impressive, and the overall experience quite interesting. The race changed the running experience qualitatively from my usual runs. I focused considerably more on running mechanics. I generally prefer my casual runs but I'm glad I experienced the race.

I had a hard time telling how fast I went. I didn't know if I'd gone over or under an hour. I found out that my time came faster than I expected. [Frank ran 41:19, an average pace of 4:08 per kilometre.]

Now how did you go from finishing your first race ever, to signing up for a 50-miler a few days later? Had you toyed with that idea earlier? What brought you to that? How did your mind work? It's a fairly unique progression for a runner. What gave you the inner courage to attempt it and what did you hope to find?
Around the time of the 10K, I saw some signs for the 50-miler. I had previously thought of running a trail race. After the 10K I still wanted to do a trail race, so this seemed like an opportunity. I had figured on trying a trail half-marathon, and some friends had invited me to join their trail relay team. I considered those options, as well as the 50-mile race.

I thought running the ultra would be funny. It was!

I signed up at the last minute, I had to go through some hurdles to get the payment processed and move from the waiting list to official entry, but I managed to sign up. I went out of town during the week leading up to the race, then got on a funny schedule right before the race, and finally got to the start line.

I had never seriously considered running an ultramarathon before. I didn't even know if I could physically run a marathon, let alone an ultramarathon. I wanted a challenge, and this seemed appropriate. Don't ask me how my mind worked!

I asked you about the race, and you provided some immensely helpful information. I thought about the race, and read a little bit about ultra running. Based especially on your words and on previous experiences, I felt confident that I could try the race. I just hoped to finish.

Talk us though the race, beginning with your mindset in the days leading up to the 50-miler, and race morning.
Leading up to the race, I thought I would find a new type of race where I didn't know what to expect. Would my legs last? Would I want to keep going? Would I even manage the race procedures?

The beautiful dawn sky promised an exciting day of running ahead. I live near the race start, so I arrived on foot. At the entrance gate the attendant asked approaching drivers whether they were going to the race, but thought I was just out for an early-morning walk. Everything had the air of novelty for me, and I talked about the race with some of the other runners gathered before the start.

We set off, and I felt pretty good early in the race. As we got into the higher elevations, my legs started to hurt earlier than I expected. I pushed through, and after a while I felt better again. My worn shoes fell apart, making it increasingly difficult to run. Later on, my body hurt again, including muscles that had never felt sore before. I accumulated a collection of scrapes and cuts and bruises.

Rounding back near the finish line, I gained a fresh burst of energy, and picked up my pace again. After crossing the finish line I felt like running more. I then danced for a bit to celebrate the finish. I wanted to lie down but thought it might be hard to get back up.

The volunteers and spectators lining the course dramatically improved morale. I knew some of the course from my previous runs, while other parts were new to me. The race had a different feel than either my usual runs or the 10K. Again, I prefer my usual runs but appreciate the experience. I did relatively well on a variety of terrain including downhills, straightaways, and moderate uphills, but lost ground on the steepest uphills. Squamish features some amazing geography, so the race was spectacular to run.

What were some key thoughts you had during those 50 miles? What was the highlight? How did the finish feel? 
I had a great time. Some thoughts during the race included how parts of the course felt, figuring out if I could finish, and taking in some of the surroundings. Highlights include starting to run, running rapidly uphill around halfway through, and running across the finish line! I also liked to talk with people and think about the race before and after running. The finish felt like a successful accomplishment, although taking some time to sink in.

And now that you have had a couple of weeks to absorb the experience, what are your thoughts?
Has it only been a couple of weeks? It feels like a lot longer than that. I'm really glad I did it, and mostly thankful to all the people who made it possible. I think that solo running is very much a team sport! I'm especially grateful to you for your irreplaceable excellence.

What are your running plans now? Have your resumed running - talk us through your recovery?
I haven't gone running since then, so maybe I'll never run again! It took me a week to recover enough to feel solid again. I've done some other activities, and I figure I'll probably run again in a little while, but for now I'm happy that the last time I went out for a run it went for 50 miles!

What have been the key changes in you through running and when did you notice them occurring?
I think running induces improvements to the body and mind. I feel better and I think better. I've now met lots of great people through running, and I've seen interesting places. For my personality I think that running helps emotionally, as well. For such a tangible activity as running, a lot of its effects are intangible. I think the changes started to happen very early, and grow with time.

How has your running influenced your writing, what specifically?
Running helps to formulate ideas, to express them, to intermingle different streams of thought, to clarify uncertainties, and otherwise to sharpen writing. Running also encourages patience, focus, strength, and other useful skills for writing. Running in different environments opens the mind to new ideas. Running with different people helps to communicate. I think that running and writing share a lot in common, and for this reason there are a number of people who both run and write.

What do you consider your key discovery as a runner so far?
I think my key discovery as a runner so far is that running helps to manage with many other aspects of life.

Within the last year, I was homeless. To go from homelessness to running an ultra in the space of a year shows how things can change. In mentioning the accessibility of running, I could run without huge costs. A lot is possible. I'm very grateful for all the people whose help gave me a chance.

Frank is a freelance technical writer, here's his Facebook page


and.e.aitch said...

I met Frank at the start of the Squamish 50. He's a nice, odd man. We met up again maybe about 3/4 through the race, he was bloody and his shoes were torn up to the point where I thought they'd fall off his feet. What a great interview, all the best to you Frank!

Margreet Dietz said...

Thanks for the comment Andy! Hope you had a great race.