Despite the fact that I am a lifelong runner and a voracious
reader—I often have one novel and at least two other books on the go at the
same time—I admit that I don’t actually read a lot of running books for
inspiration. Perhaps the impact of watching ’Chariots of Fire’ ten times as a
teen eclipsed any direct running inspiration I would be able to digest from
books in future years or maybe it was simply that I was so intensely immersed
in the path of being a runner for so
many years, that I needed to look outside of my sport for role models to fire
I am a big fan of physical adventure that tests the limits
of human psychology and endurance: mountaineering, rock climbing, and ocean
sailing for instance. Running, is, by all accounts, relatively quiet, and
certainly almost risk free compared to the dangers associated with sailing a
fibreglass cork around Cape Horn, or plodding up ice cliffs using an axe and
crampons, sucking thin air and hoping an avalanche doesn’t sweep down and wipe
you off the face of the mountain.
As a runner I am fixed safely to the land by the force of
gravity and have only to watch out for roots and rocks and the occasional car
or dog, while rock climbers and sailors seem to defy being land bound, either
shunning it altogether or at least getting up as high as they can and away from
the rest of us mortals.
Ironically I grew up hiking, rock climbing and sailing, and
though I loved them all, it was running that I chose. The professional running
life was tough at times, and running has presented me with many challenges and
obstacles (almost all of which I eventually overcame with much satisfaction)
but I remain to this day, very curious, and very much inspired by the people
who want to climb Everest or K2. Whether
I am missing the essential ‘risk’ gene, or simply too scared of extreme danger,
running and triathlon have provided me with just the right level of daring and
risk combined with fun and joy.
So, I turn to mountaineering books often for inspiration,
devouring the accounts of failed and successful trips and the people and events
that make them so. It is the climbing of the really big peaks that interests
me—the 8000m giants of the world, whose summits soar above the clouds and where
the air is so thin that a human can’t survive for very long, and that’s before
you take into account the cold and the fact that you are camping on a ledge as
wide as your body. Getting anywhere near even base camp takes incredible
resources: months of planning, mountains of gear, organization, travelling and
logistics, team work, not to mention money. While there are no Everest
Olympics, getting to the top of Everest’s 8, 848m summit, is the mountaineering
In fact, mountaineering seems to embody everything that I
love about sport: endurance, persistence, strategy, intelligence, team work,
leadership, toughness and goal setting. With the extreme nature of mountains
thrown into the mix, each of these qualities is magnified. The next time you are feeling a lack of
motivation to get out there and get your run in, it might be helpful to
remember these few lessons learned from the superlative sport of all times: the
race to the top of the world.
Being cold is only an issue if you are at 8000m,
in a blizzard and it’s minus 30, your PowerBars are frozen and it takes 2 hours
to melt enough snow for one cup of coffee. Runners can set the coffee maker,
and get a run in before work any morning of the week. And remember it only
takes one minute to increase the perception of the outside air temperature
about 10 degrees.
Being organized ensures it happens. Or, not
planning makes sure it never happens. To climb Annapurna (8, 091m) in Nepal you
would need at least a year to arrange all your permits, gear, team and personal
skill. Planning to get your running training in takes as little as 5 minutes.
That’s how long it took me to type in ‘Run’ in my Outlook Calendar 4 times next
week. It takes slightly longer to buy running shoes, but apart from that, at
least you don’t have to apply for a permit from your local municipality in
order to run the trails.
Speaking of permits, register for races early. Signing
up early for a race gets the motivation wheels turning. It gives you a tangible
goal to shoot for, kick starts your planning and acts as a hook when the going
Choose your team mates wisely. The psychology of
climbing is fascinating. People get edgy when they are in danger and bonds are
made stronger or broken forever on the slopes of high mountains as people find
out just who they signed up to climb with. You are not putting your life in the
hands of your running partner but it does help to run with someone who makes
you feel good about running and yourself and it’s a bonus is if they also make
Choose a well respected and experienced expedition
leader. If you’ve decided that you need
someone to guide you, get a coach. A good coach will point you to the top, show
you the way up, teach you what you need to know to achieve your goals and stick
with you through it all.
When the going gets tough, keep a clear and calm
mind and listen to your gut. The climbers who survive the big mountains have an
ability to think clearly at altitude, take calculated risks, and know when to
turn around. This is when having a goal is useful. If you have a tough week
(work or family issues, illness or a sore Achilles) think about your goals and
be calm. Develop the habit of not getting carried away with drama and fears,
but acting both with your gut instincts and what you know is right.
Be patient and persistent and keep your eye on
your ‘Everest’. Ed Viesturs, the first American to climb all fourteen of the
world’s 8000m peaks without supplemental oxygen, took 18 years to complete his
quest. His patience was born from a desire to manage his risk on the mountains,
and his persistence was born from his desire to ultimately succeed in his goal
and mission. As long as you know where you are going, you will be able to
weather the ups and downs of training and racing. In fact, the longer you
commit to staying with your training and your goals you more you realize that
it’s the journey that really counts.
Stay true to what you love and don’t get
distracted by the politics or the cynics. Mountaineering is a world fraught
with politics, drama and criticism. Garbage on the mountain, the ethics of
summiting, death up high, and the opinions of armchair critics have all become
a part of modern mountaineering. Every sport has its dark side and it’s easy to
get caught up in the hype and negativity. But there is still purity and thrill
in sport if you look in the right direction.
Run with a purpose and train with a mission. Whether it’s simply because
you love it, or just believe it’s the right thing for you, hang on this because
it’s yours and yours alone. Only you can get out the door and run. Nobody can run
those twenty miles for you, or make them any easier. You are doing it on your
own volition and power and commitment and passion. It’s yours to love.
Mountaineering is extreme. Nothing in running or triathlon
even comes remotely close, though Ironman day does produce some good story
telling and I can only imagine some of the ultra running tales about incidents
that happen in the dead of night while running through the Colorado forests.
Successful mountaineering is partly dependent on the competency of the climber
and completely dependent upon the weather. Climbers sit around for weeks in a
small cramped tent, waiting for the weather to clear enough to leave at
midnight in order make an 18 hour round trip to the summit and back to
camp. And I thought that getting up at
4AM for Ironman was early.
PS: One of my favourite climbing books is ‘No Shortcuts to
the Top’, by Ed Viesturs. Aside from the
excellent title, Viesturs’ account of his 18 year mission to climb all 8000m peaks
without supplemental oxygen is fascinating and he sort of blows apart the
theory that all mountaineers are suicidal egomaniacs.
LifeSport coach Lucy Smith is a Canadian Champion runner and
triathlete and armchair mountaineer. Despite running for 35 years and racing
hundreds of times, she continues to find new challenges each and every year on
the road and in the trails and recently won the XTerra Trail Run World
Championships in Oahu, Hawaii.