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88 Days and counting

It’s an auspicious day to start planning for my 2nd ultra marathon. It’s also worthwhile to look back and share lessons learned from my first multi-day race last fall, in the hopes that it will motivate me to do it all over again. Last November I competed in Action Asia’s Nepal 3 Day Ultra Marathon in the 60k category. When I signed up, I never expected to actually place. I wrote it down as a stretch goal in my training diary and quickly forgot. It wasn’t until 15 km into the first race day that the goal truly felt within reach. Race staff told me that the female front runner was only 100 meters ahead and openly laughed at my shock. While I never managed to catch her, I am extremely proud of my sub-12 hour time. The course and scenery were magnificent, with views of the Annapurna range and trails along terraced rice paddies. I’ve never been to Mongolia and can’t wait to run through it’s rugged landscape in June. This time I set myself a new stretch goal of placing in the 100km category and have fewer than 88 days to prepare!

Initially, my good friend invited me to participate in the race on a whim. At the time, I was looking for an aggressive goal to kickstart my 3 month focus on health and wellness after resigning from a very demanding and intense job. When my training began, I was 14 kg overweight and hadn’t consistently exercised in over 8 months. This is the program that I designed for myself based on input from competitive runners, nutritionists, trainers and various readings. I welcome any comments, feedback or questions. It’s still very much a work in progress and I’m continuing to learn as I attempt to maintain these routines with my new professional role.

Basically, I try to get a certain percentage of my calories from each macronutrient – 45% protein, 40% fat, 15% carbs. As a pescatarian this is difficult, so I have to be very conscientious about eating enough protein. However, I don’t religiously measure these proportions or count calories. I used a spreadsheet and Calorie King to plan out a few sample meal plans to get an idea of what would be appropriate portions.

Protein: Most comes from free range eggs and low-mercury fish. I also eat beans, but not as frequently as I would have before. Right now I’m using plant based protein powder to supplement my protein needs. I’ve removed almost all dairy and tofu from my diet and feel great. Fat: Almost all comes from avocado, coconut oil, grass-fed butter, olive oil, nuts, salmon and seeds. Carbs: These days I hardly eat bread, pasta or rice. The carbs come from beans, oats (though my homemade muesli is less than 50% oats), squash and sweet potato.

Every few days I have kefir with muesli in order to get probiotics. I haven’t started taking magnesium or fish oil, but both have been recommended to me. Other recommended diets avoid fruit, but I love how the fresh juice wakes up my brain and helps me think clearly. Generally speaking, I limit my carb intake except after workouts (called your anabolic window), so that they are used directly for muscle repair. That theory is actively debated, but you could probably say that about most nutrition recommendations. My trainers also suggest eating fats and carbs separately, but I’m not particularly careful about it. Every once in a while I indulge in dark chocolate. Of course alcohol is a no-go, but I let myself enjoy it once a week. For example:

Before workout: Coffee with 1 tbsp coconut oil (similar to bulletproof coffee)
After workout: Fresh juice (usually a mix of orange/grapefruit or carrot/apple), Small bowl of home-made muesli with chia seeds and unsweetened nut milk
Lunch: Salad with 2 hard boiled eggs (greens, tomatoes, avocado, etc)
Dinner: Fish (mackerel, halibut, salmon) and vegetables / Beans (lentils, chickpeas, black beans) and vegetables
Snacks: Apples, nuts, protein powder in coconut water, dark chocolate

The biggest take away from changing my diet is that I cut out the noise (read alcohol and sugar), which made listening to my body extremely easy and rewarding. Now I can feel how different foods and hydration levels impact my system and effectively manage them. This was particularly valuable on race days when keeping my body running at peak performance was critical.

Since I wasn’t working at the time, it was extremely easy to prioritize exercise. After registering for the race in August 2014, I immediately signed up for BikiniFit and have been an active member ever since. What’s great about this particular program is the exercise variety, intensity and support. Any self-driven or group program that provides both cardio and strength training would be extremely beneficial. For me, it’s worthwhile to have someone else planning my work outs to ensure I make the most of the time. It’s also valuable to have strength tests along the way in order to document progress.

Typically I exercise for an hour first thing in the morning 6 days a week by boxing, cuircut training, kayaking, squash, trail running, walking, weight lifting or yoga. Starting my day with exercise helps ensure that it’s rarely pushed aside by competing priorities. Also, the variety of activities and social element help me to stick with it. When I was training for the race last fall, I climbed any peak I could find and tried to fit in at least one 20km hike/trail run every week. My favorite training hikes in Hong Kong are Lantau Peak, Lion RockSharp Peak and The Twins. As race day came closer, I started to complete long hikes or trail runs back to back so that I got used to running the following day on tired legs. I also traveled to Nepal one week in advance so that I would have time to adjust to the altitude and climate.

While it might seem more effective to just run, I found that my improved core and leg strength gave me an edge on race days, particularly in Nepal where the daily vertical climb was 1500 meters. In fact, I tried a strict running routine in 2013 that resulted in injury. I gradually built up to 6 days/week of running 5-10km and topped out with a 40+km trail run of the entire Hong Kong Trail. By Stage 8 my knees were aching and my IT bands were painfully tight. It took weeks to recover. In contrast, I didn’t experience any injuries as a result of the ultra marathon, even though I clocked 60km during the race and almost 80km the week before.

Books like Nudge and The Power of Habit are great for analyzing how habits have impact. Reflecting on actions to identify patterns can help break an unhealthy habit loop. It’s amazing how changing or designing trigger habits can have a positive domino effect. By creating a new habit of waking up early for training 6 days a week, I quickly reduced my drinking, snacking and spending: no walking home late and depleted of will power past four 7-11s after two glasses of wine. I’m not going to lie, it’s hard to maintain such a strict nutrition plan and I do fall off the wagon from time to time. What has helped most is putting simple practices in place that “nudge” me in the right direction. Keeping apples and nuts in a handbag, hard boiled eggs in the fridge, frozen mackerel in the freezer and home-made instant meals in the office drawer are great places to start. Shifting from “let’t meet for a drink” to “let’s meet for coffee” is also simple but powerful. Entertaining at home has the added benefit of more meaningful interactions, while inviting friends to play squash makes exercise more social.

This time around the situation is slightly different. The distance is longer (but the vertical climb is less intense).  I have a full time job and other priorities to balance. Luckily, I’m not starting from scratch. Right now I weigh much less, have improved core strength and can deadlift 75kg. I can’t wait to see what I am capable of.


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