Thursday, July 10, 2014

Vincent Bouchard's Sinister 7 race report

Vincent Bouchard
It's been almost a week since Sinister 7 wrapped up and I'm sure you've heard by now but my weekend didn't go as planned. After dropping I had the pleasure of following fellow runners as they navigated this brutal 100M course. Along the way runners would come across obstacles they couldn't overcome, the heat and exposure being the most common. 75 percent of runners that toed the line that morning fell victim to the course and did not finish but as racers one by one cratered Vincent Bouchard seemed to gain strength as he went along. Vincent ended up winning in a time of 19:10:01 with a commanding lead over his second place competitor. His first major win and easily his best finish ever.  With all due respect Vincent has been known to struggle 2/3 into races and have a hard time regrouping, in fact, I remember telling him earlier this year that I can't wait for the day you put it all together and I'm soooo happy to tell you, that day has come! Vincent was nice enough to send me his race report and bare in mind: in a sport where the question isn't will you suffer but how do you endure the suffer, you might be surprised to read (take some notes)what drove him to such a feat.

Vincent writes:

Sinister 7 2014. 100 miles in the beautiful mountains of Crowsnest Pass. 5687m of elevation gain. An incredible race, perfectly organized and run by hundreds of awesome volunteers. An unforgettable experience!

Me and Vincent moments after finish
I finished the race in 19:10:01, for first place overall, by an hour and a half on the second finisher. My first 100 miler. I had definitely not foreseen this, not even in my wildest dreams. I'm bewildered! What just happened?

I could go through the different legs of the races, how I felt, the ups and downs, the numerous creek crossings, the crushing heat, etc. But to be honest, it would be rather boring; I really just felt great pretty much the whole way. Whatever was coming at me, I was taking it with a smile. Not to say that it was not difficult, but my state of mind was positive for the whole race. I have raced a number of ultras in the last three years, and it is the first time that this happens to me. So the question is: what did I do? What was different this time? I feel this is the most interesting aspect of my race. How did I manage to stay upbeat for 19 hours, how could I stay focused for 100 miles?

I think it really came down to one thing: mental focus. The one thing that has been my weakness in the last few years suddenly became my strength. How did I turn the tables around?

In previous races, this has always been what killed me. Every ultra runner knows that in the course of a long race one goes through successive ups and downs. A goal is to prevent the downs from being overwhelming, and keep pushing through. I have always managed to push through the downs (fortunately I have yet to DNF from an ultra race - I knock on wood!), but I know that they have very often prevented me for performing at my best. For Sinister 7, I was determined to try to overcome this weakness.

The week before the race I started reading a book on mind control in martial arts, which was fascinating. I still haven't finished the book yet, but I took one idea from it that turned out to be really inspiring.

One thing that they talk about in the book is the idea of associating the mental feeling of strength to a particular gesture, or a particular mantra. Once this association is ingrained in your brain, the idea is that whenever you recall the gesture or the mantra, you feel the strength going through your body, which enables you to stay focused and powerful.

So I decided to find a mantra that I would keep repeating myself during the race to stay focused. I didn't know what mantra to use, but in the end I went with one sentence that I remembered from my trip to Nepal many years ago, the famous Sanskrit mantra "Om mani padme hum".

My original idea was to recite this mantra whenever I felt bad, to help me push through the lows. But I ended up repeating this mantra in my head non-stop for pretty much the whole race. 19 hours of Om mani padme hum! (well at some point my brain was a little numb, and what I was repeating morphed into a song that I sing with my son - Petit poisson, petit poisson, nage nage nage - but it fluidly morphed back into Om mani padme hum .

While this sounds perhaps ridiculous, I am convinced that this mantra is the main reason why I felt great the whole race. Basically, whenever thoughts came into my mind (any kind of thoughts), I let them go, and refocused on the mantra. Thoughts of pain - Om mani padme hum. Thoughts of winning the race - Om mani padme hum. Thoughts of Oleg or Joe catching up with me on leg 6 - Om mani padme hum.

The result was that I remained focused in the present moment for the whole race. I never got ahead of myself. I never thought about winning until I was actually in the parking lot racing to the finish line. I never really let the thoughts of giving up, or the pain of running for 100 miles, get to me; as soon as they appeared in my head, I let them go and refocused. Basically, I never let the typical highs and downs of a long race get hold for me. I remained calm, peaceful, and focused. As the race progressed, Om mani padme hum became a refuge, a place to let my mind rest while my body kept moving. It became synchronized with the rhythm of my feet hitting the ground with metronomic regularity. I even composed a number of rhythmic variations of Om mani padme hum, to synchronize with the pace; the uphill power walking, the slow jogging, and the faster pace running.

Of course none of this has anything to do with the particular sentence Om mani padme hum; in fact I don't even remember what it translates to. The key was to find a primal chant, a mantra, that would allow my mind to rest and prevent thoughts from taking control of myself. The way I see it, is that I ended up doing 19 hours of meditation, which happened to be while my body was running. This is really what the race was about for me; a long running meditation in a beautiful mountainous setting. And this is the key difference with my previous races; I wasn't there thinking about who is in front, who is behind, what my pace is, what splits I am doing, how can I make it to the next aid station, etc. I was meditating, in the present, focused on the moment. My mind wasn't controlling me; on the contrary. It was at rest, calmly letting my legs and core muscles propel my body forward.

In retrospect, I think this is the key lesson that I learned from this race. Running long distances is not really about running. It is about letting the mind rest. The actual running is secondary. It happens because we have been training for months and running has become a normal state for our bodies. The difficulty is not that much in keeping running for a long time, but rather in letting our mind allow our body to run. The mind is both the obstacle and the enabler. Once it finds a peaceful, quiet place to rest, it opens up possibilities that did not exist before. A quiet mind brings incredible strength and focus.


And that goes way beyond racing. This race was a true life lesson for me.

Finishing strong

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