Saturday, June 27, 2015

Q and A with Vincent Bouchard

With two weeks to go before Sinister 7 I thought it an ideal time to sit down with last year's champ and course record holder to pass on some wisdom to you crazies attempting a solo finish on July 11-12th. For those of you that don't know Vincent Bouchard, Sinister 7 was a break out performance for him. Not only was he first to the finish line but in my opinion out raced every runner on the course and executed a near perfect race. All the more reason to read on, take notes and take advice from a guy that succeeded on a course designed for failure.
If you could give any advice to a first time soloist what would that be?
Hmm that’s a good one… I think my first advice would be to be conservative for the early legs. Don’t go too hard, or you will explode. But at the same time, don’t go too slow neither, or you will waste energy by being out there longer than necessary. Just go at a comfortable pace. Take it easy on the uphill's, run the downhill's and the flats at a good comfortable pace. Run your own race, don’t try to follow other people that may be going faster. Especially with all the team runners out there at Sinister!
My second advice would be to stay in the present. This is perhaps the most important thing in my opinion about long distance races. Don’t think ahead. After a few hours, you will be physically exhausted. There’s no doubt about this. But if you start thinking about the long way ahead, then you may become exhausted mentally as well. Stay in the moment. It doesn’t matter whether you have 100km to go, or 10km to go. All you have to do is to keep running. That’s all you should be focusing on!
Perhaps a third advice would be to make sure that you keep eating regularly. Drinking is not so much of an issue, since you will drink when you are thirsty. But eating is more important in my opinion; you may very well not feel hungry at all, your stomach may not be very happy. But if you stop ingesting calories for an hour or more, it will be very hard to catch up, in my experience. It doesn’t matter too much what you eat, but you need to get calories in, or you will bonk. And an ultra bonk is a serious bonk. Not the marathon-style bonk. :-)
And my last, but perhaps most important advice, is to enjoy the race! This is a truly beautiful course, and one of the best organized race out there. The volunteers are fantastic. Make sure that you enjoy the experience! Running 100 miles is quite something. It’s a serious adventure. Jump into the unknown and enjoy the ride!
We all know ultra running is an extreme mental exercise. How did you stay focused and grounded at last years S7?
That’s a good question! This is perhaps the most important aspect of ultra running. And also perhaps the hardest to master. It’s easy to train to be fit physically. But it’s much harder to train your mind to stay focused for such a long period of running.
In my opinion, I think that the key is to let go of your thoughts. To let go of the pain. To let go of the past, and the future. It’s really just like meditation. You want to stay in the present. Thoughts come and go, pain comes and goes, moments of exhilaration come and go. But they are all temporary, nothing is permanent. So we have to let them go, and not get caught in them. When a thought of quitting comes (and there will be tons of them, believe me!), just identify it as a thought, and let it go. Don’t get caught into it. But same thing as well when you have a “runner’s high”; don’t try to hang on to it. It will go away, and you will feel awful again. Expect it. Just let things go, and go with the flow!
Each runner probably has its own approach to staying in the present while running. For me, I think that the best mental training is meditation. Standard sitting meditation, like insight meditation (vipassana), or running meditation, or any other type of meditation really. The goal is just to train the mind to identify thoughts, feelings, sensations, etc., for what they are. Temporary. So that our mind can behave in a similar way in the middle of a long race. 
Last year at Sinister I actually used an interesting trick that worked really well for me, as I detailed in my race report that was published on your great blog Dave. I was just repeating a mantra in my head for the whole race, so that I could come back to it whenever pain or negative thoughts tried to overwhelm my mind. It worked really well at Sinister, but not as well for my next ultra race… :-) So I’m still experimenting with various approaches!
Any nutritional and hydration strategies you'd like to share that worked for you?
Well, this is something that I’m struggling with. Every ultra race that I’ve done, I came in with a great nutrition plan. But my plans always only lasted for a few hours, my stomach couldn’t take it anymore! Then I had to improvise and figure out something that worked on the spot. The one thing that I’ve learned though, as I mentioned earlier, is that it’s super important to keep getting calories in regularly. It’s very difficult to catch up, as I’ve realized myself in my first few ultras. So whatever works, keep doing it. Last year at Sinister, pretty much the only thing I could eat after a few hours of running was gels. So I took a gel every half an hour until the end of race. It’s pretty disgusting the number of gels I ingested in that race, but whatever, it worked! As someone once said, if I want to go out for a good dinner, I’ll go out at a good restaurant. If I’m running an ultra, I’m running an ultra. No need to be fancy. :-)
Every hundred miler there are a couple low points, where were yours and how did you dig your way out from them?
Well last year at Sinister I really did not have much of a low point, which is the only time that ever happened to me in an ultra. The year before at Sinister, I had a seriously low point in Leg 4; there is a long stretch of relatively flat trail in this leg, which is very hot and exposed. And by the time I reached that stretch, I was very tired, so I had to walk quite a bit in there, which was very demoralizing. If only it was a hill, then it would be ok to walk! But walking on the flats? That killed me. 
Last year I was probably in the process of going through the same low point in Leg 4, but that’s exactly when I met Oleg (who was at the moment in front of me) and passed him. So that fired me up; I wanted to show him that I felt great (which wasn’t true, but hey you either pass someone or you don’t ;-), so I made a point of running uninterrupted for quite a stretch and try to keep a decent pace. And in turn, that made me feel good, and in the end I never reached that low point that was probably coming! :-)
But the goal in the end is to minimize low points (or high points for that matter). And I truly think that by letting thoughts come and go, we can defuse upcoming low points before they reach a deadly level. Stay stable. No low points, no high points. Just a stable mind. That’s the goal, in my opinion. Rather than finding ways to dig myself out of low points, I prefer to find ways to prevent them from happening in the first place! 
That’s not to stay that it won’t feel awful, or that it won’t hurt. It will definitely hurt. But you can feel the pain with a stable mind. See pain for what it is. Pain, not the end of the world.That’s the key. Stability of the mind.
Any advice for the returning soloists looking to be competitive?
Just run your own race. There will probably be people going out very fast. But to be competitive, you don’t need to be first after 20km in. It’s a long race. It’s 100 miles. Don’t let the fact that other people are running faster discourage you. Run at your own pace, and try to keep some energy for later in the race. There’s no better feeling than passing one of the early leaders 100km in the race!
The course is tricky and long. Any tips or tricks to pacing strategies, times to sit back or times to get the move on?
The first two legs feel easy. You’re all pumped up, it’s beautiful, it’s still cool out there, so you can go at a decent pace. Don’t go out too hard, but at the same time take advantage of the early morning. Go at a decent pace. 
Leg 3 is long, and, at least for me, that’s where it starts to hurt. It’s time to be more conservative. 

Leg 4 is a killer. It’s an easy leg, but it’s hot, exposed, and a long stretch of it is flat and relatively boring. This is where mental strength becomes crucial. Stay focused. Just keep moving. But that’s also a good place to make a move if you want to pass someone, since it’s relatively flat. Everyone is hurting by then. And there’s nothing more demoralizing than being passed on top of things!
Leg 5 surprised me last year. I was expecting rolling hills, cross-country style terrain. But there’s a long uphill in there. It was slower than I expected. Stay conservative, there’s still leg 6 ahead.
Leg 6 is of course the big one. But that’s also, in some way, perhaps the easiest one mentally, at least for me. For the whole race I was focused on leg 6. I knew that if I finished leg 6, then I was done; only one short leg to the finish line. And for the whole race I had been preparing for the long climb of leg 6. So I was almost looking forward to it. My advice is to keep some energy for it. The first part of the climb has a relatively small gradient; so just running slowly on there can make up a lot of time. The first year I ran Sinister, I couldn’t run at all there, while last year I still had some energy. I think that made a difference. Then the big climb is relentless, but it’s one of the last big climbs. So mentally it’s easy to stay positive I find. 
And try to keep some energy for leg 7. Mentally it’ll be easy, it’s the last leg. But physically your legs may be completely dead. The first year I ran Sinister I could barely run in leg 7, I ended walking most of it or slowly shuffling it. Last year I felt much better, and could run a big part of it (except the first climb which is pretty steep). I probably made up quite a bit of time in there. 
What did you eat for dinner the night before and breakfast the morning of last years S7?
The night before I was at the pasta dinner, so I ate the great pasta that was offered to us! However I think the key was the night before, on Thursday night; there’s a restaurant in Coleman that serves really good schnitzel, they are just awesome! That’s what I had in fact both on Wednesday and Thursday nights, I think that was the secret! :-)
As for breakfast, well it turns out that last year the power was out in Coleman before the start of the race, so I couldn’t make my usual coffee and oatmeal in my hotel room! So I ended up finding a gas station in Coleman that had some old coffee that was made before the power outage (the owner kindly offered me a cup!), and then I ate a granola bar that I had made for the race, and something like energy chews. Not ideal, but that did the job!
S7 is typically a hot race day. Any tips on staying cool.
The heat does not influence me too much, I guess i’m lucky for that, given that I don’t train for the heat at all, living in Edmonton. But one thing that helps for sure is to dip your hat in cold water at every creek crossing. The feeling of cold water on your head is sublime!
Is there any advice you wish someone gave you prior to last years race that you'd like to share with others now?
Good question! Not sure… Perhaps that leg 5 is not that easy? But I guess I should have just looked at the map more carefully! :-) 
Tell me what motivated you to push on when the pushing got hard?
I think for me, during a race, it’s not that much about staying motivated, but rather about not letting discouragement set in (not sure if that makes sense). What I mean is that I’m totally motivated from the start of the race; I’ve been training for months, of course I’m motivated to finish. After a few hours of running however, pain, negative thoughts, doubts start to appear; my goal is to let them go, so that my motivation, which is still there and has always been there, reappears. So I don’t focus so much on things to keep me motivated; rather I focus on not letting things discourage me. 
Let doubts go. Stay here. Keep running. That’s it. No need for anything else. I try not to think about too many things. Some people like to think about people that inspire them. That’s fantastic. I would love to be able to say that I do the same, it makes for a good story. :-) But honestly, I try not to think about anything during the race. Thoughts distract me, and after one thought comes another, then another, and then before you know it you’re thinking about quitting. I prefer to stay with the running, with the physical act itself.
This being said, there are people that inspire me and help me stay motivated with the training, especially when it doesn’t go according to plan (for instance because of injuries). My mom, who has had trouble walking for her whole life (but is still walking at 69 years old), is a great inspiration. My wonderful wife, and our awesome son, are two other great inspirations. My wife’s sister, who has multiple sclerosis and is still running regularly, is another fantastic inspiration. There’s so many great people out there that have to overcome difficult obstacles, and manage to stay happy and smiling. One more training run is nothing compared to that. Let’s get out there and run!

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