Growing like the Bamboo

Training for an ultra-distance requires running a relatively high weekly mileage. Accumulating these weekly mileage has somewhat been a challenge for me. The Covid-19 pandemic is taking a toll on everyone. All race events have been either cancelled or postponed to next year. Parks are sealed off and forest trails closed. Social distancing is enforced and we are not allowed to congregate or run in groups. It is not easy to go on training with all these restrictions, especially when there are no race excitements or pressures in the horizon.

What makes it even more difficult is when you are experiencing a draught and don’t see obvious improvements from your trainings. Except for a rest day, I have been running consistently throughout the week for the last few months. However my progress towards any improvement has been slow coming. Sometimes I feel as if I am not improving at all. Nothing seems to be moving in the right direction in terms of fitness gains.

The temptation to ease off and stop training for Project Go-Ultra is always there. But every time I feel like quitting I am reminded of the difference between the fern and bamboo.

The fern and the bamboo grow very differently. The ferns rise quickly from the ground. Its brilliant green covers the floor in no time. Yet nothing will come from the bamboo seed in the first year.

In the second year the fern will grow more vibrant and plentiful. And again, nothing will come out from the bamboo seed. In the third year, there will still be nothing from the bamboo seed. Come fourth year, again, there is nothing from the bamboo seed.

But in the fifth year, finally a tiny bamboo sprout starts to emerge from the earth. Compared to the fern it is seemingly small and insignificant. But in just a short six months the bamboo will rise to over 100 feet tall. How can this be? How can the bamboo grow so fast in such a short time?

This is possible because the bamboo has in fact spent the five years growing its roots underground. Those roots make it strong and gave it what it needs not only to survive and but to thrive over the long haul. It was preparing and building itself a strong foundation. 

The way the bamboo grows reminds me of what I have and still experiencing in running. The training is relentless year in year out. I have to keep on running just maintain a basic fitness level. I may have experienced some improvements since I started out. But beyond a certain level, progress has somewhat plateau and additional gain seems far and slow.

In my quest to run a 100km trail ultra, I have put in hours and hours of running for months without seeing significant improvements in my endurance level and speed. The training requirement is demanding and some workouts are downright brutal. With the demands of life, I often struggle to find enough time and energy to continue training for it. It can be discouraging and the thought of quitting is always there. Why don’t I just settle and continue to race the 50km category?

But I have learned from the bamboo that all this time when I have been struggling, I have in fact been growing roots. All my trainings from the months and years have actually gone into building my base for the 100km trail ultra. I have been laying the foundation and I am working to lay it stronger.

Being a veteran (by age) runner now, patience in training and progression has become an important virtue. Patience is especially critical in ultra-distance for runners seeking longevity. Like it or not, it takes years to build the fitness and skills necessary to complete an ultra. And when you are not a spring chicken anymore, you cannot take short cuts and push the training envelop too much without risking injuries.

I read that most runners overestimate how much they can improve in the short term but underestimate how much they can improve in the long term. The fact is that there are no hacks or short-cuts. The only way is to focus on consistency and allow our bodies to adapt to the progression. I will have to accept that what I am training this year may be the building base for the runner I can only be in the next two or three years down the road.

Race-day success will require patience in me to maintain a consistent, healthy and sustainable training routine. Just like the bamboo, I know my time will come and I will rise high!

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