Σάββατο, 31 Δεκεμβρίου 2011

Why do I run?

Running is an activity which seems, for the majority of people, a very unpleasant thing to do. Involving a lot of sweating, some physical discomfort with the heart beating more intensely, risk of injury for the joints and muscles, and of course all of these things are happening during our free time, at least for 99,9% of us runners!

Running is primarily about covering distances, with your own physical ability. Secondarily, speed may get in the way, how fast one can cover a given distance. But first comes always the fact that the runner must be able to cover the distance. Two elements are highlighted here: covering the distance and doing so only by using your body.

In sports, people tend to reveal their real character because of the simplicity of the situation. The connection between effort invested and the result returned is very straightforward and linear. No tricks can be applied and no shortcuts exist to be taken. Your way of thinking, your physical capability will get you to the destination. Even when doing a casual run, the runner is able to feel his body and observe his performance. And this activity requires, after a few minutes in it, the full attention of the participant. No distractions are allowed. It is absorbing our body and mind.

So running is a "back to basics" activity. Regular running will change ones life in many aspects. A morning run will make you feel fully charged for the day ahead, an evening run will relieve most of the stress. Eating will become more pleasant, digestion will be easier, and above all, at night when time comes to go to sleep, your body will be needing it. There is a notable side effect involving our hormones and the feeling of happiness we get out of most of our runs. Also it is a character shaping activity by testing our determination, discipline and capability to achieve our goals by overcoming some simple physical difficulties. Long distance running (whatever "long" is for each one of us) will test our mind and character against some very primitive and elemental instincts, because we will experience feelings of discomfort, exhaustion, maybe pain, hunger, thirst. While running each one will address the emotions and difficulties according to his character and mentality. And there are no external factors to assist you.

About myself: I run because while on the move I have this unique feeling that I can hear my self without any obstructions! I see my thoughts and emotions. I feel the earth rolling under my feet and I have this unique sense of flow. Over time, I realized that every run (especially long distance ones) includes a life of its' own, with a great deal of self awareness, but also realization of the characters of those running next to me. There is no better way to get to know people. Including myself!

Why do you run?

Happy New Year to everyone! May this year be the one you run the most you have ever run.

Δευτέρα, 12 Δεκεμβρίου 2011

A good sports coach is...

One who:

  • Evaluate your level before preparing a plan 
  • Talk about your goals and plans 
  • Is following your progress regularly
  • Is present at some of your training sessions (even though not necesseraly every time!) 
  • Is able to listen to your feeling perception of the training sessions and not only the hard data 
  • Has the technical background for the sport 
  • Is able to motivate you emotionally in order to achieve your goals 
  • Is resourceful and ready to try new things 
  • Is following the news and technology of the sport
  • Makes performance predictions and they prove to be accurate
  • Who explains the details of every session and the role of it in the plan
  • Promotes socializing between his athletes
Keep these criteria in mind next time you choose a coach! Athletes should also be ready to interact with their coach, share feelings, perceptions and information regarding the progress of every session. Share experiences and suggest small improvements or modifications to the plan.

Failure in any of the above increases the possibility of physical injury, emotional instability, loss of motivation and low performance as a result.

Athletes resolving to coaching services, must have trust in their coaches, but not faith! Trust has to be earned and verified on a regular base, according to the results. Discipline is also important but should not be blind. Nobody should know your body better than yourself.

This a short note, but I think a very valuable one. I see many appearing as coaches these days, but very few deserve this title! A good coach promotes the sport, the culture and the performance of the athlete. Choose wisely!

Τετάρτη, 23 Νοεμβρίου 2011

Technology in sports. Is it a mind game?

Nowadays runners, cyclists, swimmers and in general whoever is involved in sports at whatever level, has access to all this amazing instruments which are monitoring crucial factors of the workouts, the sleep, the nutrition, the technique, and all this on 24x7!!! Athletes or casual sports enthusiasts have watches or smart phones with sensors that will record, analyse and present in a very comprehensible format, all the needed information. Furthermore, numerous studies and training plans have been based on the findings of these recordings, that will guide with certainty every athlete for the proper training plan.

It is amazing for most of us to be able to access all this information so easily, especially compared to just 15 years ago when all this was accessible only to elite athletes, through expensive laboratories. Also there is this new sight in every race where runners, cyclists, swimmers, have their attention (or part of it) focused on their gps-watches and stopwatches, that will give them the much appreciated feedback to achieve their target. Most of the times, their watches will indicate the distance, or the pace, the heart rate, the calories consumed, the power output, signal when to eat and drink for endurance sports. It looks like we all have access to a personal coaching service every step of the way!

As I have mentioned in an other article in this blog, there is this principle in physics which is called the Heisenberg uncertainty principle in quantum physics. In simple words this principle is presenting how the observation is affecting the subject being observed. It is always convincing to present Quantum physics principles related to sports!!!

The moment an athlete looks at his/her sports watch, it is an undeniable moment of truth. The stop-watch will inform about the time achievement so far, which will be translated to an estimated pace by the brain. Similar information will be passed on by the distance indication, the heart rate monitor, the power meter, etc. Given the fact that the athlete is using these instruments for training as well, the performance comparison cannot be avoided. So, even subconsciously, emotions will be generated which will correlate to muscle control adaptations. These emotions are partly caused by the information presented by the monitoring device and partly by the character and the reaction of the athlete.

When we count our push-ups during a strength training work out, we know that our capacity is at xx number of repetitions. The closer we get to this limit (and we know that we are getting close, because... we are counting!) the more fatigued we become. Most of the times, we stop as soon as we reach this number of repetitions. If someone was to ask us "how many repetitions can we do", the answer would pop up easily (based on the experience). In a similar manner, if someone would ask us, how fast can you run a half marathon, we would come up with a time performance which is derived from our experience during training or previous races.

The question is: Is this blocking us from going faster, further? Is, this kind of detailed information, making the wall that we need to overcome, even taller? I have read many books about training plans and tables with performance indications for all levels of athletes. All of these are focused on exploiting the wealth of information provided by the monitoring devices, to lead the way to a higher level of physical activity achievements. But there are very few touching the subject of training the mind and the character so that it will be able to achieve the goals! Most of the times, it is expected to train the brain, just by applying discipline and determination to follow a training plan and then to apply this during a race. But it is obvious, that if we apply the same training plan to any two different persons, the outcome will be different, even if they start from the same physical level and their everyday training is done on exactly the same conditions! So, what is that makes each one of us different? It is our brain and our way of thinking.

In sports we can see the real character of every one. When the going gets tough or when the limit seems to be getting closer, we react in ways that have nothing to do with our training, but only with our character. Training the character thus the brain to react in situations and address key points during physical activity, in a way that will help deal successfully with what lays ahead, will allow to discover new frontiers.

There is an article I 've read recently about the training methods followed by marathon runners in eastern Africa countries. Their approach is totally different to anything I have seen. The runners tend to run not based on their capabilities, but according to the capabilities of the fastest runner of the group. This way, many will collapse early in the race or even in the training. Very few will be able to follow till the last stages. But they all learn to challenge their limits every time. And the limits are not set by a monitoring device, which cannot calculate the level of physical capability at the specific moment. The limits are set by the runners' real capacity on that specific moment. The big benefit that comes out of this method is that, from time to time, everyone will manage something that appeared to be out of reach at the start of the effort. This is a moment of revelation and it is engraved as experience on the mind. next time this runner, will address the task in a different way. This is the way to move to higher levels, and maximize the outcome of any training plan.

Looking back in the last 3 decades of sports history, when they started becoming a massive trend, we have seen the rise of the physical approach to the preparation of the athletes, then we experienced the rise of chemical physiology with applications in nutrition and supplements, and in the recent years, we see the technological explosion providing amazing information to everyone. The next level should be the training of the brain. Training the mind to overcome barriers, and to attempt conquering new frontiers. To handle the body in a whole different way. This is the only way to maximize the effect of all the previous technological advancements.

Trail : Get Ready For, la préparation mentale from OVERSTIM.s on Vimeo.

Τρίτη, 8 Νοεμβρίου 2011

My "no plan" 100miles mountain run: ROUT 2011

It has been 2 weeks already since my participation at Rodopi Ultra Trail (ROUT) 100miler. This is the first race in which I have applied (following my blog post a few weeks ago) a "no plan" approach. I started the race with no pacing plan and even further, just a quick look at the altitude profile and the space between support stations. This is a special race with lots of trails and sparse support stations: only 6 stations for 100 miles. Also it offers an experience of isolation, since there are only two village crossings and at the same time with only 63 participations it is guaranteed to lonely in the trails.

I arrived at the registration area just the day before the event (actually early afternoon). Set up my camping tent with my buddies at a very nice spot near the start line.  I tried to avoid any discussion about my plan (non existent) and details about the course. It was clear in my head that I would run only by feel. The race does not have any requirements regarding equipment and accessories. So it is a good opportunity to follow your instinct and go according to your own needs. So my pack included 1lt of water (when needed I could go up to 2.3lts), some sandwiches, bars and gels, as well as minimal clothing, a light wind-stopper jacket, a pair of gloves and a light wind stopper over-trouser. The weather forecast was very favorable for the whole duration of the event. I also packed my GPS and two headlights. Some more clothes and food was packed at my drop bag that I would have access at two spots during the run (69 and 123km).

At 06:00am Friday 63 runners were forming a small friendly group ready to start. A light breakfast was already in the belly and the weather even though cold, it was just fine given the early morning start. In my mind I have adopted a very simplistic approach: It was just one more long run at a very easy going pace. Did not know much about the altitude profile or the terrain, but... nothing could go wrong!

Started my run at a very relaxed pace. For the first few kms I was among a group of 8-10 runners leading just behind the leader who was already out of sight! A call to nature delayed me a bit, but after a couple of kms I was back in the group. The weather was really promising! My backpack contained only water, calories, two retractable running poles and a GPS. Around 3kgr in total. One more stop to get rid of my light wind stopper and then on the move again.

The feeling of the sun raising and the clear blue sky was very nice. It was not too hot or too cold. Around 12-14deg C. Hydration needs were normal, which was very important. After the first 10 kms I found myslef running alone for a while. I was going at my own pace feeling like I could go on for ever. And that is how I kept going. Around km 30 I caught up with a group of 3 runners, two of them familiar, Makis and Dimitris, along with a third rookie in ultra trail runs. We were running a bit like accordeon, opening and closing the distance from uphill to downhill or from check point to check point. I had this pleasant feeling and I did not care much about the pace or how much distance I have covered, or what was lying ahead. I had this pace of "going on for ever", and that was enough for me.

The route was magnificent, in dense vegetation, forests and on trails or forest roads. A couple of steep downhills were making me a bit more cautious not to overstress my quads, even though at one point it was really demanding and reminded me a lot of UTMB inclination. It was the long downhill of Oksia which challenged my quads for a while. But after that, everything was more gentle again. What is interesting is that I never got too anxious about what was coming up next. I had almost no clue. Dimitris was familiar with the route and from time to time he was revealing some details of what was ahead, but that was it. My mentality was, that I can take whatever comes! Weather was on our side. At some point I was running critical on water, but as long as I used my last drop of water, after 10 minutes we crossed a nice stream an was happy to refill my camel-back.

My approach was working fine. I had no ups or downs. Usually at km 80 I start feeling a bit discouraged, being half way through the run and feeling a bit tired makes you wonder how are you supposed to manage the 2nd half. This did not happen. My explanation resides to the fact that my "no plan" approach removed one complication from my run: I had nothing to compare with! There was no point that I would say that I am going a bit faster than the plan, or any point were my slow pace due to tiredness would make me think that I am falling behind my plan. This was a revelation to me. These thoughts are multiplying your emotions when in a race. So ... I did not have this effect!

Night came and we were at km 80. Our pace was spot on for sub 30 hours. But I tried to keep this kind of calculations out of my head. The guys (at that point we were reduced to 3 in total - the young fellow slowed down wisely), were a bit surprised at our pace since they had an estimation in their mind when they started and it was nowhere close to 30hrs! Anyway, we kept going. Night goes by faster than day! Senses are more alert and the last thing you think about is the time or the uphill that you meet. The only thing that I do not like about night time, is that I am missing some nice views!

The weather was fine. Temperature was close to zero, but it did not matter as long as we kept moving. Warm soups at the few aid stations were more than welcomed (caution... not too hot!). We were moving at a constant pace and before we realized it, we were at the end of the loop (the route consists of a tail and a loop - the tail is the part that we go out and then we do it again when we return towards the finish). A fellow runner, Christos, was catching up with us from station to station, but our fast walking pace at some parts was too much for him since he as shorter than the three of us.

The early morning sun found us at the last major station before the finish line: Prasinada! We were consistent for a sub 30hrs finish. Legs were ok, no low point feeling for me and we were exchanging motivation bursts with the guys trying to speed up a bit. After we passed the 130th km mark, I did not care much about anything. I knew that I had a very pleasant run with friends. The last 30km could not change that and I was confident that the finish line was in sight.

Well... this race has a special finish! Consists of a steep uphill starting at km 146, just 20km before the finish! This is a quad killer! Imagine a total of 1000m of climb (incline of 16%) while you are already at the 148 km in the race... We started going up all happy and psyched about our imminent sub-30hrs finish. Half way to the top of this uphill, even though we kept eating consistently, our legs were totally burned! No bad feeling or frustration, since the finish line was very close... But legs were really struggling to keep pushing upwards. A sort flat and downhill break, made us laugh at the sight of the three of us, not being able to run the downhill trail! And then it was again all the way up! By that time we have totally forgot the 30hours goal. just 12 kms before the finish and yet feeling our legs heavy as anchors.

We got to the top. As I said, there were no hard feelings in me. Just some heavy and empty quads. I knew that there were 7kms left of a slightly uphill route but normally, completely runnable. We have agreed to finish all together. We were position 4-5-6 in the ranking. I was suggesting some running intervals every now and then, trying to find some nice motivational excuses for the guys. Always in races like this one, I start feeling the finish line anxiety in the last few kms. I had it now as well, but we were a team the three of us and we would go together. A great team it was!

Just crossed the finish line. Me in the middle.

We crossed the finish line all together, running and happy, at 31hrs 42min and ranking 4th all three of us (yes... we are organizers' ranking nightmare). I must admit that this was the endurance run with the less low points I have ever done! Following my analysis of the no plan approach I would say that I need some more ultra running events to finalize my opinion. One thing though is clear: Planning creates one more complication in our mind. It is up to us to make good use of it or not. But it is certain that a plan will amplify your feelings when you realize that you are deviating from it. My next ultra running event, will be without plan as well. I enjoyed ROUT a lot!

I fell asleep during the massage session after the finish. Legs were just fine the very next day. Three days after was able to go out and run again, but managed to constrain myself. My annual 4 weeks "off" period has started.

38 finished the 100miler out of the 63 who started. The event is one of these casual, no-fireworks ultras but also with a sufficient and well planned organization. I ate some sandwiches of banana-bread with peanut butter and honey, 4 sesame bars, 5 nature valley bars, 10 gels (I found very efficient the High5 4:1), some salty crackers and several dozens of sugar jelly beans. Drunk about 10 liters of water and another 2 liters of isotonic.

Yes... I did carry all my garbage packaging all the way back to Athens. 
Here you can get an idea of the remains!
Jelly beans frenzy.

Saturday evening, I packed my tent and moved to the nearby city of Kavala to sleep at a friends house and spend some time in the sea-side city. Sunday evening was back in Athens and the whole stream of news about the crisis was all over the place. At least we got some peace of mind, a nice winter jacket with our name embroidered on it, and a long lasting experience up on the trails of Rodopi.

A big thank you to the organizers. Race details: www.rout.gr

Τρίτη, 1 Νοεμβρίου 2011

A referendum in troubled Greece

The facts as of today (1st of Nov 2011) are:
  1. The agreement that was announced a week ago regarding the reduction of the Greek sovereign debt has not been put on paper with all the terms and conditions. Estimations are that this agreement will take about 2 months to finalize in all details.
  2. The Greek political scene has nothing to do with the German or French or English scenes. Greek political parties are depending heavily on popularism and opposition to the government. But without proposing any alternatives.
  3. Greek citizens are vulnerable to the "easy words" and cheap promises spoken by the political parties. It is very rare to see citizens with real knowledge and understanding about the promises and proposals being made by politicians.
  4. The Greek government has very few weapons in the effort to negotiate the details of the restructuring of the Greek sovereign debt, within the next two months. One of them is the threat of public up-rise and social instability. EU knows that images from social turmoil in Greece can be easily contagious to other European societies.
  5. Greece is only the tip of the iceberg of the Eurozone crisis. Italy, Spain, Belgium and subsequently France are just hiding under the surface...
The announcement of a referendum by prime minister George Papandreou will create the following reactions:
  • Will force several Greeks to study the agreement, once made available. Therefore will increase the level of public awareness of the situation the country is in. It is addressing bullet #3 presented above. I do not need to stress how important this is for a society about to take important decisions!
  • It is a straightforward message to the European Union, that the content of this agreement will be subject to public investigation and voting and it will not go through as easily as the agreement of 2010 when it was passed by the sole signature of the minister of finance (under great time pressure but also with undemocratic methods). So PM Papandreou is exploiting one of the few weapons he has available in his negotiations with the EU and the IMF. He is hitting bullet #4 presented above.
  • Once the agreement is made public, the political parties in Greece will have to talk (more than before...) about the essence of the two choices that will lay ahead. And these will be: Stay in the Eurozone, or exit the Eurozone. And the choice that will be voted by the majority on the referendum will be binding for any future government. Thus dismissing any easy attempts for cheap promises and easy words by the political parties in Greece. This way it is addressing bullets #2, 3. And this is to the best interest of the EU...
With these facts in mind, I think that the announcement of the referendum was a smart political move by Papandreou and will serve the most important purposes of his administration. Of course, given the fact that the Greek political parties are treating voters as clients, this choice will be heavily contested since it is making their road more rough and their "sale" more difficult.

Many will say that governments should be responsible for their choices and they are elected to take decisions. This is true. But this relies on a foundation of a wise electorate and responsible political scene. These two foundations do not exist in Greece. And maybe it is not only Greece that is missing these foundations...

European governments should step back, do their job (prepare a fair deal with Greece) and let Papandreou deal with the Greek society. Also they should start looking at their own mess and stop putting Greece in the front line. There are way more serious problems in the Eurozone than the Greek sovereign debt. And those who talk about the lies of the past, should start looking at their own lies as well. Eurozone was built on lies and they knew it. Is it too late to start talking about truth and claim whatever chances exist to advance the EU to the next level? If there are some chances towards this direction (personally I am pessimistic), then this referendum is in the right direction.

Τρίτη, 25 Οκτωβρίου 2011

Μία άλλη "επαναστατική" οπτική της κρίσης στην Ελλάδα

Με βασανίζει εδώ και πολύ καιρό. Η σκέψη του γιατί γίνονται όλα όσα γίνονται. Ναι, η Ελλάδα είναι μία χώρα της οποίας η κάτοικοι έχουν την κουλτούρα της αρπαχτής, του προσωπικού συμφέροντος και της έλλειψης κοινωνικής συνείδησης. Μπορεί κανείς να το διαπιστώσει με μία ματιά στο τρόπο που φτιάχνουμε τα σπίτια μας, στην οδική συμπεριφορά μας, στον τρόπο που αδιαφορούμε για τον δίπλα μας όταν κοιτάζουμε να διοριστούμε (ή να διορίσουμε τα τέκνα μας) σε θεσούλες που είναι ή χαριστικές ή δεν μας αξίζουν. Το κριτήριο σκέψης μας είναι βασισμένο στο προσωπικό και μόνο συμφέρον! Και όταν τα πράγματα δεν βολεύουν, έχουμε την εύκολη λύση του "τι να κάνω" και του στρίβειν δια της μεταναστεύσεως!

Ναι! Όλα τα παραπάνω ισχύουν και λίγα λέω (δεν χωράνε σε πολλές σελίδες πόσο μάλλον σε ένα απλό blog post!). Αλλά, ταυτόχρονα η χώρα αυτή έχει και πλεονεκτήματα. Όπως ο φυσικός της πλούτος, η δυναμική της γεωργικής καλλιέργειας και της παραγωγής τροφίμων. Η πληθώρα πηγών και επιλογών ανανεώσιμης ενέργειας. Ο καλός της ο καιρός. Δυστυχώς δεν μπορώ να προσθέσω στα θετικά την κουλτούρα των κατοίκων της...

Και ναι, χρωστάμε περισσότερα από όσα θα βγάλουμε τα επόμενα χρόνια, εξαιτίας αλόγιστης σπατάλης μας και πρακτικών αρπαχτής που εφάρμοσαν όλοι και ως συνήθως κάποιοι περισσότερο. Αλλά όταν  χρωστάς μπορείς να κάνεις έναν διακανονισμό. Βέβαια πλέον δεν έχουμε και την φήμη του πιο αξιόπιστου συνομιλητή καθώς ως κοινωνία έχουμε κάνει πολλές κολοτούμπες στην ιστορία μας και από χρεοκοπίες άλλο τίποτα! Αλλά οι δανειστές μας κανονικά είναι επίσης με την πλάτη στον τοίχο, καθώς αν πούμε "δεν σφάξαμε" τότε οι επιλογές τους είναι ελάχιστες και σίγουρα άκρως επιζήμιες! Τα διάφορα σενάρια διακανονισμού χρέους που συζητιούνται είναι στο σύνολό τους ανούσια: Ποια είναι τα οφέλη για το Δημόσιο από ενδεχόμενο «κούρεμα» 50%

Με αυτά στο μυαλό, θα κάνω μία παραδοχή που είναι αρκετά ουτοπική, αλλά θέλω να δείξω την δυναμική που μας δίνει. Θα πω λοιπόν: έστω ότι η Ελληνική κοινωνία ξεχνά τις κακές συνήθειές της και δείχνει ομοψυχία (που δεν έχει δείξει ούτε μετά από έναν παγκόσμιο πόλεμο...), αποφασίζει ως κοινωνία να μην θρέφει "παρόχους υπηρεσιών" και μόνο, να απαλείψει τις αδικίες στο συνταξιοδοτικό, ασφαλιστικό και εργοδοτικό (μαύρη εργασία, συντάξεις "αναπηρικές" ή στα 50 έτη κλπ). Επίσης αποφασίζει ότι αν είναι να μας αναγκάσουν κάποιοι τραπεζίτες (εγχώριοι και εισαγόμενοι) να υποβαθμίσουμε την ζωή μας κατά τις δικές τους επιλογές κατά 40-60% (μειώνοντας την αγοραστική μας δύναμη, ή τι υποδομές μας σε θέματα υγείας ή παιδείας), για να αποπληρώσουμε τα χρέη μας, ίσως τελικά είναι καλύτερα να το κάνουμε μόνοι μας με ομαδικές αποφάσεις κοινά αποδεκτές, επιλέγοντας που και τι θα "απαρνηθούμε".

Με βάση αυτή την ουτοπική παραδοχή, θα μπορούσε να ισχύει το ακόλουθο σενάριο "αυτάρκειας και ισορροπίας":

  • Υιοθέτηση πολιτικού συστήματος Προεδρικής δημοκρατίας με θητεία προέδρου 6 ετή με εκλογή απευθείας από τον λαό. Βουλή 100 βουλευτών, με εκλογή από τον λαό. Υπουργικό συμβούλιο διοριζόμενο από τον Πρόεδρο. Ασυμβατότητα υπουργικής θέσης και βουλευτικής θέσης. Όριο ηλικίας τα 67 έτη για τους βουλευτές και όχι πάνω από 2 θητείες. Κανένα όριο για τον πρόεδρο της Δημοκρατίας.
  • Πάγωμα οποιασδήποτε πληρωμής τόκων σε χρέη - ομολογιακά δάνεια προς ξένους ή εγχώριους δανειστές (ακόμα και σε ασφαλιστικά ταμεία)
  • Πάγωμα οποιασδήποτε σύναψης νέων δανείων (ναι... δεν θα παίρνουμε νέο χρήμα από πουθενά, και ειδικά όχι για να πληρώσουμε παρηκμασμένες δομές και "παρόχους αχρείαστων υπηρεσιών")
  • Πάγωμα πληρωμών ακόμα και ληξιπρόθεσμων ομολόγων για τα επόμενα 15 χρόνια. Χωρίς δυνατότητα διαπραγμάτευσης λέμε στους κατόχους ότι όσα λήγουν μέσα στα επόμενα 15 χρόνια, περάστε να τα εισπράξετε με καθυστέρηση 15ετίας.
  • Καθορισμός μέγιστου πλαφόν δαπανών για τον δημόσιο τομέα, συμπεριλαμβανόμενων αμυντικών δαπανών.
  • Δαπάνες για παιδεία που θα ανέρχονται στο 7,5% του ΑΕΠ όπως αυτό θα προκύψει μετά την "καθίζηση" που θα υπάρξει.
  • Δημόσια παιδεία σε όλες τις βαθμίδες. Απαγόρευση λειτουργίας φροντιστηρίων και ιδιωτικών σχολείων. Ένταξη όλων των ιδιωτικών σχολείων στο δημόσιο σύστημα παιδείας (με χρήση των υποδομών από όλες τις βαθμίδες εκπαίδευσης).
  • Δαπάνες για υγεία που θα ανέρχονται στο ποσό των 500ευρώ ανά άτομο ανά έτος (για τα 10 μύρια κατοίκων αυτό συνεπάγεται περίπου ευρώ), αλλά με το δεδομένο που αναφέρω παρακάτω.
  • Εθνικοποίηση όλων των κλινικών, νοσοκομείων και παραγωγικών μονάδων φαρμάκων. Όλοι οι γιατροί θα γίνουν δημόσιοι υπάλληλοι. Απαγορεύεται η εξάσκηση της ιατρικής σε ιδιωτικό επίπεδο. Μοντέλο Κούβας. Κάλυψη των εξόδων σπουδών από το κράτος.
  • Κατάργηση της τοπικής αυτοδιοίκησης. Δημιουργία μητροπολιτικών δήμων μόνο στις πόλεις με περισσότερο από 1 εκατομύριο κατοίκους, με ευθύνη μόνο για την ασφάλεια και την καθαριότητα των πόλεων.
  • Υποχρεωτική ανακύκλωση απορριμάτων. 
  • Εθνικοποίηση όλων των τραπεζών και ενοποίηση αυτών ώστε να προκύψουν 3 τράπεζες. Όλοι οι εργαζόμενοι γίνονται δημόσιοι υπάλληλοι. Κάλυψη των εξόδων σπουδών από το κράτος, για όλους τους νέους εργαζόμενους.
  • Εθνικοποίηση όλων των ασφαλιστικών οργανισμών και συγχώνευση αυτών σε 2 οργανισμούς. Ένας για τους δημοσίους υπαλλήλους και ένας για τον ιδιωτικό τομέα. Δεν θα υπάρχει καμία ιδιωτική ασφάλιση στην χώρα, ούτε και για αυτοκίνητα!
  • Έλεγχος των θέσεων εργασίας στον δημόσιο τομέα. Αυτοματοποίηση διαδικασιών και χρήση νέων τεχνολογιών όπου είναι εφικτό. Ενιαία μισθολόγιο για όλο τον δημόσιο τομέα (από τον απλό υπάλληλο, μέχρι τους γιατρούς και τους δικαστικούς)
  • Απαγόρευση απεργιών στον δημόσιο τομέα.
  • Κατάργηση συνδικάτων για τους εργαζόμενους του δημόσιου τομέα.
  • Κατάργηση μονιμότητας των δημοσίων υπαλλήλων
  • Πρόσληψη δημοσίων υπαλλήλων με αντικειμενικά κριτήρια και μέσω προκήρυξης θέσεων και διαγωνισμών.
  • Κατάργηση δικαιωμάτων αποζημίωσης απόλυσης στον ιδιωτικό και δημόσιο τομέα
  • Κατάργηση επιδομάτων οποιασδήποτε μορφής στον δημόσιο τομέα.
  • Θέσπιση 12 μισθών ανά έτος για όλους τους εργαζομένους.
  • Υποχρεωτική ασφάλιση όλων. Συνταξιοδότηση μόνο σε περίπτωση σοβαρής αναπηρίας (εδώ μπαίνει ο παράγοντας κοινωνικής ευθύνης που έβαλα στην ουτοπική παραδοχή μου).
  • Φορολόγηση της ιδιοκτησίας ακίνητης περιουσίας, όταν αυτή υπερβαίνει τα 30 τετραγωνικά μέτρα ανά άτομο (οικογένεια 3 ατόμων δικαιούται μέχρι 90τμ αφορολόγητα). Ο δείκτης φορολογίας θα είναι τέτοιος ώστε να είναι αδιανόητο να υπάρχει τάξη εισοδηματιών από ακίνητα ή κατόχων μεγάλης ακίνητης περιουσίας. Το όριο ισχύει για όλα τα άτομα, ανεξαρτήτως ηλικίας, που συστεγάζονται!
  • Απόλυτη νομιμοποίηση όλων των αυθαιρέτων, αλλά θα υπαχθούν στο καθεστώς φορολόγησης και ορίων που ανέφερα πριν
  • Κατάσχεση και δήμευση με πλειστηριασμό των ακινήτων που οι ιδιοκτήτες τους αδυνατούν να πληρώσουν έγκαιρα τους σχετικούς φόρους.
  • Κρατικοποίηση όλων των αγροτικών εκτάσεων και μίσθωση αυτών σε αγροτικούς παραγωγούς με συγκεκριμένα όρια παραγωγής
  • Φορολόγηση της κατοχής αυτοκινήτων όταν αυτά υπερβαίνουν σε πλήθος το ένα ανά οικογένεια.
  • Ειδική αυξημένη φορολόγηση των εισαγόμενων τροφών, οποιασδήποτε μορφής.
  • Λειτουργία μεταποιητικών εταιρειών και επεξεργασίας τροφίμων, μόνο υπό καθεστώς ειδικής άδειας και έλεγχος των δικτύων διανομής των προϊόντων από το κράτος με ειδικές άδειες επίσης. Αποφυγή δημιουργίας αλυσίδων μεσαζόντων.
  • Δήμευση της περιουσίας της εκκλησίας πλην μοναστηριών, ναών και των ιερών αντικειμένων.
  • Δημόσια (προσοχή στην διάκριση μεταξύ κρατικής και δημόσιας) μέσα μαζικής ενημέρωσης και ψυχαγωγίας
  • Ιδιωτικοποίηση όλων των τοπικών μέσων μαζικής μεταφοράς, αστικών ή μη. Ιδωτικοποίηση των μέσων αλλά όχι των υποδομών των μέσων μαζικής μεταφοράς μεγάλων αποστάσεων, όπως μέσα σταθερής τροχιάς, ιπτάμενα ή πλέοντα. Σε αυτές τις περιπτώσεις τα λιμάνια, τα αεροδρόμια, οι γραμμές και οι σταθμοί των τρένων θα είναι δημόσια περιουσία. Όπως και οι αυτοκινητόδρομοι.
  • Επέκταση των δικτύων των μέσων σταθερή τροχιάς (τρένα) τόσο σε αστικό όσο και υπεραστικό επίπεδο. Αναβάθμιση της τεχνολογίας αυτών για ταχύτερες μετακινήσεις.
  • Κατάργηση διοδίων στους δρόμους και θέσπιση ετήσιου τέλους κυκλοφορίας σε δρόμους ταχείας κυκλοφορίας που θα καλύπτει και τα διόδια. Όποιος δεν θέλει να χρησιμοποιεί δρόμους ταχείας κυκλοφορίας δεν θα πληρώνει το τέλος αυτό (μοντέλο Ελβετίας). Το τέλος αυτό θα πρέπει να είναι πολύ υψηλό έτσι ώστε να δοθούν κίνητρα για χρήση των μέσων μαζικής μεταφοράς στις μετακινήσεις.
  • Υψηλές τιμές καυσίμων και κρατικοποίηση όλων των διυλιστηρίων.
  • Κρατικό δίκτυο παραγωγής και διανομής ενέργειας και ύδρευσης. Κατάργηση όλων των προνομίων των εργαζομένων σε αυτές τις υπηρεσίες. Επίτευξη ενεργειακής αυτονομίας μέσα στα επόμενα 8 χρόνια, με ελαχιστοποίηση της εισαγωγής πετρελαίου και παραγώγων του. Επιβολή κατά κεφαλή ορίων κατανάλωσης νερού.

Είμαστε έτοιμοι να τα δεχτούμε όλα αυτά; Αν ναι... τότε είναι καιρός για να κάνουμε την δική μας πραγματική επανάσταση!

Τρίτη, 11 Οκτωβρίου 2011

Running an ultra with a pace-plan, or by the feel?

Having ran 10 ultras in the last 3 years (I consider myself as an intermediate ultra distance runner) I am getting ready for my 2nd 100miler run later this month (the first one was UTMB 2009). I have completed several marathons always improving and right now I have a 2:49 personal best. Also completed 3 Ironman triathlons and my most recent one was getting close to the 10hour mark. I like endurance sports!

I have always been preparing and running, every single one of my long distance races with a plan. By "planning" I mean breaking down the event to segments and planning my time passings for each segment / part. And on race day or days (!) I was trying to stick to my plan or using it as a benchmark during these long hours out in the nature. Of course there are other race-specific plans, like nutrition and hydration plans, but these are not within the scope of this article, as I will explain later on.

My thinking has always been to prepare, analyze and monitor my performance during the event (in terms of time achievement) to see how successful was my pacing plan afterwards, as well as pace myself efficiently. I think that this is the best way to identify the problems and mistakes I may be doing during a long run or any endurance event (by doing my evaluation afterwards), or learn how I could make my planning more accurate for the next event, by fixing inaccurate factors and wrong assumptions or calculations. These are also essential ingredients for the training-preparation period, since I can locate my weaknesses easier, or  experiment with new routines and procedures that would address my weaknesses for future events. It is part of this famous trial and error routine that one way or the other we all apply to our training!

But it has become very clear to me that all these benefits can come also by simply recording your effort and studying after the race. So we must not confuse evaluation which can come from simply recording, with the actual achievement during the ultra.

I will focus for the sake of simplicity on the 100 miles event that I want to complete this month. Following a race plan has some major contributions to a key event like this mountain ultra run:
  • Control and avoid mistakes, mostly with the pacing and energy management
  • Focus and enhance runner confidence during these events, who will eventually encounter low or high points (physical and mental-emotional)
  • Breaking down the big thing in small pieces - intermediate targets!
  • Create benchmarks for training and future ultras (which can also be achieved by simply recording the event and analysing afterwards!)
On the other side, when you become more familiar with long distance running, planning a race is by definition a study on your own limits and capabilities. As such, it is obvious that by working on these details, one sets his limits and imprints them in his mindset. So I am starting to wonder... Is this situation affecting my performance? Is this analysis affecting my experience of the event and my search for my own limits? I think yes.

Advantages and disadvantages of planning your pace
  • Control
  • Focus
  • Benchmarking
  • Segmentation of the task
  • Mental & emotional influence
  • Barrier for trying new things
  • Delayed reaction - adaptation to circumstances due to tendency to stick to the plan even when there are obvious reasons not to!

On the other hand, getting in an ultra endurance event, without a pacing plan, can have some positive aspects. The obvious one is that you avoid being affected mentally by falling behind or going faster than planned! Believe it or not, even the most mentally strong or disciplined endurance athlete, gets affected by realizing that his pace is different to what is dictated by his well prepared race plan! If actual pace is slower compared to what is on the paper, sooner or later the athlete will start feeling "discouraged" because he/she is not achieving according to expectations. Also it will obviously lead to an effort to speed up in order to catch up with the plan! On the other side, if going faster than planned, the athlete gets in the mood that he/she is ahead and may start to either slow down as a reward when not feeling so well (which tends to appear faster when feeling safe and "in control") or because of insecurity of overdoing! This way, we do not explore our limits, our potential for an optimum performance, since we are affected by the same indications which are supposed to help us get to the finish line as fast as possible! Basically it looks like we are adding one more parameter to the situation, which is making things more complicated, in exchange for a possibly more effective performance.

Advantages and disadvantages of no race plan
  • Less influence from variations in pacing
  • Easier adaptation to circumstances
  • More confidence during the event
  • Increased insecurity before getting to the start line
  • Perception of the event is less "organized" in runners mind and more vulnerable to personal emotions
  • Easier to push harder than you should

Let me define optimum performance: Fastest (according to personal capability at the specific time) completion of the required distance, when energy and hydration intake are kept within the limits.

Having read several studies and publications on the way our body and mind are handling ultra endurance efforts, I have come to the conclusion that our mind, when standing at the starting line, is consciously and subconsciously aware of the distance and the effort required to complete the event. By "aware", I mean that our brain, based on previous experience and a "body-systems" control has already prepared a plan for the upcoming effort. Previous experience does not have to be on the same route or distance. The mind is projecting an image of what it may encounter during the event, is comparing to similar experiences in the past, and prepares a reaction plan. When the pain, or discomfort, or insecurity kicks in, the body and mind will react based on previous experience. Also it is defining the limits of how fast or how slow we should be moving in order to get to the finish line. All these are based on experience and past efforts!

The proof for these remarks is very simple: Look at how kids of ages 4-6 years old, are addressing any running event. They start all out and  usually they are ready to collapse within the first hundred meters, even if they are supposed to be running a kilometre. Young kids, do not have experience and their brain cannot plan and regulate the output to the muscles. They go "all out" and exceed their capacity even though most 4-5 year old kids from the bio-mechanical point of view, should be able to cover quite long distances! The brain of the child is defining the limits by trial and error, as I said before. Of course, quite fast for children, the strategy is revised, imprinted and then applied in any future race.

So it is quite obvious that analysing and planning the pace is affecting our approach to an ultra endurance event. In this category I will include also the many monitoring sensors most of us are using in races: heart rate monitors, speed and pace counters, pedometers etc. By just taking a look at the watch, we can instantly know the details that will allow our brain to calculate how we are doing according to the plan! But I think that recording is in a different category.

Having said all these details, I am coming to the conclusion that, as in the famous Heisenberg uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics, the observer (in our case the analysis, pace-plan, monitoring) is messing up the probable outcome of our effort in an ultra endurance event. Of course there are some variations in this assumption. Below I present a graph with my thinking on when planning should be done and when not!

There are 7 axis of important aspects for any endurance athlete (coloured magenta). The centre represents an approach closer to "running by feel" and the outer part of each line is "running with a time-pacing plan". The line is connecting the 7 axis, and is moving closer to the centre or further out, according to how well each strategy is scoring to each one of these aspects.

Every reader can adapt this spider web according to his character and beliefs, and help him visualize his / her  approach to the question: "run by the feel" or "run with a time plan"? Having said all these things, I can positively state that I am going to do my upcoming ultra running event, based on my feeling and not with a pacing plan. In the end, I will let you know how it all went for me. But if it goes well, then it is certainly going to be a huge confidence boost for any future event. I will take a look at the altitude profile though!

It is really important to clarify, that nutrition and hydration plans, should always be applied and followed in any endurance event. If we rely only on our feeling and senses for these parts, then it is certain that we will mess up everything! If we wait to feel thirsty to drink... then probably it is already too late! So my assumption does not apply in these two essential factors of a successful race. We should always have a nutrition and hydration plan.

Also my approach assumes that there is some experience of previous ultras. A beginner should try to have a plan for his first ultras. Experience is helping define in our brain how slow - slow should be and how fast - fast should be for given distances. I can never forget one of the most universally accepted mistakes that most runners do: their slow runs are faster than what they should be, and their fast runs are slower than what they should be!

Πέμπτη, 15 Σεπτεμβρίου 2011

RunBlog: Η Ελληνική συμμετοχή στο UTMB 2011

Το UTMB ως αγώνας 100 μιλίων έχει γίνει κάτι σαν άτυπο παγκόσμιο πρωτάθλημα για τους δρομείς υπεραντοχής βουνού σε όλη τη Γη. Και το 2011 οι Έλληνες δρομείς είχαν μία πολυάριθμη συμμετοχή μεταξύ των 62 χωρών που εκπροσωπήθηκαν στον αγώνα. Συγκέντρωσα λοιπόν κάποια στατιστικά στοιχεία για να αναλύσω όσο γίνεται καλύτερα αυτή τη χρονιά, αλλά και να συγκρίνω με το 2009 που υπήρξε μία χρονιά με παρόμοια χαρακτηριστικά (εκτός των καιρικών φαινομένων) από πλευράς συμμετοχών.  Το 2010 δεν μπορεί να αποτελέσει μέρος αυτής της διαδικασίας λόγω της μορφής που πήρε ο αγώνας μετά τις ακυρώσεις και αλλαγές.

Στον αγώνα του UTMB 2011 συμμετείχαν 19 Έλληνες από 20 εγγεγραμμένους και τερμάτισαν στο Chamonix οι 8. Άρα έχουμε ένα ποσοστό τερματισμών 42,1%. Στο σύνολο των συμμετοχών του UTMB 2011 είχαμε τερματισμούς για το 47,74% του συνόλου. Επομένως ένα πρώτο άμεσο συμπέρασμα είναι ότι η Ελληνική αποστολή ήταν κάτω του μέσου όρου σε τερματίσαντες. Δεν θα πάω στο θέμα σύγκρισης ανά φύλο γιατί σε αυτό το κομμάτι δυστυχώς δεν υπάρχει νόημα. Η πολύ καλή προσπάθεια της Γεωργίας Μήτσιου αποτελεί φωτεινή αξιοθαύμαστη εξαίρεση για το γυναικείο φύλο.

Συγκρητικά αναφέρω ότι το 2009 είχαμε 15 συμμετοχές Ελλήνων δρομέων εκ των οποίων οι 2 εγκατέλειψαν. Ποσοστό τερματισμών: 86%. Το 2009 το UTMB είχε γενικό ποσοστό τερματισμών ήταν 62%. Άρα το 2009 οι δρομείς μας είχαν πετύχει καλύτερο ποσοστό από το γενικό. Η επίδραση των καιρικών φαινομένων φαίνεται ακριβώς στα δύο ποσοστά των γενικών τερματισμών (2009 = 62%, 2011 = 47,4%). Αλλά η εμφανής διαφορά των δύο Ελληνικών αποστολών είναι τέτοια που δεν αρκεί να εξηγηθεί προφανώς από τις δυσμενείς καιρικές συνθήκες του 2011.

Ανά ηλικιακό group τα στοιχεία συμμετοχών του 2011, σε σύγκριση και με την κατανομή του συνόλου των συμμετοχών, έχουν ως εξής:

ES (18-22)SE (23-39)V1 (40-49)V2 (50-59)V3 (60-69)V4 (70+)
UTMB total0,18%32,2%44,4%19,4%3,3%0,2%
GR total0%36,8%42,1%10,5%10,5%0%
(δεν έχω συμπεριλάβει την μία γυναικεία Ελληνική συμμετοχή αφού στατιστικά δεν στέκει)

Η Ελληνική ομάδα κινήθηκε πάνω κάτω στα ίδια επίπεδα με τις γενικές συμμετοχές του UTMB όσο αφορά τις ηλικίες. Οι διαφορές στα V2 και V3 είναι απλά στατιστική απόκλιση λόγω του μικρού αριθμού των αντίστοιχων Ελλήνων, αφού με 1 συμμετοχή παραπάνω ή παρακάτω αντίστοιχα σε αυτές τις κατηγορίες αυτόματα πηγαίναμε στα ίδια νούμερα με το σύνολο.

Ο μέσος χρόνος των finishers Ελλήνων για το 2011 είναι οι 37 ώρες και 36 λεπτά (έναντι 40:04 για το σύνολο των finishers), ενώ το 2009 ήταν 41 ώρες και 19 λεπτά (έναντι 39:49 για το σύνολο του 2009). Η διαφορά μεταξύ των χρόνων των finishers του 2009 και του 2011, είναι σχετικά μικρή για το σύνολο των αθλητών, αλλά για την Ελληνική ομάδα είναι τεράστια καθώς το 2011 είχε και 6 χιλιόμετρα μεγαλύτερη απόσταση! Είναι προφανές ότι οι Έλληνες δρομείς που τερμάτισαν, πραγματικά ανέβασαν "ταχύτητα" δρομικά! Ενώ στο σύνολο οι χρόνοι ήταν παραπλήσιοι, η δική μας ομάδα έτρεξε το UTMB 4 ώρες πιο γρήγορα από το 2009 κατά μέσο όρο.

Ένα στοιχείο που επιβεβαιώνει την πολύ μεγάλη βελτίωση των δρομέων μας είναι ότι αν βαθμολογήσουμε τους τερματίσαντες με βάση την μέθοδο που ακολουθώ στο Athens Mountains Cup (ο πρώτος παίρνει 200 βαθμούς, όλοι οι υπόλοιποι αθλητές που ακολουθούν, συγκεντρώνουν τόσους πόντους όσο το ποσοστό χρόνου που ήταν πιο αργοί από τον πρώτο), τότε το 2011 η Ελληνική ομάδα συγκεντρώνει συνολικά 569 βαθμούς με 8 τερματισμούς δηλαδή 71,1 ανά αθλητή που τερμάτισε, σε σύγκριση με τους 898 βαθμούς του 2009 που ήταν 69,1 ανά αθλητή. Θα μπορούσα να επεκτείνω την βαθμολογία και στους DNF αλλά νομίζω ότι η θα χαθούμε σε πολλούς αριθμούς, ενώ το μήνυμα προκύπτει άμεσα και από αυτά τα στοιχεία.

Το 2011 υπήρχαν 9 πρωτοεμφανιζόμενοι μεταξύ των 19 Ελλήνων δρομέων (47,3%), ενώ το 2009 ήταν αντίστοιχα 12/15 (80%). Πρωτοεμφανιζόμενο θεωρώ όποιον δρομέα δεν έχει κάνει κάποιον αγώνα εκ των UTMB, CCC, TDS στο παρελθόν. Η εμπειρία οδήγησε σε πιο γρήγορους χρόνους, αλλά και πιο πολλές εγκαταλήψεις!

Σε σχέση με τις εγκαταλήψεις των δρομέων μας, τα σημεία που παρέδωσαν τον αριθμό τους ήταν τα ακόλουθα:
- Courmayeur: 2 εγκαταλήψεις (18,1%)
- La Fouly: 2 εγκαταλήψεις (18,1%)
- Col De La Seigne, Arnuva, Martigny, Lac Comnbal, Les Contamines, Trient, Saint Gervais: Από 1 εγκατάληψη (9%)

Για αυτά τα σημεία, επί του συνόλου των συμμετεχόντων, οι εγκαταλήψεις είχαν ως εξής:
- Courmayeur: 233 (9,8%)
- La Fouly: 280 (11,8%)

Κοιτάζοντας αυτά τα στοιχεία, η ερμηνεία που δίνω είναι ότι οι Έλληνες δρομείς δοκίμασαν τις δυνάμεις τους ρισκάροντας περισσότερο φέτος. Υπάρχει εμφανώς μεγαλύτερη εμπιστοσύνη και εμπειρία για τέτοιον αγώνα και γενικά οι δρομείς κινήθηκαν πιο γρήγορα το 2011 σε σχέση με το 2009. Ωστόσο... οι εγκαταλήψεις ήταν δυσανάλογα πολλές ακόμα και αν σκεφτούμε τις επιπτώσεις των καιρικών συνθηκών.

Προκύπτει λοιπόν το συμπέρασμα για τον τρόπο προσέγγισης του UTMB: Αν είναι αυτοσκοπός ο τερματισμός τότε πρέπει ο δρομέας να μπει στον αγώνα πολύ ήρεμα και επιφυλακτικά και να κινηθεί πιο κάτω από τις δυνατότητές του, ειδικά στο πρώτο μισό του αγώνα. Αλλά όσο αυξάνει η εμπειρία, τόσο υπάρχουν περιθώρια για βελτίωση και πιο καλές επιδόσεις. Το 2011 κατά την γνώμη μου ήταν μία καλή χρονιά, καθώς οι δρομείς μας δοκίμασαν και να αντιμετωπίσουν τον αγώνα ως μία εκδήλωση μεγάλης απόστασης και όχι σαν έναν γολγοθά που αποπνέει δέος! Επίσης προσέθεσαν εμπειρίες, ακόμα και όσοι εγκατέλειψαν και σίγουρα στο μέλλον θα δούμε καλύτερα αποτελέσματα τόσο σε επίπεδο ποσοστού τερματισμών όσο και επιδόσεων.

Το κοινό των μεγάλων αποστάσεων βουνού, χρειάζεται εμπειρίες από τέτοιους αγώνες και στην Ελλάδα αυτή τη στιγμή υπάρχουν μόνο 2 διοργανώσεις. Εμπειρίες για τέτοιους αγώνες χτίζονται όταν η μέση διάρκεια τερματισμού είναι πάνω από 18 ώρες. Πρέπει να στηθούν διοργανώσεις με βιώσιμη φόρμουλα έχοντας ως δεδομένο ότι το πλήθος των συμμετοχών θα είναι της τάξης των 70-110 δρομείς.

Τρίτη, 30 Αυγούστου 2011

RunBlog: UTMB 2011 - Comparison of US and European elite trail runners

The 2011 Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (100miles - 9.400m of accumulated ascent) has produced a lot of discussion about the poor performance of elite US ultra mountain runners, compared to their European counterparts. In the same year, the Europeans did very well at most of the ultras they choose to participate in the US (Jornet at WS100, Heras at San Francisco 50miles...), leaving behind the favourite US runners. So it looks like there is a deficit of performance of the elite US runners compared to the Europeans!

I have finished some ultras of my own, including the UTMB in 2009. I am not an elite runner, but I like reading about the sport and I follow closely the US scene for the past 3 years, through specialized magazines, publicity and blogs. I have even tried to register for Hardrock 100 for 2010, but the limited number of accepted runners and the resulting lottery left me out of the starting field. I like to test my limits, and find out how far I can go, and then after how fast I can cover this distance. My approach to the sport is that there is nothing heroic about ultra running, and that increasing numbers of simple people, with no special equipment shoulf be able to excercise this sport out on the trails. I am not a big fan of elitistic events and elite athletes, since their professional sports background is not compatible with 99% of the rest of the field in a starting line of any mountain running event (ultra or not). But reality is that they are role models and they inspire more people to go out and run on the mountains. So they are usefull in a certain way! That is reason enough for me to look at them from time to time and evaluate their performance.

The US field of elite ultra trail runners, is not comparable to the European field in certain important aspects. These points (according to my opinion and experience) I analyze below. This does not mean that in some cases a top US mountain runner cannot win an event against top European runner! But statistics will always be in favor of Europeans as long as the following areas remain as they are today. I also think that most of these remarks, apply to all levels of trail runners if we try to compare them between the two continents. So here is my list of important differences for elite runners of mountain ultra running events:
  1. Number of runners at the start line - In UTMB and in many other wellknown European mountain and trail running events, the number of participants is thousands, or several hundreds. In the US most of the races are with a few hundreds of runners. This affects in two ways the runner: Emotionally - In European events you are always close to another runner. In ultras emotions are a big part of the strategy of the race. Seeing fellow runners pass you or fall behind because of different capacity or different race strategy is sending emotional messages to the runner, changing his mentality and emotions for his own effort. Take a look at Roes and Krupicka comments of the downhill break aways of Kilian Jornet at 2011 WS100 and you can now imagine what is going on in the head of a competitive ultra runner! They are not always running the race they planned (as done when in a lonely - not crowded event). They respond and adapt their race strategy according to the messages they receive from fellow competitors. And in crowded events like in Europe, this is happening a lot throughout the race. Pacing, Strategy - As explained in the previous point, for the emotional side of it, pacing yourself in a lonely event is a matter of focus and discipline. In Europe these two attributes of the ultra runner, have to be even stronger. Competitive runners react and adapt their strategy when another competitor is trying a break away. In the end, you do not run your race as you plan, but according to the dynamic field around you. Therefore an ultra runner, able to perform well at a consistent uniform pace throughout the race, must be able to stick with his plan, when he sees others speeding up at a downhill. One has to understand that there are many runners who can take the hammering of the downhill better than him/her but by following them you end up with burned muscles sooner than you should. On the other side, if you let go, most likely will catch up at a subsequent uphill!
  2. Support model - Mountain ultras in Europe follow the model of semi-autonomy for the support of the runners. There is no point in stressing the obvious importance of nutrition and hydration in any endurance event. The comparison of European with US ultras, is showing differences in the following two ways: No pacers are allowed in Europe - No one is allowed to help you carry water or food. No one can supervise on the course your calories and fluids intake. No one can push you a step further when you start feeling slugish and hit a low point. You have to carry all the food and fluids needed to get you to the next station which can be 2 or 4 hours away! Only for water this can mean an extra 1,5kgr of weight at your back! Plus equipment! The backpack - Mountain ultra runners in Europe are always with a backpack. The image of a mountain ultra runner without one a backpack does not exist! Most of the times you see them carrying walking poles as well, since the existence of a backpack at steep uphills is forcing them to have the sticks to support their back for the extra weight. Many races in the US are not like that at all.
  3. The terrain - Ultra trail running in Europe consists of 80% single track trails usually. UTMB is considered to be one of the moderate difficulty trail running events. Forest roads an wide trails have to be a small minority in these events. In the US the popular events, include long stretches of forest roads and easy going trails. Also the altitude profile in most continental events at first sight, is not runnable! Constant up and down without any flat parts or even with runnable incline. The hammering of the legs and the heart is without a break. This makes a big difference for the body and the mentality of the runners. Somehow we could say that European ultra trail runners, are stronger mentaly and physically, just because they evolve through this kind of races. There is also a very strong technical aspect in this element. I've noticed that it is very common in US mountain 100mile races to see finishers with achievements of less than 24 hours. This is very rare in Europe. Only the winners some times manage to finish in less than 24 hours. Running (or crawling when it comes down to it) on the mountains for more than 20 or 24 hours in most of your races builds different characters and approaches to the sport, compared to events lasting 17-20 hours for the winners. As Anton Krupicka wrote recently, following his injury, he came to realize the importance of fast walking during a mountain running effort! Elite US runners are used to ... basically run the whole event! Well, this is not feasible in the terrain of most European races!
  4. Professional approach to the sport - After 2011 UTMB I was walking around the streets of Chamonix and saw Geoff Roes and some friends of his trying to find a spot at an overbooked creperie to get their dinner fixed.
    At the same time Kilian Jornet and not only him, was with his Salomon Team specialists applying their recuperation plan in a nice hotel room. Most of the European elite runners, are supported by a sponsor - brand which is investing in them heavily (for the standards of this sport). Nutrition specialists, physios, doctors, trainers, training facilities, race-specific adaptation trips, and personalized equipment and training plans, are available to these runners. Some are commenting on details on the race calendar of athletes like Kilian, but it is not the specific details that make the difference. It is the fact that his support team, consisting of scientists and professionals, know him very well and can optimize the racing - training calendar according to his capacity, weaknesses and advantages! For example I was reading recently that many US mountain ultra runners, do not like interval training! Scientifically it is proven that this kind of training is an important feature of any running training plan! Elite runners not only should do interval training, but furthermore, be able to personalize and plan it in their race season accordingly. It is elementary! Intervals can address uphill or downhill skills, anaerobic threshold build up etc. No one should be proud of not doing his homework! Salomon team uses computers to analyze the performance of their athletes, as well as their most likely competitors in many events. They study the weaknesses of their opponents.
  5. Racing season, calendar - I read many comments about the high altitude training of most of the European ultra trail runners, and their advantage of leaving at high altitude. These are small details compared to the big picture of the full race season of any of these runners. After all, if one looks carefully on the top runners at UTMB for example, there are many runners who do not live at altitude of 1300m or have no clue of how to ski! Also Boulder Colorado and many other similar resources exist in the US as well. European racing scene consists of many events which are not so common in the US. I am reffering to events like vertical kilometer mountain runs (1000m of ascent within 5-6km of distance = average incline of 25%), or very technical uphill and downhill events of short distance (in rock gardens or in total absense of trails) or even at mountaineering ski competitions at Les Alps or Pyreneans at high altitude (which basically involve anaerobic effort at steep uphills at high altitude, carrying some equipment)! At these races, the starting line again consists of several hundreds of runners and competition is fierce. This side of the sport is available not only to elite mountain runners (who can participate in as many events as the need to because of their professional resources), but also to any level of mountain runner in Europe. These events are quite common and even if someone does not have access to mountain skiing he can make up with vertical kilometer runs during winter time. Planning a race season (always with the support of the specialists team) is an important but also common task for elite runners in Europe.
As I said at the opening of my post, I do not particularly like the professional and elite side of mountain running as it has evolved in Europe. I prefer the more casual and less "superman-like" approach and this is more close to the US ultra runner scene. I like the Anton Krupicka kind of runners with their worn out shoes and cotton t-shirts (if they are wearing any...). After all, the metnality of ultra running on the mountains is 85% about how far one can go, and only 15% of how fast! The field of runners and their admiration of finishers (and not only speedy ones) proves my point. But elite runners, are platforms for promoting the sport and the apparel - equipment that goes with it. Personally I care about the evolution of the sport in the direction of attracting more and more people in it. Human nature is such that we try to immitate those that we admire. Therefore, elite runners have a role in this scene as icons.

In my opinion, US elite runners in order to catch up with their European counterparts have to address these 5 areas of the sport. I believe that it will be a big help to the US field, if events like HardRock 100 open up to more entries and avoid the lottery system while adopting a point-system for overcrowded events. Also it will be nice to see more technical events (again like Hardrock) with no pacers allowed and a semi autonomy background. By increasing the number of participants, you make up for the safety issues that arise from the solitude of the top runners in these events (they will not be alone!).

Ultra mountain running, should involve technical terrain, discouraging uphills and knee-killing downhills, but I would like to see more people running these with cotton t-shirts, and sandwiches at their backpacks at the start line rather than "shop-window-dolls" like elite runners in white compression outfits, and hi-tech power-bars and space-like powders for their nutrition.

Σάββατο, 20 Αυγούστου 2011

Consumption and the hijacking of our lives

From the day we are born, some role models are imposed to us and we are trying to be like them. Society accepts those who have a car, own a house in a city, have a phone, a TV, a mobile phone. Society admires people educated to be lawyers, doctors, scientists, engineers, teachers. Trendy clothes and brands have to be worn.

A contrast: What happens when you own a bike? (BBC News - Cycling industry gives economy £3bn boost http://bbc.in/qiwMpM) When you commute either with your own two feet, or with a bike, or using the public transportation for longer distances? How things would be if we did not own the houses we are staying in the cities, but we were renting (maybe as part of the taxes we pay) them from the state according to our income? What if phones and mobile phones were developed under certain standards and specifications and the focus was on the service provided by the operators through them? What if there was only one TV device per house? How about admiring farmers, dancers, painters, musicians, carpenters, palaeontologists and plumbers as much as engineers, mathematicians, doctors and lawyers? What if the clothes were picked according to their functionality and not according to the little label on the chest?

I bet the world would be a much better place! Lets try to imagine:

Houses built according to certain standards by the state. Maintained by the state and demolished and rebuilt  every 50-60 years by the state! Costs covered through taxes we pay. Families would not have to invest from their budget (usually taking 30-40% of the family income) for the housing project. Standards could be observed more closely. Speculation, price inflation and housing market bubbles would be unknown terms! After all, building a house, except for the brief period of the construction, it is not a very productive way to invest ones resources! This model would apply in all cities. Parks and public spaces could be organized better. Long term planning of the community would be much easier. Architecture would have unlimited space to develop new technologies. Energy consumption could be more reasonable, helping the environment. Resources and wealth beyond our imagination which now are being "frozen" in the value of bricks and walls and private swimming pools would be made available for investment to the productive economy!

The commuting vision: People would be able to move around in the cities on safe roads with their bikes or by walking or other human powered vehicles. For longer distances or when the circumstances are not favorable they would be able to use public transportation like trains, trams, electric buses. Accidents costing endless millions to state budget and cause unbelievable personal misery would be reduced! Public health would improve by having less obese citizens and better quality of air. Unreasonable social discrimination based on the kind of vehicle that someone owns would be unknown. Cities would have more public space. State would also save a big chunk of its' budget which goes to maintenance of the roads and for building new ones to accommodate the increasing number of cars and their parking needs. Automotive companies would be focused on engine technologies and not on pointless chassis design projects that offer nothing substantial to our lives. And finally, personal finance resources "blown in the wind" for a new car that is losing it's value as soon as you open the door for the first time, would find better ways of use. Public transportation would require increased budget from the state, but it would be way lower than the requirements for new avenues and their maintenance, or for addressing public health issues, created by the low quality of life in the cities, or by car accidents. 

Singers, dancers, painters, gardeners would be equally important with all the professions. Because the society would have available more free time and more resources to invest in the public welfare and culture. We would prevent the overpopulation in certain professions and allow personalities to develop better, through the education system. Universities and schools could be real cultural centers and not mass production facilities of brains that think in the same way and lose most of their capability to question and improvise!Social discrimination based on ones job title would be reduced, and social value would be attributed mostly to the quality of his / her skills. Excellence in personal level, would be encouraged and rewarded by the society according to the skills and not the perceived value of the profession.

Many more examples could be presented here describing this ideal world. The few, utopic-at-first-sight, cases I described above, highlight some simple imbalances  in our lifestyle. Automotive companies compete on the fields of chassis design and financial solutions (basically loans) for their cars, instead of engineering breakthroughs for the engines that move these cars. People get loans, which will last more than their productive lifetime, to buy bigger and more energy consuming houses than they need. They suppress their creativity and natural predisposition towards the development of skills, in order to be socially accepted. They end up serving non productive positions in multinational companies, without any clear view of the outcome of their day to day work, just because they are socially accepted (probably because of their 6-digit salaries, or collection of credit cards). Because of the intense social focus in certain sectors of economy, value inflation is making this endless pursue of the "dream" even more unobtainable. Consumption without any real need behind it, is the hollow foundation of the development of modern societies.

People need to open their eyes and realize what is the real value of the skills, items, services that they spend their time and resources in their ongoing effort to acquire. We are wasting our lives and resources in pursue of goals that we have not chosen! And we are dragging down with us the whole planet...

(by the way: The housing model described above, has been successfully implemented in Singapore for the past 30 years, the automotive model is the one under which this industry started more than a century ago, and was lost along the way)

Interesting to read: Was Marx Right? - Umair Haque - Harvard Business Review
Interesting to watch: Surviving Progress

Interesting to watch: http://youtu.be/4Z9WVZddH9w

Τετάρτη, 3 Αυγούστου 2011

The need for vision and decisions

The European Union is facing a crucial crossroad. I am referring to issues which require action not only from the political leaders, but also from the citizens of the continent. I'm not an economist (in any way). I am just trying to think logically, stay informed and hereby I present a series of personal thoughts and logical conclusions.

Where we stand:
All sides (referring to these which envision a common European future), eventually agree on the need for a more stable foundation for the European Union in order to evolve and be able to compete in the forthcoming international fights. The big test of the near future will be on the global redistribution of access to natural resources (materials, energy, food) and economic influence from west to east (this in a later article).

The majority of production processes have been transferred to Asia due to labor costs initially but also because of the immense growth possibilities offered by the local population. The communities in these areas are upgrading rapidly their living standards, but soon will also begin to feel the pressure from the slow down of the demand for their products. This will be mainly due to a decrease in exports but will also gradually affect domestic consumption in these countries. Also the inevitable appreciation of their currencies will contribute even further to the trend. It is obvious that the present economic crisis in western economies will lead to consumption control affecting both the quantity as well as the origin of goods and energy. This environment will result to an obvious decrease of demand for the products of Asian countries, but also for Russia and Germany.

Historically speaking we can observe a swing between a market economy with state supervision (Bretton Woods 1944 agreement - social welfare state) and unlimited power to the forces of markets (President Nixon and abolition of the gold to dollar ratio in August 1971, Prime Minister Thatcher early 80s). The outcome of this balance was the foundation of euro in the early '90s. The markets (banking, funds, currency and commodities trading) have regained their dominant status, as held before the crisis of 1929, thanks to the almost unlimited trading possibilities to 2nd or even 3rd level financial products. Their tools are based on financial-economical products, processes and services and not on the real economy (Production). This was the foundation of the Euro and pushed the new currency to a frantic race taking advantage of these practices. Cheap interstate  and interbank loans were made available to all member states, with the turn of a switch!

If we step back and look from a distance, then the fact is that the European Union is facing two roads ahead:
  • Insist on testing the tolerance of the Euro as a currency unit for a union of heterogeneous sovereign states. The contradiction in this situation is that even though the Euro was born following the demand of the markets, these same markets are now predicting its' doom! This path assumes that any country unable to comply with the driving forces of the market will be either expelled from the common currency or at least placed under strict economic custody to minimize the influence.
  • Strengthening of the political foundations of the European Union, in order to achieve a centralized governance and backing of the common currency.
    Politics in Europe, since the era of Charlemagne, has been a balance between national or regional interests and efforts to unite the continent. Usually efforts to achieve the later have been resulting to wars.
      The path that was envisioned in the '50s leading to a united Europe, has been followed for 40 years with careful balanced steps, under state supervision. The political dipole of capitalism and communism, as expressed by the two leading formations of USA and USSR as well as the memories of the mistakes of the recent past were casting a shadow on every step in this direction. At the early '90s this procedure was put in fast forward! The new currency was the vehicle for this movement. Circumstances were such that the memories of the last world war were fading out, along with the last generation of politicians who have lived this. Also the political dipole missed the communist side after the diminish of the USSR.
        Basic rules of finance science dictate that a currency is the materialization of uniform policies governing state finance, taxation, labour regulations, social welfare, a central bank and in general common rules for the market. With minor exceptions, none of these principles has been applied in the case of the Eurozone since the day it was conceived and until today. The Euro was conceived as a "market" currency unit. It was the "product" of the markets, since it was obviously giving them the capability to expand their "debt" driven growth. This is the source of what we have gotten used to call the "debt crisis". Individual sovereign state financial problems are just tips of the same big iceberg.
          The result from the EU financial turmoil and the global recession is the slow down in consumption and trade which is normal under these circumstances. These facts are indicating the need for a change in the global balance, political and financial. The need for a "new deal".
            Below you can have a look at the change of trend for the EU trade balance, which is a clear indication of the forthcoming dead end.

            Source: tradingeconomics.com
              Also you can study the report issued by Eurostat for the trade balance of all member states of the union: April 2011 Euro area external trade deficit 4.1 bn euro 15.9 bn euro deficit for EU27
                Let's take a look at the two obvious paths which lay ahead of the European masterminds.
                  Insist on a common currency without the political union
                    To continue in the path of serving the magnified sovereign debts (both state and private) through the markets has become unaffordable for the majority of member states, due to the financial crisis of the banking and finance sector of 2008. The solution chosen back then was to refinance the banks using state funds. So the initial banking problem has transformed to a combined state debt and banking crisis! So nowadays, EU member states are forced to seek financial resources within the union mechanisms in order to serve their deficits. The markets are no longer easy on investing on bonds and are waiting for the big bomb to explode around the corner. And anyway, bonds should stop existing as vehicles to serve the indebted economies.
                      Common census in most member states, is against financial support of the fellow states that are in deficit. And this should be expected.
                        People of surplus countries cannot comprehend the need to transfer funds to other sovereign countries. Actually when presented like that, it cannot be accepted by anyone!
                          This line of thinking is leading to cross country tensions. Especially since state debts and deficit budgets cannot be reversed under the current world financial turmoil. Refinancing these countries will be a problem for many years to come.
                            So the most probable end of this path is the break up of the Eurozone as we know it during the last 12 years.
                              The co-existence of countries with deficits and surpluses within the EU is unavoidable and should be seen as the two faces of the same coin.  It is impossible for all member countries to be functioning with a surplus in the same way that it is impossible within a country, all it's departments to be equally wealthy. The problem is that in the case of the EU there has never been any planning of when, where and how these two conditions would be acceptable for its' members.
                                The evolution of the Eurozone under this senario, of lack of central governance, can be one of the following:

                                • Separate national currencies. This is the least probable scenario because the strong economies of northern Europe will suffer back to back blows in their competitiveness and exports. It will constitute a spectacular cancellation of the path followed since the '50s. I believe that the cost for the European economies to get back to this status, would be exceeding the cost to try to balance the current situation by supporting the deficit economies!
                                • Groups of countries with common currency. The groups would be formed by countries with similar structure and competitive levels. At the same time the peripheral economies would either join a different common currency, or more likely return to national currencies, since their needs are varying in many ways. This is a method to minimize the effect in the financial activity of the surplus countries.
                                • Intermediate situation where national currencies would be introduced but with locked margins of fluctuation to a central currency unit. Much like the situation with the ECU of the '90s. This way, local variations will be possible, while giving at the same time a central reference point for transactions and trading.
                                These 3 scenarios have as common ground that again some regions will be less "healthy" and as a result will encounter difficulties serving their financial needs. Also the markets would have lost their freedom to control at once the economies of a huge trading zone like Europe. It would be a matter of time till some national differences were exploited by political groups, and local conflicts erupt! And there are many causes - excuses for that!

                                It is naive to expect from nations like Greece, Portugal, Spain, Italy, and many more, with a turn of the switch to convert from deficit to balanced economies. These countries do not have even the culture or historical example of a period that their balance sheets were... balanced! It is enough just to look at what was happening with their national currencies in the past, and how many times they have been depreciated. Furthermore we should not forget that most of the production activities have been moved out of their territories and they are not likely to return any time soon (to a large extent the same applies for bigger economies like France or England).

                                It is quite safe to conclude that this scenario has an important factor of instability, and conflict of interests. Especially if we factor in the feelings of nations that had the experience of the eurozone, and then lost it! A violent correction would be very likely. And those in favour of such reshuffling, hoping that after the initial turmoil something better would emerge, should not neglect that this time there are external factors that probably will not make such a "rebirth" so likely. Lets not forget the pending re-arrangement of balances between the West and Asian economies.

                                Expedited completion of the unification process for the EU
                                The second path is about European Unification with common economic, labour, tax and trade policies. I will not get into details by trying to describe these policies since it is a huge subject by itself. What is certain is that they should be designed in an appropriate way to address the forthcoming "new deal" with Asian economies and their strong competition. They will most certainly involve changes in the way citizens of E.U. are consuming. It is utopic to believe that E.U. can keep importing products from Asia and rely on its' financial services system to produce the money to pay the bill.

                                All member countries should agree on a common set of rules. These will be supervised by the central government, since history has taught us that there is no alternative trustworthy method. Local petty political interests have always been undermining the rules at some point. This system should include methods to intervene and reform member states that are not conforming, bur also serve the need to preserve as much as possible from the European lifestyle and quality of life in a realistic way.

                                I must highlight here that we should not define as problematic only the financial deficit of some states, but also: increased private sector debts, the weakening of healthy social structures (like unions), the low birth rate (which is a bomb in the foundations of all the pension funds) and many other issues that need to be addressed on a European level.

                                All these issues must be addressed along with the financial figures which of course are important. Solutions must be provided not only to the economic problems but also to structural deficiencies. So this path involves:

                                1.  Agreement on social, political structures for all members
                                2. Local policies should be sacrificed to the common cause for European prosperity on sustainable foundations
                                3. Supervision of the proper application of the policies by a central government. This applies to all member states, even to the ones that are compliant to the agreed set of rules! No state/country should be considered superior to other.
                                4. Control of the central government by the people of the Union on a regular base through elections. The representation achieved through the elections should be such that would allow every part of the continent to express its' will in the central government.
                                This procedure in order to be accepted by the people of every members state, must be presented as a vision for a common, efficient and realistic future for the whole of Europe. Also the alternative path should be presented very clearly to all. These decisions require daring politicians with high sense of social responsibility in order to resist ethnic reactions and convince for their vision.
                                - Interview of Frank Walter Steinmeier to Bild (BILD-Interview mit SPD-Fraktionschef Frank-Walter Steinmeier - Politik Inland - Bild.de)
                                - Statement of Jean Claud Trichet (Jean-Claude Trichet calls for European finance ministry | Business | The Guardian)
                                - EU's Barroso warns about cost of splitting euro zone | Reuters
                                - The euro zone: Is this really the end? | The Economist

                                Time is a factor that is very pressing at this point and we cannot afford to overlook the reality that Europe does not have sufficient time to proceed with the necessary changes. My estimation is that the margin available to adapt to this new environment is no later than 2015! Also, other international interests are not compatible with this path and will not make it easy for the Union to work out the differences. We should be aware that in the past, when it came to reshuffling of power, it has always been between two (and not three or more) sides. Europe right now appears to be 3rd side in this tug war.

                                Citizens of member states should be presented with the necessary measures not as punishment for the past artificial prosperity, but as a evolution towards the common European future. The only future that can offer feasible possibilities to control our lifestyle and modify this where needed in a way that is as much compatible with our culture, as possible. Because the growth models as well as social and government models, as we know them today will have to be adapted to the new reality. To a large extent it has been based to a series of credit - financial products and anticipations that failed! But it is very important that austerity measures should be accompanied by with realistic and long term viable procedures for transfer of wealth, production and resources to weaker members. It is always better to teach the hungry how to fish instead of giving him ready made meals.

                                Examples in this direction could be, to establish production factories in Greece for aeolian or photovoltaic panels, instead of just covering wide areas of Greece with imported panels!

                                In the European political system, politicians must present the vision and prospects to the people. Politicians are obliged to serve the common interests of the European societies, according to their political beliefs, but also to analyze and adjust their path based on the knowledge they have access to from their position. By presenting the facts and the possibilities they should establish bonds of confidence and inspire the voters. This is the only way that our governments can guide the people and their lifestyles to wise choices. Because it is the duty of the politicians to dictate the lifestyle and guide the society to the path of survival and balance.