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Iyengar Yoga and Ultra-running: learning to leave my ego and indolent tendencies at the door and off the trail

The last 10 months of my life have seen substantial change with a transition to purchasing and managing my own yoga studio, taking on a much larger volume of classes and 1-2-1 yoga clients and learning the business of yoga which goes way beyond just the teaching.   One of the many benefits of now owning a studio comes the opportunities to learn from other teachers and attend regular classes.  We had the fortuitous occasion of another local studio closing down the same week we opened and senior Iyengar yoga teacher Julie Anderson literally came knocking on our door asking if she could teach in our studio.  Without much knowledge of Julie or her teachings, just some recommendations from friends and fellow students we agreed to have Julie come on board—a decision which resulted in both a new stream of clients, a budding friendship and high quality yoga instruction to which we would benefit.  I began attending Julie’s classes weekly, not because I particularly enjoyed them, but because I thrived on them.  My ego was quickly destroyed in the first class I had with Julie where she told me to sit on a block in swastikasana.  I have never sat on a block in cross leg pose before; I have never believed that I needed to sit on a block but as Julie pointed out to me, my knees were higher than my hips and that in order to make any progress I needed some ‘height’ as she calls it so that my groins could ‘soften’.  

It has been a 10 month journey of learning how to use props to aid my limitations, place my ego neatly with my belongings in the cubby holes at the studio entrance, and discipline my lazy practice into a concentrated and efficient one.  It has been a journey which has translated well off-the mat and particularly to the trails and roads on which I train and race.  After 5 years post-yoga teacher qualification, my yoga was limited by my ego and my yoga practice was getting lazy.  After nearly 20 years of running, racing and training, my running was getting lazy and I limited myself by entering races which I knew were an ‘easy win’—therefore fuelling my ego—we come full circle.  After several weeks of Julie’s class I began to feel and see real change in my body.  Muscles which have never really worked before were coming alive.  In downward dog I was using my rhomboids, deltoids and quadriceps (I’d always done downward dog with relative soft knees, therefore neglecting the entire group of muscles above the kneecap).  In padangustasana (standing hand to toe pose, a balancing pose where one leg is extended out to the side) my leg barely travelled a few centimetres past my midline—as Julie corrected my alignment she pointed out to me that in order to achieve the depth of the pose that I was practicing I had to misalign my pelvis—a sure way towards injury especially in the knee.  Leave ego at the door—check.  For awhile I have been obsessed with practicing pincha mayureasana forearm balance into scorpion pose, not realising that you need to continue to flatten the tailbone in order to protect the lower vertebrae.  A few months ago Juile transitioned her ‘home’ class to our studio as it was growing beyond the capacities to which she could accommodate at home.  I then had the benefit of twice a week classes with Julie.  i have never been able to do wheel pose very well, or at least I always feel that it is a posture which i both avoid (we all have our favourite postures) and one which feels altogether uncomfortable and strained.  Recently Julie had us use bolsters and the skirting board to support our entry to the posture and I was able to experience the most incredible, deep heart opening, effortless pose.  

I have been running ultra (anything longer than 26.2 miles) distances since I was 17 years old.  My love  of long distance running was ignited and fuelled by my godmother who let my tag along on her social training runs and summer parties with the LRRC (Lancaster Road Runner’s Club).  I started competing at ultra distances when I was in my second year of University and quickly found myself winning several races—a result due not so much to my speed but rather to my lack of competition—in those days the ultra scene was tiny and primarily make up of runners of an older generation.  I began to think I was quite fast—thoughts fed my ego—and over the next few years I raced at both 50 mile and 100 mile distances on the east coast, often winning the women’s race.  It wasn’t until a bit later when the likes of Jen Shelton, Ann Lundblad, Anette Bednosky and Bethany Patterson started racing that I realised I wasn’t actually that fast.  In order to get better and win, I’d have to get to work, train, plan and race hard.  I was of the opinion that more was better and used to log hundreds of miles a week, enter multiple races a month and never really give myself time to maximise my efforts.  After moving to the UK and giving birth to my twins in 2007, I pursued shorter distances (due to the fact that the time required to log 100s of miles a week did not suit the schedule of a full-time mom).  For the first time in my life I joined a running club with a coach and found myself pounding laps around a track, enduring vomit-inducing sessions.  It was then I realised that I had become lazy in my running.  I was used to winning and now, up against some of Scotland’s finest track and cross country runners I experienced a very rude awakening. I worked hard with my coach, training two days a week with the team where we did speed sessions on the track and endurance sessions on the trails and hills around St. Andrews.  I slowly worked my way up selection for the Scotland cross country team, placed 4th at the Celtic nations winter BUPA cross country and found myself once again at the top of the podium but this time my success was the result of commitment, discipline, hard work and an element of ‘letting go’ of my obsession with winning, rather than lack of competition.  Gradually I returned to ultra running as my twins grew older and I had more time to devote to logging miles; I pined for the days when I could spend hours on the trails and the endorphin rush you get from racing 50 miles.  As I slowly reintroduced racing to my ultra schedule I found myself once again at the top of the list, often winning the races that I entered.  I noticed old habits creeping in however, lazy training, entering races where competition was sparse and a focus on quantity rather than quality training.  I never used a training schedule for ultras and relied mostly on my youth and obsession with the distance to get me through, sometimes fast, sometimes just at a plod.  In 2014 I won the great glen 77 mile ultra (but suffered a disqualification due to a technicality that my crew had not seen); in May 2015 I won the women’s race at the cateran trail 110 mile race.  In August 2015 I ran the John Lucas 50 mile race, placing 1st female and 3rd overall, just shy of the course record.  Often after ultras I am stiff and it takes at least a week for muscles to recover.    

In October 2015 I began taking Iyengar yoga classes with Julie.  In April 2016 I ran the HOKA Highland fling 53 mile race and as it was a championship race the competition was stiff.  I caught a cold on the Monday before the race and was in two minds whether or not to race.  On Wednesday I decided that I would run but not race.  I finished the race in 7th place (female), 3rd Scottish lady, in less than 9 hours.  Thoroughly surprised by this result I attributed it in part to my time spent on the mat in Julie’s Iyengar class and my forced tapering due to my cold.  Fuelled by my success at the Highland Fling I decided to seek a coach for further training programmes and advice.  I came across Centurion running and was put in touch with Edwina Sutton, a Morzine-based world champion triathlete turned ultra runner who offers distance coaching.  Eddie set me a programme of training for the West Highland Way which included speed and endurance sessions.  I completed each of her sessions despite the intensity of some of them.  I ran the West Highland Way (WHW) Race 95 miles in June.  Again I knew high quality competition was present as one of the women represents Salomon and is on the British ultra running team.  Another of the ladies had finished just in front of me at the Highland Fling and one more had finished just behind me.  In addition, several of the ladies had previously won or come second in the WHW race.  I told myself to run my own race.  As the gun went and we all left Milngavie, one woman was in front of me—Lizzie Hawker of team salomon.  I eased into my race pace and ran steadily.  This time with Eddie advice, I kept my pace up over the rocky and rooted sections along Loch Lomond—a tactic I did not pursue at the Highland Fling.  This time again with Eddie’s advice, I ate little and often, taking in as many quickly consumed gels and clif bloks as possible.   This time, with several month’s worth of Iyengar yoga to teach my muscles when to work hard and when to relax, when my legs got tired, I walked the uphills and ran the downhill and flat sections as fast as I could—willing my muscles to work hard when I needed them the most.  Lizzie continued to hold her place ahead of me; at one point I ran 10 minutes faster than Lizzie for one stage of the race.  For the remainder of the stages I was just behind her.  The last stage, Lizzie ran substantially faster than me and she finished about 20 minutes in front of me.  I maintained my second place female position throughout the race despite comments from spectators like ‘go get her’ and ‘she’s just ahead’.  I passed 15 male runners however, working my way up to 5th place overall in a finishing time of 18 hours and 8 minutes.  In my wildest dreams I did not believe I could run that fast.  As in yoga, running is an individual pursuit.  It is best not to compare yourself with anyone—best to run your own race.  Iyengar yoga has taught me to be a more humble ultra runner.  It has taught me to listen to those who know more than I do because although I have more than 15 years of running ultras under my belt, i’ve never known how to properly train to run them.  Although I have more than 10 years of doing yoga under my belt, I have never known how to really engage my muscles in a way that makes the postures come alive.  I owe gratitude to Julie’s teachings of Iyengar yoga and to Eddie’s coaching of an ultra running programme that brought me the breakthrough I so desired.  The practice continues…     

 

 

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