Christchurch’s elite ultramarathoner Vajin Armstrong talks about his training, meditation, and of course, his favourite books.
Have you heard of ultra running? If a marathon just isn’t far enough, here is the new holy grail of running – the ultramarathon. The word ultra means “beyond” in Latin, and these extreme endurance races, commonly referred to as ultras, are certainly beyond what most people would consider physically possible. Perhaps that’s why Vajin Armstrong, one of New Zealand’s elite ultra runners, finds his success lies not only in intense physical training, but also in a strong spiritual practice.
Christchurch born and bred, Vajin has raced all around the world and has placed on the podium in numerous ultras in America, Australia, Europe and Asia. Among his most notable achievements are three consecutive wins of New Zealand’s premier mountain race, the Kepler Challenge in Fiordland. Normally a challenging 4-day hike, Vajin’s best time over the 60km course (which is not only pretty far, but also involves running over a mountain) is a mind-blowing 4 hours 55 minutes.
The 2017 Kepler Challenge is on this Saturday 2 December and once again Vajin will be lining up with the world’s top athletes.
Vajin, after three Kepler Challenge wins, what are your thoughts coming into the race this year? Is winning important to you?
For me the competition is not my primary motivation. My goal during training and racing is to enter the space where I’m completely immersed in the task at hand. At those times where you become totally one with the simple act of running, the rest of your life ceases to exist, there is no past, no future all that exists in that moment. For me this experience of being completely present, totally alive and free is more fulfilling than any outer accolades. The human in us can only do so much, but when we reach that point where we think we can go no further, this is when our inner strength comes to the fore to help us keep going. Ultra running is a great way to experience and explore this incredible frontier. In my life I always feel so happy when I can go beyond my own perceived limitations. Transcending our limitations in any field gives us such joy.
Describe a typical training week.
I regularly run between 160km and 200km per week, I enjoy the process and discipline of it. For me it’s enjoyable and fulfilling to have the opportunity to work hard every day towards my goals.
With such a high volume of training to fuel, do you follow a special diet?
I’ve been a vegetarian for my entire adult life and I have found that a plant-based diet is really conducive to both my running and my life in general. A lot of the top trail runners are vegetarian or vegan.
The highly successful vegan ultramarathoner Scott Jurek’s Eat and Run is a cross between a fascinating autobiography and a vegan recipe book.
What inspires you to keep training at a high level?
When I run I feel the most alive, the most free and the most connected to the world around me. And there’s the self-discovery – beyond the very extremes of fatigue and distress we can find a great calm and power that we never dreamed was there, sources of strength never discovered at all because we never dared to push on past the obstructions.
What are some things running ultras has taught you?
For me trail and ultra running is all about self-transcendence, freedom, simplicity and exploration. Our modern world is so obsessed with the search for comfort and ease that having this outlet, which gives me the chance to put myself in challenging situations and to explore and have adventures, is so balancing. Having the opportunity to spend a whole day out in nature for me is very meditative and fulfilling. You find you begin to value anew the simple pleasures of life, a beautiful sunset, drinking from a mountain stream, good company and natural foods.
How does your meditation practice relate to your training and racing?
For me the practice of meditation and the practice of running are completely interrelated. Through running I develop concentration, discipline and determination while from meditation I get peace, stillness and tranquility. It’s always important to have a balance between the outer aspect of our lives and taking the time to develop and connect with the deeper inner parts of our being. At a certain point the physical body gets exhausted and that’s where the mental and spiritual dimensions kick in – we’re finite, but we can connect to the infinite. I learnt meditation many years ago from the Indian teacher Sri Chinmoy. Sri Chinmoy spoke a lot about sports and meditation and inspired countless athletes. He talked about the cosmic or inner energy, and how when you can connect with this through meditation, your potential is boundless.
What keeps you going when things get tough?
While running, especially in long events, I try and use the skills I have developed from meditation to make my mind still and calm and to be present in the moment. Very often when we are attempting to do something really challenging it is our own mind that can become our worst enemy. Our doubts, worries and insecurities can all attempt to hold us back. Having the ability to quieten the mind and focus on the task at hand is an invaluable skill.
What are the coolest places you’ve ever run?
The Canary Islands, the Sahara Desert, the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, and the Himalayas in both India and Nepal.
Any books you’d like to recommend?
Some books I’ve been reading lately and enjoying are Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday, The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, and anything by Malcolm Gladwell.
Books on ultra running
New Brighton Library