Perception is reality

I never thought of myself as a decent runner. I may have mentioned this previously. I certainly never felt I had any natural talent for running. This wasn’t simply a case of low self-esteem or high personal expectations, life fed this back to me in clear, unambiguous terms. When I was at school I was at the back of cross-country. When we did sprints, I was at the back. When I ran around in the playground with friends they were always faster than me. When I went orienteering I was always one of the slowest in my age-category races.

The only time I ever got a hint I might have some ability was when I inter-railed to Greece with my friend, Steve, and we had a sprint race in the original Athens Olympic stadium.

Steve backdropped by the unusually shaped 1896 Olympics stadium

Admittedly I false-started to get a couple of steps lead on him but as the race went on he wasn’t overtaking me and I was holding him off. It might not sound like much except he’d broken our school record for 400m on sports day when we were in Sixth Form, I believe a time of 56 seconds. Our race took place a few years after leaving school and a couple of months before my first ever 10K race.

A young sun-bronzed traveller poses pretending to awaits the gun

October 1992 and if I could remember anything about my first 10K, I’d lovingly regale you with its story. I know it was in Totton, near Southampton, but I’m not even sure where it started or where the course went, only that I took 48-minutes. The race was full of club runners with a few outsiders like myself testing our mettle.

I know these bits because in those simpler, pre-digital times, races used to send out results booklets about a month after the race (as long as you gave them a self-addressed envelope). It contained a list of everyone’s times – often split into male and female races along with team races, course records, past results and it was all very nice laid out. I poured over it to find my name and time, and somewhere past the middle page staples I found, from clear unambiguous feedback, that I wasn’t that good. The fastest people in the field were close to thirty minutes, the slowest just over an hour, so my forty-eight minutes was closer to the back than the front reinforcing the idea I was below average.

It was no different when I ran my first half marathons four years later. I did three in a couple of months and they all came in around 1hr51 – give or take thirty seconds. Wading through the results, I was somewhere down around the 60th percentile. The fastest runners were closing in on 1hr05, the slowest taking 2hr15. Once again I was closer to the back of the field than the front.

My first marathon followed on soon after the halfs and at 4hr23 it was the same back-of-the-pack story. Among my small group of running friends, the talk was always of being good if you could break four hours so clearly I wasn’t. Obviously the sub-3 was vaunted and only for seriously good runners, I remember looking at the London Marathon results of the time printed, over the next five days, in one of the broadsheet newspapers and seeing that only a thousand of the 40,000 strong field had broken three hours. It seemed like a benchmark which only the talented could achieve. It was a pipe dream for a below-average runner like me. I was a long way off the decent times.

Even ten years ago races were still generally organised by clubs. There were more charity runners and non-club runners than before but it was all relatively niche and those latter categories tended to be bucket listers rather than regulars. The majority still belonged to clubs.

By then I’d improved to have run a 1hr38 half and a 3hr41 marathon, both of which began to give me the idea I was better than I realised but I still wasn’t sure of myself. Unfortunately I was mixing with friends who could run sub-3 marathons and break 1hr20 in a half. Nonetheless I began to find myself running paces I’d never thought myself capable of while training with runners who I saw as much better.

My early parkruns were usually placing somewhere in the top 30-40 in a field of 150-200. That’s not bad but it’s not outstanding. But when I got my training together and started going sub-20 each week, I found myself up towards the front and enjoying the open space of few runners around me. There was no longer a need to navigate through the runner traffic and it felt good to be ahead of the pack.

I also discovered RunBritain with its custom handicap system and ranking of your times against the rest of the running population. I began to see my times over 5K, 10K, half marathon were all good enough to rank in the top 10% that year. While I was miles off the times of the elites, it’s obvious top 10% is decent and it gave me a measure of satisfaction, or rather an accurate measure of where I ranked within the running community.

The growth of running during the 2010s took me by surprise. Professional events companies began to organise more of the mass participation races while an influx of Couch25K and parkrunners gve them a market to sell medals to. The composition of modern results looks very different now when compared to what I saw in the nineties.

Half marathons that once had a 2hr30 cut-off now happily extend those numbers out to three hours and beyond. The consequence of this became clear when one of my friends ran the Liverpool Rock ‘n’ Roll half marathon a few years ago. In a field of 7,000 runners she finished in the top half. In fact closer to the 40th percentile. Now, remembering that I used to be down at the 60th percentile with my 1hr51 times, you’d expect she must have been significantly faster than me, wouldn’t you? Except she wasn’t – her time was 2hr07. When I looked deeper into the results of that race, my 1hr51 times of twenty years ago would have put me in the top 15%.

There’s no doubt I improved over the years. But my move up the field was as much about the other people in the field as it was about me. Where my 20-min parkrun in 2011 gave me a RunBritain ranking of 11.4%, when I ran 19:39 six years later it now put me at 4.2%.  My time hadn’t improved but the attendance at parkrun had.

Your perception is shaped by reality.

What reality looks like depends on, how much of it ,and how clearly, you can see it.

When only committed runners took part in races, I perceived myself as a poor runner.

When races opened up to the general population, I began to perceive myself as a decent runner.

When parkrun began in Poole the majority were committed runners and my stock dropped again.

When parkrun grew, I once again began to see how far I’d come. Sometimes the evidence of your eyes and senses can fool or mislead you.

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