Short sprint – Do it for yourself

When I was twenty-two the gym I went to held monthly challenges. These rotated around the cardio equipment with one month being who could run the most miles, the next being to climb the highest on the versa climber, the the stationary bike, the stepper and so on. Typically the same people won the challenges because they were willing to get in the gym every day and train. I’m certain there was one woman who turned up twice a day to ensure she won the stepper challenge. I often didn’t participate because I wasn’t committed enough and I wasn’t into cardio for cardio’s sake.

The October challenge was to row as far as you could over the month. As I enjoyed the rowing machine and felt I was quite good on it, I gave the challenge a go. This was in the days before the Concept2 machine and there was a blocky graphic display showing your avatar rowing but the machines were technical enough to allow you to go head-to-head with someone on the other machine. I’d done this with Gary, who I played volleyball with, and there was something of a rivalry between us; so I went at the challenge full pelt; I wasn’t going to let him beat me. Fortunately the challenge rules limited you to fifteen minutes rowing each day on the six days of the week the gym was open, so it couldn’t get out of hand.

I suppose the aim of the challenges was to give people a reason or motivation to come to the gym. It was early gamification of the sort you see on Strava every month now. Badges for running 5K, 10K, a half marathon, cycling, swimming or whatever every month. These Strava challenges are participatory and while there is a leaderboard it’s about doing it for yourself rather than beating other people.

But back in the day I was interested in beating Gary, if not winning the challenge, so I made sure of going to the gym every day to max out my rowing allowance. All-out, hard effort for fifteen minutes to log as much distance as I could in my quest to be the best and beat Gary. I’d probably then go off and lift some weights and play volleyball or basketball.

I lasted two weeks before I fell sick. It was so bad I went home from work on Thursday lunchtime, took the Friday off work and stayed in bed all weekend to recover. I was back at work on the Monday but I’d learned a lesson about overdoing things. I often say I’m never ill and the Friday was the only day I took off in eight years working there.

The real consequences of that lesson came a couple of weeks later. November rolled around and the gym staff were looking for people to sign up for the next challenge. I declined. I realised I’d made myself ill from a meaningless challenge. My ego took part in the challenges because I wanted to be part of the gym but more so because I wanted to be at, or near, the top of the leaderboard. There was no reward, only bragging rights to be a big fish in a little pond. More so I realised the challenge was the gym staff’s thing not mine. They were signing up people to try and keep people motivated and have as many names as possible taking part to make it an interesting competition but so what? Those were their goals not mine. My goals lay in a different place, in particular on the volleyball court and staying fit and healthy enough to keep training, playing and improving at that.

I never signed up for another challenge again.

It’s all about hard work?

I grew up believing in hard work. I was doing a Sunday paper round from age 11, a morning one at 13, I had a part-time job at Broadstone Sports Centre at 15 and my mum told me that if I ran out of work, I should always ask for more! After the Sports Centre I did a year at Tesco on Fruit & Veg, where I believe Brian and Dave, the managers, considered me hardworking enough to entrust one side of an aisle to me while three did the other.

When it came to playing sport, I brought the same workhorse mentality and desire to do everything I could. That stood me in good stead when I played a solo sport like squash where I’d run myself into the ground, but it could be less positive playing team sports where you have to have the discipline to sometimes do nothing more than allow your teammates to do their job.

Nonetheless when playing I would squeeze every ounce of effort out of my body. Running on and off-court to get lost balls, chasing after opponents who’d broken away for one-on-one opportunities in football, diving after every volleyball that came in my direction, man-marking opponents and jumping to block every basketball shot. Playing volleyball I picked up an array of minor injuries which included jumping into the post while trying to hit an errant set, running full speed into a crash barrier at an outdoor summer tournament trying to reach a ball that had caromed ten yards off-court, and repeatedly diving on sports hall floors to which my hip still bears the scar of testimony. Whenever I trained or played, I would always walk off court dripping with sweat. My effort was as good as you could ask for, even if my performance wasn’t what I hoped for.

When I became a runner, I brought this wholehearted approach with me. I charged off down the road at full speed from the beginning of runs. If I reached a hill it was maximum effort up it. I wanted to get faster and ended up gasping for breath for however long I was running. The only exception was on long runs when, knowing I would be out for two or three hours, I tried to ration my effort. But at the end of it all my legs would still be tired and lacking energy. This approached lasted with me until 2011 when I started learning how to train. Even since, as I learned about the benefits of high mileage, I’ve been willing to put in sixty mile weeks despite relatively mediocre race performances.

What I now realise is that, for me, all that hard work was a mistake.

Having read the biographies of Ron Hill, Derek Clayton and Steve Jones, it’s easy to conclude miles make champions. The overriding message that comes from each of them is how hard they trained. Ex-marathon world record holder Paula Radcliffe is another who talks about training hard.

Steve Jones was the world record holder in both the marathon (2:08:05 – Chicago 1984) and half marathon (1:01:14 – Birmingham 1985). He was the pre-eminent marathoner of the mid-1980s with two wins in Chicago, one at London, another at New York. He talks about how he never wore a watch or heart-rate monitor, how he didn’t think about his diet but focuses on putting in hard work to be able to run hard from start to finish.

Derek Clayton ran 150 miles per week on his way to becoming the world record holder for the marathon during the 1970s. Ron Hill ran as much as 130 mpw when he was running world class times similar to Derek. Paula Radcliffe’s success and notoriety came when she moved up to the marathon distance and set incredible world records that lasted for over a decade. Like Steve Jones, Paula liked to race from the front and go as hard as her body would allow.

Each of them credit their running success to hard work.

But I believe there’s a catch to this. The marathon is at one extreme event of the running spectrum. If you’re interested in running the longest distance in the fastest time then working hard to convert all your muscle fibres to become more efficient at fat burning and aerobic metabolism is a good way forward. Forcing yourself through long, hard training runs to handle the pain of running for over two hours, while feeling depleted, is going to make a difference.

For all their talk of success through hard work, none of these world class marathoners was as successful at shorter distances. Steve Jones was a 5,000m – 10,000m specialist before he took up the marathon. His results in the 10,000m major championships are less prolific. No world record, 12th place at 1983 Helsinki World Championships, 8th place in 1984’s Los Angeles Olympics and a bronze in the 1986 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games.

Paula’s track career resulted in a single 10,000m silver medal at the Seville World Championships in 1999. Ron Hill placed 18th and 7th in the 10,000m at the 1964 and 1968 Olympics. Derek Clayton never tried shorter distances once he realised the marathon was where his talent lay.

I’m trying to highlight that while these runners tell you how hard they worked to achieve their notable successes, what goes unsaid is how all that hard work wasn’t any use in shorter distance races and it’s a lesson I believe we can all learn from.

A key part of training is to figure out where your own strengths and weakness lie with regards to your physiology. It’s something a coach should be doing as they get to know your running. Some people are built for speed, others built for endurance. The more you’re built for speed, the fewer miles you need to run in training whatever the event. This was the lesson I never understood until recently. Even two years ago, I was running sixty miles per week to achieve the same 21-22 minute parkruns I was running ten years ago on only ten miles per week. Yet ten years ago when I upped my mileage from ten to thirty I began to run faster times so there’s a paradoxical element to it. Mileage helps when it’s well-aimed.

Finding the sweet spot between speed and mileage is the key to running success. If you’re a complete beginner, it is obvious you only need to do a small amount of exercise to start getting fitter and faster – one mile per day might be enough. If you’re competing at the Olympics, it takes many miles of training each week simply to maintain your fitness before you squeeze out more. You have to find the sweet spot that is right for your level.

Short sprint – “Being fast”

I find the limitations of language frustrating. I often meet runners who say they want to “be fast” but that’s not exactly what they want. They might currently be running a twenty-five minute parkrun and think “being fast” is running twenty-three minutes. Other times when they drop back to twenty-six minutes they say they’re “losing their speed”. But “speed” and “fast”, even “slow” are all relative terms.

Currently I’m reading Chris MacDougall’s latest book, “Running with Sherman” where he talks about his experiences living in Amish country while training a donkey for an ultra race. In one chapter he details running on the Full Moon with the Amish people deciding to only do five miles as they’re running under starry skies without lighting. Meanwhile Ame, one of the first Amish runners, runs the ten mile run “fast” arriving back shortly after MacDougall has finished. That sounds incredible but then MacDougall mentions Ame can run a 2hr54 marathon which suggests he’s running ten miles in about an hour in which case MacDougall must be plodding along at something like ten minutes per mile. Neither of those paces sounds as fast as they come across in his description.

In his more famous book “Born to Run” he writes about how a group of Tarahumara Indians from Mexico competed in the Leadville 100 (mile ultramarathon) easily beating the rest of the field because they capable of running big distances at incredible paces. Except they were running one hundred miles in twenty hours so 12min/mile. While it is incredible to be able to cover that distance, it’s not incredibly fast which is the implication when you read it. Of course, as a writer, he’s trying to make his story appeal rather than go into the details whereas I’m always been interested in the details as much as the story. The danger of reading this vague language is you come away believing you can run incredibly fast at parkrun through ultra training.

The top sprinters in the world have genuine speed and are incredibly fast. Usain Bolt reaches a peak speed of over 27mph running the 100m, averaging 23mph. Meanwhile Eliud Kipchoge runs the marathon at 13mph which is half of Usain Bolt’s top speed. It’s also the equivalent of a fourteen minute parkrun. From there the rest of us are getting slower. Ten mph is scraping under nineteen minutes while that twenty-five minute parkrunner is barely running 7½ mph. When you get down to thirty minutes you’re barely running at a quarter of the speed, Usain Bolt averages.

The point here is not to rag on about people’s levels of ability, it’s about the use of language. Watch out when people say someone else is “fast”, or claim they’re “losing their speed”, are too “slow” or “not fast enough”. They could probably improve all those things easily with a few sessions of sprinting but whether it would do their race times any good is debateable. Specific language like “running at 9min/mile pace” can ensure everybody is on the same page about expectations. From a coaching perspective being specific provides decent insight into what needs to be done to improve.

Process or Outcome goal?

Back at the New Year I wrote all about SMART and DUMB goals which are acronyms for remembering the parameters to use when setting your goals. Today I’m explaining the difference between two types of goal – process and outcome. At their simplest, a process goal is one that focus on actions you take in the journey to becoming a better runner; an outcome goal will show you are a better runner.

Typical examples include:

Process goal

  • Run three times each week for thirty mins.
  • Eat banana after every run.
  • Buy new running shoes every 500 miles.

Outcome goal

  • Finish first at my local parkrun.
  • Break forty minutes for 10K.
  • Beat my rival at next half marathon.

I’m a big fan of setting Process goals because they’re within your control and if you complete them you get a sense of satisfaction from ticking them all off. They’re very motivating because of all the ticks you see. Completing them can be good for your mental health because ticking off the goal reminds you of how you’ve just seen a goal through to completion and celebrating that success.

In some ways, they’re like a “Gratitude Journal”, those diaries which people keep to remind themselves of five good things that happened to them that day. The secret behind the Gratitude Journal’s success is that it keeps you focused on the present and good feelings, not looking into the future for what you wish or think you need to make you happy.

The downside of Process Goals is it’s possible to get bogged down with routine never achieving anything of substance. You can end up living in the process of getting better without ever testing yourself in races to find out whether you’re actually better. It’s like teaching your kids to save money for the future, it’s a good habit to learn, but what good does it do if the money just sits in the bank unspent?

On the other hand, the success of Outcome goals can be dependent on factors beyond your control.

  • What happens if Mo Farah turns up and runs your local parkrun the day you were targeting to finish first?
  • What happens if your target 10K race falls on a day with 50mph winds?
  • What happens if your rival gets a coach, starts training hard, buys the latest shoes with carbon fibre footplate?

But this can also work in your favour – you may be able to achieve your Outcome goal through judicious selection of circumstances. Want to be First Finisher at parkrun? Go to a small one where the turnout is low and the finishing time is slow. For many years, Pymmes parkrun regularly had less than thirty runners, sometimes only single figures. There’s nothing wrong per se with selecting enabling circumstances but it can become a hollow victory if you’re too focused and selective, rather like challenging your five-year-old to a game of chess.

Sometimes there’s a crossover between Process and Outcome goals e.g. aiming to run 40-minutes at the 10K to be first female finisher. But usually Process goals are defined as manageable steps along the way to your Outcome goal. Tick off all the Process goals and you’ve got a good chance of hitting your Outcome but there can always be things beyond your control to stop you succeeding.

Process goals should be achievable as long as you put in the effort or hardwork; with an Outcome goal you can fail irrespective of how hard you work. This isn’t to say Outcome goals are a bad idea, only that if you set genuinely stretching goals rather than what I call pat-on-the-back goals*; you have to be able to handle the possibility of failure and accompanying disappointment. So my belief is to use Outcome goals more sparingly as too many failed goals sap belief and confidence. All elite runners have a mix of both types with Outcome goals being used as the measure across their career.

* A Pat-on-the-back goal is one which has so little stretch or difficulty about it that with the smallest of effort, you’re going to achieve it. It’s the person who can run 26min38 at parkrun saying I’d like to break 26min30, or setting a process goal of “Running once per fortnight”. Of course there could be people for whom this represents a genuine challenge and I’m making no judgement about that, please just understand the general principle of setting goals that are so unchallenging, that really it’s just the person giving themselves a pat-on-the-back.

Charlie Spedding’s success

Recently I’ve been reading Charlie Spedding’s autobiography “from last to first”.  He’s a runner I only remember because he was one of the early winners of the London Marathon and being a trivia buff it was the sort of factual list I knew off by heart at one time. The following year he finished second in a time of 2:08:33, which remained the English record until 2014, as he relinquished his title to Welshman Steve Jones.

Published in 2009, “from last to first” looks back to Charlie’s running career which ended twenty years earlier after the Seoul Olympics. Like all autobiographies, it tells of his early life, parents and formative years in running. It details his two major successes, winning the London Marathon and a bronze medal at the Los Angeles Olympic, events which occurred a few months apart in 1984 as well as a copy of his training diary between them. The final chapters of the book give an overview of how he trained and brings us up to date with some of his thoughts on the reasons behind the nation’s lack of health and prospects for future running success.

At just over two hundred pages, the book is well written and often humorous. As a pharmacist, he clearly has an understanding of science yet is able to tell his story without unnecessarily resorting to big words or jargon. I laughed out loud when he recalled his time at Chorister School in Durham where “One of the lads I played with was a boy called Tony Blair. I don’t recall his skill with the ball, but I do remember his ability to make up rules of the game to suit his team’s situation.” Also the tale of how he was invited to do an inspirational talk at a local psychiatric hospital. Introduced to a patient by the doctor as “This is Charlie Spedding. He’s an Olympic bronze medallist in the marathon”, the patient replied “That’s alright, I thought I was Henry the Eighth when I got here.”

About to undergo Achilles surgery in the 1970s, he almost died in hospital due to anaphylactic shock caused by an allergic reaction to a drug. It’s interesting to think that, at the time, surgery was deemed the way to fix these issues. Derek Clayton stated in his autobiography that he’d had nine operations for problems which included his Achilles. Nowadays we understand surgery isn’t necessarily the solution, heel drops can resolve it. My friend, Simon rehabilitated his Achilles simply by doing a month of very easy running after racing twenty-five times in a year. Charlie notes late on that he avoided further Achilles issues when he was in the United States by getting regular massages.

Throughout the book, Charlie impresses how important attitude and mindset were to his succcess. He talks about how he was fortieth or forty-first academically in a class of 42 at junior school but went on to achieve a degree and running his own business. When he first played sport, he wanted to be a footballer but wasn’t good enough; when he ran sprints he was last but then found cross-country and finished second in his first race. Having found what he was good at, he then worked hard at it.

After a decade of high level national running as part of Gateshead Harriers, he sat in a pub and rethought his attitude as to what he needed to do to reach his potential. He realised he needed to be more positive in his vocabulary, to be specific about his goals and to be willing to think differently if he was going to achieve more than the average person. His underlying philosophy was one of getting the best out of himself for whatever talent he had and accepting that as success.

I found many parallels in his writing to how I’ve lived my own life apart, of course, from winning the London marathon or going to the Olympics. The attitude and mindset of always giving your best to fulfil your potential are one that resonate with me. Also his willingness to try new approaches and not giving up when things haven’t worked out. It’s something of a cliché to say “how bad do you want it?” is the determining factor but I’ve met many people who say they want to achieve good times in their running but aren’t then willing to make it a priority or get out of their comfort zone. There’s nothing wrong with not doing those things but I believe it’s best not to talk about your desire for improvement if you’re not willing to do the things that are firmly within your control. It’s like wanting to win the lottery but refusing to buy a ticket.

I enjoyed reading this book for its refreshing honesty and humour. It was a very easy read and, as I was loaned this copy, I’ll probably look to pick up my own one in the future for a reread. As an aside, the hospital in which Charlie Spedding nearly died is the one where I was born!

Short Sprint – Beginner’s mind

Beginner’s mind is a Zen concept about approaching situations with a non-judgemental, open-minded attitude. There’s a couple of stories which begin to explain it and both involve cups of tea!

In the first teaching, a university professor who has been studying Zen teachings goes to see the Master. On arrival, he states he wishes to learn about Zen and begins to tell the Master all that he already knows. The Master listens and, after a while, suggests they drink tea.

While the professor talks, the Master begins to pour. The cup begins to fill with tea and the Master continues to pour. The professor continues to explain what he has learned about Zen and soon the cup is nearly full. The Master continues to pour as the professor continues on. The tea reaches the brim of the cup and then begins to overflow. The professor’s voice falters as the Master continues to pour and the tea spills out of the saucer onto the table. The professor stops, thinking perhaps his explanations have distracted the Master, but the pouring continues. As the tea runs off the table onto the floor, the professor is unable to stand it any longer and says “Stop, stop, can you not see the cup is full and no more will go in?”

The Master stops, looks up and replies “Like the cup, your mind is already full of what you know and there is no room left until you empty it of your ideas and preconceptions.

What I often see among my running friends is a propensity to struggle because they have become set in their routines. Often when they return from a running break they restart with a schedule that is not much smaller than when they stopped. Or if they’re struggling to make progress, they make only small changes to the training in the hope it will create some kind of large change. Or the same injury flairs up repeatedly. All of it is not that far off Einstein’s “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. None of them seem able to take stock of the fact that what they’re doing isn’t working for them and go back to humble beginnings to build from the ground up.

In the second Zen teaching there is more tea to be drunk. Or rather, more tea to be poured into four different cups.

  • The first cup is upside down. When the teacher attempts to pour tea, it cannot, of course, go in the cup but instead splashes off the upturned china. This is like the student who is so blocked they cannot receive any wisdom.
  • The second cup is the right way up but has a hole in its base. When the tea is poured in, it immediately drains away. This is the student who says they want to learn, who listens to advice but then walks away but doesn’t implement or think any further on it. The advice has gone in one ear, out the other.
  • The third cup is normal but it contains a fine layer of dirt. When the tea is poured in it becomes muddy and undrinkable. This is the student who is already full of thoughts and ideas – the one who lacks beginner’s mind. They’re not receptive to new ideas, but only willing to listen to those which confirms their own preconceived beliefs and ideas.
  • The fourth cup represents the perfect student. It is clean, there are no cracks or holes and it is the right way up. When tea is poured in, it is retained and perfect to drink.

While experienced runners are not new students coming to a teacher to learn how to run; when they are struggling the situation they find themselves in is unfamiliar. If it were familiar, they would know how to run themselves to fitness and there would be no struggle.

Unbeknownst to them they are students approaching the master. They need to open their eyes and take stock of their situation. They need to consider all options before taking action, not just the ones they’ve become accustomed to. Just like the clean, upturned, perfectly formed cup they need an openness to learning anew and to rebuild using methods they may have forgotten from when they were younger or beginners.

Every day of your life is the first day of the rest of your life. The universe is gradual decay and entropy. You have to keep looking at it with fresh eyes and beginner’s mind to remain ahead of it.

(While these stories are often told by Zen practitioners, I have relied on Dr Joseph Parent’s versions in “Zen Golf”)

The Homecoming List

Arriving home from a run, I unlock the back door, step into the kitchen and find myself faced by a marauding list of things to do. Life used to be so easy when I was irresponsible – I could pay the price later but these days …

I’m stood in sweaty kit that I want to get off because, well, who wants to stand in sweaty kit?

I particularly want to get my bandana off because it gets cold and damp quickly. I want to put it on the hallway radiator but I’m in the wrong part of the house and I’m wearing my shoes.

So my shoes need to be taken off (particularly if they’re muddy) but I also want to get my heart-rate monitor off.

I need to take my heart-rate monitor strap off but … if I wait a few seconds more … it’ll pop up a Heart rate recovery stat indicating how much heart-rate has dropped since I stopped running two minutes ago.

But once I’m thinking about my heart-rate and watch, I want to look at the splits from my run. I barely glance at the watch while I’m running, so arriving home is the first opportunity to get a good look at the numbers and … feel pleased or start rationalising.

I want a cup of tea. This one’s easily solved by flicking on the kettle. Unless of course, I forgot to fill it before going out and then I’m going to have to step across the kitchen in wet shoes.

Now drips of sweat are beginning to form. Previously they’ve been evaporating as I run, now I’m stationary they’re building up on me. I need to get to the towel I’ve left in the dining room but to get there I need to have taken off my shoes. Sometimes I’m still aching from the run and don’t feel ready or able to bend down and unlace my shoes. I got out of the habit of kicking my shoes off when I was about twelve. This is the downside of becoming responsible, growing up and doing things properly.

And then there’s nutrition. I should be eating something in the first few minutes after I arrive home, shouldn’t I?  The first hour is the best time to reload the carbs and nutrients into the muscles. Miss that window and it impacts future workouts.

How did life get so complex? This is nothing like it used to be. Finish playing football, shake hands with the opposition then straight to the changing rooms to shower in the sports centre. Stick the sweaty kit in the backpack – maybe leave it there overnight by accident. Shower, change, walk back to the office and start sweating again. Pop to the shop and buy a bottle of Lucozade and a couple of packs of crisps to go with my sandwiches. Get back on with work.

My downstairs tasks are done. I need to get upstairs, get the sweaty kit off.

Take the heart-rate strap and put it in the bathroom sink for a quick soak. Maybe put the bandana in there too. While the sink is filling with water, I’ve just time to open up my laptop to leave my watch uploading to Garmin. Maybe also time to get the soggiest kit off.

But I also need to make sure I remember about the heart-rate strap. One afternoon, I came upstairs after sitting in the sun for hours and heard a curious noise. I couldn’t place it, it was unfamiliar. Walking into the bathroom, I discovered to my horror the tap on and the sink was full. Fortunately I’d left it filling slowly enough that the water was trickling out of the basin overflow. Phew!

The Critical Path Analysis skills from my project management days have me flitting from one task to the next. Many is the occasion when I’ve done an upstairs task and gone down to the kitchen to find a teabag stewing in the cup. In the 1-2 minute window between filling the cup and waiting for the teabag to brew, I’d thought there was enough time to ‘pop upstairs’ and do something else. But then a variation of Doorway Effect kicked in and, once elsewhere, I’d forgotten the teabag was steeping.

It’s still too soon to shower or wash if I’m sweating. Got to wait for the body to cool down and get back to a calm level. So much for the warmdown jog at the end of my run.

So while I wait, maybe I’ve got time to write some notes on my Garmin upload. Copy them to Strava – think of what to say about the session, make separate notes in my spreadsheet and training log. And that’s before I get out around to any kind of analysis or comparison to previous sessions.

Once I’ve logged into Garmin and Strava I’ll want to see how everybody else’s runs have gone, so there’s another time sink. Maybe I should nip downstairs first and get that cup of tea, grab a banana or bagel to put some immediate nutrition in. I might even risk putting on lunch but must remember to set the timer so there’s no chance of it boiling over while I’m upstairs.

If shoes are wet they need to be stuffed with newspaper and put by the radiator. That’s a job I can do while I wait for the second teabag in my fresh cup of tea to brew. All of this with no stretching or foam rolling in sight! That’s one thing never making my list.

Finally most of the jobs are done. I’ve got my cuppa, I’ve munched on a snack and it’s time to wash or shower and get some clean clothes on.

A few days ago I found a way to make it all seem easier. I stood outside my house when I arrived home. I didn’t go straight into the house but instead took a minute or two to look around and enjoy the quiet. I was able to take my headband off. Wait for the watch to ping up its recovery stat thing, take a look at the splits from my run and generally recompose myself before getting indoors. The extra minutes made all the difference and had eliminated some of the tasks I’d taken to fretting over.

It was like the days when I played football, volleyball or any other sport. We used to shake hands, walk off the pitch in a wearisome way and amble back to the changing rooms. Sometimes we would even stretch before we left the arena. But it was always much less hurried. Deliberately so.

Just don’t ask me about the days when I come home desperate for the toilet!

Weather to run

I’m a big believer you can train in all weathers. There’s only one thing that stops me and that’s ice, mainly because it’s too easy to get injured but anything else I’m willing to get out there. My resolve has been tested recently with a bitterly cold wind and driving rain alternating for what seems like the past month. But I suspect my body is trying to convince me to have a little break. I certainly don’t recall it being as tough this time last year.

I remember in the first winter after setting up Poole parkrun, I got in the car and its temperature gauge said -6C, or it may even have been -10. Whatever it was, by the time I arrived at the park it had risen to -2 degrees but with no wind it was a calm, still day. Not even a breeze. Wrapped up warm with thick leggings, long sleeve running top, t-shirt over it, plus obligatory hat and gloves it was a surprisingly pleasant morning run. The lack of wind chill made all the difference.

All layered up for a cold morning

At the other extreme I suffered heatstroke one summer. Or at least that’s my self-diagnosis of what happened. I’d planned a ten mile run at the beach on the prom – five miles out, five miles back. The outward leg went well but what I didn’t realise was the breeze on my back was pushing me along. It was intended as an easy-paced run and I found myself ticking along nicely at 7:45/mile but when I turned around the breeze hit me. I immediately began to find running harder. It was the height of summer so it shouldn’t have been a surprise but I’d done the same run the day before without incident. By seven miles I was slowing to nine minute miles and stopped to stand in the shade of a beach hut. Hands on knees, head down, not feeling great and my heart-rate only recovered to 115bpm – a good thirty or forty beats higher than I’d expect. I tried running the eighth mile and could barely struggle along at ten minute mile pace so eventually decided it would be safest walking the last two miles back to the car.

I’ve run in heat before without issue but the temperature registered as 26C which is higher than I’m used to. Normally I avoid running in the heat of the day, I either go early morning or in the evening. There’s no point running at the beach on a sunny day, I’ve tried it and you encounter walkers, the pushchair mafia three or four abreast, dogs on leads, as well as other exercisers running, cycling or roller-blading. It’s too crowded to have an enjoyable session and impossible to do a workout on target.

Running in snow is fine when you’re the first one out there. Sound is dampened, all is quiet and it feels fantastic. But Poole has its own microclimate so snow is a rare thing. In a lifetime of living here I can remember decent snowfalls in only six or seven winters. Most times it’s melted away within a day. I don’t think I saw a decent snowfall from 1993 to 2008; it’s that rare around here. This year the news outlets warned of the second coming of the Beast from the East hitting large parts of the country – the picture below shows the snowfall that hit us. So my snow running experience is limited and certainly never been tried in knee deep drifts.

Typical Bournemouth snowfall!

We did have two days of snowfall in March 2018 although it was barely a foot deep. The first morning was a Saturday so I ran to Poole parkrun and was highly disappointed to find it was called off even though there’d been no notice on the website when I checked at 8am. The great thing about the first day of snow is everything shuts down and no-one else goes out other than to sled, build snowmen or throw snowballs. The fresh snow is easy to run on and the council is good at getting the main roads gritted and cleared. Without traffic, the roads become the perfect track for running on. But the good times rarely last and by the second evening of our snowfall, everything was melting, turning slushy and the pavements packing down, turning to ice. Unfortunately I came a cropper only a few hundred metres from home after running five miles in the morning and five in the evening. I lost my footing and went straight down spread-eagled. I believe that may have been the cause of a groin injury that came on over the next month but I’m not sure as I was running big mileage during that period.

Rain is never fun to run in unless it’s warm rain on a hot summer’s day but that’s pretty rare. Most rain really isn’t that bad to run in. If you look out the window and it’s absolutely pelting down, just wait and it eases off within ten minutes. When it’s not pelting down, it looks worse than the reality of being out in it. Often I’ve looked out pessimistically at a rainy day before stepping out of the backdoor to find it’s not torrid at all.

A few years ago the big man-up phrase was “Skin is waterproof”, but my logic is slightly different – you’re going to get sweaty and shower when you get home so getting wet first doesn’t make much difference. Some like to wrap up with layers and rain jackets to keep from getting too wet. I take the opposite approach – the less wet kit there is clinging and weighing me down, the more enjoyable it stays. It’s easy for wet kit to become cold, uncomfortable kit. On arriving home a pair of shorts and a t-shirt can be thrown on the radiator, and it doesn’t take long to towel off dry.

I remember getting stoned one lunchtime along Baiter Park. I’d started off in bright sunshine in Poole Park but as I came round onto Whitecliff Park ominous black clouds were forming and then the rain came. My biggest concern was getting caught by lightning as I’d have nowhere to hide. But while it never struck, hail did. It only lasted five minutes but it was painful. Stinging with every hit, the wind blowing me back and the rain soaking me through. I found myself running bent over, head turned down to protect my eyes from getting haildashed. It was an occasion when I considered quitting the run but some part of me wouldn’t quit. Anyway what was I going to do? I’d still have had to get back to the car, so I might as well run back. Then just like that, the hail stopped, the rain ended and the clouds parted so I was back to blue skies and sunshine.

Windy days are my least enjoyable. At 6’2” with equivalent reach I bear the brunt of a headwind in a way smaller people will never understand. There’s too much surface area creating drag which in turn slows the pace to a crawl. But it’s the wind on cold days where the wind chill ramps up that have begun to do for me. Leaving the house with leggings, long sleeve top, gloves, hat, even a buff to try and cover up every piece of skin I’m like an Arctic explorer fearing frostbite if any part is left exposed. Captain Oates springs to mind on these days “I am just going outside and may be some time.”

I suffer with cold hands and feet, always have. I’ve even run with two pairs of gloves in the past and had my hands go numb. Feet going numb is something weird I’ve experienced on a few occasions, it’s very disconcerting not being able to feel how your foot is striking the ground. Generally I warm up once the blood gets pumping but if I forget gloves I’m in trouble. One September, I misjudged an unseasonably cold morning. An hour into my long run I’d lost half the feeling in my right hand. Two fingers, a thumb and most of the palm were numb. Returning home I could barely hold the door key and certainly didn’t have the dexterity to unlock it. I had to employ a two-handed, childlike manoeuvre with my palms pressed either side of the key to create enough pressure to turn it. Having gone through the pain of hands getting cold, I then had to endure the pain of them warming back up, tingling as the blood flowed into the constricted veins.

I recently ran at the beach during the cold spell. The wind was 20+ mph and the chill had it feeling like -4C. Sand was whipping across the prom, a danger of getting it in the eyes, and I only managed a mile before turning round. It was meant to be a recovery run so my legs weren’t at their best as it was. By the time I got back to the car, the tips of my fingers were numb, even in gloves, and the layers of clothing weren’t enough to stop me shivering sat back in the car. It reminded me of the Saturday morning two days before my run streak reached a year when it was a howling storm and pitch dark. So close to the goal I had to run but went out in shorts, t-shirt and no gloves; arriving home I was chilled to the bone. I stripped off my wet clothes, put on my dressing gown and went back to bed where it took over half an hour to warm back up.

I never used to be a big reader of weather forecasts. After all if you’ve planned to do something, you can’t control the weather, just get out there and do it. However in recent times, I’ve begun to look at what the weather will be like during the day to see if there’s a best time to run. Should I get out early at 10am, wait until midday or even the evening? Is the wind picking up or dying down as the day goes on, are the chances of rain increasing or decreasing? What is never in question is whether I’ll do a session. I don’t look at the weather forecast and use it to talk myself out of running. I only look at it to see when the best time to run might be. That’s been more applicable with pandemic lockdowns, but once we return to normal and life regains its own schedule the runs will have to be slotted in wherever the rest of life dictates. It’s just a case of making sure I wear the right kit for the conditions.

“Let’s see what happens”

I was standing on an empty street. A grey January day but not cold. I’d run here from home. The plan said a 15-min warmup and that’s what I’d done. Just shy of two miles beginning with a jog until my breathing settled in, gradually picking up the pace with some downhill running that had got as quick as I was going to need for my first effort.

So now I wandered up and down the street. A minute to the lamp-post eighty metres away then a minute back. Two minutes wouldn’t be long enough to clear any lactate built up during warm-up. I decided to do another trip to the lamp-post and back.

As I reached the lamp-post, I now cued myself into what I was about to do. Six hundred metres at 6:18/mile pace, anywhere from 6:15 to 6:20 would be good enough. Jog the recovery then a five hundred metre effort at the same 6:18 pace with another jog to recover. Then it would get interesting. Four hundred metres followed by three efforts of three hundred metres all at a faster pace – 5:50/mile. Could I do these? I’d struggled to hit pace last Thursday on similar efforts over only two hundred metres. I’d run strides on Tuesday less than 48 hours earlier, did I overdo it? Would my legs be fresh enough to hit target? I needed to go out on the six hundred at the correct pace or risk jeopardising the later intervals.  My mind whirred. Not overly anxious but enough thoughts to start getting on my nerves.

I called a halt to it. “Let’s see how it goes” I said to myself and instantly all the thoughts were gone. I was back in the present, walking the street on a grey January day. If I failed to hit target then so be it. I’d have some decisions to make about whether to adjust the plan or just put it down to fatigue from previous sessions. If I hit target it would be great as I’m on schedule. “But let’s just see how it goes” I told myself. The unsaid follow-on being “then figure out what to do once I’ve got concrete information to work with. Let’s work with reality not a bunch of needless fears and anxieties swirling around”.

I went through a phase a few years where I got very Zen about life. I was able to simply say “It’s all just information. Whatever happens today is information about what to do next”. No longer did I interpret events or add my own narrative to them; I simply saw them for what they were and it was impossible to rile me up. The simple truth is no-one can make good decisions when they’re riled up. They might luck into a good decision while making a panic choice but more often than not, fear and anxiety lead to the wrong decisions. People play it safe to avoid their worst fears coming true.

“It’s all just information. Whatever happens today is information about what to do next.”

In my update on 800m training, I wrote about how I sometimes felt nervous, or low-level anxiety going into a session. This doesn’t relate to the pain of what’s about to occur, only whether I’m going to hit the targets I’ve set. For someone else maybe it would be a fear of the pain or breathlessness.

How do I get round this? It’s simple and effective. I stop worrying about those targets or goals, and say “Let’s see how it goes”. Doing that immediately brings me back into the present. All fear and anxiety comes from the past or the future, the present is the only moment where you can take action and make a difference.

Does this mean I don’t plan for the future? Not at all. But what I don’t do is emotionally engage with it. The moment you start worrying about what’s going to happen is when you have to recognise you’ve become distracted and refocus back to now. Once calm you can go back to planning. The better you get at this refocusing, the more it becomes second-nature.

Mindfulness was a big watchword a couple of years ago and what is it? It’s about becoming present in the moment. It’s a variation on meditation which is also about focusing on what is happening now. Next time you go to a race and start feeling nervous about whether you can win (or whether you’ll be last), bring yourself back to the present moment. In a calmer moment begin to explore why it would an issue not to win, or to be last. What would that mean to you? What consequences do you imagine may occur because of it? Uncover the underlying fear and then dissolve it by sitting with it. Commit to facing up to it.

There’s one period of my life where I remember experiencing extreme levels of anxious thinking. It was when I was twenty and my fear of not being able to handle an upcoming situation would begin a domino stream of consciousness with one thought leading to the next. The trigger could be any sort of thing. Maybe my manager had arranged a meeting with me the next day but not said what it was about. Maybe I’d be invited to a party, accepting because I didn’t know how to decline, now worried my social skills would be lacking. Maybe it was about taking something back to a shop.

Night time was often when those thoughts came because I kept myself too busy the rest of the day to address them. But in the dark, quiet of my room, the express train of thoughts would depart, setting off down the tracks at high speed. With the party or returning something to a shop I could stop it by making a negative decision – simply decide not to turn up or keep the defective item. Anxiety derailed by avoiding the situation; that was my go-to strategy, ultimately to my detriment.

But there was no way I could avoid a meeting with my manager so I’d start going through all the possible things I’d done at work recently. I’d explore and examine each situation, I’d come up with excuses or reasons about why I’d done what I’d done. I’d imagine the response I’d get and how I could counter it. Fatigued, eventually my mind tired of the “This happens … what do I do next?” game of Twenty Questions and I’d fall asleep. I had no idea how to stop this whirlwind of thinking other than by avoidance wherever possible. But the one thing I came to realise about facing up to the unavoidable was that, despite all the scenarios I thought up, none of them ever came to pass. Never. Not once. When the actual time came to confront whatever I was scared of, it always played out in a way I’d never imagined.

I’ve read countless testimonials from runners who wouldn’t go to parkrun (“I’ll be at the back”), or join a running club (“club runners are snobby”), or even just go for a run (“people will be looking at me”). Yet when they did these things, they found it was a completely different story. Parkrun was friendly and welcoming, the running club wasn’t elitist and running round their neighbourhood didn’t raise eyebrows. All the imagined consequences never came to pass. It’s exactly what I used to experience and they follow the same self-defeating pattern I did. They get involved in their ego’s perception of how it will play out and when that becomes too much, they go with an avoidance strategy (not going to parkrun, not joining the running club, not going for a run) to stop the anxious thinking. But in the process their life becomes one size smaller as they close down an option that could open up so many possibilities.

Like I said back at the beginning I now realise there’s a better way. It’s to stop trying to predict the future and to live in this moment. When the future finally arrives, I deal with it based on whatever shows up. It makes everything so much easier. When the anxious thinking kicks in, nip it in the bud as early as possible by committing to let the future unfold and see what happens.

“Let the future unfold and let’s see what happens”

A Philosophy of Winning

Have you heard of Ian Stewart? It’s a popular Scottish name and I used to work with one but I’m asking about the runner who was one of Britain’s talents in the 1970s claiming a bronze medal in the 5,000m at the Munich Olympics. Athletics Weekly recently ran this article detailing his top 30 races.

What struck me was this quote: “First’s first and second is nowhere as far as I’m concerned. This country’s full of good losers. It’s bloody good winners we want.” It brings to mind famous quotes by Liverpool’s Bill Shankly “Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that” or the misquote of Vince Lombardi, head coach of the Green Bay Packers, with “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing”.

It’s an attitude that was prevalent as I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s, even into the early 2000s but one you rarely hear uttered these days. Maybe it’s because we’ve been spoiled with success in athletics, swimming, cycling, rowing, tennis in recent years; whereas for many years championships or medals were rare.

Through my early twenties I fell firmly into Stewart’s camp believing only in the importance of winning and the pointlessness of placing. I first began to understand this could be wrong while watching the Atlanta Olympics where Britain only won one gold medal. “Being a good loser” was never more apparent than in the men’s 400 metres when Roger Black trailed in behind Michael Johnson. Whatever Black did that day he was never going to beat Johnson, the world record holder at 200m and 400m, unless injury or disqualification occurred. Roger Black did the best he could and made sure he won the silver medal. I’m sure he would have preferred gold but there was no disgrace in getting silver that day.

It’s incisive to ask “If winning means so much why not find situations where it’s guaranteed?”. Try racing your 8-year-old and see how important the win is then. On the other hand, try letting your 8-year-old win easily and they’ll be quick to say “You weren’t trying”. Against a mismatched opponent, it becomes obvious winning means nothing to all but the hyper-competitive. You will see people who go looking for guaranteed wins – witness the segment hunters on Strava or those who enter races with small fields or where the winning time was slow last year.

On the only occasion (so far) where I’ve been crowned “First Finisher” at parkrun, I recorded the slowest winning time of the 200+ occasions Moors Valley parkrun has been run. The best club runners were tucked up in bed on a day forecast to have 50mph winds, resting up for a Dorset Road Race League race the next day. But I never turned up that day looking to win, my intention had been to go for a recovery run!

While it was nice to be first, the week before Andy was fastest, the week after it was Tracy. Meanwhile there were another thousand people around the world who were fastest at their respective parkruns. My success was short-lived but for six years, Mo Farah was the undisputed champion at the Olympics and World Championships over both 5,000 and 10,000 metres but eventually someone surpassed him. Being undisputed champion of anything for a period of time elevates you but eventually it comes to an end and then what? You can either move on to pastures new or try to live off a legacy of the past.

For the rest of us, the truth is there’s always someone who’s better and someone who’s worse. Only one person can rise like Mo Farah, Usain Bolt or Eliud Kipchoge to say they’re the best in the world. Yet when you bring the three of them together, each has to accept they’re only the best in their respective events. Bolt is the best sprinter, Farah the best distance track runner and Kipchoge the best at the marathon. Being the best is event specific.

When I last watched BBC Sports Personality of the Year, a decade or so ago, they went through a list of Britain’s world champions which quickly became a list of sports you barely knew existed. A quick search pulls up a similar list from 2001 which The Guardian created. While I remember triple jumper Jonathan Edwards, rowers Cracknell and Pinsent, snooker’s Ronnie O’Sullivan and boxing’s Lennox Lewis; can anyone outside of the sports name our former world champions in waterskiing, billiards, real tennis or canoeing? This isn’t to diminish the efforts of the athletes in minor sports, only to point out how limited winning success is in its scope and recognition.

Could winning represent something deeper than simply coming first? I suspect many believe winning brings some kind of Midas touch. That it’ll turn them into a good person, bring them friends, a beautiful spouse, maybe make their lives easier by giving them power and influence, or even like King Midas bring them riches. While that may be true for Bolt and Farah, the effects of winning below the elite level quickly diminish. Whatever you might believe, the idea of outer success signifying some kind of inner worth is flawed. Many champions are still unhappy even while they’re winning. Their struggles show up time and time again, more so after they retire from competition. Winning hasn’t transformed them into happier or more secure people.

What I’m hopefully getting across is the idea that winning, in and of itself, is almost worthless. Firstly because in any race there’s only one winner and if you’re up against a vastly superior opponent you’re a guaranteed loser. Secondly winning is transitory – someone always replaces the current champion. Thirdly even if you win in your local talent pool there are others further afield who will be better. Finally because you’ve only won a specialised, measurable event; you’re one champion among many. How ever much BBC Sports Personality of the Year may want to single out someone as the champion of champions, genuinely ranking all the contenders across a spectrum of sports and athleticism is an impossible task.

If winning is worthless and, according to Ian Stewart, so is coming second then what is the point of competing?

I believe the answer lies in something we’ve all heard many times from school onwards. It’s the cliché of “doing your best” or more accurately “getting the best out of yourself”. Listening to Chris Hoy, Britain’s much decorated track-cyclist, commentate during the last Olympics, he told how he set challenging process goals for his training, recovery and all the other things involved in getting him to the start-line of races. If he could honestly say he’d ticked the box on those goals before the race started then he would be satisfied with the outcome whether it was gold, silver, bronze or whatever. He set himself challenging training targets to put himself in position to perform at his best on the day. If someone else then turned up who was fitter or stronger, he could accept it without any form of regret. While he never said it, probably because it never happened, if he hadn’t ticked the box on those process goals then he didn’t deserve to win but wouldn’t have complained if he did.

Compare that to the average runner who goes to the pub for birthday drinks when their schedule needed them to have an early night, or the runner who misses a couple of sessions in the depths of January because it’s cold or raining. Think about how these runners then rationalise and excuse themselves but also get upset when beaten over the line or missing a PB by seconds. Hoy had no need for excuses or rationalisations because he knew he’d given his best from start to finish.

This is where the desire to compete and win takes you. While you may begin with a level of natural talent that allows you to coast past your initial opponents eventually the competition becomes tough. At that point you make a choice – accept what you’ve achieved, or dig in and try for more. If you opt for the latter then you train harder, train more frequently, train more intensely. Taking the challenge to compete at higher standards will take you out of your comfort zone as you begin to try new things and look for alternative methods in your quest for success. Sometimes there’s a shortcut like buying better equipment – the new running shoes that promise to make you 4% faster. Sometimes innovation is good, sometimes it verges on breaking the spirit of the rules.

For some, winning becomes so all-consuming they take desperate measures. They break the rules – either through foul play during competition or behind the scenes like taking banned substances. Sometimes others push them into these situations like the state-sponsored doping of East Germany or the pressure exerted in sports where doping’s considered the norm. The choice to stay honest and drop out is a tough one when you’ve already invested so much of your life into something you love doing and which provides a livelihood.

Ultimately winning is being the best at a particular thing at a specific moment in time. That’s all. Nothing more. It only means something if it takes you to the next level, to new competition, gets you to push yourself harder and try new things; or comes as a result of them.

Returning to Lombardi’s quote, which as I say is often misquoted, what he actually said is “Winning is not everything, but making the effort to win is”. It’s a very different emphasis and one I’ve come to agree with.

“Winning is not everything, but making the effort to win is” – Vince Lombardi