The runner always had an excuse for why he’d struggled or failed. It was the heat, it was the new shoes, people getting in his way, asthma, a summer cold, anything but the way he trained or his attitude to racing. He never improved and year on year the excuses would keep coming eventually evolving into a simplistic one of getting older and more complicated, but unbreakable, ones like rheumatism or arthritis.
I’ve struggled for years to discern what the semantic difference between an excuse and an explanation is. When a runner tells you why they didn’t do well in the race or training session, an explanation can sound like an excuse, an excuse can sound like an explanation.
I believe the difference is in what you do with that information. By definition, an explanation explains what went wrong. It doesn’t necessarily place the blame here or there, it just observes events and tries to find reasons for poor performance. But an explanation can also provide reasons for a good performance. There’s a detached observation going on which can be used to improve performance next time around. It can take the explanations behind good performance and make them a regular, routine part of training. It can take the explanations behind poor performance and look for countermeasures, interventions and ways to address them so they won’t be problematic in the future.
Excuses though only ever relate to poor performance as a deflection of blame. They’re not there to find reasonable explanations which can be addressed, they’re there to protect ego. At their simplest they’re a denial of the facts and reality. It’s said with alcoholics and other addicts that the first step is admitting there’s a problem. If you’ve ever been around one of these types of people you’ll know how difficult, even impossible, it is to get them to accept the reality of the situation. Until they stop denying there’s a problem they can’t begin to look for ways to address it.
From all this you might think denial is a bad thing. For the most part it is. Yet when you play sport or race, being able to deny the circumstances can be a route to success. Charlie Spedding recounts in his autobiography how, prior to the Seoul Olympic he’d been injured and was struggling in training, but went on to finish 6th through sheer willpower. On the day, he denied his recent form and overachieved. But, it’s important to note, he didn’t use excuses during his training as a reason to give up; he kept training as best he could never making excuses. It was only on the day, he used denial as a short-term strategy to get the absolute best out of himself.
On the last day of the month, I spotted someone on Strava mentioning they’d slogged out a six mile run to keep their streak of 100-mile months going. I’ve got my own experience of streaks, after all I’ve been running every day for over eighteen months now. But I never set out to create a run streak, it just evolved due to Coronavirus and lockdowns.
I learned from parkrunning that a streak can become an albatross around the neck. For the first eighteen months or so of my parkrun life, I attended one wherever I was. It got to the point where the expectations of others to see me, my own desire to be there, plus getting up early on a Saturday morning began to weigh me down. Even the streak itself began to become a relentless pressure. When I picked up an injury in the depths of winter I finally had a reason to break the streak. As soon as I broke the streak all the pressure released and I was no worse off.
I still remained an enthusiastic parkrunner, turning up almost every week, so that by 2015 I’d only missed six parkruns in four years. Among other things I was focused on reaching my 250-club t-shirt and had calculated I’d reach it the following February. Then I changed my mind. Or rather I got my head out of the ego-driven, limitations of my mind that were pushing me on towards the t-shirt as well as the routine that Saturday morning parkrun had become.
What I realised is I’d stopped enjoying parkrun. It was a combination of small things. The journey there and back through heavy traffic. Getting out of bed early for a 6am breakfast. Going to Kings Park in Bournemouth, where an icy wind whips across the fields, and the crowds gather in the shadow of the grandstand while the sun rises behind it. Standing around until the 9am start time to be allowed to go run and then having to weave my way through masses of people who’d gone off too fast. I was no longer running all-out every week but using it as a training session. My love of parkrun had died because it no longer fitted with my needs or what I liked. I wasn’t getting out of it what I had four years earlier.
So I stopped and only attended occasionally.
I began to enjoy my Saturday mornings again. Doing things on my own time and schedule. Getting out of bed when I wanted. Having breakfast when I wanted. Going for the type of run and distance I wanted. Often it was an hour’s easy run closer to midday.
After six months I felt replenished and with a couple of 10K races coming up, I went back knowing some fast parkruns would help my training. Since then this has been the pattern. I go to parkrun when it’s helping me with my training or because I want to see friends or be involved in some way. Streaks should support your training and goals, not be the point of them.
People often notice when a streak is causing them physical issues. They try to run through tightness or tiredness to keep the streak going until their body sends them undeniable signals forcing them to stop.
But streaks can also be detrimental to our mental health. Usually the mental side flags up much earlier as a loss of motivation, bad mood or grumpiness long before any physical problems. We become so focused on how it looks out there to keep our streak going that we don’t take the time to look in here to see how it’s affecting us.
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.
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.
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.
Half a lifetime ago I ran my first half marathon. I was still young, in my twenties, with a lot of growing up to do. I had many psychological issues that I hadn’t even begun to start unravelling. That day was a landmark in my life, firstly because it was the first half marathon I ever did and secondly because I had a psychological breakthrough while running it.
The route took me around Portsmouth and Southsea, near where the Great South Run is held these days. Somewhere around the 8-9 mile mark I noticed an older woman ahead of me. I estimated she was probably somewhere around fifty but she may have been forties or sixties for all I knew; when you’re young anybody over thirty looks old and you’ve got no concept of age. However old she was, she was ahead of me. There were only ten to twenty metres between us and for the next couple of miles I set my mind to catching up with her. Except I couldn’t. I never got any closer but she never got further away. I just trailed round in her wake as the miles ticked by in the back streets of Southsea.
My anger and indignation at being beaten by this woman was summed in a question – “How can this old, weak woman be ahead of tall, fit, athletic twenty-something me?”. Her being ahead made no sense to how I conceived the world, my place in it or what is right and just.
Then I had the landmark thought.
“I don’t know anything about this woman. For all I know she may have been Olympic champion twenty years ago and been training hard throughout her life. She may be on the downside of her running career and have a pedigree that far outstrips my own.”
The more I thought about it, and this is the great thing about distance running – you’ve got plenty of time for thinking, the more I realised I knew nothing about who she was, where she’d been and therefore why she should, or shouldn’t, be ahead of me. Simply put, I had no justification for believing I should be faster other than my own arrogance and prejudices of what older people, maybe specifically women, are capable of. I was judging on appearances.
With that realisation about the darkness of my inner thinking, I stopped jumping to conclusions about other people. I started to withhold judgement until I knew more. That became my default mode, refuse to make a judgement until I know more about situations or expectations. Always ask more questions, find out more information and when pushed for a conclusion, include a caveat along the lines of “to the best of my knowledge at this time”!
Now this “Don’t judge a book by its cover” approach may seem a little sanctimonious but there was a hidden benefit that I began to see in the following months.
When I stopped judging other people, I stopped judging myself.
By doing that, I opened up new vistas for living. No longer was I tied to my ill-conceived, ready-formed judgements about who I was. Now instead I was free to change and evolve whenever new ideas and information became available. I could incorporate better ways of living and being, without jeopardising my self-image because I no longer had one set in stone.
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 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.
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.
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:
Run three times each week for thirty mins.
Eat banana after every run.
Buy new running shoes every 500 miles.
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.
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!
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”)