LESSONS FROM UNUSUAL PLACES AND EVENTS

imageLast weekend I found myself with time on my hands and infront of a TV, a very rare occurrence. I took away some great running lessons from that lazy time. It took a while to master the two remote controls and the settings on the devices (massive flatscreen TV and Sky+ box), but I eventually got it all working. Out of the 100s of channels available there was only one that interested me; the BBCs coverage of the Great North City Games.

Wow! What a great event, bringing sport to the people by holding the events on the quayside of Newcastle and Gateshead. I loved the coverage, especially as several of my heroes (Denise Lewis, Paula Radcliffe and Steve Cram) were among the presenters. For many of the competitors it was their last event of the season and they were enjoying a last outing without the usual pressure; they were enjoying themselves and that came through in the interviews, as did their love of the sport.

Some of the events were a little unusual, the 150 metre sprint, a 500 metre race and the mile along the street rather than on the track. This presented some difficulties to the runners. In the women’s 500 metre event the runner in a strong lead tired dramatically just after 400 metres and it was like she was running through treacle as the rest of the field caught her up. Presumably she had run too close to her 400 metre pace and had little left for the last 100 metres. Some of the mile runners found judging pace difficult without the usual markers they would see on a track. The winner in the men’s race judged his pace perfectly. I was not surprised to learn that he had been out on the course several times before the event to identify key places on the course.

I took away two big lessons from my TV sessions. One, top athletes have an off-season when they rest. Unfortunately for road and trail runners it is possible to find a race every weekend, and sometimes mid- week ones, throughout the year. Some people run too much. This impacts their performance and can lead to injury, burn-out and possibly a loss of love for the sport. I cannot hope to match Kilian Jornet’s running achievements, but I can make my racing schedule similar to his and have suffiecient rest periods. Take a look at his race calendars for the last few years.

Two: I learnt that some people do not do well when something changes (e.g. The distance or the terrain) so getting used to variety will serve you well. If you always race at 10am what happens when a race starts at 1pm? I got caught out by this once at the Shakespeare Marathon when it started at 1 pm. I think it has now reverted to a more normal time. If you judge race pace by the mile markers what will happen in a race where there aren’t any or the markers are every kilometre?

Consistency in training is good, but it pays to mix it up a bit. Variety is the spice of life and it will help when life delivers a curve ball.

http://www.trailrunningman.com

 

 

 

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The importance of being a runner

imageI was on Twitter and noticed that someone’s bio described them as “A runner (not a jogger)” and wondered why the avoidance of doubt was so important to him. Neither term is well defined so, although the description tells us something about his character, it tells us nothing about his attributes as a runner. It was obviously a slow day because I kept coming back to those two terms.

I think most people have a fairly clear idea of what a jogger is, especially joggers, who would probably be flattered to be called a runner. On the other hand most runners would be a little miffed to be called a jogger, some would be deeply offended. But what is a runner? Is it defined in reaching a certain standard in terms of speed or distance run or, perhaps how often you train?

Looking at the Olympic events where athletes are self-propelled on two legs might help. It would seem that distance, with a few exceptions, isn’t important. 100 metre and 200 metre athletes are described as sprinters not runners. At 400, 800, 1,500, 5,000, 10,000 metres and the marathon they are described as runners. There is no race distance in the Olympics above marathon where the athletes are described as runners (there is a strange breed called ultramarathon runners, but not in the Olympics). There is a 50k event, but that is a race walk. The rules state that one foot must be on the ground at all times, so this does gives us some sort of definition of being a runner (not having one foot on the ground at all times), but that would also apply to joggers and hopping. Joggers also cover distances up to about 5k. That would suggest a definition of a runner as someone covering a distance of over 5k, self-propelled on foot and not having one foot on the floor at all times. That would be a bit daft as it would exclude guys like Steve Cram, a 1,500 metre runner who was a bit quick, however, I did beat him once: Comrades Marathon 1999, this is a 56-mile event so he is definitely an ultramarathon runner.

So perhaps it is speed that is the defining attribute; slow = jogger, fast = runner, lightening = sprinter. However, that has it’s problems, I think a slow runner could be overtaken by a jogger, especially if it was Steve Cram doing the jogging. When I was in my 40’s I could knock out a marathon in just over 3 and a half hours, now in my 60’s sub 5 is a good goal. The now me is no less a runner than the then me, just as the then me was no less a runner than the now me.

I don’t think external physical metrics can define being a runner. Someone rushing for the bus or a miscreant fleeing from the law  will conform to those metrics, without being a runner, although the later is doing a runner.  I believe the answer lies within us. If you think you are a runner, you are a runner. I hope my Twitter friend finds the confidence to allow him to drop the “not a jogger” epithet.

P.s Steve Cram commented on my running once; he called me a donkey.

Ultra running, madness and Keynesian economics

imageI am an ultra runner so crazy seems totally normal to me. However, when I help at races I see things from a different perspective and often, when I am standing at a checkpoint watching the runners, I think it all seems totally pointless. Why get bussed to a remote place and then run back, or run there and get bussed back? Or, worse still, why run there and back again? You already know how far it is; it is usually in the race description.

Last Sunday I supported a friend who was running a crazy race aptly named the Madness of King George. It involved running half a mile along the King George Memorial Way in Hayle, Cornwall along the tarmac then turning around and coming back along the footpath. This was repeated as many times as possible for 12 hours. What was the point? Yes there was a nice medal, a very nice medal, but they could have bought one for a fraction of the entry fee. There was a prize for the winner and trophies for a podium place, but most of the runners knew they had no chance of getting one of those, so why do it?

I was particularly intrigued by why one guy kept going. To put it diplomatically he had a Body Mass Index (BMI) on a the high side for an ultra runner (words used to describe me once). He started to take strain quite early on and with two hours still to go was running on empty, but still kept on going. Everyone was pushing themselves to do the best they could, but why? As long as they kept going for  12 hours they would be counted as a finisher, there was a minimum amount of distance to cover, but this was passed by everyone quite easily, why did they not slow down, take it easy, sit down to admire the view from time to time and just jog along rather than try and grind out as many laps as possible?  This got me wondering about the value of things; what is the value of running for 12 hours?

One way of valuing something is to consider how much money we would be prepared to pay someone else to do that activity for us – its relative worth. We might not want to bake a cake or have time to do it and would be willing to pay someone else to bake it so we have a tasty cake to eat. But if you pay someone to run a race for you there is nothing to be gained, so it has no value. It is pointless.

The runners obviously didn’t think that what they were doing was pointless otherwise they would have given up when things got tough; when muscles ached, joints hurt, shoes rubbed, feet were sore and bits they didn’t even know they had ached. There were huge grins when they crossed the line after 12 hours and big smiles as they were called up to get their medals . This was something that they thought was worthwhile. There must be some intrinsic value in the activity which is not related to its relative worth. As Henry David Thoreau said “There is no value in life except what you choose to place upon it and no happiness in any place except what you bring to it yourself.”

is this really true? It would suggest that ultra running would be unaffected by economic considerations like supply and demand. I am not sure that people would still pay the current entry fee for the London Marthon if it was not oversubscribed and there was no ballot system. Would running for 12 hours still have the same appeal if almost everyone did it?

Personally I think the value in ultra running comes from the fact that it provides evidence to yourself and others that you are not normal, that you are an outlier. As ultra running becomes more popular I will have to move further along the distribution curve.

 

Madness of King George 12 hour race was organised by Bys Vyken Events and Cornish Trails

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You can’t score without goals – true or false?

 

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A few years ago I was given a Lululemon running t-shirt. It is my favourite shirt, however I doubt I would pay the £48 to replace it when the time comes. Around the inside bottom edge are a couple of motivational sayings.  I particularly liked ‘You can’t score without goals’. I liked the play on words and the emphasis it places on goal setting.

However, last weekend I started to doubt that this was actually true. I had volunteered to help at the Hangman Ultra in Longparish, Hampshire (great event) and a friend who lives in Cornwall had also volunteered so we drove up together. We had plenty of time to talk especially as on Friday evening the A303 is very slow; the Stonehenge area was very bad. She told me about all the races she had done so far in 2017, including four 100-miler finishes, and her plans for the rest of the year. Certainly someone with big goals and scoring well. Read her blog here.

I compared her goals and achievements to mine. I did not set any goals for 2017 except not to run any UK races (on target so far). I did have a nebulous idea, carried forward from a few years ago, to do a big, self-organised challenge and I had a sort of goal to seize opportunities.  One opportunity I siezed was to visit my daughter in Singapore. While I was there I entered an race where people could run laps around a reservoir (4.2 km per lap) and get a medal for 3, 6, 11 and 15 laps. I ran the first three with my daughter who has recently taken up running and had only run 10k previously. It was great running with her and standing proudly together wearing our medals for a photograph. I certainly scored there. I then went on to run the rest of the laps. Another score; an ultra in a new country.

The reservoir theme continued when I got back to the UK when I decided to deliver on the idea of a big challenge. My local parkrun, Tamar Lakes, consists of one lap around the reservoir, I decided to do that one Saturday and keep running doing roughly 14 laps a day so that by the next parkrun I had completed 100. 500km in a week was a lot tougher than I expected, but I had great support from friends and strangers who turn up to run with me or just to support. Even the normally taciturn fishermen were quite chatty by the end of the week. Another score I think, plus I raised some money for a great charity, CHICKS.

Then in July another opportunity opened up, I was unexpectedly asked to attend a midweek meeting in Crewe, travel and hotel expenses paid. I quickly planned a trip around that commitment. As I was being paid expenses to drive up country it made it economic to help out at the Endurancelife Snowdon Quarter race. I was really lucky with the task I was allocated, looking after a checkpoint at the top of Snowdon. All the supplies had been sent up on the train the day before, but I had to go up on foot to get there early on the Saturday morning. Then when the last runner had been through I arranged for the equipment to be sent down by train the next day and ran back down to clear away the course markings. What a great day out. As I did not need to be in Crewe until Tuesday evening I camped at Betws-y-Coed and had a few days awesome running. Even found a reservoir. More scoring.

I needed at some point to visit Wolsingham in County Durham so thought as I am already far out of Cornwall I might as well go there from Crewe, calling in at Edale on the way, where I have always wanted to run. To cut a long story short – awesome runs in both places, no reservoirs. Wolsingham is not that far from Newcastle and on the Sunday COCO, a charity I have supported for the last 17 year, needed someone to look after their stand at the Great North 10k as their staff were committed elsewhere. I had a great time on the stand chatting to runners, soaking up the atmosphere and making new friends. So, a week of scoring without a single goal.

It is possible to score without goals, you just need to seize opportunities.

 

 

If you want to experience something run a marathon. Was Zatopek right?

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I am not sure that Emil Zatopek was right when he said “If you want to win something run 100 metres. If you want to experience something run a marathon.” For me to question something this great man said is a very big deal. He is my greatest sporting hero and has been since before I started running. I was in awe of his achievements when I first heard of them. Now that I am a marathon runner I am even more in awe.

If you do not know his story the headline is that he won gold medals at 5,000, 10,000 and the marathon at the same Olympics (Helsinki 1952). No one else has done that. But there is more than that, he was someone who stood up for what he believed, he helped others, had a sense of fun and was a nice guy. There is a very well researched biography by Richard Askwith – author of Feet in the Clouds.

I was reminded of the quote, which I know well, the other day when I was in a reflective mood and looked back to 2002. In that year I ran a 100km race in Winschoten in the Netherlands. When I was talking about it to a friend she was astounded that it was 1,000 times the distance she used to run. She had been a sprinter in her schooldays, a rather good one apparently. It probably helped that she was originally from Jamaica, having moved to the UK when she was nine. I didn’t know about her running background so we chatted about her training regime, her races, her times, her medals etc. It was clear that she trained hard and had given up a lot to dedicate herself to her sport. Unfortunately, like many others, she gave it up when she left school and joined the world of work. Her training was all about continually increasing the intensity, whereas mine, as an ultra runner, was all about increasing the distance and there was very little intensity. I remarked that all that training seemed like a waste of time for a performance that was measured in seconds. My runs are measured in hours and often in double digits!

She disagreed and explained to me what it felt like when the gun went and she exploded out of the blocks, what it felt like to straighten up and get into a fluid stride, to feel like you are not even touching the ground. She explained the pain as she pushed even harder and tried to keep going at that pace until reaching the finish line. Even though it was 12 years since she last competed when she told me this I could see the magic in her eyes and the joy in her voice as she relived running 100 metres. I have goose bumps writing about it now 15 years later.

Zatopek was wrong; she experienced something very powerful which I never have, even though I have run over 100 marathons.

What does not destroy us make us stronger – my thoughts on what that means

k2What does not destroy us make us stronger (a misquote from Friedrich Nietzsche) has been part of the signature block on my personal email for many years. Originally I thought it meant that strength came from victory, from not being defeated, from conquering things. But now, as an ultra runner, I see things differently.

Ultra running is mostly about being mentally tough, you need to be reasonably well trained, but you must be able to push ahead when you are cold and tired on a Scottish mountainside or hot and tired in a desert (I prefer the desert). It is the spirit and the will to keep going that matters. At times the body will crumble and no amount of willpower will get you through. That is not a problem as the body will mend and you can prepare it better for the next time.

It is when the spirit buckles that things get interesting. Allow too much damage and you will be permanently weakened, even more and you will be destroyed. When things go wrong it is important to know when to persist, when to modify what you are doing and when to turn away and try something new. I have seen people keep on trying when they were never going to succeed and be broken, crawling away to live a lesser life. It is not victory that makes you stronger, but how you handle the challenge no matter how it unfolds.

I push myself close to the boundary, others choose not to get so close and some take it right to the edge. It is a personal choice how close you get testing the boundaries of what is possible. But to not try is to be condemned to a life of mediocracy.

 

 

Make choices – don’t get carried away by the tide of convention

Phone 264.JPGThe other day, after I had posted some photos from my run on Facebook, a friend commented that I was lucky to lead the life I do. My initial reaction was to agree with him, I love my life, but then I thought I’m not lucky; I made choices to get this life and some of those choices were difficult. Some of the choices were good ones, some were not so good, but on the whole I am pleased with the life I have created.

It is all too easy to do what is expected of us or just drift along, but by making conscious choices we can shape our own destinies. We all have different challenges and opportunities, however, how we deal with them will determine how our lives turn out.

I have been lucky in that I have not had to face any massive challenges, but perhaps I have been unlucky in not have had massive opportunities. I was thinking about this when I heard Martine Wright on the radio talking about her life. She lost both legs in 2005 London bombings and went on to represent Britain in the Paralympics. An amazing story of accepting what had happened, making choices and living life to the full. She describes her pre-bombing life as normal, now she is an elite athlete leading an extraordinary life and loving it. She chose to grab life and live it despite having been dealt some pretty awful cards.

Make those choices count. To see what I get up to have a look at my website. http://www.trailrunningman.com.