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 (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.
The 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.
During big races everyone has low periods and doubts. I like to practice coping with those so that I am resilient.
I practice this by setting off on a run into the countryside going where the fancy takes me, then, when I am tired, I try and find my way back along a different route without the aid of a map and compass.
It can get very disheartening when having run a long way down a hill you discover it leads nowhere and you have to run back up again and look for a new route.
I have doubts about whether I will find my way back and I certainly have low periods, but I cope. Having been there and survived makes it easier to handle problems in a big event.
If you are going to try this take some precautions (at least until you are expert). Pack a map and compass in the bottom of your rucksack to use as a last resort. Or chose an area where you know if all goes wrong running in one direction will lead to a road you cannot miss. You can then work out where you are.
The photo was taken at a point when I had no idea where I was. I still smiling. About a mile later I came out of the forest and could see river in the valley below. All I had to do was reach it and follow it downstream to get to my car.
Take risks responsibly to build resilience.
For me running is art, but unfortunately some runners I know are stuck with painting by numbers. They are ticking off marathons working their way towards running 100 marathons and becoming full members of the 100 Marathon club. Some are even working towards 200, 300 or even more.
I admire their commitment to achieving a big goal, but feel that they are perhaps undervaluing the marathons they are running and have lost some of the joy of running. To add one more marathon to the tally and get one more step closer to the goal implicitly means that all marathons have the same value. No matter what marathon (Berlin, Boston, Barcelona etc.) you add to the list you only get one more closer to the goal each time. Each marathon is just a unit to add to the tally.
None of my marathons have been the same (and I have run more than enough to join the club, but never have). My first, the New Forest marathon in 1995 was obviously very special, the Boston marathon in 1996 provided some great memories because of the crowds and the history (it was the centenary one). Taunton I remember because I enjoyed the small field having run London the year before, it was also where I ran my best ever time 3hrs 34mins. I think my longest time was at Willmington, I jogged around chatting to a friend I had not seen for several years. It was a hot day so we stopped at a pub for a nice cold pint of cider. A little later we made a little detour to get to a village shop and buy ice-creams. Those marathons were not uniform units, just like all the rest they were varied experiences and treasured memories.
However , like my number chasing friends, I do like to set myself big challenges that involve numbers (e.g 24hrs or 100). These are my blanks canvases that I let others fill with colour and texture to create stunning works of art. My most recent was to run 100 times around my local parkrun course in a week. 500km in a week – roughly a marathon and three quarters every day for a week. When I take on this sort of challenge I like to be totally self-sufficient. I pitched my tent beside the course and each morning I would set out the water and food I would need during the day. I posted about what I was doing on Facebook and waited to see what happened. Friends and people I had never met came and ran with me, brought me food, came to encouraged me and help in other ways. (Thanks Paul for bringing ice to treat my injury). The press and the radio heard about it and I was interviewed for a local paper and a Cornwall radio station which lead to more people turning up to add there special contribution to the canvas. It soon became a very colourful work of moving art. It even had a Salvador Dali element when I met a man out walking with his tortoise. He carries it everywhere with him and it been around the lake more times than I have.
The others can have their lists of numbers, however for me, my marathons are too precious to be trapped in a spreadsheet.
You may have noticed that many people start their reply to a question, or even a statement, with ‘Yes, No’. It is completely meaningless and I find it annoying, but I suppose I should be grateful that it seems to have replaced other fillers, such as ‘basically’ which I find more annoying.
However, for me ‘yes, no’ has a particular resonance as I have been changing my running life by saying yes and no more. No to entering races. In the past someone would say ‘do you fancy entering XYZ race?’ and I would say yes. I enjoy running and would enjoy the race, but it was no big thing. Then I realized that I was spending a lot of time, effort and money going to races that were okay, but, to use a dreadful American saying, did not offer a big bang for the buck.
Initially even though I meant to say no I found myself saying yes so I set myself some rules. I will not enter any races in the UK and when I say yes to an overseas event, I will first consider what else I could be doing with the time, money and effort. I was asked to run a race on the coastal path in North Devon and Cornwall, I said no. I have already run part of the route and the bit I haven’t I have made a note to run when I am next in the area. Instead I said yes to someone I met last year at a race in Spain (The Way of the Legends) who lived in Switzerland and invited me to run the Scenic Trails race (photo above).
Wow what an event that was, I now have a totally different perspective on hills – the UK South West Coastal Path is flat. I also further developed a rewarding friendship and, as we went into Italy for lunch the following day, added another country to the list of those I have visited. Plenty of bang for the buck.
I have also started to apply the yes,no principle to the rest of my life. Saying no to negative people and saying yes to positive ones. No to voluntary jobs I used to feel obliged to do and yes to ones that will make a big difference and add to my experiences.
YES,NO -I love it!
Today was a lovely sunny day, as it was yesterday. Yesterday I was helping with a race, the Poets Path Potter, and although I loved the fact that I was helping other people have a great time I wanted to run. Today when I was free all day I didn’t feel like going out for a run. Isn’t that perverse? I tell other people that if they do not feel like running they should go anyway with the promise to themselves that if they are not enjoying it after 10 minutes they can turn back. They very seldom do turn back.
I followed my own advice and headed out. I should say at this point that running is not a game; it’s not played in teams like rugby or football nor is it a competition against someone else, with well laid down processes and rules like chess or tennis. Yes, you do get people competing against each other in things called games (E.g. the Olympic and Commonwealth Games), but for most of us running is not that sort of game. Nor is it an idle pastime like Trivial Pursuits. For me running is something that keeps me physically and mentally healthy and adds greatly to my quality of life. But, when I looked out of the window, saw the sunshine and realised that I did not want to run I did think ‘ Running is a strange old game’ and I have not been able to come up with a better title for this blog post.
After 10 minutes I was not feeling the joy, however I thought that for a lumbering ultra runner like me it would take a little longer so I kept on going. After half an hour, there was just a glimmer that things might turn out well so I kept on going and about fifteen minutes later I was heading up the path in the photograph above; then I felt the magic. I realised how lucky I am to be able to run and come across little gems in the countryside like this. I ran on with a lightness in my step (except on the up hills; they were still a struggle) wondering how often in life do we either not start or give up just before the magic happens.