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Today has been a rather indulgent day, pretty much completely dedicated to running. After my dog duties this morning (nothing like starting the day picking up poop!) I went to Mile End track for a session – I ran to the track; 2.5 miles at easy pace and then banged out 2 x (5 x 400m) with a 45 second recovery between the 400s and a jogged lap recovery between the sets. The session was great with every 400m at 5 minute/mile pace. I felt strong and quick.

When I arrived at the track I immediately recognised Perri Shakes-Drayton sitting on the track with a group of runners, chatting. I know Perri from interviewing her a couple of times for Ransacker (you can see the interviews here and here) but I was bowled over, when having finished my first 400m she smiled and waved to me. After I had finished my session and before she started hers, we had a brief chat. I congratulated her on her amazing performance in Olso last weekend which you can see here with a lovely interview. She said that she is going to the Bedford International Games tomorrow (have a look here) to run in the 200m and then to Stockholm for the European championships. What a hard-working athlete!

I sat in the stands at Bedford and ate a snack post-session, watching Perri and her co-athletes doing their session, which was really inspiring. Then I headed into the west end in search of tracksuit trousers.

Of late I have decided that I need to be more fluid in my running-life interface. By that I mean that I need to be able to make running work with all the other things in my life including work and play. The key to this, I think is a mindset that doesn’t accept barriers. However another aspect is the practicalities and the ability to do a session or get to a session and then go straight on to something else is important. So I was in search of the perfect super-lightweight tracksuit pants. I have jackets that screw up into a ball the size of a grapefruit, but I needed trousers that did the same. So I went to one of the meccas of cool running gear, Nike Town London. Sadly I saw a lot of nice stuff, but very little that I would call proper running gear. The shorts seem to be getting baggier and baggier and there is really only one racing flat – the Nike Zoom Streak 3 – which I would love to try one day – and no lightweight tracksuit trousers (indeed there were NO tracksuit trousers of any kind in the running section of the store!) So it was that I ended up in the ASICS store on Argyll Street. Here there were two pairs of gossamer-thin black tracksuit trousers – and I ended up with the Men’s Woven Pants for £35. They really do scrunch up into the size of an orange and I think they will just the thing.

I got home from the west end and had a nap for an hour and a half and now I about to go out for my recovery run today. I think I have realised today that it is possible to put running at the centre of your life and still manage all the other things there are to do (especially work which, I acknowledge is really useful when you want to go and buy things!) so I am going to try to hang on to this feeling and see where it takes me. See you in half an hour or so…

Tonight was another track special with my coach Nick Anderson and a group of his athletes. It was a really great session – warm-up and drills then 5 minutes at threshold (5:23 min/mile), 4 x 800m at 5k pace (5:08 min/mile) and then 6 x 300m at 3k pace (4:48 min/mile).

It was the kind of session that makes me feel like a real runner, where I knowingly and willingly push myself beyond my comfort zone and I can feel the benefit of the pain that subsides to leave another few nuggets of strength and endurance and confidence in the training bank. I have to say that I love track because it exposes me and shows me where I need to improve, how far I have come and how far I have to go. If you’ve never done track before, give it a go and unleash the inner athlete!

I think I have reached a stage in my running where it is increasingly difficult to achieve improvement and I have become ever more preoccupied with the idea of increasing my focus on running to make sure that no stone is left unturned in my quest to see how far I can take it before the natural gravity of age starts to act like a tightening bungee rope and my times start to suffer despite constant (or even increased) training. So here is a question that I hope you’ll be able to help me answer. When is dedication a positive thing and when is it simply narcissistic nonsense?

Let’s suppose for a minute, that there was an opportunity to live rent-free for a period. I am not talking about winning the lottery, which means that it is unlikely that one would ever have to work again. I am talking about an opportunity to take a break (or to put it another, somewhat less positive way, to create a hole in one’s CV!) which would necessitate a return to the drudge of paid employment after the rent-free period.

What concerns me when I think about this is that I know of two very good runners – one, who I will call Runner A with a 2:17 PB and the other, who will be known as Runner B, with a 2:16 PB – who are both tremendously dedicated to their running. Let’s face it you don’t run in the ‘teens’ without being dedicated. And there are bound to be many similarities between them. But there is one very, very significant difference. Runner B has a very demanding full-time job while Runner A has given up work entirely to concentrate on his running.

As someone who can’t get enough running history, I wonder why it is that we now seem to have more and more athletes who are professionals and yet there is no one now who can get close to the times that were common twenty and thirty years ago. I love reading about the exploits of runners like Steve Jones who thought about running full time after winning the Chicago Marathon in 1984 but decided against it and carried on working as an engineer in the RAF starting at 8am and finishing at 4.15pm every day. Another amazing runner from back in the day, Ron Hill, started his eponymous company in 1970, the same year he won the 74th Boston Marathon in a course record 2:10:30 and two years before running in the Olympic marathon in Munich. He attributes some of the innovations through which his company made its fortunes on ideas he had when running to work in the mornings and home in the evenings.

On the other hand, Bill Rogers is famous for saying that “I always say if the marathon is a part-time interest, you will only get part-time results” and I think it is obvious that in order to get the best out oneself it is important to find as much time as possible to train and time to rest without the physical and psychological distractions that come from a demanding job if possible.

However what we are talking about here are elite runners – Bill Rogers had a personal best of 2:09:27, Steve Jones is still the UK record holder with 2:07:13 and Ron Hill ran 2:09:28. What about us more modest runners? I recently attended an evening hosted by Adidas at which Liz and Martin Yelling gave a talk to a group of runners, many of whom were starting out on their running journey, so the advice was tailored to them. But they did talk about one thing that I thought related to someone like me as much as to someone training for their first marathon – the training budget. What the Yellings mean by this is the amount of time that one is prepared to put into training and preparing for the marathon. Obviously if you need to fit running in around a challenging job, a busy social life, family commitments and other interests, then the available budget for running will be necessarily limited and so will be the results that one can expect to achieve. On the other hand, if one can afford to cut work down to the absolute minimum (or indeed not working at all) and can therefore dedicate all the time outside of sleeping and eating to running then the budget is huge and therefore the results that one can expect to achieve will be proportionally better than someone with a smaller budget. That seems pretty logical.

However the relationship can’t be linear can it? This brings me back to my initial question. If, hypothetically, it was possible to live with absolutely minimal expenses – so minimal in fact that it was not really necessary to work at all, or at least only a very, very small amount – would it be possible to go from mere mortal to elite. It didn’t work for many people – Alex Vero being possibly the most high profile, but it has worked for others who have decided that they are going to give it 100%. So here is my question; if you were in a situation where you didn’t need to work in order to survive financially for a year and you could give yourself the opportunity to focus 100% on something (like running for example) would you do it? And if not why not.

… Seville oranges to be exact. Part of the plan that my coach Nick Anderson and I have devised is that I will not be running a marathon this autumn. This came as a bit of a shock, I must say. But I have decided that it is the right thing to do – an extended break between marathons will let me work on raw speed with 3k, 5k and 10k races and cross country and will also give me a psychological break from what has become a relentless drive to improve times every time I race.

So I have a couple of half marathons at the end of this year and I am really looking forward to them. And then we are looking at a marathon that has a limited risk of being too hot like it was in London this year (and like it has been in London for the last goodness knows how many years!) and one suggestion is the city of oranges – Seville. Flat, scenic, not too big field (4,000 people last year), inexpensive, easy to get to and in February. It looks like an amazing race, but does anyone have any thoughts?

Back on track

Tonight was the inaugural weekly track session that my coach, Nick Anderson from RunningWithUs, has set up. A sort of invitational session, there is no absolute requirement to join in terms of speed, but there is a clear focus on effort.

I really enjoy track. I love pushing myself as hard as possible and really getting out of my comfort zone and probably the only sessions I enjoy as much as track are hill sessions. So tonight’s session was a real chocolate box for me… 800m reps alternating 5:20 min/mile pace and sub-5 min/mile pace for 8 reps with 90 seconds recovery. And the best bit of it was the quality of the other people in the training group, especially Ben Moreau, a GB marathoner with a 2:16 marathon PB and Ben Nagy a sub-31 minute 10K runner. It was great to see these two hammering round the track – that is when I could see through the sweat pouring into my eyes – and even better when they were encouraging me in my much more modest efforts!

So thanks Nick for sorting out the session and I can’t wait for next week. Bring. It. On!

The road back

Since I started training under the watchful eye of Nick Anderson, there have been a number of changes to my training and approach to races. However one of the more radical changes, as far as I was concerned, has been Nick’s insistence that post-marathon I have a full week with no exercise at all and then another week with just a couple of light runs… I am in the middle of the second week and I am starting to crack!

The first week has quickly become part of the psychological process that I employ whilst racing – somehow knowing that I will have a week off after the race during which I am going to allow myself a few indulgencies helps me push through the tough miles. But the second week… that becomes a matter of self discipline! The following exchange between me and my friend Richard (a 2-30 marathoner in London this year) by text message illustrates the point;

Rich: I want to run. I don’t want to be in the office.
Me: I’m with you there! I’ve just about had enough work today. Going to the Chasers [my club] for an easy run tonight…
Rich: I get first post-mara run tonight… really looking forward to easy 20-30min!

If we sound like a couple of addicts I suspect that is because we are! So here we are – it is Wednesday and I ran on Monday and Tuesday. I have managed to ensure, through a combination of a diary full of meetings at work and then arranging to meet a friend for a drink tonight, that I won’t run today. But it is another long weekend coming up and I doubt I’ll be able to resist the temptation to stretch my legs at least a couple of times!

So here I am on the road back. Actually I am on the road ‘beyond’, because I am going to regain the fitness I had immediately before the marathon and storm past that to new heights and it feels great. The London marathon and the couple of runs this week have been a total affirmation that I love my running and as Paula Radcliffe has written in her new book ‘How To Run‘ her coach told her that “…to be a great runner you have to have the talent, the willingness to work hard and the love or running to put the work in” Well I guess for me having one out of three ain’t bad!

Last weekend was the London marathon. I have mixed feelings about how the race went and that is possibly best captured by the top 10 things I have taken away from the race:

1)    I ran 2:43:37 and came 235th

2)    I am still the fastest runner in my club

3)    I discovered that even when I am having a bad race I can keep going and not drop out

4)    I discovered some true friends who gave me tremendous encouragement before, during and after the race (thanks Neil B and Tom C!)

5)    I feel angry with myself because I didn’t adjust to the conditions and ran the first half too fast. This anger has now entirely turned into determination that I will do better next time

6)    I needed to not PB in a marathon at some point and that is done now

7)    I know that in hot races I need to drink more

8)    I need new racing flats (not least because of the blisters I’ve been getting in recent races

9)    The marathon is short and things can go wrong very fast

10)  I very, very much want the next step forwards and I will work harder than ever to get that

The conclusion I have drawn from all this is that one of the things that is tough about running a marathon is that if one is focused on a specific goal then the race is quite short and the issues that can mean that a goal is missed can present themselves very quickly. One minute – at mile 18 – I was cruising along at sub-6 min/mile pace and the next I had slowed by 30, then 40 and then 60 seconds per mile. My dream of a PB evaporated over about 3 miles and then it was a matter of quickly adjusting and trying to lock onto a decent finishing time.

Soon after the race I realised that this is the first marathon that I have not PB’d (excluding the New York marathon where Julie and I ran together – her on her debut and me with my arm in a brace a fortnight after surgery – to finish in 3:59) and my immediate reaction to that was that I want to race in the autumn to get a new PB. However while I was in Portugal two weeks ago with my coach he said that he thought I should not run an autumn marathon this year and focus instead on a summer of 3K, 5K and 10K races and then a winter of cross-country and a half marathon or two to try to develop some raw speed that can then be developed into marathon speed for spring 2012.

By the time I am writing this, a few days after the race, I have decided that Nick is right. I have probably started to plateau and even become complacent about marathoning and improving over that distance. I now believe that a 12 month period of uninterrupted training will create a situation where I see results early next year and potentially longer term results in my running over the next few years. Apart from anything else it will be really exciting to try racing at different distances and see what I am capable of. And then next year I will come back to the marathon with renewed enthusiasm, more speed and more confidence. And this time I’ll blow the roof off!