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Posts Tagged ‘competition’

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!

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Today I ran a personal best at the Reading half marathon (hooray)… by 20 seconds (oh) which equates to just over a second a mile (erm…) and that has made me think about running, diminishing returns and what it takes to continue to improve.

A couple of weeks ago a compatriot and training partner ran his first race after months of injury and set a new personal best. However when he replied to my text asking how the race had gone, he did so without mentioning the new benchmark (which of course I knew, but I was hoping he’d mention it). And he said he was a bit disappointed. I must admit that I felt like sending an admonishing text back saying that he should be bloody pleased with a PB, but I think I knew, deep in my heart, what was going on. I will explain.

In really simple terms (‘cause I’m a simple guy) the law of diminishing returns states that if you continue to add more resources to a process there will be an initial increasing return that, as more resources is added, will start to tail off. That is not to say that the addition of resources will result in a fall in output (that is known as negative returns) but the rate of returns will start to flatten. A common example given is that of people building a car – add more people to the process and you’ll get more cars. But continue to add more people and you will still get more cars, but not at a proportional rate.

If you apply this to running, it means (to me anyway) that if you add more training you should continue to get faster but at a decreasing rate. Most novice runners – me included – take massive chunks of time off every time they race. This could due to be a number of factors:

  • fitness increases
  • experience increases
  • running economy increases
  • etc

However as the runner races more, each beneficial factor has a less magnificent impact until we are scrabbling around for seconds here and there.

Now I recognise that almost every factor in racing is non-linear – we are not machines after all – and that it is impossible to apply this type of model to human behaviour, the effect of the weather, the impact of illness, etc but I believe that every runner will acknowledge that running is like ‘bungee running’…

Bungee running? I hear you ask. Last year at a festival in central London, my fiancée and I saw a bungee running sideshow – an inflatable tunnel where people are tied to a bungee cord at the open end and try to run up the tunnel to snatch a prize at the other end. The initial few meters are easy (in a running analogy this is the first few races that a novice enters) with little resistance to forward momentum but as the bungee runner reaches the furthest extent of the cord, the effort needed to go further (in our running analogy to achieve a personal best) increases… until they are flung backwards to the open end of the tunnel, exhausted and defeated. Nice.

But there is something on our side. Something that started being discussed in the GB cycling squad and (surprise, surprise after their results in the Beijing Olympics) made it into the lexicon of the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown; the aggregation of marginal gains. It is beautifully described here and essentially is the process whereby everything that could possibly have an impact on an outcome is systematically questioned and improved, if only by 1%. This, my friends, is where we find out improvement.

So what do I think this means?

I think it means making sure every training session is a close to perfect as possible (note I do not mean as fast as possible, or as long as possible. I mean as perfect as possible).
It means getting a massage.
It means stretching for a minute more or one more muscle than before.
It means going to bed 30 minutes earlier and making sure there are no distractions in the bedroom (well, apart from that obviously).
It means laying out your breakfast stuff the morning before an early run or a race.
It means thinking about everything that one can do that might have an impact in your A-race.

And where does that leave me? Well, I’m quite a long way up the bungee tunnel and the rope is quite tight. But I am not quite ready to slip back, not yet. I know that to get a little further up the tunnel I will have to work harder. But I am also going to work smarter. And I am going to accept that my days of 15 minute PBs are over and that from now on – if I am improving, I am improving and that is all I want.

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Recently my friend and, dare I say it, sometime mentor Charlie Dark mentioned to me a motto he has adopted: ‘go hard, or go home’. Now I have been thinking about this quite a bit and I have come to realise that it means many things. But one thing in particular about this phrase has embedded itself in my mind. That is the implicit idea that we all have the opportunity to make a decision about our running within a framework – we decide to either go hard or go home. There is no option in this phrase for trying to go hard. Or going a bit hard. There is only ‘go hard’ or ‘go home’.

It has been well documented that the last 30 years have seen a rather spectacular decline in the standards of British male marathon running. In 1985, 102 British male runners ran under 2 hours 20 minutes for the marathon, only 5 managed this same feat in 2005. In the same period there has been an incredible surge in the number of runners from east Africa, especially from Kenya and Ethiopia and more specifically from around the Iten Valley.

This is not the place that I am going to go into a long-winded discussion of why western runners have fallen so spectacularly from grace or why, almost at the same time, African runners have come to dominate the sport. But one thing is for certain – genetics do not play any part at all in either process. Quite simply the genetics of a population change over vastly long periods of time and it is absolutely certain that European runners are not now any less genetically capable of running fast marathons. So the only possible reason for the drop in standards I can see is that we have decided to get worse at running. We decided to ‘go home’.

Last night I was at a friend’s birthday party. It was a typically drunken affair but with my focus on my training and my goals, I elected to stick to fruit juice. Of course someone noticed and it soon started a conversation about running and marathons and inevitably about the people at the party who knew someone who had run a marathon and then – finally – to my times for the marathon. The response to me saying that my PB is 2:40 was verging on hysterical. One of the guests at the party turned to the girl opposite her and screeched “Oh my God, that is fucking amazing. That is like totally elite. I can’t believe it” and I felt angry.

Why did I feel angry? Because 2:40 is good – in fact I am very proud of it – but it is not “fucking amazing” or anywhere near “totally elite” and the overreaction is a damning comment on the state of running in this country. In today’s east Africa a similar time might get me a pat on the back, nothing more. In this country in the ‘70s and ‘80s I would be considered a reasonable club runner.

Today in the UK an ex-smoker and former junk-food eating, heavy drinker who has only been running for 5 years is considered to have done something extraordinary with a 2:40 PB. I think this state of affairs is wrong and I really want to find a way to correct it. I firmly believe that sports (or the lack thereof) in the school system is failing our children and has been for 20 years or more and that has contributed to the decline in middle and long distance running. I also think that the totally disproportionate rewards enjoyed by certain sport-people versus others is another crucial factor. But let me be clear here – the population of the United Kingdom today is genetically identical to that during the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. There is no reason – save for opportunity and motivation – why we shouldn’t be producing runners at least as good, if not better, than in our golden period of marathoning. So this is my agenda and declaration – I want to understand why the decline has happened, what can be done to reverse it and then I want to do something about it. I want to contribute to returning to a situation where runners, quite simply decide that they are going to ‘go hard’. Simple, eh?

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The entire history of athletics – and the marathon is no exception – is peppered by stories of people who have decided that they are going to use nefarious and dishonest means to try to steal the glory that other earn through hard work and determination – we generally call them cheats.

At the moment we are suffering ‘the Marion Jones show’ which involves her telling anyone stupid, or bored, enough to listen, that she didn’t deserve a prison term for lying and cheating her way to Olympic gold medals. At the same time World steeplechase champion Marta Dominguez has been suspended from her position as vice president of the Spanish Athletics Federation after being implicated in a doping investigation. And these are only the most recent tip of the iceberg.

In the marathon the picture is no more rosy. In the first modern Olympic marathon, held in Greece in 1896, a local – Spiridon Louis, a Greek postal worker from village of Marusi – finished first, but there is extensive evidence to suggest that he hitched a ride for a significant part of the course from the mounted soldier who rode beside him. Since that day there have been many, many examples of people who feel that it is somehow acceptable to run (often significantly) less than the allotted 26.2 miles.

Perhaps one of the most famous of these is Rosie Ruiz who appeared to win the 1980 Boston Marathon in an incredible 2:31:56. Incredible because she was unknown before the race, in no way resembled a top-flight marathon runner with thighs which were much flabbier than would be expected for a world-class runner and she finished the race neither panting nor coated in sweat. She later released stress-test results showing her resting heart rate was 76. Even the men’s winner Bill Rodgers, who had just won his third straight Boston Marathon, was suspicious, commenting that Ruiz couldn’t seem to recall many things that most runners know by heart, such as intervals and splits when he spoke to her after the race.

Rosa Ruiz and Bill Rogers after the Boston marathon, 1980. Notice Ruiz's t-shirt that she supposedly ran in!

In more recent races there have been high profile examples. In 2007 Roberto Madrazo was running the Berlin marathon a year after he failed in his attempt to win the Mexican presidency. As it turns out, his victory in the Over-55 category in the 2007 Berlin Marathon was another failure on his part.
Madrazo finished in 2:41:12 which was an amazing improvement on his result from the San Diego marathon just 3 months earlier which he finished in 3:44:06. Again suspicions were raised when Madrazo jogged across the finish line wearing a full tracksuit and a baseball cap, seemingly unaffected by his world record breaking efforts.

Supposedly the winner of the 55-59 age group in 2:41:12 crossing the finish line!

And cheating is more widespread than we care to imagine. In 2007 seventy-one runners in the New York City Marathon were disqualified, at least 46 of them for taking a short cut. Early in 2010 almost a third of the runners who finished in the top 100 of a marathon in the southern port city of Xiamen were disqualified for cheating in the race – many of them for carrying the timing chips of much less able runners looking to clock a good time.

So why bother cheating? Well, it seems to me that we now live in a society where fame (and often the associated fortune) is the end goal of many people, not the feeling of accomplishment that comes from knowing you have excelled in whatever it is you have decided to do. In marathon running that can be the ability to claim to friends, family or work colleagues that you did something that you didn’t or, as was the case in the Chinese race, the opportunity to gain financial benefit by being given a sporting bursary to attend university. The reality is that the people who cheat simply don’t want to put in the work, do the best they can and accept the result come what may.

For me, my achievements in running are the thing I am most proud of in my life so far. For most of my formative years and young adulthood I was terribly lazy, unwilling to put myself through inconvenience or discomfort for a goal that lay sometime in the future. I wanted immediate results with as little effort as possible. However through running I have discovered some  wonderful truths; that you get out what you put in; that the journey is a massive part of the enjoyment, not just the end result; and that honesty and integrity mean everything. It doesn’t matter to me whether people know or care about what time I managed to run or what position I came. I know that I have put in the effort to achieve my goals and I am proud of myself for that.

And in the end I think that is all that is important – knowing that you have done something you never thought possible, that you have done your best and given your all. That you are the best human being you can be. That is why I feel so sorry for the liars and the cheats – they just don’t get it. They delude themselves and accept a medal and a finishers t-shirt, or worse stand on the podium, of a race that you didn’t run, because they think that they will feel good about that. But ultimately the cheat knows they haven’t excelled, or done their best, or experienced the journey. If they get caught, then – like Rosa Ruiz – they will be exposed and ridiculed. And even if they don’t get caught, there must always be a nagging feeling that they cheated themselves and will never really know what they would have been capable of. I think that is the greatest sadness of all this for me.

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I have been in a bit of a bad mood today – not in the sense I have been in an angry or an ugly mood, but I have been in the opposite of a good mood. I would call it a grumpy mood. Slightly annoyed by the unwanted intrusion of work at the weekend and the seemingly endless list of things that I should be doing, I have dithered and only done half the things I could have done. But it isn’t just work. It is work combined with the upcoming Florence marathon. And I recognise why that is curtailing my happiness – I hate the waiting. I hate imagining every time I sneeze or cough that the tendrils of some evil illness are insinuating their way into me to destroy my plans. I hate the thought that I will forget something and have a mad panic trying to buy it in a foreign city where I don’t speak the language. But more than all that I hate the fact that I can’t really concentrate on work (because I keep sneezing or remembering things that I mustn’t forget) or the race (because I really need to work) and as a consequence I end up being unsatisfied with my work and my marathon preparations.

I heard an interview today with a chap called Simon Amstell who I gather from the BBC website is a game show host renowned for his irreverent humour. He was being interviewed about the reason he quit the TV show he was hosting. Now please don’t think that I am holding Simon Amstell up as some great modern philosopher, but one thing he did say, was that he thinks it is only possible to be happy in short isolated and fleeting moments. And I agree. I think it is possible to be content for long periods of time, but real happiness is a short-term feeling triggered by total immersion in something wonderful.

So this is why I think I have spent today not being happy. I have not immersed myself fully into anything. I worked, but I was thinking about the marathon. I thought about the marathon but I was distracted by work. Indeed even now at this moment as I write this, I am thinking about something that I need to do really, really urgently for the marathon and two emails that I really should send to clients tonight. Not fully immersed.

And so that I think is at the heart of the marathon for me. When I am training I sometimes allow random thoughts to steal into my mind. But not when I am racing. When I am racing I am totally focussed on what I am doing. I think about the course, my breathing, how my legs feel, the person next to me or behind me (or indeed in front of me), the reward I have promised myself at the finish line, the time for the last mile, constant calculations about finishing times. Nothing creeps in that is not about the race, about the next stride, the next 100 meters, the next mile, the final 10km.

I think this quote accurately sums up my feelings: “If you want to be happy, set a goal that commands your thoughts, liberates your energy, and inspires your hopes.” (Andrew Carnegie, November 25, 1835 – August 11, 1919) and that for me is marathon running – it is the thing in my life that fulfills all Carnegie’s criteria and so I thank goodness I have running to fuel my happiness and until Sunday I need to be patient and know that soon enough I will have the opportunity to savour another happy moment. Can’t wait!

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Last night I went to listen to Chris McDougall, author of Born To Run, talk about his book and the themes that run through it. In the flesh, Chris is really imposing – I would guess he’s over 6’4” in his bare feet (of course he was in bare feet) and dressed in running kit with a buff as a bandana, he looked every bit the super-athlete. At the same time he was incredibly friendly and engaging happily signing copies of his book (my copy, which Carl at Ransacker gave me, was a little dog-eared, but I think he liked that)

Chris’ book and indeed his talk, focused on a number of themes, all skillfully woven around the mystical Tarahumara, a secretive tribe of people living deep in the Mexican wilderness, whose ability to run for hours and hours over broken terrain and up and down the canyons they call home, has become the stuff of legend. The themes included diet (and especially vegetarianism and veganism), injury prevention, barefoot running (not surprisingly), the problem with modern trainers and the concept of compassion in competition. I will certainly come back to all of these themes in due course, but for the moment I want to dwell on compassion and competition.

Chris told a brilliant story – one that I hadn’t heard before, but which was seemingly well reported – about the elite women’s race in the 2009 New York marathon. For most of the women in the elite field a win at a prestigious race like one of the ‘5 Majors’ means financial security for them and their family for life. This is the main reason that competition is so fierce – the win means everything.

As the 2009 race progressed, a familiar pattern emerged with a lead group forming, watchful of one another with each runner plotting how to nullify the perceived strengths of all the others. As the group reached the sharp end of the race, one of the elite women – 37 year old Derartu Tulu – did something that to most club-level marathoners, let alone those competing to win, would be unthinkable. At around mile 22, one runner started to fade back from the small lead group which contained Tulu. She instinctively dropped back to the stricken Paula Radcliffe and said to her “Come on. We can do it” and paced her back to the group. Tulu was encouraging and helping the one person she knew was her main competition for the top spot. Sadly Paula faded again but this time she urged Tulu not to wait for her. Tulu took Paula at her word and kicked up to the lead group, past the back markers in the group and caught and passed every woman in the race. She went on to win by quite a margin, crowning an extraordinary come-back from a traumatic childbirth and ensuring enduring fame and fortune for her family. It is further testament to this remarkable and modest woman that the only reason we know this story is that Paula Radcliffe told it after the race.

Chris drew parallels between Tulu and Scott Jurek – probably the greatest endurance runner alive today – who competes with a ferocity and tenacity that starts with his infamous wolf’s howl at the start line and continues over mind-boggling distances as he leaves all-comers in his wake. But when he finishes, far from heading to his hotel room or plush trailer, he wraps himself in a sleeping bag and waits until every runner has crossed the finish line. In the sort of 100 mile trail races Scott competes in that wait could actually be days!

I have my own little example of this. Now, I know I am a caring person but I have examined my conscience since starting to think about compassion in competition and I must admit that if I was racing and another runner faded off the pace or simply pulled up with an injury, I would be unlikely to stop – I would check that they are OK and provided I was sure they did not need medical treatment, I’d carry on (I assure you that if I ever saw someone in real distress or needing medical treatment I’d stop immediately – it is only a race after all). However early this year I ran in a trail half marathon in Portland. It was unlike anything I had done before and I had an absolute ball. The final few miles of the race saw us racing down from the top of Portland onto the shingle of Chesil Beach. I had been running with another chap for a mile or so (during which time we’d spoken a few words to each other about the race and how far we had left to go) and as we transitioned from hard trail to the shingle he lost his footing and went down like a sack of spuds. And I stopped to help him up. I didn’t think about it for a second. I stopped dead, helped him up and encouraged him as we started running again.

So I think that there is undoubtedly something about competition and compassion. My own theory is that racing the same distance over and over, with a target time or an eye on the podium, squeezes the compassion out. As it becomes harder and harder to improve there is less ‘space’ for compassion and less space for the ‘joy of running’. So I think that events (note I have not used the word ‘races’) that are not the standard 10Ks or half marathons or marathons are an essential part of running. As distance increases and terrain becomes more challenging the difference in speed between men and women and the old and the young diminishes to almost nothing, which suggests to me that this is the way we should run; together, in harmony with the environment and just for the sheer love of running… I know that my future will involve more trails and a return to running ultras – just as soon as I’ve completed my marathon ambitions (whilst being as compassionate as ever, of course!)

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