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Posts Tagged ‘paris marathon’

I have just been to see my osteopath and, dare I say it, friend Gavin Burt at Backs and Beyond. I have known Gavin for almost as long as I have been running. A runner himself he has treated me for all sorts of, thankfully, minor complaints and kept me running the whole time. Before the Paris marathon this year I went to see Gavin a week or so before a key race for a bit of a MOT and realignment and it seemed to work so I went to see him again today. I tend to get to the taper period before a race feeling a bit crooked – stiff back, inflexible hips, the odd niggle here and there. So Gavin and I talk through the upcoming race while he checks me over, works on any tightness and cracks my back. I always leave feeling looser and taller and readier than before I went in. I know I now just have to maintain the improved form and posture for 10 days until race day.

As Gavin is a runner, I make sure we also always talk about his running. He is a busy man with a demanding and successful practice (witness the phone call I overheard as I waited to pay in reception, between the receptionist and a customer who was calling for an appointment only to be told that it was at least 5 days until he could have the time he wanted) but Gavin always keeps up his running and bangs out at least a brace of marathons and a clutch of halfs every year. Today when we were talking I mentioned one of the benefits I get from my coach Nick Anderson – the fact that we discuss race strategy and pacing together and Gavin said that he thought he might benefit from coaching, especially when it came to getting his marathon time down. Now to protect his privacy I won’t actually go into numbers, but Gavin’s marathon time is much slower than his half marathon time suggests it should be.

I was curious. “Is that because you start off at just slower than half marathon pace and then run a significant positive split?”

“Oh no, I set off at the pace that I finish at” said Gavin.

Me “So really Gavin, like so many of us, the problem is between your ears not in the legs or lungs?”

I am increasingly of the opinion that we are capable of more than we can possibly realise and that what limits our performance is psychological rather than physiological. While we were talking this afternoon, Gavin had asked me what my ultimate aim was as far as marathon running goes. Six months ago my answer would have been that I would dearly love to get under 2:40 in 2011 and then target a sub-2:30 marathon in the following 12 months. But now I am not so sure. Why aim for an arbitrary time like 2:30 if I am capable of running 2:28?

The beauty and the challenge of distance running is that every one with a target time in mind must make a decision about the pace they want to run before the race starts or within the first mile or so. There is no point running 20 miles at 8 min/mile to pace and then trying to break 2:45… there isn’t enough road or time left. So if you want to break 2:45 you need to start off at somewhere near 6’15” per mile. Logical that.

But then how do you decide what the target time should be and therefore the pace? Well training helps, I think. Training allows us to experiment with paces and see what works. If you think that a 3 hour marathon is possible then a 50:50:50 session with 50 minutes easy, 50 steady and 50 at race pace will tell you whether 26.2 miles at 6’50” pace is possible. Or 10 x 800s in 3 minutes per rep (good old Yassos) will let you know whether you are in shape.

Or we can approximate our potential race pace from shorter races – a half marathon time doubled plus 10 minutes. Or a 20 miler at target marathon pace should feel comfortable at the finish line.

And yet… the marathon is still a really significant challenge. There is something about the full 26.2 miles that means that experienced runners with many, many races under their belt, will start off at a pace that is so significantly slower than their training or tune up races suggest they are capable of, that their results have a very obvious kink that can only be explained by their psychological state rather than their physical one.

This is, of course, exactly what I am wrestling with in my own mind with 8 days until the Florence marathon and if I look at a couple of online calculators I get some pretty exciting (or, ahem, scary) numbers:

According to the McMillan Running Calculator my recent results suggest the following:

  • 01:14:20 half marathon (Birmingham 2010) = 2:36:46 marathon
  • 55:58 10 miles (Cabbage Patch 2010) = 2:36:45 marathon

[now that is nothing if not consistent!]

And the Runners World calculator gives similar results:

  • 01:14:20 half marathon (Birmingham 2010) = 2:34:58 marathon
  • 55:58 10 miles (Cabbage Patch 2010) = 2:35:21 marathon

But I was planning on targeting a slower time than both of the calculators suggest I am capable of. What to do? Well whilst I don’t like the idea of hitting the wall with an almighty thump and having a horrible last 6 miles, I think that fortune favours the brave and so I might just have to readjust my target. But I think I’ll keep the fine details to myself for now… sorry!

And the final word goes to Gavin. Having done the MOT and given me a full assessment he told me that I am in good shape. No terrible tightness or misalignment. So that is a green light. One week to go and my focus is on staying healthy, hydrated and relaxed. Facile, as they say in Italy.

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I have just finished reading an extraordinary book and I would like to share how it has had an impact on the way I think about my running.

The idea that natural talent is the primary factor when it comes to athletic ability cannot be new to most of the people reading this (whether or not they believe it). I am a victim of assuming that those I look up to – especially runners who I admire for their speed and endurance – must be genetically superior or somehow more gifted than me. Matthew Syed, in his book Bounce, argues that this is untrue.

When I met my coach for the first time I told him that I was sure I was too old to improve significantly or that – given my genetic limitations – I would not be able to run much faster than I already do. My coach gave me the same response as I heard from Bud Baldaro when I first met him: that I could improve with hard work, dedication and more running. It was a very straightforward message and I realise now that they were telling me that talent had very little, if anything, to do with how fast I could run a marathon. Hard work was the answer. Sadly the message didn’t sink in immediately and it has taken the beautifully crafted words of Syed to hammer the point home – we all have huge potential and all we need to tap into it is hard effort.

The thing that struck me most about Syed’s assertion that talent is a myth is the amount of evidence he is able to call upon to support his arguments. I won’t go into very much detail here (I’d encourage you to buy a copy and read it yourself) but naturally the really interesting passages for me are those where he writes about endurance sports. He explodes the myth that the dominance of long distance running by athletes from east Africa is something to do with their genetic abilities – he points out that indeed it is not east African’s who are ‘natural‘ distance runners, nor is it Kenyans in general who have the right genes for endurance and speed. In fact the majority of successful runners come from a really tiny region called Nandi District which contains only 1.8% of Kenya’s population but has produced about 90% of the top Kenyan runners (and about 50% of the world’s top-class Kalenjin athletes). The dominance of this region is down to opportunity and inspiration – this is a region where many, many children use running as the primary transport method to  get to and from school and where their local heroes are the stars of long distance running. To cut a long story and a very good book short, these factors along with the desire to work bloody hard at their chosen sport is what makes these people special.

So how does that relate to me and my running? Well I think that Syed’s book makes it clear that one of the reasons the talent myth is so widely believed and so deeply ingrained in the consciousness of the majority of people is that it offers an excuse for mediocrity. It is all too easy to look at someone who is better than oneself in any field and reach for the consolation that we could never be as good as them because genetics have dictated that they would be better no matter what (and that therefore trying is a waste of time and effort). It is a much more bitter pill to swallow to acknowledge that the reason they are better is that they practice more or they train harder.

So for me this means that I have to shrug off the mantle of inferiority. I have to face up to the fact that I can run faster – much faster – if I dedicate myself more and train harder. It becomes a question of motivation, because it now is apparent that if I get up earlier to fit in an extra run or turn down a social invitation in order to rest before a key session or race, my running will benefit and I will get quicker. Whilst running with two club mates on Sunday this was brought home with some force when, after describing how much more running I am doing now in comparison to what I did for my last road marathon (in Paris), I was told that the modest target that I have set for Florence in November is inappropriate – his point was that if I am going to put in this much effort then I should aim for and expect a much larger improvement. So I’d better finish this off now and get to the club… I’ve got the second of my two runs today to do and a new target to set for November!

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In the few weeks following  my last marathon, I took a few weeks away from training. I still ran a little and kept up some swimming and cycling, but I wasn’t doing anywhere near the levels of training I was before the marathon. That is as it should be. Even elite marathoners take at least a few days (and often a whole week) off after a major race.

However it feels as though once the training void had been allowed to exist and then been filled with socialising and other things (some of them great fun, others simply obligations that would have taken second place during training) it has become a real problem to rebuild the retaining walls that kept all distractions at bay. I am now struggling to ensure that I train first and fit everything else around that, rather than the other way around.

So I need to restore the balance and take control of my life (and ‘yes’ I know that sounds dramatic, but after the weekend I’ve just had, it does feel as though I have lost control of my life!) When it comes to the ‘training vs. everything else’ balance, I think that one must look at periods rather than on a week-by-week basis. By this I mean that there are weeks immediately after a key race and before the next training programme has started, when socialising and work and obligations and family can all take priority and running fits in around them. However once I embark on a training programme, the balance starts to shift until by the time I am eight weeks away from a key marathon everything except running starts to recede in relative importance until, by the time I am two weeks away, I can barely think about anything except running!

Suddenly in the last 10 days I found myself juggling leaving parties, birthday parties, work social events at the weekend, a new job, eight weeks notice that the Swiss and I need to find a new flat, a wedding and a three week holiday… all at once! Now it would be dishonest of me to say that all this amounts to a major problem and, in fact, everything I am trying top manage is exciting, fulfilling and fun. However recent advice from one of the country’s top coaches still rings in my ears – “you are capable of much more than you ever thought possible, if you are serious about training and really commit”… well are you, punk?

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I increasingly believe that we are all capable of much more than we realise, but are often limited in what we achieve because of what we think we can achieve (potential) – or more accurately what we think we can’t achieve – and what we think we should do (opportunity). My achievement at the Paris marathon and the subsequent meeting I had with one of the UKs leading endurance coaches has opened my mind to the possibility that I can do more than I ever imagined in the marathon – I am more confident about my potential.

However I also know that fulfilling my potential will require lots of hard work and quite a bit of luck. So with that in mind yesterday I changed job, taking a role that allows me to have two half-days off every week. These two half-days are specifically so that I can train more, have a massage, rest – all with a clear focus on improving my marathon time. This is the opportunity.

When it came to it I was rather nervous about this move. It has been hard-wired into me to always maximise earnings and financially try to not take a step backwards – that was certainly the rule that my parents taught me and which, by necessity of having credit cards debts, massive rent and an expensive lifestyle, I had no choice but to strive for. Now my life is simpler (being free of debt is a wonderfully liberating situation) and yet I still felt driven to earn more, earn more, earn more. Then suddenly a wonderful woman with a much healthier view of how work fits into life (not the other way round) came into my life (the Swiss) and so did endurance sport and a love for the outdoors. Suddenly there was less room for greed and spending and pointlessly acquiring stuff.

Co-incidentally last night I had tickets for an event called a “Night of Adventure 2″ which was a pecha kucha event at the Vue cinema on Leicester Square. The Swiss and I listened to a wide range of adventurers each giving a short presentation on an expedition they’d been on or their attitude towards adventure. It was inspiring in the extreme. And it was validating, because whilst all the adventurers had such different types of experiences, they all had two things in common; they had all run the Marathon de Sable (that is not entirely true, but it felt like it); and they all had a message – live your dream. Don’t wait – grasp what it is that you have always dreamed of doing, and do it. Now.

I don’t dream of being good at my job – I derive great satisfaction from being good at my job and I enjoy the financial rewards that come with being good at my job, but I don’t dream about it. What I dream about is running, swimming outdoors, climbing, being in the mountains, cycling, hiking… testing myself and pushing back the limits of what I think I am capable of. And right now I have the opportunity, so now I’d better bring the potential!

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The Paris marathon was a personal triumph. I had set myself the target of running the race in under 2h45m and finished in 02:43:55. I was 221st out of 31,500 runners. I finished tired and hurting but elated at the same time. And I finished knowing something – that I want to continue trying to improve my marathon times.

For the first week after the marathon, the thought that I want to do more was subsumed by my priority to indulge and recover. However the future was always present, not far from my thoughts.

Two weeks after Paris was the London marathon and supporting my girlfriend and following club mates in the lead up to one of the greatest marathons in the world, in my city, was an irresistible spur to consolidate my feelings about what was going to be next for me. In particular one event made me realise that I am not even close to finished trying to improve in the marathon. Thanks to Carl at Ransacker I won the opportunity to meet a team of running experts that ASICS had brought together at the London Marathon expo. The person I wanted to talk to was Bud Baldaro, UK Athletics’ endurance running coach (like a good student I had even written questions for him). Bud spent at least half an hour with me and asked me about my typical training programme and what I wanted to achieve. His pronouncement at the end of our meeting sent tingles up my spine (and ‘no’ I’m not writing it down, not yet anyway).

So now it is over two weeks since Paris. I have had much wine, an abundance of great food and plenty of rest. I feel physically and mentally ready for the next set of challenges. I feel ready to try to fulfill my potential. I know it will not be a smooth road, but I am ready for the trials and tribulations, the inevitable set-backs and the moments of exhilaration. I know there will be self doubt. There will be times when I cannot remember why I signed up for all this. But, like an almost imperceptible hum in the background, there will be the decision that I am going to do the best I possibly can. As long as I can tune into that certainty – remember that in making the decision to push myself as hard as I possibly can I have eliminated all other possibilities – I will get through the tough times. I can’t wait to get started!

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Yesterday I raced in the Finchley20 – a 20 mile race organized by Hillingdon AC. This race is the longest continually held race in the UK and consists four 5 mile laps of undulating road and pavement through a quiet suburban area. It is not the most inspiring race in the world, far from it in fact, but the field is primarily made up of more serious runners than you would get at, say, the Reading Half Marathon or the Run To The Beat Half Marathon and for that reason I love it: the Finchley20 is a runners’ running race.

Before the race I was a little nervous. 20 miles is no small matter and recent injuries have made me worry about over-doing it. However as I wrote ‘6:15’ – my target min per mile pace – on the back of my hand, I knew that if I couldn’t run 20 miles at that pace, then a sub-2hr 45min marathon was out of the question. I finished in 02:01:30, which by my calculations is around 2hr 40min for the marathon. That is the good news. The bad news is that I don’t think I would have been capable of another 6 miles at that pace. Then again, I was running around 10 seconds per mile faster than I need to for the magic 2:44:59 marathon and I was running with tired legs after a full week of training.

So I find myself in a familiar position. I have publicly stated that my gold target for the Paris marathon in two weeks is sub-2:45. I have trained hard and my recent races suggest that I am capable of that. However it is going to be very, very tough. To achieve this dream result I am going to have to run the race of my life, without hiccups and at the very limit of what I believe I am capable of. But then again, a gold target should be just that – something that is at the very limits of what one believes one is capable of. Anything else doesn’t deserve to be labeled gold.

The race on Sunday was one of the key runs in the build-up to this year’s marathon and for the next couple of weeks I am tapering my training so that all the niggles and little injuries repair themselves and my glycogen stores become fully replenished. As Sebastian Coe once related: “an old American coach, a veteran of many an Olympic campaign, said to me shortly before my second [Olympic] Games: ‘Relax, the hay is in the barn.’” and whilst I appreciate the difference between my modest target and Coe’s barnstorming (sorry, couldn’t resist that one) efforts on the track, I am at the point where more training will fail to add anything to my fitness and in all probability will simply result in me arriving at the start line with dead, heavy legs and an injury or two (new or old it won’t matter). So now I embark on one of the toughest periods of marathon training – doing less. This will be a fortnight where I worry constantly that I’m not doing enough, that my fitness is ebbing away, that the occasional nagging ache is the sign of serious, long-tern injury, that I’m getting fat! But I have to be disciplined. I have done what I have done and I believe, I absolutely and firmly believe, that I am ready for this marathon and I will give it my best shot and come what may, I will know that I gave it my all. Bring it on!

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This is about the power of the mind, the importance of foam rollers and the body’s ability to recover remarkably fast.

Last week I wrote about the mystery injury that came on suddenly and seemed to emanate from the point where my iliotibial band joined my right knee. I was pretty concerned about it, but decided to stay calm, rest and start using a foam roller to work out the injury. With the Reading half marathon coming up at the weekend, I managed to resist running until Thursday, when I went for a slow 5 mile test run. All was well. I went again on Friday, but this time I picked up the pace and ran at close to 6.30 min/mile for the same 5 mile route. Again, all good. Finally I ran 3 miles on Saturday at 6 min/mile. No problem.

So I went to the Reading race still pretty nervous, but determined that I would give it my best shot. The week without running had given me time to think and the dominant thought I kept having was that I really want to push myself in Paris and see what I am capable of. I am not a young man and I am acutely aware that I don’t have all the time in the world – I really need to make up for all the wasted years.

I was in the front pen at Reading (for those running quicker than 1:30:00), with two of my club mates. As usual there was a degree of friendly rivalry between us and I really wanted to put in a good performance because I wanted to show that I’m not yet dead, because Reading is a great race and also because I needed the confidence boost in advance of Paris.

I ran at a pace that I felt comfortable with, which luckily happened to be under 6 min per mile and finished with a half marathon PB of 01:16:32 in 67th place. My average pace was 5 min 50 sec per mile. I felt bloody great!

All my fears before the race had been unfounded. I felt strong and in control throughout the race. When I wanted to surge, I surged. I finished with an appropriate amount of soreness in my legs, but no searing pain as I had the week before. In short, I had a wonderful run and I’d rediscovered my running mojo!

So what had happened? Well, I think the foam roller had done it’s job. Rolling was a very painful process, but my legs felt loose, relaxed and strong. Rest had also worked wonders. I had given my body time to recover and it had re-paid me handsomely.

But perhaps most importantly, I had taken time to reassess what it was I was running for and I made a decision – I was going to run as well as I could, I was going to be calm and focused, I was going to enjoy it and I was going to be proud of myself at the end.

The word decision comes from the Latin dēcīsiō which literally means ‘a cutting off’. When one makes a decision all other possibilities are cut off – there are no alternatives, no option for failure. There is one clear focus on the task in hand. And it is amazing what one can achieve when all the alternatives are eliminated. I would advise anyone setting out on a challenging, painful, stressful task – make a decision, cut off all possibility of failure and dedicate yourself whole-heartedly and completely to that thing. Do you best and you will make yourself proud!

Now I just have to repeat that in Paris…

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