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Posts Tagged ‘personal best’

Earlier this week I heard U2’s hit “Where the streets have no name” on a radio being played in another room. Suddenly I was reminded of the classic YouTube video – well it is a classic as far as I am concerned! – of the dual in the sun. This was the 1982 Boston marathon in which Alberto Salazar and Dick Beardsley ran the entire distance neck and neck, finishing within two seconds of each other. The video is quite amazing, especially towards the end as the commentators get ever more excited. Check out the crowds and the impressive array of technology used by the television companies to broadcast the race, which goes some way to illustrating what an important sporting event it was.

Equally compelling viewing is the video that usually pops up to the side of the race coverage video – that of Dick Beardsley describing the end of the race from his point of view and, I guess, with the benefit of hindsight.

What strikes me about Dick’s monologue is what he thought during the final few hundred meters of the race. Dick Beardsley had been leading the race, albeit only by the length of his arm, for most of the 26.2 miles. However Alberto Salazar was the favourite and, as Beardsley acknowledges, Salazar  was considered to have the better kick, so it was no surprise when Salazar dropped the hammer with less than a kilometer to go and passed Beardsley just as his hamstring cramped up.

Dick could have eased up at that point. With a cramp in his hamstring and against one of the greatest marathoners of all time and certainly of his generation, Beardsley knew that second place was his and there would be no shame in that. But he didn’t…

Instead he put in one of the fiercest comebacks in any marathon and with only a few hundred meters to go, Beardsley went for the win.

So what does that mean for us? Well I think the simple lesson is don’t give up. I know that in the end Dick Beardsley did not win the 1982 Boston marathon. But he did know as he crossed the finish line that he had given his all and exceeded everyone’s expectations of him, perhaps even his own expectations. I think that the way he raced and didn’t give up also illustrates the kind of man he is and the level that he was training at. He gave it his all and this is what I think that everyone should do, whether that is running the first 10K or the 100th marathon, giving it all allows us to find out what we really are capable of.

So have a look at the videos and remind yourself of your aim. Then in every way you can make sure you give it 100%… you never know U2 might find out that you are capable of more than you ever thought possible.

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As I have mentioned before, some time ago I was lucky to have the opportunity to attend a talk given by the dynamic duo – Liz and Martin Yelling. You can read about the event here.

The talk wasn’t really aimed at people like me. It was a talk organised by the Yellings’ primary sponsor Adidas for a group of people who had won an opportunity to be given some high-level training tips and a free pair of shoes after a pretty cursory gait analysis. But Liz or Martin – I can’t remember which – did talk about something that is pertinent to everyone who runs and wants to be the best they can be. They asked us to each think about how big our training budget is. It is an interesting question; what are you prepared to give up in pursuit of your ultimate achievement?

Smoke? Well you’d better give that up. Junk food addict? A salad might help now and then. Three square meals a day? Might have to swap that for more smaller meals throughout the day. Working eighteen hour days? A job that takes less time will be required. Avid clubber out every Saturday until the wee small hours? That’s not going to help with the long runs on a Sunday. Getting married in two weeks?…

Well, I am getting married in two weeks, to the most beautiful woman I have ever met. And it is, without doubt so far, the most important thing I have ever done. It isn’t something I do every day. Indeed I never intend to do it again. And it takes time and commitment to organise a wedding – ask my fiancée because she is doing most of it. But I also have quite a bit to contribute and that is taking up both time and mental space.

The reality is that there are only 24 hours in a day and so as the wedding takes up more and more time, something else has to give. It isn’t going to be work – we are in a recession and every business needs to work harder than ever at the moment just to stay afloat. Oh and I have a wedding to pay for! Sleeping and eating are two of my favourite activities so they have to stay. And Julie and I have already stopped going out much!

So running is going to take a back seat for a couple of weeks. I will still try to run every day, unless I can’t… and then I won’t. The truth of the matter is that for the next fortnight I have no idea what my budget is, so I will spend when I can and when I can’t, I won’t. I think that one of the characteristics of my running has been a lack of flexibility and that has been useful to a degree. But foregoing parties and meals out and nights in and dancing and drinking is all well and good, because they will come round again. But the wedding… that is a once in a lifetime thing and I am going to do everything I can to ensure my new wife has a wonderful day.

It’s only two weeks after all and then I’ll start training for the Bristol half… I’ll have a HUGE budget by then!

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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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Tomorrow is the 2011 London marathon and I am running it. I have spent the day today resting and eating and drinking… and thinking. I believe the marathon is a challenge that requires mental as well as physical strength and that is why I write down, before every race, the reasons I know I will succeed on the day. In previous races I have done this on a piece of paper in a hotel or even just run through it in my head, but this time I will indulge myself and stick it up here. So here goes…

  1. I am fitter at this very moment than I have ever been at any point in my life
  2. I define myself as a runner and as such races like this are the reason I get out of bed every morning
  3. I know what it will feel like to finish in my target time and I want that feeling more than almost anything in my life
  4. My 74:20 PB for the half marathon tells me I am ready to get the time I want in London
  5. I have met the most amazing runners, especially in the past few months and I am utterly inspired by them
  6. This race is the next step on the road to finding out what I am really capable of
  7. The conditions are predicted to be perfect. I ran 2:40:49 in terrible conditions in Florence so good conditions will be a massive benefit tomorrow
  8. I see succeeding in the marathon as one of the keys to happiness in my life and I will hurt myself to get that
  9. I want the people I love and admire to be proud of me
  10.  I have trained for this harder than ever before – I know I can succeed

I will let you know how I get on.

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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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Have you ever over-heard a conversation in a public place like on a bus or in a bar and thought “that person is talking complete crap”? And have you thought how great it would be to turn to the person talking shit and set them straight? I have. Regularly. But I’m a bit of a chicken and I tend to keep my opinions to myself.

But Twitter is changing me. My usual defence for keeping my thoughts to myself is that most of the time I don’t feel that I have a right to tell people what to do and almost all the time I lack the belief that what I might have to say has any value.

However as I say, Twitter is changing me. I really enjoy Twitter. I follow some amazing people and I love reading their rants and raves and thoughts. It won’t come as a surprise that a lot of the people I follow are runners, from elite athletes like Haile or Chrissie Wellington or Mo Farah, to club runners and even some total new-comers to the sport. One of my favourite things about Twitter is that it allows one to follow other people’s conversations, much like sitting on the bus or at a bar. And sometimes I find myself desperately wanting to interrupt… like tonight.

Tonight I was following a conversation between a good friend of mine and someone I haven’t met and have never had anything to do with before. My friend mentioned in a tweet that he has set himself a pretty challenging marathon target and the person-I-don’t-know replied that my friend should send him his training programme so that he can check what he’s doing (and presumably correct anything he thinks is wrong).

Before I could stop myself I had logged on the ThePowerOf10 to see what this chap had done that gave him the right to be splashing advice about like Old Spice. I was expecting to see a string of 2:30 marathon results and 70-min half marathon times… but there was nothing.  No results (well one actually but not over a marathon distance) that fulfil the criteria for appearing on ThePowerOf10: “The general remit of the Power of 10 website is to record all performances achieved by UK athletes, in line with agreed entry standards” and for the marathon that is sub-3hrs.

So here I am, with some results that I am pretty proud of, especially a 2:40 marathon, jealously ranting about some chap I have never met doling out advice when his best time is an hour or more slower than mine. And you know what the problem really is? It’s me! It’s the fact that despite professing to want to build a life around sport, I don’t have the balls to put myself out there and offer advice or coaching. I run the risk of achieving everything I ever dreamed of running and then hiding the whole lot under a bushel and never helping anyone to push themselves to achieve their potential.

So, Mr. Person-I-Have-Never-Met, thank you. For whilst you might have been thinking that you were going to enhance my friend’s life by offering to have a look at his training programme, what you have actually done is given me a kick up the backside and forced me to recognise that if I want to put running at the heart of my life, I am quite capable and qualified enough to do that and I’d better start now!

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