Competing or completing: does it matter?

I just read an article in a running magazine and one line in it made me feel momentarily sad and frustrated. Then I checked myself. Then I thought I’d write about it anyway.

The article was a race report. It was for a half marathon and the writer finished in just under 2hrs 15min. Now I want to state for the record that I really think that it is great that he gave it a go (many, many people will never attempt to complete a half marathon or indeed any sort of sporting challenge at all). And I’m not suggesting for a minute that he is not a worthy recipient of a finishers medal and a pint in the pub afterwards, but the line that got me was “At mile 11, I hit the wall”.

I just don’t think that a young, able-bodied man running at slower than 10 minutes per mile, should ‘hit the wall’ at 11 miles. What I mean by that, is that I think that any young, able-bodied man should be able to train in such a way that 11 miles at almost 11 mins/mile, should feel very manageable. The person who finishes a half marathon in two and a quarter hours is moving at around 5.5 miles per hour. To put that in context, walking pace is usually considered to be 3.5 miles per hour while elite marathoners run at around 13 mph in a marathon.

So before anyone thinks that I am having a go at the person who wrote the race review, I am not. I am criticising a society where people are so unfit and so sedentary that running at 5.5 miles per hour results in encounters with the ‘wall’ and a collapse after the finish line. And we think this is an acceptable performance to warrant column inches in a specialist running magazine. I know that not everyone – me included – can run a sub-60 minute half marathon, but surely there is a lower limit that every human being, with a bit of training and the odd lifestyle choice, should be able to attain?

As I hope you can tell, I am wrestling with this issue.

On the one hand I desperately want people to get involved in running and I really do empathise: I finished my first half marathon in 1 hour 57 minutes.

But on the other hand, I know that the reason I finished my first half in almost two hours is that I had wrecked my body with cigarettes, alcohol, bad food and absolutely no exercise at all. For years, That is something that I am really ashamed of and I do not think for a minute that people should follow my example: I perhaps lack a certain balance in my approach to running.

But I am left with the feeling that as a society, we need to raise our expectations. I think that exercise needs to become the norm. That people need to believe that they should be able to run fast and for a good amount of time as a matter of course and whilst I am not suggesting I know where the limit should be, I would love to try to find out what should be acceptable for a fit, able-bodied person to be able to achieve. Anyone have any ideas?



  1. Hmmm,
    My first reaction to someone making this statement of “Hitting the Wall” is… Did you really? please describe how you “hit the wall?” Many a time i hear that people have hit the wall but managed to push through it? My ears prick up and have to correct them “impossible” i will shout because as a beginner runner how do you know how this feels? You’ve heard many people talk and warn you about hitting the wall but not actually experienced this for yourselves? There is no “I think i have hit the wall” but an outright smack in the face and realisation that i have hit the wall my race is well and truly over!!

    Stupidly enough in 2008 i trained my my first half marathon. I thought i could cycle everyday to work building up cardio fitness as that’s all that’s needed to run! (spot my mistake!!) 1hr 56 minutes later my body was battered and bruised so knew for my VLM marathon in 2009 i would have to run more! not cycle!!

    On the day of the VLM I KNOW i hit the wall by mile 16. I say this because if someone offered me a million pounds to sprint 50m at that point of the course! i swear on my life i would not be able to do it. Shuffle, run/walk at most. Energy zero, wobbly legs, people encouraging me from the sides to “keep going” pretty much sounded like the teacher from the Charlie Brown show talking to me. Made no sense and i was oblivious to their cheers!

    I believe from these attempts i let myself down. I can run better than this or even faster than this and have since been determined to do so. Running is my comfort zone and to something i want to do best in. The thing i find *whatever* people choose to do in life… They should do it to the best of their ability, nothing less! Nothing hurts more than know i did that but i could have done so much better. Its a horrible feeling of failure and even guilt.

    Im not saying people should go out and go running if they don’t even like running but it’s finding your comfort zone to achieve the best in you, that you can. Think i’m talking nonsense? well… next time you go for a job interview and you don’t do your best…. Don’t expect a call to say you got the job?

  2. I’m in the same situation as you. I completed my first half in 1:55 and was absurdly pleased with myself for posting reasonable time. Like you, I’d spent the previous years wrecking my body with beer and fags and doughnuts and sitting on my arse. I probably did it for longer and carried out a more thorough job on myself as a result. I regret that but it’s not shameful. I was just a different, drunker, fatter man then doing the reading and disorganised thinking which informed the person I later became.

    I do think we have a culture of celebrating mediocrity. A few years ago, there was a beer advert set in a diving competition. We saw a diver perform a beautiful, twisting, tumbling dive into the pool to mild applause then Peter Kaye bombed it and raised the roof. When we see messages like that, even allegedly tongue-in-cheek or “ironic” ones, the idea is spread that it’s okay not to try if you can get away with a wink and a cheeky smile.

    I don’t want a world in which elite athleticism is the sole measure of success but I would like to see endeavour and effort put ahead of cynicism, unfunny irony and flat-out can’t-be-arsedness. I loved watching Mo win his races but I’m more inspired by my club-mates who turn out for races in all weathers and run for the sheer joy of it, for the pride in wearing the vest and for the craic at the start and the finish. There are excellent athletes among them but what they have in common is that they haven’t accepted the mediocre – they are striving to be better than they were before. I think that’s all you can ask for.

  3. Do we know the background to the chap than ran the half marathon? Was it his first? What was his training like?

    My first half marsthon finish time was 2:35 not amazing i know, but it was the furthest I had ran. Ive since completed two other halfs (same course) and got faster each year, my best time being 2:05. Ive also completed 2 marathons since then too.

    As you said it should not be dismissed the effort and attempt at completing any distance raced. For most though (if it was the first time at that distance) it was likely a case of completing rather than competing.

  4. Well if it warrants a running magazine I m not so sure, I m 47 and up until 4 years ago thought running was a joke, lived life to the full, bad habbits socially or I d say in this time the norm. When my wife decided she s gonna take up running again after a 25 year rest, so I was roped in to help her train for her first half marathon, which I did and it bit me, loved it, didn’t do the half, after several injuries mainly from going to a sports outlet for shoes and given wrongly fitted and type, found out I was a heavey heal striker and overpronator, so my first decent fitting comfy shoes Adidas supernova sequence 4 s, brill.
    It was on training for my first half, doing well ish, until one day after a heavey trail run I start pissing blood in a not very good way, it cleared I ignored it, but yes you guessed it, happened again. Long story short I had cancer, if it wasn’t for running highlighting it Id have been a gonner. So I was told.
    During that and treatment I wasn’t gonna be beat an my first half was 2 hours and 18 mins which i was elated and still, as i was having horrid treatment during and was quite ill, due to it kept coming back.
    Ive done a 2 hrs 2 mins, but due to continual ongoing treatment that really does beat my body I can not seem to get up there on the speed, my best which is nt fantastic on a 6 to 10 mile distance averages 8mins 15 to 30 secs, on a shorter run 3 ish miles I can get it to 8 min miles, I would love to be faster, but can’t manage it, suffer with heal pain aches, la la la, but tend to push it on every run…. Prehaps I should look to proper training regimes.
    I just think it s a good achievement for anyone really regardless of form or ability…..
    cheers mark

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