The truth about being the best runner I can be

As some readers of this blog will be aware, I recently managed to make the leap from my passion for all things running, into the way that I make my living: my wife and I have set up a social media and marketing business for running and endurance sports brands. The business is called freestak and you can check it out at www.freestak.com.

I love my work. I have a legitimate reason to spend time reading, thinking and talking about two of my favourite things – social media and endurance sports. At freestak we have a wonderful group of clients all of whom have exciting products that we really believe in. My job involves creating and delivering campaigns which I really love doing… but (you knew there would be a ‘but’) it is not easy. We are very, very busy and the amount of sleep I get seems to be inversely proportionate to the amount that I care about what we are doing. And I really, really care! So sleep is a rare commodity.

At the same time, I have been striving to get myself in the right shape to run a PB in the upcoming London marathon. But I am discovering that the two things – the growth of freestak and the desire to run a faster marathon – aren’t entirely compatible. Training has been patchy – a couple of really good 80+ miles weeks, then a crash and a 40 mile week, applying ice to various injuries and being a moody bastard.

Me being the best I can be.
Me being the best I can be.

So I have been wondering what on earth I am doing, questioning what I am trying to prove and what my priorities are? Listening to too many people and starting to feel really negative about my running. Then in the space of three days I read two things which have really resonated with me and I’d like to share them with you (and perhaps give myself a well-deserved kick in the backside!)

The first thing that I have been reading is James Cracknell and Beverley Turner’s new book, Touching Distance. In case you have not heard about this book, it recounts the period of their lives when James and his wife, Beverley, were dealing with a near-fatal accident that James suffered whilst cycling across the USA as part of a challenge he was taking on. He suffered a very severe head injury which led to changes in his personality that both James and Bev recount in the book. You can read about the accident here.

The start of the book is mainly the story of James’ life as an Olympian and elite athlete and it really tells a warts-and-all account of the ups and downs of trying to be the best in the world. At one point, having won Olympic gold, James writes that:

I believe there’s a gulf mentally between ‘not carrying on’ and ‘giving up’, even if, practically, it amounts to the same thing

This was at the point at which James was married, starting a family, getting older and wondering whether he had the drive to train for another four years to try to get to the Beijing Olympic Games.

In my own little way, I can really relate to that. I am not suggesting for a moment that I am on the same level as someone like Cracknell, but if I commit to lowering my marathon PB, that will involve running eight, nine or even ten times per week. That means spending somewhere in the region of 9 hours a week running, which is only the half of it, because I believe that for every minute actually running, it takes at least one more minute to get ready, wash kit, eat, stretch, travel to training sessions, lay on the sofa eating malt-loaf, etc. That means that it could easily take 20+ hours a week to train for a marathon. That is a big commitment at the best of times, let alone when I am trying to build freestak and do the best possible job for our clients.

I realise that this might sound as though I’m wimping out. And that is part of the problem. For me now, training has started to become something that I don’t really enjoy. I am not sure I really want a PB enough to put myself through what I know it will take to achieve it. That is not to say that I have made a decision one way or another, but I am not sure I have the drive to do all the training.

This is where the other thing that I read comes in. One of my training partners, Steve Tranter (@tranter_ on Twitter) sent me a link to an article in Running Times magazine written by an American runner and journalist called David Aim, who had the opportunity to spend a few days with a group of elite level athletes, during which time he discovers that, to some extent, the different between elite runners and recreational runners is their attitude.

One of the passages that really struck me in the article, was about how, in the desire to record ever better times, we can lose sight of why we run in the first place:

who of us hasn’t considered how our peers will react to our performance in a given race, whether good or bad? And in those moments, whom are we ultimately running for? The sport is difficult enough as it is; doing it for anyone but ourselves makes it unsustainable (David Aim)

I started running to improve my self-esteem, to lose weight, to take control of my life and undo the physical damage that I had been doing to myself since my late-teens with cigarettes, alcohol and general bad-living. I soon discovered that I wanted to see how good I could be. But what I seem to have lost sight of, is that I live in a set of circumstances and what I need to remember is that I am trying to be the best runner I can be in those circumstances.

There is no point comparing myself to anyone else: I have no idea what their circumstances or motivations are. And moreover there is no point in comparing ‘me now’ to ‘me then’ – my circumstances have changed and I should be striving to be the best runner I can be in today’s circumstances.

Now I come to think of it, every time I have had the opportunity to meet and talk to elite athletes they have been the same as those described in the Running Times article – kind, encouraging, helpful, modest. None of them has belittled me or the results I have achieved. I recently met Haile Gebrselassie and he said that my marathon PB was great, for goodness sake! The same cannot be said for many of the non-elite athletes that I train with and associate with.

So I am going to try to develop a mind-set closer to that described by David Aim in his Running Times piece – I am going to try to develop an elite attitude and see where that takes my running. Here are my new rules, courtesy of David and his elite friends:

4 Keys to An Elite Attitude

1 – Don’t treat training runs or race times as indications of your self-worth

2 – Value every runner’s efforts, success and potential

3 – Don’t beat yourself up in training or in evaluating your workouts and racing

4 – Recognize that your running ability is a result of many factors, not just how serious you are or how hard you push

 

5 Comments

  1. Bravo Simon. What a beautifully honest and necessary piece to write. I think we’ve all been there. I know I have. I got super obsessed with my times last year and, as you describe here, it just made my running unenjoyable. So, I went back to running for the love of it – a couple of weeks ago in Paris, I practically danced my way around a half marathon (my second slowest time ever, but I had a blast doing it).

    I think you’ve touched on something really key, which is your change in circumstances. The biggest lesson running has taught me is that the drive, determination, structure and discipline of training can be applied in all areas of my life. Right now, for you, it seems those qualities are needed in growing your business. That doesn’t make you a bad runner, it doesn’t mean you’ll never PB again, it just means in this moment, you need to focus that energy elsewhere.

    You can still have goals in the meantime, they just need to shift a little. How about you resolve to try for a PB again in 8-12 months time for example.

    If anything, it sounds to me like you need to give yourself a little breathing room.

    Most of all I just want to say, as you know, you’re a massive inspiration to me and many others, and not purely because of the times you lay down – it’s because of your attitude, your genuine love of running, your willingness to help others. And I’m sure we’d feel that way about you if you never PB’d again!

    Marathon times do not maketh the man!

  2. Hi Simon – as I said in my FB message to you – I totally get this too and have been in a very similar place since the New Year after my experience in San Sebastian last November (not a good one!). For me it’s also about putting too much pressure on to deliver and compete and comparing myself to others without taking into account other circumstances in my life (Dad’s death at Christmas, trying to write a successful PhD proposal, loads of changes at work). Result, too tired to run and then losing all the enjoyment and then feeling guilty about bailing out of races etc etc

    Last week I decided to draw a line under the last few weeks of running and take a fresh look for the upcoming track season and just to start running again to enjoy. It’s getting better.

    Give yourself an easier time and let up on the pressure and you’ll get your mojo back.

    Thinking of you.

  3. It’s always a question of priorities at the end of the day. You can’t do everything. You have to decide what is the most important thing to you and put the most time towards it. There has to be a very high level of focus towards your aims.

    At the time when I was running at my best, I had a rather dull office job at the local council. I did my 9 to 5 day (mostly snoozing at my desk with my eyes open), packed up, went home and trained hard. I think running your own business and trying to run at a very high level may be a lot to ask. It is quite a mental strain.

    However, I also think that for the elite, full-time running isn’t always the best option either. It usually gives people too much time to think (and overthink) about their running.

  4. Simon this is a beautifully written and refreshing piece that I can really empathise with. It sounds like we’ve been experiencing similar things to some degree. I started running about 12 months ago. It’s something I never knew I could do. I think at school I had quite ungainly form and adolescent feelings of self-consciousness meant I shied away from anything where I’d have to run. Last year I was persuaded to do a fun run on the south coast and it kind of went from there. I ran my first marathon in Frankfurt last year and was pleased to break 3 hours. I saw that as the beginning of something new and exciting and the day after was planning my next marathon and smashing my pb by running 2 44 in Rotterdam next month.

    So all this was great, except that getting better and faster kind of took over my life to the extent that I began defining myself in terms of the success (or failure) of my training. And I became unhealthily pedantic about the relationship between an individual training session in January and whether I’d achieve my target in Rotterdam. A good session would mean I was happy for the rest of the day until the next one came round. A bad one would potentially wreck the entire week and seriously affected my mood. I think part of the problem was that I cared too much. This may seem like a strange thing to say – running is probably the most important thing in my life so it should follow that I’d put in the most effort and get good results. In reality I put an unsustainable amount of pressure on myself to the extent that I was scared before each session about what would happen if I messed up. This meant I buckled and started quitting hard sessions which I could and should have finished if I’d just relaxed a bit. Another effect was that I was incapable of running my easy runs at something resembling an easy pace. I thought I was regressing unless every run was at least under 7 min 30 per mile. So I finished each session knackered, leaving me overly tired and meant the speed sessions were even harder.

    I’ve been balancing this with getting used to life in the UK having been deployed in Afghanistan for the last year and a bit. It’s fantastic to be back, but I think I underestimated how alien things would seem at first and the feeling of displacement and disruption to my life which had been very routine-heavy for a long period of time (wake up, eat, work, train, sleep). After 9 reasonably good weeks (like you, 70 – 80-odd miles) I basically broke down a couple of weeks back. My legs just stopped working, the rest of my body packed up, but probably worst was that I kind of gave up in my head. I just wanted this over and not to train anymore. It had become something that I hated and which I associated with severe physical discomfort and disappointment. I did a half marathon in Blackpool (Great North West Half) just before I crashed. I was 2 mins off my target time, which was demoralising in itself, but my parents came to watch and were concerned about how tired and grey I looked before the race, let alone after it. Truth be told I didn’t want to be there. I was exhausted, my confidence was on its arse and I wanted to rest. As it was I had an enforced rest for just under a week after my body packed up shortly afterwards. I can’t help thinking that if I’d chilled a bit weeks before, enjoyed the training and listened to my body and not defined myself in terms of how fast I ran any given day, this wouldn’t have happened.

    Things are just about back to where they should be. I’m writing this from Lorna Kiplagat’s camp in Iten, Kenya, where I’m training for 2 weeks prior to tapering. I’m a lot less tired, and the sunshine and rest have done me the world of good. But the most important things I’ve learned are that it’s not about Rotterdam and to chill out. It’s OK to run 10 minute miles for easy runs. This leaves you able – physically and psychologically – to smash the speed sessions when you need to. I’ve got years to improve and that part of the problem is, frankly, impatience – young men in a hurry and all that. If it doesn’t happen this time there will be other marathons and other races to become the best runner I can be in whatever set of circumstances I find myself in. Oh, two of the most brutal sports massages I’ve ever had have also been instrumental in putting me back together. The chap said European massage therapists don’t go deep enough. He then proceeded to put his elbow plus body weight into my calves and hamstrings and jump around giggling. Think WWF wrestling but real. Just like that. I was basically in tears.

    The streets here are littered with world class Kenyans. Yesterday I did my long run with Ruben – a 61 minute half marathon runner who can’t make it in his own village – let alone have someone pay for him to compete in Europe. That half marathon was also run at 1500m elevation. These are some of the finest athletes in the world, but they often live in abject poverty and the chances of success are slim. They’re not running because they love it, they’re running to change their lives. I’ve found them without exception to be deeply humble, self-effacing and kind. Like you, they told me I was fast. Silence fell. We all knew that was bullshit. If running 10 minute miles and relaxing and training with a sense of peace and humility and respect for each other is good enough for them it’s certainly good enough for me. Then coming back the next day and smashing 45 minutes of hill repeats at 5 30 mile pace. Hmmm…

    Your article is timely and important. It struck a chord with me as I feel like for all the effort I’ve put in and the pressure I’ve piled on myself, I was in danger of regressing as a runner and as a person rather than improving. Fingers crossed my perspective has changed a bit. I have the Kenyans to thank for that.

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