Why question the expert?

Screen Shot 2016-01-30 at 22.14.59Imagine this – you have a serious legal problem and you hire a top lawyer. Pay him or her good money. Tell them about the case, every detail. And then question everything they advise you to do.

Or you have bad toothache. You book an appointment with the best dentist in town. And whilst still in agony, double check everything the dentist suggests on Google.

Or you take your car to the garage to be fixed and despite knowing nothing about engines you follow the mechanic’s every move whilst reading a Haynes manual, asking him or her why they are doing what they are doing.

I hope you agree that all these scenarios are pretty preposterous. Stupid, even.

So why is it that I hear runners questioning their coaches over and over again? Double checking every session. Asking whether they can do more or less. Wanting to know what the next two or five or ten weeks’ training will consist of.

When I first met my coach, Nick Anderson of Running With Us, I went to him because I needed help. I had read books and taken advice where I could find it and self-coached to 2:43:55 at the Paris marathon. But I knew I was now stuck. I had run a London marathon Championship qualifying time but I didn’t know how to run faster.

I had the good fortune to meet legendary coach Bud Baldaro and I asked his advice about what I should do next to take my running on a step:

Go and find a man called Nick Anderson and ask him to coach you

So I did. Nick suggested that I have a couple of months of regular running and we start working together in June. And I thought to myself, the only way to approach this is to do what Nick suggests – 100% – for a year. If I don’t, then there is no way of knowing whether his methods work for me. If nothing improves in a year, so be it and I’ll just work out what to do next.

So that is what I did – 100% dedication to the training and advice that Nick dispensed. No listening to other people. No double-guessing. No reading books and adding or subtracting from the sessions that Nick set me.

In November, five months after we started working together, I ran 2:40:49. Two and a half years later I ran 2:37:07 in London, despite having launched a business six months before.

I am not suggesting that the route I took would be right for everyone. I am also not suggesting that coaches know everything (in fact I was ranting on here recently about ‘coaches’ who I believe have little or no right to be dishing out advice). But if you are going to work with a coach that you have chosen because you trust that they can do a great job with you, then for goodness sake take their advice and just get on with it.

Once again today I overheard a coach talking to an athlete who was obviously determined to negotiate and question and second guess everything the person they are supposed to be listening to was advising. For crying out loud; if you think you know better, just go and do your own training. Don’t expect an expert in the field to give you the permission to do training that they obviously don’t think is right. If they did… that is what they would have set you.

A question of scale

One of the things that I am fascinated by is the point at which design, manufacturing and marketing all intersect. In particular I love the idea of craft and people who take care of the products and services that they are responsible for. And yet the sector that is most important to me – running – seems to not have much in the way of small scale, hands-on production.

I was just watching a video on Hypebeast about the production of jeans in Japan. In the film the person being interviewed says that the difference between Japanese and US, Chinese or European jeans manufactures is that outside of Japan the emphasis is on mass production, whereas in Japan they manufacture in smaller numbers and take more care over the products. I would imagine that two of my favourite brands – Albam and Hiut – would disagree.  In fact I would say that increasingly there is a movement of people drawn towards firms making smaller quantities of jeans and away from the big brands like Levis, Lee and Wrangler.

The same seems to be the case in so many areas – small-scale watch manufacturers, indie magazine publishers, limited edition bag manufacturers.

But not so much in running apparel and certainly not in running footwear. Why is that.

There are certainly some brands that are manufacturing running apparel in small numbers – take ashmei, Soar Running and Iffley Road as great examples of that. But what about shoes? There isn’t – as far as I can see – any running shoe manufacturers making small numbers of shoes.

There is a new collab between traditional shoe-maker Grenson and New Balance, but those shoes are definitely not for running in. And of course there are opportunities to personalise shoes as with Nike iD but there isn’t a chance to build the perfect shoe – just a chance to change the colours. What these two examples do prove that it is possible to make small numbers of shoes. The technology and skills are there.

New Balance x Grenson 576GRB. One shoe, two factories. from New Balance EMEA on Vimeo.

So why not? The shoe brands all hype the importance of footwear technology, but they don’t offer truly bespoke products. Makes me wonder if there isn’t a gap in the market… hmmmm!

What gives you the right?

Does he have the right?
Does he have the right?

This is probably not a blog post that I should write and one that might make me more enemies than friends, but it has been brewing for a while and I’m afraid that I can’t hold it in any longer. This is a blog post about people setting themselves up as coaches and advisers when – in my opinion – they have no right to do that.

It seems at the moment that anyone who fancies it, goes and gets a coaching or training qualification or two and suddenly they are running classes or leading groups or offering to write training plans for a fee.

Well I guess this is a matter of buyer beware. It’s important however that anyone looking for advice should really try to understand what right the person standing in front of them, writing a spread sheet or at the end of the phone – who in many cases is taking their money – has to be dishing out advice. Time and time again I see people putting their trust and their money in the hands of someone who, as far as I am concerned, has not done anything themselves to justify them giving advice. That is not to say that I think a good coach has to be an elite ex-athlete. In fact I know several who have not achieved anything particularly impressive in their own sports. But in that case, they should have something else in their arsenal to justify them being the fountain of all knowledge – maybe a history of successfully coaching others or an apprenticeship under the guidance of a coach with a great track record.

I am just not convinced that a cool look and a couple of certificates cuts it and I know only too well how the coach-athlete relationship is not an easy one. I fear that too many charlatans who just like the idea of the job will be pushing people in ways that end in injury and disappointment.

So if you want to get coaching or training advice, just ask the question first

what gives you the right?

The answer might be enlightening.

 

The difference between running, the sport of running and the business of running

Screen Shot 2016-01-10 at 18.29.10I saw a tweet today from Mara Yamauchi:

Feeling the need to remember, at the end of the day, running is a fab sport – simple, fun, inexpensive, exhilarating, natural, sociable..:)

And I think that hidden in that simple phrase is a very important message. Like so many other people who have a love of running and an investment in the sport – whether that is as an athlete or coach or manager – Mara has been lamenting the corruption in the IAAF that has meant that people have cheated and lied and bribed IAAF officials to cover up positive doping tests. Mara herself has been cheated out of moments of glory (and probably less importantly financial gains) by dopers.

But running is not the professional sport of running or the business side of the sport. In the same way that kids kicking a ball around in an impromptu game of football are not part of the game that pays people millions of pounds a week and tolerates their puerile bad behaviour. They are observers of that sport. But their game is for pure enjoyment.

That is what I feel about running. The vast majority of people who run do so for the love of it. Because they like the feeling. Because they want to be fit. Because they enjoy competing – most often against themselves and the clock.

So let’s all remember; the money-grabbing, cheating, lying athletes and officials who have destroyed any facade that athletics is a pure and honorable sport have nothing to do with you and I pulling on our trainers and going for a run. The Olympics will probably never recover from the doping scandals now being uncovered and future great performances at the edge of what we think is possible will almost always be suspected of benefiting from PEDs. But there’s not much we can do about that. Cheats will always cheat. Runners – pure, unadulterated, honest runners… well they will just always run. Thank goodness.

New year, new challenges

IMG_4466
Me and my brother-in-law out running just after Christmas 2015

I assume to anyone who has read this blog (and thank you if you have read this blog!) knows that over the past couple of years my relationship with running has changed.

When I started this blog, the point was to record a journey. From fat, heavy drinking smoker to… something else. I was not sure what I would become, but I knew that I would be fitter and happier. As it turns out, I became obsessed with marathons and thanks to a combination of self-loathing, excitement, a great coach, an extremely understanding partner (my girlfriend then wife) and work that I really didn’t care about as much as I should have, I was able to train hard and run a 2:37:07 marathon.

Along the way, I discovered my purpose – to be part of a business that makes a difference. Freestak. And I also co-founded Like the Wind magazine with my (by then) wife, Julie.

The amount of road running has been disproportionate to my increasing and age the increase in the growth of Freestak and Like the Wind.

That has been a difficult transition, but maybe, during 2015, I have managed to rationalise it. I now realise that the fast marathons were something that I really enjoyed pursuing. I did my best in the circumstances and I am proud of myself. But I can’t – could never – just keep running in that way forever. Now I have other things in my life that take priority.

Running will always be a huge part of my life, just not everything.

So here are a few things that I am going to have a crack at in 2016:

  • The Ultra Tour du Monte Rosa – Lizzy Hawker’s stage / ultra trail race (not decided whether I will have a go at the Ultra yet, but that is probably the race I would like to do)
  • Regular gym sessions at the local gym I joined last year. So far I have managed at least 4 sessions per week for the last 3 months. There is more to come
  • Going climbing at least once a month (looking for climbing partners if anyone is interested)
  • Get out cycling
  • Sleep more
  • Drink less alcohol – I don’t drink very much now, but I would like to get close to zero
  • Blog more… at least to keep myself honest

On reflection, 2015 was actually not a great year. There was quite a lot of personal stress and the business was very, very hard work. But actually having a few days off and using the end of a 365 day period as a marker upon which to reflect a little, means that I am feeling much more positive about the next year. Hope you are too.

The power of angry

I’ve recently finished a book called Will It Make The Boat Go Faster. It’s written by Olympian Ben Hunt-Davis, a member of the victorious eight at the Sydney Games. The book has the potential to be really brilliant, but actually it is clearly designed to be a sales tool for the business that Hunt-Davis runs advising businesses on how to improve using lessons he has learned as an elite level rower. Nevertheless, if you understand that the book has an ulterior motive, it is thought provoking.

One thing that comes across is that Hunt-Davis (and I guess his team mates) are angry and they use that anger to their benefit. They feel under-valued by the GB rowing organisation. They are pissed off at the lack of funding. They get beaten in races that they shouldn’t and that makes them angry. Over and over again, the anger that Ben feels is the fuel that drives his performance.

Ben Hunt-Davis and the other seven people in the boat with him are not alone. In fact very often when you look at elite performance, there is a sense of anger, frustration, injustice, etc. And not just in the areas you would expect it, such as boxing or financial trading – high risk, high reward areas where the adrenaline flows.

Screen Shot 2015-12-27 at 19.19.29 Screen Shot 2015-12-27 at 19.18.10How about the anger written across Seb Coe’s face as he crosses the finish line having defended his 1500m Gold medal from the previous Games. On crossing the finish line he immediately turned to the press box and – gently – pointed out that they had written him off a little too early.

Or away from sport, how about Steve Jobs letting IBM know exactly what he thought of them?

 

There are certainly thousands, if not millions, of examples like this.

And I totally get that. I think that the thing that drove me (drives me, even) to do the best I can, is anger. A sense that I want to prove people wrong. Anger with myself that I have let myself down. Anger that the world is not always fair. Certainly when it comes to my running, there was Screen Shot 2015-12-27 at 19.37.31plenty of anger. At the very start I was incredibly angry at how stupid I had been to let myself get out of shape after years of smoking, eating too much, drinking too much and not exercising. I felt that I had reached the lowest point whilst all the people I wanted to be compared with were fitter, more successful, better dressed, happier etc than me. Many still are. But at least I now know that I can channel the anger I feel in to being better. Driving myself to achieve more.

The trick with running, I think, is that the anger needs to be controlled. It needs to be like the heat under a pot of water – just at simmering point. Just being uncontrollably furious is not going to work. But there needs to be enough heat that you will get out of bed at 5am to do a run in the cold and the dark. That you will go to the track in the rain and run a hard session despite being freezing cold. That you will forego invitations because you have a key race coming up. And there should also be a way that the heat can be turned up occasionally – in the last 50m of a set of 400s or close to the top of a hill mid-way through a hill session or with 1000m to go at the end of a half marathon. Then I think it is OK to actually be angry and let it show.

With running at the moment, the truth is that I feel a bit of anger that I have let myself down again. I’ve not managed to maintain fitness and I’ve been using the business that I co-founded with my wife as an excuse. I don’t like excuses – from myself or other people. So I am doing something about it; more running, going to the gym, moderating how much I eat and how much alcohol I drink. I know I won’t get back to the sort of running I was doing when I worked for someone else (such a low-stress situation compared to what I do now) but I need to be doing the best I can in the circumstances.

Thankfully I have controlled anger to get me there.

Finding intensity

Screen Shot 2015-06-06 at 09.52.18
Dennis Kimetto – a man with intensity

Recently I posted about happiness (or lack thereof) and I have to say I was pretty overwhelmed by the response I got to that – friends contacted me by the dozen to offer advice and ask if they could help (to those who asked if they could help, just asking if you could help, helped!) And I am really pleased to report that I have started to find my happy again. I’m not all the way back to unbridled joy – will I ever be? – but I am certainly above the line that divides happiness from unhappiness.

Now I feel as though I need to capitalise on the positivity and see what I can improve upon. My current thinking is about intensity.

I will admit that most of my life I have considered myself to be a lazy person. I don’t judge my laziness by any empirical measure and I don’t spend any time trying to compare myself accurately against other people. But the feeling that I am lazy is more like a nagging guilt that hangs around in the background.

I have thought about this long and hard and I now believe that the answer to feeling lazy is in finding some intensity.

Perspective

We were having a conversation in the office recently about how we view ourselves and I tried to make the point that it can be difficult if the people you aspire to be like – the people that you consider to be your peers even – are actually outliers: those who are the best in the world or at least those who dedicate themselves to doing one thing at the exclusion of all others. For example it would be stupid for me to compare myself as a runner with Dennis Kimetto. But I do have friends who have run 2:20 marathons (and faster) and I think that I am more like them than I really have any right to because they are, and have been, more dedicated to becoming the best runners they can be that I am (and have been). When I find that I don’t have the motivation to go out running and I know that they are training, I blame myself for being lazy. Actually I believe that when it comes to running, those people just have more intensity than I do.

Intensity

So what do I mean by intensity? Well I am defining it as a state of mind where there are no excuses, where the focus is completely on the thing at hand. Intensity to me means that the person has a clear goal and a plan to get there. And importantly, the discipline to make sure that they are not distracted.

In my life I feel like I struggle to maintain focus and that means that I don’t have the intensity that I need to succeed to the degree that I want to. I certainly get distracted too easily. So what do I need to do? Well here is a list that I have been thinking about (but if you can add anything to this, please chime in and tell me);

  • Have a goal or two and make them the priority. Don’t let other people prioritise things for me.
  • Have a plan – whether that is running or business, I know I need a plan to get me to the goals I have set.
  • Clear the decks – get rid of all the distractions that take time, emotions and energy away from the goals that are important.
  • Throw off negativity, especially people who want to drain my energy or focus.
  • Review regularly.
  • Have fun doing what I am doing.

Looking at that list it all seems so obvious. But in the last few months I have realised that the important things to me at the moment – especially my running – have suffered because of a lack of clear goals, a lack of a plan, too much mental clutter, the unwelcome distraction of negative people and – possibly as a result of all of those things – a feeling that there is not much fun being had.

I also know that when I look back on my running a couple of years ago, I had all of the elements I am now saying I need to put in place: I had intensity.

So, thank you to everyone who reached out when I was in a slump. Some of you know more about what was actually happening than others, but everyone I spoke to or who wrote to me or sent me a message was a massive part in helping me pull myself together. I am really grateful and humbled by the support.

Thankfully I feel that I have managed to clear the mental fog, I am back on track towards some clearly defined goals and I feel like I am regaining the energy and focus that I was missing.

Now is the time to bring the intensity.

A life-changing amount of money (for some)

This week I was sent a link to a video about a runner – Eliud Too – who won the Airtricity Dublin Marathon at the end of last year in a tidy time of 2:14:47. The story goes that after the race, Eliud went in to the studios of Dublin-based media production company Two Captains, to talk about the race and the impact that the prize money would have on his life. The Two Captains team said that the conversation was humbling and enlightening.

Then some time later, Too sent the Two Captains team a video from his home showing them what he had spent his winnings on, including a pair of cows that he had named after the people he met at the Two Captains studios. You can see the video here:

Obviously I think that this is a fantastic story and it is great to see how running can help to improve the lives of not just successful runners but their families and almost certainly the other people around them.

But this film also raises a question in my mind. How can European and American athletes be expected to compete with runners from east Africa when the motivations are so different?

In the Dublin race the prize for the first senior man is €10,000. For someone who lives in or near Eldoret in Kenya – like Eliud – that is a significant amount of money. The average annual income in Kenya is about $360, so €10,000 represents somewhere in the region of 28 years average earnings. For people like Too, who lives in a rural area, the average income is possibly even lower and the impact of the Dublin prize money even higher.

But what about a local runner? Well to provide a little context, the average rent for a small apartment in Dublin is around €1,200 per month. So that win in the marathon wouldn’t pay the rent for a year. And there’d be nothing for food, bills, clothing, transport, etc.

It is probably massively overly simplistic to say this, but if years and years of dedication, sacrifice, hard training and stress put you in a position where you might win a race that will pay your rent for six months, are you going to have the same motivation as a runner for whom that same win will change their lives and the lives of their family (and probably friends) beyond recognition? I have just finished Adharanand Finn’s new book about Japanese runners (full review coming soon) and he makes the same point when asking why that nation doesn’t produce better runners – the motivation to go one step further doesn’t exist. If you want to live a comfortable life in Europe or the US or Japan or Australia you can probably find better and more reliable ways to do that than racing to try to win €10,000 a couple of times a year.

So hats off to Eliud Too and all the other runners in east Africa who are motivated to push themselves to their absolute limits in training and at races. For them a win is a life-changing experience and as long as that remains the case, I believe that the best runners in the world will continue to come from areas of the world where race prizes are worth the sacrifice.

Reacting = bad, responding = good says Seth

Seth-Godin-620x310I really enjoy receiving the blog posts that Seth Godin sends out every day. More often than not he touches upon something that is relevant or pertinent to what is going on in my life. At the very least that means that I know I am not alone!

Today, Seth advised us not to react to the playground bullies – they are childish and petulant and what they really want is to get a rise out of you. Seth’s advice is to respond to them – to come up with a way of dealing with their behaviour that is mature. Here is Seth’s advice:

… we can respond. With something that works. With an approach we’re proud of, proud of even after the moment has passed. It’s not easy, it’s often not fun, but it’s the professional’s choice.

I needed to hear that from a professional point of view today. It allowed me to let go of some pent-up frustration that I was feeling. Good.

But it has also allowed me to see my current running-slump in a different light. It is no one’s fault that I am not running much at the moment. It is not even my fault. It is just a fact that I am struggling to get motivated and actually that is fine. The best thing I can do is not react – don’t get all panicky and try to smash out back to back (to back) hour long runs every day to make up for lost runs, which is what I was planning. Much better is to respond with a plan that is sustainable, sensible and achievable in the circumstances.

Thanks Seth!

 

 

 

My problem with the use of the word ‘brutal’.

brutal (adjective)
bruːt(ə)l/
1. savagely violent.
2. unpleasant or harsh.
3. direct and without attempting to disguise unpleasantness.
Origin: late 15th century (in the sense ‘relating to the lower animals’): from Old French, or from medieval Latin brutalis, from brutus ‘dull, stupid’

Too many ‘brutal’s

It may be perception rather than reality, but lately I seem to see the word ‘brutal’ popping up in all sorts of race reports – marathons, half-marathons, obstacle course races, ultras… the lot. And I don’t just mean the in the names of the events: there are dozens if not hundreds of events that call themselves ‘brutal-something’ or a version of that, but more and more in people’s race reports.

The problem I have with use use of the word is the hysteria surrounding it. Here’s the thing – with only a very few exceptions, there is very little that can honestly be described as brutal that you can sign-up to take part in.

The Gower Peninsular. Brutal or beautiful?
The Gower Peninsular. Brutal or beautiful?

The latest ‘brutal’ that I read referred to a hill in the Gower Peninsular Ultra. This is an event described on the race website as “a 50 mile circumnavigation of the stunning Gower peninsula on foot.” The website goes on to say, in the introductory paragraph, that it is suitable for fast walkers. Even in terms of navigation, the race sounds pretty tame: “Over 90% of the route follows the coast and the paths are very well marked by Coastal Path signs”

I can’t imagine that a race described as suitable for walkers and which follows a well marked trail, contains anything brutal to encounter.

I do accept that if the runner is aiming to win or break the course record and they are pushing themselves to the absolute limit, then they might describe the experience as being ‘brutal’. But that is more about their desire to race as hard as they can, rather than the terrain.

Linguistic Inflation

What I am trying to say is that there seems to be linguistic inflation going on here. People want the recognition of having done something harder than anyone else can possibly imagine. Try telling Ben Saunders or Kenton Cool that there is a hill on the footpath around the Gower Peninsular that is ‘brutal’. Actually they would probably both nod sagely and, without any sense of sarcasm, enquire about how you managed to get up it and how the rest of the race went. And that is because people like Ben and Kenton seem to have a sense of their place on the ‘scale of brutality’. While they are completing the first ever return journey to the South Pole and back (Ben Saunders) or completing the first ever triple of summiting Everest, Lhoste and Nupste in one continuous climb (Kenton Cool), they are humble and self-deprecating, telling anyone who will listen that they are just normal people following their passions and referring to other explorers and climbers – past and present – who they think undertook more arduous and challenging tasks.

A lack of context

So there is my problem with ‘brutal’. I have never done anything that I think can be classed a brutal – the CCC this year was probably one of the hardest things I have ever done but it was a fairly gentle outing in comparison to what others I know have done. In fact it was a gentle outing in comparison to things that others were doing on the same mountain at the same time as me! So I am sending out a plea to anyone who feels the need to use the ‘B’ word – read this first and then decide whether that race that you did is deserving of the word, or whether it was just a bit tough.