Is it war or is it fun?

I have read two articles today which overlapped in my mind and created this blog post.

The first piece was from a recruitment consultant who was decrying the ubiquity of training programmes suggesting that ‘anything is possible’. The author of the piece wrote that this approach is hugely unhelpful – in her piece she was writing about the long-term unemployed – because it created false hope (delusion, even) that inevitably resulted in disappointment when the world-leading, epoch-defining achievements proved to be just out of reach. The consultant proposed instead that job-seekers took a more pragmatic and reasonable approach, doing their homework and making sure that they were pitching themselves at roles that the were capable of succeeding at.

That made me think about runners. How often do we hear about runners who have set themselves targets that sound, at least initially, to be completely unrealistic? With a head full of “Impossible is Nothing” and “Just Do It”, it can be tempting to over-reach. And the result? Well, it can be a very long trudge to the finish line as other runners hammer past or perhaps worse, a DNF.

Be realistic, have fun

Looking relaxed!

But then I read Charles van Commenee’s comments about the 18 year old sprinter Adam Gemili, who after finishing second at the UK Olympic trials last week, has decided he will run at both the world junior championships and at the Olympics. You can read more about his qualification here.

Gemili’s coach has been reported as saying that his young athlete is an emotional wreck due to the pressure of the two big events.

In stepped van Commenee and said something so wonderful and refreshing that I think every runner, at every level, needs to take heed:

I am not sending my 12-year-old niece to fight al-Qaeda. We are going to the Games. It’s fun. I didn’t see an emotional wreck, just a happy 18-year-old young man who’s very level-headed.

A lot of people in athletics make it sound as if they are living a hard life, as if they have to go to the coal mines in Azerbaijan every morning or maybe have to work for the Daily Mail every day. That’s what I call tough. We are doing sport, something fun. Sometimes athletes and coaches forget that.

Here, here, Mr. van Commenee. I think that many of us lose sight of the fact that the Olympic Games has the word ‘games’ in the title for a reason. One dictionary definition of games is “An activity providing entertainment or amusement; a pastime” and I think we could all do with remembering that from time to time.

So next time you toe the line for a race, remember the words of the head coach of UK Athletics and try to smile. After all, you are doing this for fun…

 

RunBreeze competition

The chaps at RunBreeze are great friends of this blog and have supplied products for reviews as well as offering advice and threatening to come out with me for a run on more than a few occasions. Now they have offered to send one of the visitors to the blog a pair of their superb compression socks – available for the very competitive price of £19.50 – if you are the lucky winner of the first ever competition on here. To enter, simply answer a couple of simple competitions and you’ll be in with a chance.

 

Click here to enter the competition

Small print is in short supply on my blog, but if you leave the newsletter sign-up box checked you’ll get my irregular newsletter and the odd offer from RunBreeze.

Competing or Completing?

I spent a happy hour browsing running related videos online yesterday and one that I watched really struck a chord with me. It was the highlights of the 2010 Chicago marathon. I thought that the video was rather nicely made with sweeping panoramas of the runners and some great shots of the city. It really made me want to run the Chicago marathon one day!

But the thing that really made me think about all this marathoning, when I watched the video, was the difference between those who were there to compete and those whose aim was to complete the course. I thought about the difference between the elite and the fun-runners and the relative positions of those in between these two extremes.

Paula Radcliffe is a racer, putting everything on the line for the win

For most people in a marathon, running is something akin to a hobby: a way of staying fit. A personal challenge to rank alongside succeeding at work or going on exciting holidays. An item in their bucket-list.

For some however, the marathon is much more than that. It defines who they are. It shapes what they do, when they do it and why. Career advancement is sacrificed for the chance to train more and more effectively. Relationships are moulded around the everyday requirements of training and racing. These people strive and strain and put as much as they can possibly afford into running.

But where is the boundary? Is there a point, somewhere down the field, where racer turns into runner? Where competitor becomes ‘competer’? Or is it more a state of mind that can be found all they way through the field?

My personal feeling is that there are racers and competers all the way through the field of a race. I will always remember standing on the start line of a cold, wet and wind-blasted 20 mile race a couple of years back when the man next to me – a tiny, lightweight runner in a saggy vest and ancient running shorts – informed me that whilst he might finish in the final few of the race overall, he would make damn sure that he would beat “that bloke over there” – a similarly tiny, lightweight under-dressed chap who I was informed was the current holder of the over-70s winner’s medal from the year before (by the way, my compatriot did indeed win the Vet 70s race that year – apparently he and his nemesis swapped the cup almost every year!)

Taking time to high-five spectators = enjoying, but not racing.

For me, racing is a state of mind. It is wrapped up in the desire to be the best one can be. It is about looking at every aspect of one’s training and preparation and working out how to make it better. It is about making choices, every day, that are designed to result in being a better runner.

I believe that those whose aim is simply to complete a race aim to do what it takes to get through the distance. Time and position in the race is a secondary issue to actually finishing.

For racers the equation is slightly different – certainly, finishing is important, but achieving a PB or achieving a certain position or a time that qualifies the runner for something like the London marathon’s Good For Age entry system, is equally if not more important and not finishing or blowing-up before the end, is a risk worth taking for the chance of achieving something greater than just finishing.

So what are you? Completer or Competer? Do you have goals that feel at the limit of your reach? As my coach is fond of saying: anyone can cover 26.2 miles if sufficiently motivated and fuelled. It might not be pretty, but it is manageable. But for a racer, just getting around is not enough. Are you one of those runners not satisfied with just getting round?

And that was what struck me about the Chicago marathon video. The camera showed the entire gamut of runners as the film cut from those who were most definitely competing – Sammy Wanjiru and Tadesa Kibedi dueling it out in one of the most thrilling races I have ever seen – to those who were just looking to get to the end. I wondered why some people choose to race whilst others choose to get round? And what do you choose?

Runner at the Sharp End #4: Ben Wickham

I first met Ben at the Hackney Marshes ParkRun where it became immediately obvious that we were quite evenly matched. At the time I was living in Hackney so Ben and I were neighbours and ended up running the same races a few times. I was immediately and really hugely impressed by Ben’s level of dedication (as well as his amazing sun glasses – more on that later) and it was obvious to me that Ben would be someone that I would find myself chasing quite often in races. He had already set himself the target of a sub-75 minute half marathon and a sub-2:45 marathon when I met him and at a couple of races where we both ran, he came fiercely close to the half marathon target. Then with the London marathon 2012 looming on the horizon, it clearly all came together and Ben ran 73:19 at the Paddock Wood Half Marathon on 1 April and then cruised to an eight minute PB with 2:42:19 time in the London. Truly a runner at the sharp-end, here is what Ben had to tell me and if you want more from Ben follow him at twitter.com/@benjiwickham

To begin with could you give us some background about yourself and your running? What distances do you run? What are your personal bests (and what were your first times for those distances)?
Ben in full flow... in a triathlon (but we'll forgive him for that)

I used to occasionally run the odd 10k. Maybe once a year. I always wanted to do a marathon, but badly strained my IT band whilst training (badly) in 2009, making it almost impossible to run any distance. From there I took to swimming and cycling to rehab it, and built the miles slowly to get to the start line of the 2010 London Marathon. Along the way I sort of turned myself into a triathlete.  My previous best time was somewhere around 55mins for a 10k. In training for that marathon I realized I had some potential to run pretty well, and by the time I got to the start I was shooting for sub-3. However, I exploded, running the 2nd half in 2hrs 10min, posting 3:39. Rather than put me off it fired me up to see how fast I could go. So far I have a 16:38 5k, 34:45 10k, 73′ half and 2:42 full. Those last two took some doing 😉

How long have you been running and why did you start in the first place?

I’d say I’ve been seriously running since the build up to VLM in 2010, so maybe just under 3 years, but I’d done a little bit of fun-running before. I always enjoyed the racing and the act of seeing how hard you could push you body over a given distance. As my limits expanded I just kept on looking for the edge, and still am.

Are you coached? And if so, by whom?

I’m not coached, but I read a lot, and listen a lot. I tend to try and absorb every detail about anything that interests me. I have a number of people who I bounce ideas off and discuss anything sports related. Top of the list are Mark Sheppard, who taught me Tai Chi, and coaches a variety of sports, and Hilary Ivory, who is a journalist, author (collaborating on Paula’s latest book), personal trainer, and has a marathon PB of 2:40.

(Aside from your coach, if you have one) who or what has been the biggest influence on your running and why?

Ironically, I’d say the biggest influence on my running was the injury to my IT band. It forced me to take up swimming and cycling, which have been vital in allowing my training to continue injury free, and it forced me to forensically examine my technique. The memory of not being able to run also keeps me sensible when I develop niggles.

What is the best piece of running advice you have ever been given? Who gave you that advice?

Stretch your calves. So many injuries and niggles that I develop can be traced to tight calves. They tend to feel OK, but pull on other bits of your legs, and you develop an injury that seems unrelated… and it’s not until you do a decent stretch you actually notice how bad they are!

What is your favourite bit of kit and why?

Definitely my Oakleys. I think it’s vitally important to keep your face relaxed, as tension creeps into the shoulders and down into the hips and legs. The ability to keep your head up and eyes open is crucial to reducing tension. They also put me mentally in race-mode… physically feeling like a barrier to the outside world. And let’s face it.; I’m a triathlete too… They look cool.

What has been, or where is, your favourite race?

New York Marathon 2011. It was the first time I felt controlled and relaxed all the way through a marathon, allowing me to soak up the sights. Lots of friends on the course, simply the best start I’ve ever seen, and coming down onto 1st Avenue is spine-tingling.

What do you think has had the biggest effect on you improving your times?

Specific training. Lots more slow miles, and less, but more targeted speed work. I leave it really late these days to tailor my training for races and as a result arrive much less burnt out to the start line, and have less injuries.

With the benefit of hindsight, if you could give your younger self any advice, what would it be and why?

You have depths and abilities you cannot imagine right now. I was never picked for any team at school, and was bottom of the class at music. These days I happily play guitar by ear and blitz marathons. I’m not sure I would change my past, but if only I’d known I may have found out sooner.

Do you stretch enough?

See my answer above. Calves, calves calves. And some IT bands for good measure.

What do you think about the general state of running in the UK and, assuming you don’t think it is perfect, what could be done to improve it?

Running at elite level to me seems to be coming out of a bit of a low patch. Whilst we aren’t up there with the east africans, there are certainly green shoots. It’s always going to be a hard sell as a lifestyle, but improvements will take years, and there are genuine characters in the sport to help. We need to push these characters. Use the interest that they generate with sponsors and race directors to create massive events, and media coverage off the back. Athletics is starting to get huge coverage these days, and it’s likely that in 3, 4 years time we may see the benefits of that. However, at a grass roots level, I think it’s never been greater. Parkrun, running clubs and local races all combine to make it a genuinely mass participation sport, and one that brings me into contact with all sorts of people. At my level, running has everything I ever need.

What is your overall ambition for your own running? What do you think you need to do to achieve that?

Simply to keep on pushing that edge. I’m aware that my limits will occur before I can set the word on fire with my running, but as long as I’m on my limit, I’m happy. I need to be honest with myself, and push more when I can. You need to learn the difference between your body saying no and your mind.

Please complete the following: I run because…

… by looking for the outside edge of your performance, not only do you learn  that edge is much further away than you ever thought possible, but quite probably all your self-imposed limits.

The London marathon 2012

As I stood on the start line of the London marathon this year, I couldn’t help feeling a pang of fear. Obviously there was the usual butterflies associated with the desire to do my best, the knowledge that pain was inevitable, the worry that maybe I should have done more or eaten less or worn different kit. But there was an added dimension this year. Twelve months ago, on a hot day, I had run the London in a disappointing 2:43. Disappointing because I had trained hard and thought I was in shape to improve on my 2:40 personal best. The heat and my inability to adjust to cope with that, along with a fairly quick first half, put paid to that. In the subsequent de-brief with my coach Nick Anderson from RunningWithUs we had agreed – me rather reluctantly – that I would not run an autumn marathon in 2011 and instead wait a year for my chance to redeem myself.

So here I was, on another sunny morning, after a year of training, hoping for the elusive personal best performance. Nervous only begins to describe it!

The race unfolds

© Enrique Casarrubios

The air temperature at the start was ideal: around 7˙C. However there was a breeze, blowing from the west and there wasn’t really a cloud in the sky. It was not going to be perfect so I knew I would have to deal with that, but I felt ready.

I edged closer to the front of the Championship start pen than I had the year before. No matter that the qualifying standards for the Championship start are pretty tough (sub-2:45 marathon or sub-75 minute half for the men), there were still people that I would have to pass, so I wanted the clearest run possible. We were walked up behind the elite men and after the elite field introductions, right on time at 9:45am, we were off!

I had been told by Nick that the first three miles were to be the warm-up. In fact, with a downhill start and a bucket-load of adrenaline, I passed each mile marker at target race pace – 6 min/mile. But it felt great – really easy and smooth and I soon feel in step with a group running at the same pace. The only downside to this is that I was shielded from the westerly wind which I would encounter in the last six or seven miles, so I wasn’t prepared for it when I faced it on my own. Still, I was loving racing and the feeling of gliding along.

By half way I was still feeling great. I had talked to Nick about pacing the race right and we had agreed that I would go through half way in 78-79 minutes. As I passed under the half way gantry the clock read 78:30. Perfect.

It’s getting hot in here…

The only issue at this stage was that it was warming up. I had consumed two of my four gels by that point and so I took out the two that were tucked in my arm-warmers and pulled my arm-warmers down to my wrists. But then I just had hot wrists. So the arm-warmers came off and down the front of my shorts. A mere 800m later and my new cod-piece was feeling very uncomfortable. So out they came and I tossed them to the side of the road about half a mile before we turned right into Wapping. I felt free again!

I had also decided that I needed to take on water. I think that one of the problems in 2011 was that I didn’t adjust my water intake sufficiently and so I was horribly dry by the time I was forced to stop and take a drink. This year I deliberately slowed through the water stations and made sure that when I took a bottle of water I drank three or four good mouthfuls. The rest went either over my head or more usually I squirted the back of my legs (ahhhh, bliss!)

Friends and crowds

I have heard it said that one runs the first half of a marathon with the head and the second half with the heart. I agree, that there is a switch where emotion becomes massively important. During the race I heard my name called out a few times. At mile 16 I saw my Mum and Dad. At mile 17 there was an advanced RunDemCrew party with Linda Byrne shouting encouragement. At that stage I still felt pretty good.

Just before the 21st mile, on a very sparsely populated section of the course, I saw Nick and his fianceé – and fellow coach – Phoebe. I was feeling good and just thinking about getting my head around the last 10km. Nick and I locked eyes and he repeated the instructions he’d given me before the race for this point. Relax, work hard and try to catch the vest in front. At that point I knew that I was going to succeed with my targets.

At mile 21 I passed the RunDemCrew‘s main cheering point. That was a massive boost as a huge group roared me on (you can read about what it felt like to see the ‘Crew here). Next stop, the Mornington Chasers.

The Chasers cheering…

My club, the Mornington Chasers, traditionally have a cheering point on the Highway, near mile 22 so they can see the runners just after half way and then again on the way back with 4 miles to go. On my route out to Canary Wharf I had, of course, seen the Chasers across the road and I noticed that the club flag was tied to a huge tree. I banked that bit of info for later.

On the way back I spotted the tree from quite a long way away, but this is a dead straight section of road and I know that Tom Craggs, who had his hawk-eye on times for the Chasers running, also saw me quite a way out. I must admit, and I’ll take this opportunity to apologise, that I didn’t really see anyone except Tom. But there was another rush of noise, much like at the RunDemCrew station, which sent the hairs on my neck into a frenzy!

In 2011 I had passed this point, and many of the same people, in a bad state and quite a way behind schedule. This time I had good form, I felt great, I was on track and I loved seeing the flash of smiles and hands and the noise. Four miles left and I was going to do it.

The end is nigh

From Tower Hill the race did become a matter of battling the wind and trying as hard as possible to catch the person in front. I pushed as hard as I could, but the lack of a group to shelter from the wind with meant that I was working hard to keep 6 minute miles. Some of the people I passed looked crushed and I flew past them. Others, who were holding it together, proved impossible to catch. So I simply locked in the pace (thanks to Alex Kitromilides for that phrase), repeated my mantras and concentrated on not allowing the nausea I was feeling to develop into anything that would slow me down.

Past Westminster and along Bird Cage Walk, I just counted and counted. I saw Catherine Wilding on the right and flicked her a wave. But really all I could do was keep pushing. As I came onto the Mall I could see the clock and raced for every second I could get. Nothing registered in that final 300m. I crossed the line in 2:38:30, in 138th place, with a new personal best and bloody sore feet.

And that is really the story of my race. I was a little disappointed to run a positive split and ‘lose’ 90 seconds in the second half (78:30 1st half vs 80 minutes for the second half) but PB are rare as hens’ teeth and so I’m delighted that all the work paid off on the day and I managed to hang on into the wind in the last few miles. What I do know is that it was most definitely worth the training and I’ll be back for more!

Pre-marathon advice from Catherine Wilding

Catherine Wilding is a 2:49 marathon runner who started running in 2003 and ran her first marathon in 2005.  Two years later she was competing in the women’s elite race in London and toed the start line as part of the elite women’s field in New York, so she knows a thing or two about preparing for a marathon. She has very kindly taken the time to give some advice for  those looking forward to the Virgin London Marathon this weekend as well as all marathoners with a race just around the corner. If you have any comments or questions about Catherine’s advice please put them in the comments section and I’ll see if Catherine will answer them.

Marathon Day Tips

Sunday 22nd April is going to be the most exciting day of the year for you.  You can already congratulate yourself on a very big achievement:  Being fit and healthy and ready to toe the start line with a smile on your face.   However, you may now be starting to wonder what exactly awaits you on Sunday.

Your training will have prepared you physically for the 26.2 mile challenge.  For most of you it will have been a story of tiredness, aching muscles and mental anguish.  In the process, you will have built a huge amount of mental strength, having become accustomed to dragging yourself out of the door with little motivation and in all sorts of inclement weather. Whether you realise it or not, this dedication will give you the focus needed to get to the finish line.  The race isn’t done yet but the hard work is now behind you and you will be able to draw on this during the race.  The bit no-one tells you, is that the marathon itself is the easy part.

The marathon is as much an emotional challenge as it is a physical one. It will be a roller-coaster of a journey with nerves, excitement, exhilaration, pain, frustration, determination but finally a huge sense of achievement as you cross the finish line.   You have already begun that journey and the marathon itself is the last step on your journey.

What to do in the last few days

With just a few days to go, you should now be focusing on getting yourself mentally prepared.  You will have been given all sorts of advice on pace, preparation, nutrition and injury prevention but don’t underestimate the power of the mind.  You will run the first 20 miles of the race with your legs and the last 6.25 with your mind.   The body will start to tire as you run out of glycogen but as human beings we have the emotional and mental strength to push ourselves beyond what we think is possible.   Take some time in the next few days to visualise yourself running strongly along the Embankment and finally down the Mall towards the finish line. Remember how you felt on your best training run or during your best race and keep that feeling and that image in your mind. Have a mantra which you can repeat to yourself in those last few miles when your legs will be begging you to stop, but your mind will keep you going. Tell yourself you can do it and visualise yourself crossing the finish line.

Remember that even the most experienced runners get nervous before the start. There will be a lot of nervous energy and excitement on the morning of the race.  Revel in it. This will get your adrenalin going and ready for the race of your life.

Our friend Simon Freeman wrote a brilliant race report recently which resonated with me as a runner:

line up
check numbers… twice
grin nervously at fellow runners
gun
run… hard
get out of comfort zone
stay out of comfort zone
try to not get passed in last 200m
finish
mis-read clock
whoop for joy
realise actual time
still smile from ear-to-ear
start thinking about the next race…

Admittedly, Simon was reporting on a 3K race.  You have the challenge of running 42K on Sunday but I think the above summarises brilliantly what most of you will experience.

Finally, enjoy the excitement and exhilaration of the day – you are about to take part in one of the greatest and most iconic sporting events.

 

 

 

 

Maybe the saddest story

I must admit that when Sammy Wanjiru really exploded onto the marathon scene and changed the way that Championship marathons were run by the way he attacked the Olympic marathon in Beijing, I didn’t know enough about the history of marathoning or the individuals who have played such important parts in making it such an exciting and awe-inspiring sport, to really appreciate what he had done. I’d only been running for a couple of years. Nevertheless I watched the race and delighted in Wanjiru’s speed and attacking style.

Sammy Wanjiru winning the Olympic marathon in 2008

I guess like most people, I expected to see Wanjiru dominate the marathon for years and years to come. On that day in the heat in China and in the Chicago marathon two years later in October 2010, that predicted dominance seemed to be coming true. But Wanjiru’s story was not to have a happy ending, although unlike that of Steve Prefontaine, Sammy’s end was to have very, very dark and sinister undertones that remain unresolved to this day.

This story is told most eloquently and movingly by David Epstein in his article about the life of Wanjiru that you can read here. It is well worth the time.

Whatever you believe about Sammy Wanjiru and the way that he met, his end, it is a remarkable story and let us never forget the way that he ran that marathon. Perhaps we will never see an approach to running a marathon that turns things on their head in the same way again.

 

A nice problem to have

Patrick Makau of Kenya during the Virgin London Marathon 2011 (Christopher Lee)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Today in the Sunday Times there is a very small article about something that is undoubtedly a very big issue in the country in question: the problem that the Kenyan Olympic selectors have in choosing a team to send to the 2012 games in London. The Times reports that Kenya has produced too many of the world’s top marathon runners to be able to choose the maximum three that they are allowed to send to the Games this year.

According to David Okeyo, the head of athletics in Kenya

It’s nothing short of a headache

The list that Okeyo and his team must choose from is really extraordinary and includes:

  • Abel Kirui, two-time world champion
  • Patrick Makau, world record-holder
  • Geoffrey Mutai, winner of the Boston and New York marathons
  • Emmanuel Mutai, winner of last year’s London marathon
  • Wilson Kipsang, who won the Frankfurt marathon

I recently wrote about the way that the USA picks it’s marathon team – get all the leading contenders together and have a race. In the case of the Americans this will be at the Houston marathon in a few weeks. You can read my thoughts on that here.

But the Kenyans use a similar process to many Olympic team selectors, including Team GB. They are supposed to just pick the runners that (a) have met the qualifying standard and (b) they think will give them the best hope of at least one medal. So how do the Kenyan selectors pick? Well this is the most interesting bit. Quite a few of the runners in contention want the Kenyan selectors to let all those who want to be considered for the team have a race and the first three home come to the Games in London in August.

Now whether or not you think this is the best way to pick a team, if that is what the Kenyan selectors decide to do there is a distinct possibility that they will pick a race that is very close to my heart as the trails race – the London marathon in April 2012. Can you imagine? That would have to be the most tremendous smack-down of all time. I’m just disappointed that if they do go down that route, I’ll be too busy with  my own race to see it unfold live!

Never give up, never give in

Thanks to Marathon Talk for reminding me about this video – Steve Jones running in a 10,000m race in 1983 in Brussels. In my opinion this one of the most wonderful examples I have ever seen of pure grit, toughness and the refusal to give in. This is the sort of video that anyone can appreciate, but only a runner will understand what it took for Steve Jones to run off the front of the pack for 9,600m and then somehow find the will to run a 28 second last 200m after Gidamis Shahanga (Tan) went past like a train. Marathon Talk are interviewing Steve Jones for their next podcast and I for one cannot wait to hear what he has to say; as if any words could more eloquently capture the essence of courage than that display on the track.