Time and curiosity is all you need

I was watching a video of my good friend Charlie Dark recently, talking about how he set up the RunDemCrew,  his ideas, the basis of entrepreneurship and his philosophy on life. So much of this resonates with how I feel about co-founding Freestak and Like the Wind magazine

When I met Charlie … oh probably 7 or 8 years ago, at a dinner being hosted by a brand, we talked about where we were in life. Charlie was a few years into RunDemCrew and it was growing fast. I was working for an agency, trying to pay the bills and keep the boss happy, whilst putting as much of my time and effort as possible into becoming the best runner I could be and recording the experience here on this blog.

It was a very fortuitous meeting for me. There was a clear connection.

One thing that I think that Charlie and I shared, was the idea that what drove us to keep doing what we were doing in running was curiosity. I wanted to know how good a runner I could be. I think that Charlie was curios about his own running and also what the RunDemCrew could become; how many people it could reach (although I might have to ask him for verification of that).

In this video Charlie returns to that theme, when he says;

time and curiosity for the incubation of any idea is wonderful

So right. So, so right. It is as if curiosity is the spark that lights the gunpowder of time to create results. One without the other has potential but won’t work. You need the two.

I would add to what Charlie says and say that ‘time’ itself requires a dose of grit and determination. If you are going to really make something work, you need to find the strength to put in the time. You will have to make choices about what you want to do more

/party every night or train to run /

/sleep in at the weekends or launch a business /

/splash out on some new stuff you want or save your money to make your dream come true/

I think that Charlie has got it spot on with his assessment of what it will take to make something worthwhile. He starts by saying that if you are starting something purely to make money, you should stop. I think he is right – you should be curious about what you can do in your life, not what material wealth you can accrue. Can you represent your country in the Olympic Games? Build an incredible business? Discover something that changes our understanding of ourselves, the world or the universe? Be curious about that and you are well on the way to achieving it. Then, perhaps, fortune will follow. Certainly you will know that you have used your time wisely.

Thanks for the words, Charlie.

I run marathons. Everything is a result of that.

kettlebellMy first love – as far as running is concerned – is, and will always be, the marathon. When I started running, I didn’t really know about anything else. The marathon was the pinnacle of running as far as I knew and once I had run my first one, I knew that I had to find out what I am capable of.

Since I started running, I have tackled all sorts of races and distances; triathlons, duathlons, ultra-trail races, half marathons, 10Ks, 5Ks, mile races, cross-country… even a 3000m track race. But my favourite – and the one that I wanted to be the best I could be at – was the marathon.

However I am hugely grateful that the marathon has given me the confidence to do so much more. My friend Charlie Dark, founder and leader of the RunDemCrew, talks about the way that running gives people confidence to do so much more with their lives and I completely agree with that. Through running I have had the confidence to have a go at swimming, rock climbing, mountaineering, yoga, surfing, cross-country skiing, ski-mountaineering… the list goes on.

Now, as I get older and busier with the businesses I am involved in, training for a crack at my marathon PB is a commitment I am not prepared to make. So I am exploring other areas. Luckily a gym has just opened up next to the offices that Julie and I operate Freestak and Like the Wind from. So I have been going there to do circuits – press-ups, weighted squats, kettlebell swings are my particular favourites. I’m enjoying doing something different and getting stronger in new ways.

I don’t think I will ever get over my love for marathons. But whilst I know I’m not properly training for 26.2 miles, I am making sure that I’m always fit enough to run one and bringing new aspects to my fitness. All thanks to marathons.

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.

Avoiding a doping problem in marathon running? Might be too late.

I just read an astonishing – and very disappointing – statistic relating to elite level marathon runners:

Thirty-six Kenyans have been confirmed as failing [performance enhancing drug] tests in the past two years.

And probably the saddest thing is that I’m not at all surprised. The reasons why doping is almost certainly endemic in the heartland of endurance running are well understood and follow a pattern that, without a dramatic re-think by the authorities, will almost certainly be repeated over and over again. The pattern is something like this:

  1. A sport increases in popularity
  2. Brands recognise that people (their potential customers) are watching and/or participating in the sport in increasing numbers and they want to get involved, in the case of endurance sports by sponsoring races and athletes
  3. Races compete to offer bigger prize pots to attract better runners so they get more sponsorship
  4. As a result of more money – both in terms of sponsorship and prize money – athletes find that there is more and more competition at the top
  5. Athletes start assuming that the people who are winning the big prizes are doping, therefore they need to start doping in order to compete
  6. … Et viola! You have professional cycling in the ‘1990s and early 2000’s
Rita Jeptoo. Winner and cheat.
Rita Jeptoo. Winner and cheat.

I recognise that this is massively over-simplified, but a slide towards systematic doping like this is well recorded. And if you factor in that running is a sport in which there are few barriers to entry, then athletes from places like Kenya have an even greater incentive to win ever more competitive races. To put that in context, it is worth knowing a few facts about Kenya:

  • The per-capita GDP is $1,137 (compare that to the UK where the figure is $40,000)
  • Unemployment is around 40% (in the UK it is 6%)
  • 45% of the population of Kenya is below the poverty line

Winning the London Marathon nets $55,000. If the race is won in under 2:05 there is a $100,000 bonus and if the runner breaks the course record into the bargain, there is another $25,000. That could mean a winning prize of $180,000. Not bad if you come from a subsistence farm in rural Kenya. Oh and of course by winning the London, the athlete has quite a bit of additional sponsorship to factor in.

The point I am rather ham-fistedly trying to make is that there is a very strong motive for athletes – especially from poor places like east Africa – to win a relatively small number of races that have life-changing prize pots. In this environment, with so many people aiming for the same prizes, it is understandable that people will take whatever measures they deem necessary to win. And they can always justify those means by assuming that everyone else is using nefarious means.

There are a couple of other factors that point towards widespread doping in endurance sports in east Africa being probable:

  • In Kenya there is practically no out-of-competition testing which means that the chances of being caught are minimal (at least that used to be the case, but perhaps that is changing)
  • The brands are not motivated to ensure that their athletes are not doping. Apart from the embarrassment there is no real penalty for the brands if their athletes dope and if they are caught the brands simply deny knowledge and distance themselves. However being associated with winners is very good for the brands
  • The national federations are not motivated to stamp out doping – they want winners: it is good for national pride, national income and raises the profile of the country on a national scale
  • Coaches and agents are not directly penalised if their athletes are caught doping. Certainly their reputation suffers, but they are rarely in the limelight – after all who knows who Lance Armstrong’s agent was? – and they earn money from their athletes winning stuff, so they are at the very least motivated to turn a blind eye

So there you have it – the reason I am not surprised that there are so many runners in east Africa being caught doping is that I think there are many, many reasons why athletes would dope and very few why they wouldn’t.

The answer? Well if I knew that I would be the head of WADA (the World Anti Doping Agency). But I do tend to think that much, much stiffer penalties would help. For a start I think that if runners knew that they faced a lifetime ban from all competition in all sports for any doping offense, they might think twice. Warren Gatland – the sprinter banned TWICE for doping violations is testament to how ineffectual short bans are – he spent the time he was banned ‘getting faster’ (read into that what you will) and came back after a few months away, quicker than ever, winning hundreds of thousands of dollars in Diamond League outings this year.

I would also take a Mafia approach and go after everyone associated with the cheats – their coaches, agents and doctors would all face lengthy, if not permanent, bans. National federations would face huge fines (in fact I would make them responsible for repaying the cheat’s lifetime winnings). Brands would be fined for sponsoring cheats.

That all sounds a bit heavy handed. But it might start to make the people who are currently uninterested in stopping their athletes from doping, have a strong incentive to make sure their athletes clean. And the athletes themselves would know that one slip would result in no sports career whatsoever for the rest of their lives.

I expect there are a myriad reasons this is not fair and not practical. But it is all I have got. If you have any suggestions, I’m sure WADA would love to hear them!

Running for my Nan

A couple of weeks ago my Nan – the wonderful Nellie – passed away. She was 97 years old. I was very, very sad and despite her amazing age, it came as quite a shock.

Born in 1915, my Nan has seen an awful lot and was an amazingly supportive, wise and thoughtful woman – a real role model if ever there was one. She lived through the Second World War staying the whole time in London while her husband was away fighting the war. She witnessed social and technological changes that must have been utterly mind-blowing for her – the advent of homes having electricity and the telephone, the birth of television, computing, satellites, mobile phones, microwaves, digital watches… digital anything actually. Fast food. The NHS. The United Nations.

In 1915 the Italian Umberto Blasi was the marathon world record holder with a time of 2:38:00 – that is how long ago my Nan was born.

My Nan and my sport

And it is fair to say that my Nan was not – as far as I know – a sporty woman. In fact I can’t remember her ever speaking about her own sporting interests. But she was interested in mine. In fact my marathon running prompted a unique event in the 38 years that I knew her: she asked me to do something for her!

My abiding memory of my Nan is as a fiercely independent woman, who certainly never asked me for anything. She lived alone in her own home until three days before she died. She cooked her own meals, collected and returned her own library books and did her own shopping for almost her entire life. She was, in fact, a very tough lady. And not one who asked for anything from anyone.

Running a marathon for Macmillan Cancer Support

So it was quite a surprise when Nan asked me if I would run a marathon to raise money for a charity that was very dear to her – Macmillan Cancer Support.

me and nanShe knew that I had run a couple of marathons for other charities – mainly because friends were running for them and I have said I’d pitch in – and Nan said that a number of her friends (she was in her 90s by this stage) had developed cancer and that Macmillan had been amazing in helping them. She wanted to see if there was something we could do together. Seeing as I was going to run the London marathon again, she asked if I would mind running to raise money for her charity.

I was delighted to be asked and really, really happy to do what I could to help. Even better in 2008, I had a Good For Age place so I didn’t need to pay for a Golden Bond place: every penny I raised would go to Macmillan.

I contacted the charity and told them what I would do. They were happy to have me as part of their team. They sent me a vest for me and t-shirt for Nan, so that we could pose in them for my JustGiving page. We set a target of £1,000.

In the end the race went well. I had written the fundraising total and the words “For Nan” on the inside of my forearm and when things got tough during the race, I glanced down and found my motivation to carry on.

I finished in 3hr 14min 36secs and Nan and I raised £1,254.60.

Now that Nan has gone

The last couple of weeks have been tough. I know that I won’t be able to see my Nan again, show her a medal and describe a race that I have done. But I know that she was really proud of me.

One of my favourite moments was running the 2010 edition of the Petts Wood 10k – the race in the village where she lived.

I was in reasonable shape and determined to do my best, so I gave it my all and finished in second place. The race finishes in a recreation ground in the village and I was so happy to see my Nan standing behind the barriers in the finish chute as I came in. I could hear her saying – to anyone who would listen – “that’s my Grandson, that’s my Grandson” It meant so much to me to make her proud.

I only found out later that to start with she was a bit miffed because she thought there’d be time to go for a coffee and cake while I was out running… sorry Nan – I was only gone for 36 minutes!

What I am going to do and what you can do

So here are my thoughts. I think that I will run a race in memory of my Nan. I will run for Macmillan Cancer Support. I’m actually grateful that she didn’t need long-term palliative care herself, but it was a charity that she cared about and I want to honour that.

I am going to use JustGiving again because I think that they make it really easy to run in loving memory of someone and in fact they have recently added some info for how to set up a page in memory of someone. You can see that here.

If you are doing something similar, please let me know. And I will update you on what I am going to do to honour the memory of Mrs Nellie Rosina Harrison, the most wonderful, supportive, bright woman anyone could hope to have in their lives.

Training, racing and time on the feet: why slower marathons are as challenging as faster ones.

In the last two weeks, I have run two marathons. That makes it three marathons since 21 April, i.e. five weeks ago. And I have learned from all of them. But the lessons have been very different, certainly between the first marathon and the last two.

The first marathon this spring was the London marathon and you can read my race report here. The second was the Copenhagen marathon which I ran with Charlie Dark from the RunDemCrew. Then yesterday I ran a trail race with my wife in Devon, part of the Endurance Life Coastal Trail Series.

Endurance Life Coastal Trail Series Race report

Trail running at its best!
Trail running at its best!

The Coastal Trail Series races have featured a few times in our racing calendars since a friend, Alex from my running club, introduced Julie and I to them with a half marathon race on Chesil Beach a couple of years ago.

These races are the antithesis of the big city marathon: friendly people, stunning wild scenery, off-road trails and – as far as I have experienced them – very, very un-flat!

Yesterday’s race was no exception.

With all the wonderful activity that had been keeping us super-busy at freestak recently, Julie and I were not as organised as we should have been and we ended up deciding that we would drive to the race on the morning of it. That meant getting up at 3am to drive for four hours towards Plymouth. Seeing the moon ahead of us, as big as a plate in the sky while the most amazing sunrise lit up the hills and bathed Stone Henge, shrouded in morning mist, with golden light as we drove past, was worth the effort of getting up alone and set the tone for the day.

We arrived at the venue – a large field on the Flete Estate – and parked up. Immediately the Endurance Life team were friendly, welcoming and full of life. I was full of coffee!

After a typically easy-going race briefing, at 8:50am we were off: a big gaggle of chatting, laughing, encouraging runners making their way down a country lane to the beach and on to the coastal path for a two-loop race of around 28 miles.

The scenery and the weather were stunning all day (I have a few patches of sun burn to prove it) and the banter with the other runners – particular shout out here to Rory Coleman and his amazing up-hill technique – meant that we were just moving fast along the paths without a care in the world, taking photos and chatting all the way.Screen Shot 2013-05-27 at 09.06.27

The finish was great – the field was full of people who had run the half marathon and 10km options as well as the 33 marathon finishers in front of us – and we were soon munching on a delicious locally produced burger and enjoying an equally delicious, albeit much less locally produced lager.

Job done: race completed at a decent pace, no stroppy incidents, perfect weather, no injuries and massive, massive grins on our faces.

Lessons learned from two marathons

I have taken two important things from these two recent races.

Self-ee with wife-e
Self-ee with wife-e

The first is about sharing. Both the Copenhagen marathon and the CTS race – whilst very different from one another – involved running with someone else. My London marathon experience was all about the ego. There is not much to share and indeed the training as well as the racing, was pretty selfish. But Copenhagen and yesterday’s races were about taking on a challenge with people I love and care about and enjoying being part of an amazing experience with them.

I think there is a place for single-minded, oblivious focus and striving to achieve something yourself for yourself. But balancing that with the opportunity to share laughter, pain, struggle and victory with someone else is, in my opinion, an unbeatable experience. Long live the team!

The other thing I have learned is that being able to run a 2:37 marathon does not really prepare you for running a 3:48 marathon or a 5 hour, 28 mile trail race. I think that I went into both thinking that physically I ‘had got this’ and whilst I feel fine, I have relearned the respect that you need to show to long, slow races and ultra-distance races.

I have not been training for three+ hours runs. My longest training runs in the lead up to the London marathon were two and a half hours. Yesterday I ran for more than double that. Sure, from a cardio-vascular point of view, I had no problem handling the pace. But my 60kg frame was putting pressure on hips, knees, ankles and feet for much, much longer than I have been used to and let me tell you – I can feel that today!

So, thank you to the ever-beautiful Julie for yesterday’s amazing run. And thank you to Charlie Dark for last weekend’s similarly epic run. I have learned a lot from both of you and from both events, mainly that you train for what you intend to race and if that is for a three, seven or 24 hours race, you had better be prepared… you cannot blag a marathon, no way!

Gold medal or Palme d’Or? Why running form is less important than running more.

This morning, as I was sitting eating breakfast, a thought popped into my head about the nature of competition. My wife had cooked eggs and we were eating them with slices of gruyere cheese. But not any old gruyere cheese – award winning gruyere. My wife is Swiss, so when we do have cheese from her country, which is not all that often, we will try to go for the good stuff.

Winning at cheese making

But how do you choose an award winning cheese? I suspect like many things, there are criteria that the cheese is tested and tastes against – texture, moisture, pungency, saltiness, etc. So what you end up with is a set of judges, judging against a set of criteria.

As a cheese maker, if you want to win a prestigious award you have to know what the criteria are and make your cheese as close to the best that it can be within those areas. Get that right and you win.  The same is true for so many things – cooking, playing music, painting, gymnastics, achieving at work… if you know that good looks like and you can fit as closely to that as possible, then you will win. Of course there are always exceptions, but most of the time rewards in these type of competitions come from fitting the winning criteria as closely as possible.

Running for a gold medal (or a PB: same thing to me)

jeux-olympiques-2012-medaille-or-e1344324672447

With our sport, however, the same isn’t true. There are no style points. You don’t win by being the runner with the best style or the runner who most resembles what the judges consider to be good running form. In fact in running, form follows function. The idea is to get from A to B as fast as you can and who cares what it looks like?

Sure, there are people who do exceptionally well and seem to have qualities and characteristics that others could emulate to get faster, but the more I read into running form, the more it seems to be that there is no single way to do it best.

Nowadays it is easy to think that Usain Bolt is the paradigm of perfect sprinting form. But remember back a few years and you will know that before he arrived all sprinters had to be 5 feet something short, stocky and have short, powerful legs. Suddenly a veritable giant with legs too long to fold underneath himself comfortably, comes along and changes everything.

Michael Johnson was considered to have a terrible running style – didn’t stop him from dominating his sport for a decade.

Haile Gebrselassie – one odd, crooked arm. Paul Radcliffe – strange nodding head. Dathan Ritzenhein (pre-Salazar) – pretty much everything!

The list goes on.

My take on running form

So I recoil a bit when people ask me about whether they should be fore-foot striking or where their head should be. Worse is when I get told by people that ‘coaches’ (usually personal trainers, not specialist running coaches) are telling them to change their running style if they want to get faster. For me apart from recent advice from my coach regarding arm carriage, head position and  thoughts about leaning slightly forward, I have never really worried about my running form. I think that in some cases people mistake working on their form as a shortcut to getting faster, whereas I think that is something to be dealt with as you reach the limit of what you can achieve purely on training alone.

By the time I had run a 2:43 marathon, I had never thought about running form for a single minute. The more I run, the more my form seems to improve and then the more my running improves – a virtuous circle! I certainly don’t think that I will be winning any Palme d’Or for my running style, but as long as I am still improving – that is getting faster – what do I care? Not much, to be honest.

 

Book review: Feet in the Clouds by Richard Askwith

One of the things I love about running is that at it’s heart is a purity that doesn’t exist in many other sports. There is not much that is contrived about trying to get from one place to another as fast as you can. There are no balls, or rackets, or off-side regulations. There are hardly even any rules (except follow the prescribed route). Somehow running is about something that human beings have had to do to survive since the dawn of our species.

However under the broad umbrella of running as a sport, there are myriad different events – from track sprinting to ultra-distance trail races and from elite events such as the Olympics to mass participation events such as big city marathons and ParkRuns. When I started running, the easiest form of running – and the one that appealed to my sense of wanting to take control – was road running. But as my interest in running developed, I discovered other types of races and one book, above all, gave me the impetus to take my running off-road. That book was Feet In The Clouds: A Tale Of Fell Running And Obsession, by Richard Askwith.

FITC coverAskwith is an accomplished writer, currently employed as the Associate Editor of the Independent and this, along with his determination and dedication to become the best fell runner he can be, makes Feet In The Clouds a wonderful read.

Much like Open, the autobiography of Andre Agassi, Askwith’s book opens with a chapter that simply grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go. You are immediately sucked into a world where physical exertion, doubt, fear, ecstasy, history and camaradery are all an integral part of why its participants are involved. If, like me, you are interested in what you are capable of, Feet In The Clouds is a very direct challenge: could you? Would you? Should you try any of this at home (or on a hill near to home)?

What is also wonderful about Feet In The Clouds, is the way that Askwith tells of his considerable personal challenges and exertions within the context of a sport that has its fair share of heroes and heroics. This tends to do Richard the disservice of diminishing what he himself achieved. But it also paints a vivid picture of a minority sport within the wider sport of running, which has quietly and unassumingly carried on for generations (although sadly, more recently perhaps, waned more than waxed). Richard writes about and indeed meets many of the unsung heroes of fell running like Joss Naylor, Pete Bland and Angela Mudge who work tough jobs and race tougher races.

In that sense, the great fell runners that Richard describes are like many of my heroes from the golden age of road running like Bill Adcocks, Steve Jones, Mike McLeod and too many others to mention: men who worked five or six days as well as running 120 miles each week and completed marathons in times that should make today’s pampered professional runners blush.

If you need any more convincing that this is tough sport, how about this for a race course!

If there is any slight criticism of Feet In The Clouds, it is the forensic level of detail that Askwith brings to bear on his chosen sport. Every so often there is a  chapter which is a look at a month of fell running and that is perhaps too much detail for the casual reader.

But then again, fell running is not a sport that is for anyone casual in any sense. The epic races, reckless down-hill charges, hard lifestyles and deep community that makes up fell running is not for the faint-hearted and whilst some people might not understand the significance of a race up and down Scarfell Pike or Snowdon or the challenge that the Bob Graham Round represents, that in no way diminishes what amazing feats the characters in Feet In The Clouds achieve (the author included) and a re-issue of this book is the perfect antidote to the Olympic legacy of multi-million pound sponsorship deals, Olympic stadia and corporate endorsements. This is a book about getting out there and doing it.

So I really recommend that you get a copy… then lace up your fell shoes and go and get out on the hills. It won’t be long before Richard Askwith’s tale of obsession becomes your tale of obsession – just don’t say I didn’t warn you!

 

 

 

Feet In The Clouds is published in paperback by Aurum Press and will be in shops on 9 May 2013, priced at £8.99.

The good people at Aurum have sent me a copy of Feet In The Clouds to give away, so head over to the freestak Facebook page for a chance to win the book.

The storm is coming

Think back if you will, to the point before your marathon preparation cycle started. Let’s take November last year for example. Whether or not you raced last autumn, it is highly likely that last November you were not training for anything specific. Wasn’t that a lovely time? Blissful in fact. You were running, sure, but it was base building stuff – more steady runs and less sessions. Maybe even skipping a run or two if life or work got in the way.

But now, if you listen carefully, you can hear the rumble of the approaching spring marathon. Coming like a train down the tracks, ever day it is getting closer and closer…

And the training is getting harder and harder.

Welcome to the Twiglet Zone.

As I look around me at my compatriots, my training partners and the people I have contact with through this blog or through social media, the incidences of injury and tiredness are becoming more and more common.

At the track last night, people were missing. Others didn’t manage to finish the session. The recoveries between reps stretched out from 60 seconds initially to 75 seconds.

I have heard from friends who are starting to get over stretched. Little injuries are appearing. General fatigue is setting in.

I’m suffering too. As I write this I am sat on the sofa with my feet up and a cup of tea, like an old man. I felt OK after my track session last night, but a combination of a hard session, a rather restless night and possibly not eating very sensibly after the track last night, left me feeling utterly drained as I went out for my run this morning. I managed the 60 minutes and kept to the pace that I usually manage for those runs, but I felt ragged and there were several very sore spots in my legs – right calf, back of the left knee and both quads. I was in a sorry state!

But I have now got to the point where I realise this is all part of the training. If you want to be the best runner you can be, you have to manage these difficult periods. Training for a marathon involves having injuries treated or resting them for a few days. It involved making sure there is enough food in the house. It requires making sure that you create the environment that will allow you to sleep properly. And most of all, training to run the best marathon you can (or excelling in any sporting endeavor for that matter) requires you to embrace the challenges that come with training hard and the build-up of fatigue that is part and parcel of training week in, week out.

Professional athletes suffer too!

It is tempting when you see the runners at the top of their field, floating along at super-human speeds, to thing that the pros have it easy all the time, but that is far from the truth. Check out Jessica Ennis in this BBC film, at about 4min 25sec talking about the struggle of getting out of bed when the weather is horrible and she feels broken from all the training. Or consider Julia Bleasdale, who I interviewed recently, who told me that

Sometimes when I am really tired and I have a second run to do and the weather is miserable – those runs are very difficult, but of course they can also be the most beneficial.

What the pros know is that when it comes to the day of the race or event, all the hard training will pay off and succeeding will look easy. That is what we have to focus on – the end goal.

So, there is no way to sugar-coat this. If running a marathon was easy, there would be NO POINT DOING IT. We do it because it is hard and because it is a challenge. But in reality the bulk of the challenge is now, not on the day. So get that injury fixed and make sure you have the right stuff and the right environment to train hard and recover. And visualise the moment when you achieve your aim… I promise you: the pain and fatigue you feel now will pale into insignificance on the day. You didn’t really think it would be easy, did you?

Some things that a runners should never do (and how to avoid doing them)

This is a post inspired by my own stupidity. I run quite a lot and it is all too easy for me to forget to do things that help to keep me up-and-running: things that I know I should do, but don’t. So today, when I got back from my run, I decided to start listing the things that us runners should never experience and what to do to avoid these pitfalls. What do you think? Do you have other pitfalls that us runners should avoid?

1) Chafing

Skin rubbing against skin or fabric plus moisture equals sore, red chafing and even, in some cases, bleeding. Whether the location is inner thighs or arm-pits, chafing can be very distracting during a race or a training run and potentially very painful afterwards. In extreme cases, it can be too painful to keep running or to get out for a run the next day. Probably the worst time to for an area of chafing to develop is mid-race where there is little or nothing that can be done about it. In a race, distractions are bad and so the burning and stinging from some skin rubbing raw, can sometimes mean missing a target time or even not being able to finish.

The answer: there are a few options here. My top tip and favourite product for this is BodyGlide. Available from many, many running outlets and online retailers, this product, which is applied in the same way as a solid deodorant, has meant that I have never had issues with chafing when I have used it, including during a 78km mountain race where I was running for 10 hours continuously. BodyGlide is not the cheapest product in the world and some people swear by good, old Vaseline as an alternative. I tend to find that Vaseline can ‘melt’ after a while and that then leaves the skin exposed and vulnerable to chafing, but it’s probably better than nothing.

Another option is making sure skin doesn’t come into contact with skin. Tights and cycling-style shorts (minus the chamois) are an option to keep inner-thigh chafing at bay. Arm-pits are more difficult, although a long-sleeved top will usually do the trick.

Finally if the chafing is due to fabric rubbing against skin, the best way to minimise the risk is by not wearing baggy clothes which can ruck-up and rub and making sure what you do wear is a wicking material that doesn’t absorb and hold on to moisture.

2) Black toenails

A badge of honour or a sign that the runner is too stupid or mean to replace shoes that are too tight? There is only really one reason that runners get blackened toenails and that is because their toes are touching the end of their shoes. During a marathon the average runner takes 35,000 to 40,000 steps in a marathon and if your toes nudge the end of your shoes everytime, the cumulative effect is to lift the nails a little thousands of time. Et voila! Black toenails.

The answer: quite simply, buy shoes that fit. That is not entirely as simple as it sounds, but it is the answer. My advice, at least to start off with, is to visit your local running shop when you have been running. I have done this a number of times and because a runners feet can easily swell by a full size on a long run on a hot day, it is worth thinking about. That way, the shoes you try on will not fit when your feet are at their normal size and then suddenly end up too tight at mile 20 of your key race.

Other things to think about include making sure your toenails are cut short to avoid the nail over-hanging the end of the toe and catching the inside of the shoe. And when you try on a pair of running shoes, wear the sock that you will run in; cushioned socks or double-layer anti-blister socks are almost always thicker than every day socks so you should be wearing the thicker socks when you try on your shoes.

3) Dehydration

Dehydration is really bad for performance. If you don’t drink enough you will NOT run as well as you are capable of. Believe me. I know. In the London Marathon 2010, I was hoping for sub-2:40. It was warm and I didn’t take on more fluids than usual. By mile 13 I was dry. By mile 18 I was in big trouble – head spinning, unable to breathe properly and incapable of keeping my 6 min/mile pace. I ended up walking through a water station. And guess what? After two full bottle of water and a bottle of Lucozade from an aid station, I was back up to speed within seven or eight minutes and finished in 2:43. Obviously I was pissed off that I had missed my target, but I learned a very, very valuable lesson about dehydration.

Fast forward to 2012 and I was racing the same race and again it was going to be warm. But this time I made sure I was well hydrated before the race and drank sips at every water station. End result? A PB with 2:38.

This is really easy to get right. Make sure your pee is light yellow or straw coloured at all times. Then when you have a key session or a race, get some fluids in before the race and sip something throughout, especially if like me, you tend to run hot and sweat quite a lot.

4) Post-run stiffness

This is an interesting subject, because I believe that hard training will result in some stiffness – if you are training for a marathon and running 70 or 80 miles a week like I have and expect that you will not feel stiff, you are deluded. However there is a difference between a little stiffness that eases up a few strides into your early morning run and the type of stiffness that puts you off going out to run at all! That needs to be avoided.

The answers include making sure you are hydrated. Stretching after every run (and that does mean every run). Using a roller or some massage from time to time when you feel stiffness coming on. Getting enough rest. Drinking green tea (OK that might be a bit spurious, but it is a proven antioxidant which reduces free-radical damage). Making sure your recovery runs are just that – recovery. Stretching… after every run. That’s about it. Apart from stretching after every run!

5) Boredom

I sometimes hear people complaining that one of the problems they have with running is boredom. Well, I struggle to understand that, although I do sometimes find running on my own to be a little less than inspiring. So I try to run as often as possible with other people. Sunday runs, when speed is not all that important, is a good chance to get a group together and go at an easy, conversational pace. That is a brilliant way to stay motivated to go out running. I also am lucky to have some training partners nearby which means I can do some of my recovery runs with other people. It is most definitely worth making the effort to go and meet others to run with.

I also think that within reason music or podcasts can have their uses. I worry about people who feel they cannot run without music, but from time to time, I use my iPod shuffle to give me a little boost. And if you have to do long slow runs on your own, a podcast can be a great way to pass the time and learn something along the way!

Just don’t ever race with music. The motivation is NOT going to come from the latest chart hits or whatever else you are listening to. Get into the spirit of the race, feed off the crowds and your fellow competitors and concentrate on what you are doing!

So that is a list of five things that I think all runners should be able to deal with. There will obviously be other answers to these common problems, so please feel free to add your suggestions and if you can think of any other complaints or issues and ways they can be dealt with, please post them in the comments below.