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!

The three E’s: engaged, enabled, and energized

You need three of these...

I recently read an interesting post on Fast Company about how to get the most out of employees. I was fascinated by what the article called the three states that employees need to be in, in order to deliver the best possible results for their employer: engaged, enabled and energized.

It made me think about what it takes to be the best runner you can be and I think that the same three words can be applied here too. I have just finished reading Adharand Finn’s book, Running With The Kenyans, in which he strives to uncover the secret to Kenya’s dominance in distance running and the marathon in particular. Without going into too much detail, the ‘secret’ isn’t really a secret at all – it is an ideal mixture of circumstances, motivations and opportunities that are exploited in that part of the world more and better than anywhere else.

Three important aspects of what Finn discovers, however, are that the runners he encounters are:

• 100% focused on running and do whatever it takes to be the best – they’re engaged

• they have ideal facilities in the form of traffic free, dirt trails at altitude, a plethora of training partners and some excellent coaches – they’re enabled

• they are surrounded by reminders of the benefits that running could bring them – they’re energized

What does that mean for me?

So how does that relate to our running? Well I think it is important to try to create our own ways to have the three ‘E’s in our running lives.

For me that will involve surrounding myself with the best runners I can to inspire and advise me. That will mean that I am engaged with what I am doing.

I will make sure that I am getting the best possible advice, in my case from my coach Nick Anderson, and being part of a training group, so that I am enabled to improve.

And I will keep reminding myself of why I run – to try to find out how good I can possible be and to create a situation where I can inspire and help as many runners as possible – which will ensure I remain energized.

So what will you do? How will you make sure that you have all the three ‘E’s in your running: engaging, enabling and energising. Please let me know what will work for you.

Iron War by Matt Fitzgerald

First and foremost I am a runner. But I never considered myself to be good enough to be totally one dimensional and so I have dabbled in sports alongside running, most notably the two seasons that I competed in triathlon. I was not very good at triathlon (arguably my best result was 10th in an Olympic distance race in Seaford, on the south coast of the UK) and I especially found the swim, or at least the start of the swim, very challenging. After a few attempts, I decided that my focus, at least for the mean time, would be on improving my marathon time. I am ashamed to say that it has been months since I went for a swim and longer still since I went for a bike ride.

Iron War by Matt Fitzgerald

However I did enjoy my foray into multisports: I most definitely developed a respect for triathletes and to this day I am an avid follower of standard and ironman distance events. So it was that whilst shopping (by which I mean rushing into a shop, already scoped out as one having the item I wanted to get, and then rushing out again as fast as possible – I hate shopping per se!) I picked up Matt Fitzgerald’s new book, Iron War: a book that takes the 1989 Kona Ironman race, which came down to a duel between two legends of the sport – Mark Allen and Dave Scott – as a canvas onto which to explore the very nature of endurance and the things that make those that are great, great!

As happened with Open, Andre Aggasi’s book or Matthew Syed’s Bounce, I was captivated by the end of page one, in fact possibly by the end of the opening paragraph. Fitzgerald is a great writer and this means that not only is the book brilliantly researched and executed, the prose is also beautifully crafted and this makes the book a genuine ‘page turner’. I for one couldn’t put it down.

Inspiration and motivation on every page

Iron War has had such a huge impact on me, that I intend to explore some of the main themes in the book in more detail in upcoming posts, so I won’t write too much here. But I will say that the incisive discussions in the chapters that surround the narration of the increadible race that Allen and Scott took part in at the 13th Ironman race in Hawaii in 1989, cut to the core of many of the theories that I have been thinking and reading about recently relating to the power of the mind in endurance sport. There is no doubt at all that immense feats of endurance are built upon a basis of supreme physical fitness, but more than that is necessary to drive the protagonists of this book (and indeed many other stories) to achieve what they did. Fitzgerald uncovers research in fields such as neuroscience, spirituality and psychology to explain how in truth we are all capable of much more than we think we are and that indeed we often fail to be the best that we can possibly be, not because we reach a physical limitation, but rather a mental one that too few of us are prepared to push beyond.

So I cannot recommend highly enough that you buy a copy of this amazing book. We all know that the New Year is a time when motivation could do with a boost and this book should be just the thing to energise (or indeed re-energise) you and challenge you to push yourself that little bit further in 2012. I know that I will have passages rattling around in my head during tough training sessions in weeks to come.

The Mental Muscle with Rasmus Ankersen

I recently attended a one day seminar called the Mental Muscle, presented by Rasmus Ankersen, the High Performance Anthropologist. The seminar was billed as an exploration of the factors that create environments where high performance becomes the norm, and that is exactly what it delivered.

The Gold Mine Effect - out soon!

To begin Rasmus Ankersen offered the delegates a brief background to his life and how he ended up starting a project that would take him around the world trying to find common links between ‘gold mines’ of high performance. Having harboured ambitions of being a top-flight footballer, Rasmus’ career was shortened by injury and so he found himself coaching. He was part of the coaching team in charge of an academy in a rural part of Denmark.

At one point Rasmus was coaching a player called Simon Kjaer, who at the time was considered to be disruptive, lacking discipline and low on talent. He was not one of the players picked by any of the coaching staff when they were asked to nominate the five players they thought would ‘make it’ in the game. Several years later, Simon Kjaer is now considered to be a world class footballer.

Simon Kjaer - hidden talent

This inability to spot Simon Kyaer’s talent by a team of highly qualified and experienced coaches, forced Ankersen to ask what it was about talent that was so elusive. What Rasmus found is pretty exciting.

Genetics vs application

Ankersen said that in many cases there is a temptation to assume that dominence in a particular sporting field by a national or even regional group, must be down to genetics. Or in the case of individual prodigious exponents of a particular field, down to natural talent. But Rasmus told us that he was doubtful that this was the answer to the question of why these groups or people were so much better at whatever it was they did than everyone else.

He pointed out that in the case of Moses Kiptanui – the 3,000m and 5,000m world record holder as well as steeplechase world record holder and World Championship and Olympic medal winner – none of his extended family of 500 showed any ‘talent’ in running, despite obviously being closely genetically linked.

And when it comes to individual prodigies, such as Mozart or Tiger Woods, they were the products of environments where their fathers introduced them to the field they would become renowned in, at preposterously early ages.

The key in all these cases, was starting early and working continuously and as hard as possible.

Talent as the entry ticket

Who's holding the entry ticket here?

Rasmus acknowledges that a certain degree of ‘talent’ is the entry ticket required to put individuals with potential in a position to become exceptional. Much like basketball players who need to be tall to start with or sprinters who need to be blessed with a high proportion of fast twitch muscle fibres, only those who work the hardest actually excel.  Tall people or people with a high proportion of fast twitch muscle fibres are actually pretty universally evenly spread. But the will to turn that initial advantage into excellence, is not.

Rasmus went on to introduce us to a theory proposed by James Flynn, Emeritus Professor of Political Studies at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, who has suggested that in fact the existence of pockets of excellence is less to go with the distribution of talented people and more to do with how good any particular society is at capturing and nurturing a talent.

Capturing and nurturing talent

For example, Rasmus believes that the east African dominence of middle and long distance running is less to do with an uneven distribution of genetics and more to do with an uneven distribution of self belief and the desire to work hard.

This uneven distribution of the desire for hardwork – what could be commonly called ‘hunger’ – is key to Rasmus’ argument and to the concept of the Gold Mine Effect. After the seminar Rasmus was kind enough to allow me to publish a section from his up-coming book, which explains the important of hunger:

Hunger factor 4: Spartan and simple facilities

I still remember my meeting in Iten, Kenya with one of the world’s absolute best 1500 m runners, Augustine Choge, as though it were yesterday. I’m watching his training on a running track a couple of kilometres outside Iten. Choge has just launched into the last of his merciless interval runs which he has been forcing his body to endure for the last 45 minutes. Stony-faced, he rounds his last corner and accelerates towards the finishing line, where I’m sitting in the baking hot sun watching them train.

Mr. Choge is the very man I have come to meet. He was the fastest man in the world in the 1500 m in 2009. After training we sit for a while in his big white Land Rover, the only sign of his success, and trundled back towards his home. Twenty minutes later, Augustine Choge turns in onto a grass field between two trees and parks in front of two dilapidated shacks.

Somewhat taken aback, I ask him: “Is this where you live?”

He nods. By Western standards it looks more like a chicken shack than somewhere people would live. And certainly not the world’s fastest 1500 m runner. The rusty hinges let out a high-pitched squeak as he opens the wonky wooden door into his living room. Here, an old massage couch and a sofa with a cover full of holes come into sight. An old 15 inch television set is chattering away on the table. The walls have been papered with old newspapers. Behind the tiny living room is an even tinier double room with a bunk bed and from the ceiling hangs a small electric bulb which struggles to light up the room.

This is where Augustine Choge sleeps. But not alone, it transpires; he shares his accommodation with David Rudisha, Kinnear’s best 800 m runner, who this year managed to topple his fellow countryman Wilson Kipketer’s 15-year-old world record.

I have great difficulty believing what I see as I sit in Augustine Choge’s living room as he boils water on his humble gas cooker to make the Kenyan tea he drinks after every training session. This man has made an absolute fortune from his sport. He drives around in a big Land Rover and could easily buy himself a fashionable flat in Nairobi. Nevertheless, he isolates himself in this little chicken shack a few hundred metres from the centre of Iten all year round – interrupted only by the few months when he is competing in Europe. These are, as he puts it, the optimum conditions for doing what it takes. Sleep, train, eat, sleep, train, eat, etc.

I saw the same thing at MVP Track & Field Club in Jamaica, where the world’s best sprinters trained on the diesel-scorched grass track – not the hypermodern running track I had expected for athletes of that calibre. But as Stephen Francis puts it:

“There’s no need for anything that is not absolutely necessary. A performance environment should not be designed for comfort, it should be designed for hard work.”

This seriously challenges the modern American/European mindset. In poor, rusty and overcrowded facilities in the West it’s almost impossible to create world stars. We instinctively strive for groomed fields, top-level technology, comfortable surroundings. It’s just that the burning question is: Do we develop better performance in fine, fancy and comfortable facilities? Or is it possible to imagine that it may be advantageous to train under primitive, humble conditions like Augustine Choge certainly does, and which Stephen Francis insists on at the world’s most successful athletics club? Perhaps these are in reality perfect facilities for developing World class performance because they really test people to find out whether they have the will to maintain their focus, which is what it’s all about, and at the same time send a clear signal that the road to the world elite is far from easy or comfortable. Perhaps luxurious surroundings diminish effort. The Gold Mines deliver the point that if you want to create and maintain drive, then aim to make and keep facilities spartan and simple.

This idea confronts anyone who works on a day-to-day basis with talent development with a number of urgent questions. If hunger is created and reinforced by spartan and simple facilities, does this give certain parts of the world an advantage? And if it does, then how is an English boy growing up in an affluent and comfortable society ever going to match the hunger gnawing inside the belly of the Brazilian boy growing up in a São Paulo favela? It important to emphasise here that the message about simple and spartan facilities does not mean that we in the West should tear down our ultramodern training centres and train in rusty old fitness centres and on uneven grass tracks. Nor does it have anything to do with Roger Federer not being able to win a grand slam if he stays at a luxury hotel. But we must understand that creating World class performance does not necessarily require World class facilities. The Spartan conditions at the Gold Mines make sure that nobody falls asleep in comfortable surroundings and constantly reminds their performers of the humbleness and laser-like focus that is required to get good and stay good.

(reproduced with kind permission of Rasmus Ankersen. All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce without permission)

Cultivating my hunger

So where does that leave me? Well, it is always going to be a challenge to replicate the conditions necessary to create Rasmus’ hunger for success in a comfortable society like ours.  But I do think that it is possible to create deep intrinsic motivation if the concept of competition and self-development is put at the heart of the ways in which we educate our children and if as adults we accept that we must be live the change we want to see in future generations. So on that note, I’m off out for another run… if I keep going, I might just become the world class runner that I know I have the potential to be (maybe!)

There’s nothing you can’t do…..

Ed: This piece by Catherine Wilding is the first guest post on this site and I’m really delighted to have her on board. If you’d like to contribute please contact me.

I’ve noted that other runners write about pace, split times, race conditions and how their training has been erratic / hardcore / blighted by work commitments (delete as appropriate.) As my blog is about running, I may come on to that but it was the crunch of golden leaves under my Nike Structure-Triax this morning that compelled me to write.  It has to be one of my favourite sounds.  It reminds me why I love running and particularly so when the low Autumnal sunlight is streaming through the trees in Hyde Park.

As the trees turn, my thoughts are firmly fixed on an important event in my yearly calendar.  It is the New York City Marathon. For the past two years I have lined up as a professional athlete in New York, and on both occasions I’ve failed to achieve my goal.   The streets of New York City are both exciting and intimidating, running in the women’s professional field – which means mostly running alone.

New York City Marathon

This year, I am heading out to New York to run the marathon again, only this time I’ll be in the main field.  Like many people who have trained for a marathon my training has been upset by injury, illness and a stressful new job.  It’s hard to train like a professional athlete when you aren’t one.  Everyone who has trained for a marathon knows that the physical training is both hard and time consuming.  But equally important for any athlete and any runner – no matter how serious or good they consider themselves – is the mental preparation.  If you are reasonably fit and mentally strong, you will run a good race.  If you are incredibly fit and mentally weak, you are unlikely to achieve your goal.

Mental preparedness

And this is what has been worrying me the most.  Whilst my training hasn’t been quite what I’d like this year, it is the lack of mental preparation which has affected me the most.  The race has been on and then off.  Then on again after my achilles tendonitis cleared, then off when I got ill, then on again, and off when it all felt too overwhelming and I didn’t feel fit.

As an athlete, I didn’t want to run another disappointing marathon. As a runner, I couldn’t bear to give up my goal.  I sought advice from runners and non-runners but it was the wisdom of a Mr Simon Freeman [ed: gulp!] that impacted me the most:

“I know you have very high standards and I suspect that whilst you think that you are not in great shape, you are probably in better shape than you think. Still, I know how it is to feel below par and not at your best. However a good strong run in a city you love, at an event that I think could be the greatest marathon in the world, might just be great fun and I know there are many examples of runners being forced to take time off who end up having really great races because the intrinsic fitness is there and whilst the sharpness might be missing, the joy of running makes up for that.”

Why I run

His advice resonated loudly.  It reminded me why I run.  It’s because I enjoy it.  With one week to go, I am now able to mentally prepare myself for a race I’m going to enjoy.  With my goal fixed, I’m able to focus on the mental strength I need.

So, on Sunday November 6th, I will line up on the Verrazano Narrows Bridge as someone who just loves running and when I enter Central Park, just past mile 23, I will notice the sunlight through the trees and listen to the crunch of the leaves under my running shoes.  When I cross the finish line I will know I’ve achieved my goal.  The time on the clock will be an indication of whether the physical preparation outweighs the mental preparation, but that remains to be seen.

Ed: Catherine goes off to New York with all my best wishes and I have no doubt she will have a great race and learn a lot from the experience. She has promised to write a review of the event on her return that I will post here.