Who the hell am I racing against?

In the second in a series of very self-indulgent posts this weekend (sorry!) I want to answer the questions: who am I competing with? Who am I measuring myself with? Who am I racing against?

Watching the best of the best

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Gwen Jorgensen winning the World Triathlon Series race in London against the best in the world

I watched the the women’s World Triathlon Series race that took place in Hyde Park yesterday, whilst relaxing on the sofa after a long run this morning and a picnic in the park with Julie at lunchtime. Gwen Jorgensen, from the US, took on the best triathletes in the world who made up the field of other elite women over the 750m swim – 20km bike – 5km run race course. It was magnificent to watch and fascinating to see the others in the race respond and react and in the end race for the minor places.

One thing that struck me as I watched the race – which, like pretty much all elite Olympic and shorter distance triathlons that I have seen recently, came down to the run – was the fact that Jorgensen was a couple of kilometers into the run and there were still elite athletes racking their bikes and heading out for the 5km on foot. The first thing that crossed my mind was “why bother?”

These are elite level athletes. Almost certainly all of them make their living from triathlon and coming 63rd out of a field of 65 is – in terms of their earnings and career prospects – totally pointless. Why not just rack the bike and go for a recovery shake and get ready for the next race when they might do better?

No expectation of winning: just doing the best you can

But then I realised that most of us – and I mean 99.9999999% of the people who do any sort of sport – aren’t doing it with the expectation of winning. Most of us have other reasons for training and competing. We must have, because we sure as hell aren’t going to win.

So now I am back to my initial question. Why do I care about what time I get in a race or what position I get? In reality I am never going to win anything (certainly not anything worthwhile or meaningful) so why care?

Well I think that the answer is that I am racing against myself. Trying to match up to the standards that I aspire to for myself. Half of why I race is so that I can feel proud of what I have achieved because – especially with endurance sports (and thank you to my training partner on my run this morning, who reminded me of this point) you get out what you put in. So if I get a what I think is a pretty good result, then I know that I have worked hard and achieved something. The beauty of this, of course, is that it applies to everyone, no matter how fast they are. So everyone can know the warm glow of satisfaction that comes from having put in the effort and come out with a result.

My results & my frustrations

Mario Mola, winner of the men's race in the World Triathlon  Series race in London
Mario Mola, winner of the men’s race in the World Triathlon Series race in London

So… why am I frustrated with myself at the moment? Because I know I am not putting in the work and I am therefore not getting results that I think I can be proud of. For me. Not results that someone else thinks they would be happy with: results that I would be happy with. The irony is, of course, that it is entirely possible to win races and still not really be proud of what you achieved, because there is no one there to challenge you – you get the bling but it is meaningless without meaningful challenge. What I love about sport like the Elite triathlons at the weekend, is that there are so many people at the same level that, for example, in the elite men’s race in Hyde Park this weekend, the winner can feel immensely proud that he beat the best in the world. Same for Jorgensen. Same for you and me, if we beat the expectations that we set ourselves!

And what about me? Well, I got what I deserved in the 5km run that I did on Saturday: a taste of blood in my mouth, sore legs and a sinking feeling that age and lack of training are catching up on me.

But you want to know the best thing? I know that I can pull it around. Whether or not I feel proud of my future results is entirely in my hands – I just have to work for them. Sounds pretty good, eh?

Seven things I believe have transformed my running

Like many people I have met through running, when I started I really had very little idea what I was doing: all I knew was that I needed to take back control of my life. A friend of mine had made the same lifestyle changes that I needed to – stopping smoking, getting fitter, eating more healthily – a year before me and he had some advice for how I should start running. But my progress was all a bit hit-and-miss to be honest. I remember buying Runners World and trying to decipher the best advice for me and I bought a couple of books – the most useful of the first few books I bought was probably The Competitive Runner’s Handbook by Bob Glover.

But in general I made up my training as I went and hoped for the best. The more I ran, though, the more I was able to discard the useless things I was doing and refine the good stuff. Once I met my coach, Nick from RunningWithUs, I had a real boost in terms of things that made me a better runner. And now I am training for my next London marathon and tilt at a PB, I feel that I have uncovered a few things that have really made a difference for me. Obviously there are other small things that have also contributed and there are certainly things that I should be doing that I am not doing. But here’s the list as it stands:

Threshold

Without a doubt this was the one thing that Nick introduced that made the biggest difference for me. I am still not 100% sure that I get the pace right every time, but I go by feel: I aim for a pace where I can manage to blurt out a three or four word phrase, that I think I can probably sustain for 10 miles and where there is the faintest feeling of a build-up of lactic acid in my legs after maybe 10 minutes. I usually describe it to myself as running hard and sustainably. Nick describes it as controlled discomfort, which I think is a very useful way to consider it.

I don’t really have a deep understanding of the physiology behind threshold runs, but for me it feels like I am driving the engine hard for reasonably extended periods of time, which makes the goal pace for the marathon feel much, much more manageable. It is like tuning a car engine so that it runs like a sports car and then driving at 70mph – it makes marathon pace feel like cruising.

Probably my favourite threshold sessions are longer runs with sections of threshold in them, a good example would be 75 minutes with 3 x 10 minutes at threshold with 2 minutes jogged recovery in between. But there are many, many variations. The key, I think, is just pushing your body up to the limit (the threshold) and holding it there for a period of time.

Results? Well once Nick incorporated threshold in my training, I went from a 2:43 marathon PB in Paris to a 2:40 in Florence five months later. That could have been due to a number of factors, but the biggest change I could see were the threshold sessions I was doing.

Discipline

I believe this is a cornerstone when it comes to being a better runner. Life is busy, undoubtedly, and there are myriad distractions. But without sticking to the training, results will not come. I do think that a fit person can blag a result at distances up to a half marathon. But the marathon is different.

Without consistent training (which I mention below) I don’t think that a runner can expect to perform well and the key to consistency is discipline. Make a choice about what you want to achieve and then work out what it is going to take to get there. Then do everything you can to stick to the plan – discipline is about controlling all the things you can control. I can’t tell you how many times I have looked at my training plan for the day and thought “oh no, I don’t want to do that”, but without sticking to the plan, without being disciplined, I would never had been able to see what I am capable of. And finding that out is why I run.

Self belief

Two really obvious phrases: If you want to run a particular time in a race then you need to start at, or very close to, the pace required to finish in that time. And: if you want to improve your PB at a distance, you have to be prepared to run faster, over that distance, than you ever have before (borrowed from Nick and Phoebe at RunningWithUs).

The thing is, if you are going to choose a target time that is faster than you have ever run before and set off at a pace that is quicker than you have ever run before, you have to believe that you can do it. If you don’t, you will almost certainly fail. Because in every marathon I have run for a time, there has come a point where I thought I would not be able to keep going at the pace I was running. Every time. And if one gives in to the voice that says “you can’t keep this up” you will slow down and you will fail. So you need to believe – you need to start the race knowing that you can do it. Then when the pain builds and the road seems to go on forever and things start to look like they might be going wrong, you can dig into you belief and say “No! I know I can do this. Head down, think about form. Get on with it”

Where does the belief come from? The discipline that you have shown to train consistently. You should know that you have put in the work. You have made the effort. You have got what it takes to do this, because you have earned it.

Trail running

By trail running, I mean off-road running, wherever that is possible. I think that getting away from the pavements is great for the body and soul. Physically my Achilles heel, is my right ankle. I broke my fibula playing rugby in my first year of university and needed an operation where the surgeon screwed a plate to the outside of the bone. Due to the injury and probably also the surgery, it feels as though there was quite a bit of damage to the tendons and ligaments around my ankle and as a result I always have some pain in my ankle, varying from a dull ache to real tightness and soreness. By getting off-road, I believe that my ankle is both protected and strengthened. The soft surfaces seem to reduce the pain that I get post-run and the unevenness of trails means the muscles supporting my ankles work harder and get stronger.

I live in north London and face the typical challenges of anyone training for a marathon whilst living in a built-up urban area. But I am lucky to live within a few miles of some great off-road running in Highgate Woods, Hampstead Heath, Trent Park and even Waltham Forest, so I can run on the trails regularly.

I also think that getting off the pavements is great for the soul. Many of my favourite runs have been those where I have found myself alone, on a trail in a quiet wood, just running without a care in the world. Moments like that are a huge boost psychologically and remind me of why I am a runner.

Training in a group

When I started running, I only ran on my own. None of my friends were runners and I wasn’t confident enough to join a club. That has changed over time and I have increasingly come to the conclusion, that I am more motivated and I enjoy my running more when I train as part of a group. I even like racing in a group. For me, running is a team sport and the more people I can find to train with, the better I train and the closer I come to finding what I am really capable of.

I have really thought about this and studied the idea of a group being greater than the sum of the parts and I have found so many examples that I am now 100% convinced that if anyone wants to be the best runner they can be, then a group of runners at an equal level, with similar goals and the desire and commitment to make the effort to train together, is invaluable. Go make friends!

Consistency

This is the sibling of discipline. It is about training all the time, utilising periodisation to make sure that mind and body stay fresh and motivated. It is about building on last week’s efforts, last month’s efforts and last year’s efforts to get better and better.

I met an elderly gentleman at a race a few years after I had started running and he asked me what I was trying to achieve. I told him about wanting to find out how good I could be. He simply said to me

You need seven years! If you train and race consistently for seven years, your body will have adapted to the rigours of the marathon. Then you will be in shape to see what you are capable of.

My marathon PB of 2:37:07 at the 2013 VLM came seven years after I started training and racing consistently. So I believe that you need to keep your foot on the pedal all the time. I certainly do not think that you should keep the pedal to the floor, red-lining it 52 weeks a year: that is not sustainable. But by making sure that running is a constant factor in my life, punctuated a few times a year by a build-up to a key race, I think I now have reached a point where I can increase the training load and push my limits to see what I am really capable of.

Enjoyment

The last point is really the most obvious. Running is for everyone – I think that we really have evolved to run and because it is such a primary activity our bodies respond well to it. However I know that the type of running I do does not appeal to everyone. So if you feel like you have to train and that it is a chore and you don’t enjoy racing, find something else to do. Because I really believe that the thing that has played the biggest part for me, is that I really love running. I certainly love it a lot more than I loved my old, unhealthy lifestyle. I love the finish line feeling in a marathon, I love the training, I love long distance trail races with my wife. I love the friends I have found through running. If you can find that sort of enjoyment from running, then, my friends, I believe you will become the best runner you can be.

I hope this list is helpful. Or at least interesting. And I would love to know what you think has made the biggest difference to your running, in the comments below. There might be something that I have overlooked and that I can do to bring me one step closer to that PB on 13 April this year!

Is scarcity and discomfort good or bad when it comes to marathon running?

I have recently been reading a book, called Kings of the Road, by Cameron Stracher, about the golden period of marathon running in the US, around the late-1970s and early ‘80s.

This period followed on from the publication of Jim Fixx’s book The Complete Book of Running, and witnessed Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers and later Alberto Salazar pass the crown of the world’s best marathon runner from one to the other in succession.

The decade-long dominance started with Shorter’s Olympic gold in the marathon at the 1972 Games in Munich and probably ended with Salazar’s win at the Boston marathon in 1982, when he raced Dick Beardsley in what became known as the Duel in the Sun. At the end of that race, Salazar was rushed into hospital and received 6 liters of water intravenously. Despite being ranked as the number 1 marathoner in the world that year, he never really recovered and was unable to race to the same level again.

(l to r) Rodgers, Salazar & Shorter at the 2013 Honalulu marathon
(l to r) Rodgers, Salazar & Shorter at the 2013 Honalulu marathon

One of the things that really interests me about this period, was what motivated these three men to train and race in the way that they did. Everything you hear about them suggests desperation: 180 mile weeks, 200 mile weeks, training through injuries, running in every condition imaginable, living in absolute poverty due to the restrictions on earning imposed by the American athletics bodies. Why were they so driven? The answer is complicated, as with all things psychological. And I am not qualified to give a definitive answer, but my opinion is that there was a scarcity of luxury and love that they were driven by.

Scarcity is the mother of determination

Shorter revealed in an interview in 2011 that his well-respected father was a drunken tyrant at home, who mercilessly beat his children with the buckle end of his belt and raped his young daughters for seemingly trivial reasons. Rodgers felt deeply that he was an outcast from society, having applied for conscientious objector status to avoid the draft in the Vietnam war. Salazar grew up in an aggressive and revolutionary household dominated by his father, an over-zealous refugee from Cuba who was driven by hate for Castro and the regime he installed there.

It seems to me, then that certainly in these cases, discomfort – both physical and psychological – was the fuel for their extraordinary focus on the marathon and their physical and mental ability to ignore pain.

However two new books seem to oppose one another on the benefits or otherwise of scarcity and discomfort.

The benefits – or otherwise – of discomfort

In his new book, Hunger In Paradise: Beat The Hell Out Of Complacency, author and philosopher Rasmus Ankersen argues that the biggest challenge when it comes to achieving success and fulfilling potential is comfort. He applies his thinking about the importance of battling complacency to the world of business, in the same way that Jim Collins did in his book From Good To Great. But Ankersen’s argument is equally true for marathon runners. After all, is that not the reason that in the countries that used to dominate marathon running – the UK, Italy, Sweden, the US, etc – there has been such a marked decline in performance? As Cameron Stracher write in the epilogue at the end of Kings of the Road

In the end, running fast is not about fame or fortune. It’s not even about winning. It’s about pushing the human body to the limit, testing our endurance, finding the will to triumph when the black maw of defeat engulfs us.

Why bother with all of that, when you have a perfectly comfortable life with myriad distractions like work and TV and computer games and expensive shops and restaurants?

Do east African runners benefit from discomfort?

Discomfort is what the Kenyans and the Ethiopians and the Moroccans who are dominating distance running have in abundance. The alternative to training hard and consistently from the moment they are old enough to run followed by racing harder than anyone else before them is… nothing. No jobs, no education, no welfare state. Nothing.

The counterpoint to this argument, though, is made in Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir, in which they argue that the spiral of poverty is actually deepened by the rash and badly thought out decisions that poor people make.

In this book the authors argue that poverty or scarcity acts like blinkers, creating tunnel vision where decision-making becomes haphazard and illogical. Where actual measurable intelligence is depressed to the same degree as it is by missing entire nights of sleep, just by contemplating further loss.

Is discomfort good or bad for runners?

So which of these two positions is right? Is Ankersen right in arguing that scarcity (as opposed to comfort) is required for greatness? Or are Mullainathan and Shafir right to say that poverty itself diminishes people’s ability to think clearly and make decisions that will help lift them out of the situation they are in?

I think that both are true.

In the case of America’s greatest marathon runners, Shorter, Rodgers and Salazar, their lack of comfort was the driving factor that sent them on a trajectory towards marathon greatness. But I would argue that their single-mindedness was also detrimental in the wider scheme of things: Salazar drove himself to the verge of death on at least two occasions whilst racing and indeed was clinically dead for 14 minutes when he suffered a heart attack on the Nike campus in 2007. As Stracher notes in Kings of the Road, Shorter and Rodgers “walk like men twenty years older”. They seem to have been blinded to the dangers of pushing themselves ever harder.

And in east Africa, poverty is most definitely the driving factor when it comes to the seemingly endless stream of exceptional runners dominating distance running. But the story that we see – runners like Gebrselassie, Wilson Kipsang, Paul Tergat, David Rudisha  and many, many others – only represents the successes. All of these runners have pushed their bodies to the absolute limits to attain the levels they have and the road to those successes are littered with those who tried and failed. So in that way a lack of comfort is the same double edged sword that created and broke greatness in the US 40 years ago.

Conclusion: does it matter?

Why does this matter? Well I suppose in one sense it doesn’t: who really cares that in running terms, whilst more and more people are participating, less and less people are actually getting better at running? But I do also think that in the UK and the rest of the ‘first world’ where there are huge problems associated with a complete absence of scarcity, we could do with finding ways to motivate ourselves to be more active and push the boundaries of what we are capable of achieving physically. For me, running is the most natural activity we do. In an ironic up-turning of the normal way of thinking, it may just be the people who have less comfort, that will end up being the ones who have the most precious things of all: health and happiness.

Guest race report from the Perkins Great Eastern Run, Peterborough (2013) and some thoughts on running a sub 75 minute half marathon

In this guest post Jamie Rutherford, friend of the blog and top level runner, writes about his recent run at the Perkins Great Eastern Run half marathon and how that relates to the blog I wrote recently about picking your half marathons carefully, if you want to focus on performance. Take it away, Jamie…

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This run (in its current format) has been taking place since 2006 and every year attracts legions of runners looking to take advantage of the flat and speedy route around Peterborough, as well as those who are running the distance for this first time. The one lap course starts and finishes at The Embankment alongside the River Nene and boasts a total elevation gain of only 16 metres. With plenty of good local support along the route, it is easy to see why this event is so popular, a fact testified by the 5,200 entrants this year.

I first took part in the race in 2011 and was pleasantly surprised to find just how flat and suited to a fast pace the course really was. As a runner coming from Sheffield, flat is not gradient that I am used to, so Peterborough made a welcome change! This year, I returned to Peterborough with the aim of running under 75 minutes, a target of mine for the last 2 years and one which I hoped could be achieved on this course. Having experienced its benefits previously, I felt that this would be the course for me.

Race time!

Race day itself fell at the end of a very wet week and Sunday morning was no exception.  As the ‘off’ loomed, heavy rain was accompanied by strong winds and I’m sure many participants were cursing the MET Office’s unusual accuracy. Any non runner would surely have cast a worried look at the hordes of lycra clad people wandering about in black bin bags but in conditions like this, runners seem to care more about function rather than fashion!

As the Kenyan favourites sped off, the rain kept falling and the assembled masses surged forwards amongst the continuous bleep of thousands of stopwatches.

The race took a winding route through Peterborough’s centre and then out into the surrounding local suburbs. Despite the conditions, local support was as strong as ever and increased towards the second half of the course as the rain started to clear up. Compared to a race like the Great North Run, there are a large amount of hard left and right turns to be taken around Peterborough but then who wants to run along a boring dual carriageway for the whole route anyhow?! The course has stayed the same since 2012 and was amended from 2011 for increased speed. At the time it felt as if this was not the case but the end results definitely contradict this!

Men’s top 3

Peterborough winner1. Nicholas Kirui (Team RUNFAST): 1:03:59.

2. Peter Emase (Team RUNFAST) 1:04:10.

3 .Elivd Kipserem (Team RUNFAST) 1:07:33.

Women’s top 3

1. Purity Kimetto (Team RUNFAST) 1:11:51. NEW COURSE RECORD.

2. Perendis Lekepana (Team RUNFAST) 1:14:44.

3. Jo Wilkinson (BEDFORD & COUNTY AC) 1:17:30.

As for my run, I set off with thoughts from one of Simon’s recent articles about running fast times in my head. I knew that this race had a high percentage of runners coming home in under 75 minutes (38 in 2012) and thus my best chance would be to put myself in the company of some of these faster runners and hope that the physical and psychological effects of running in a group could help me achieve my target. To recap on Simon’s thoughts, the two biggest benefits of running in a group are:

  • Physical: shielding from oncoming weather, thus allowing a more protected and easier run in the group slipstream
  • Psychological: runners in a good group can take it in turns to lead the group and keep up the pace, allowing a back runner to relax and be pulled along

I managed to find a group of runners all going for sub 75 minute time (5.43/mile pace) fairly quickly and we bunched up together. For me this was a definite benefit, as running solo in the miserable conditions which we experienced during the race would have been much harder on my own.

Jamie Rutherford
Jamie Rutherford, half marathon expert!

We all seemed to be working well together and took it in turns to lead. I’m more used to burning off too fast at the start of races and then struggling solo for the remainder so this was an unusual experience but one which helped me to maintain the target pace.

As halfway loomed, myself and two other runners pulled ahead from this pack and spent the next few miles trading the lead and words of encouragement as the finish came closer.  Despite feeling fatigued, my legs and enthusiasm stayed strong and the pace for the second half picked up. I am sure I can thank a recent good block of training for my body not calling time on this race but I owe many thanks to these other runners for helping me to keep going. I am not sure if I could have kept my pace up had I been on my own and would certainly have suffered in the cold and wet.

The Result

I am pleased to say that by keeping a level head and with the added bonus of a strong racing field, I and the others around me all came in under the desired 75 minute barrier! My personal splits were between 5.32 and 5.52 with an average of 5.39/mile and an overall race time of 1:14:47.

In conclusion, the Perkins Great Eastern Run is a cracking race. It offers a flat and varied course which is suitable for those chasing a PB or those who want a fun and friendly race to test their mettle. The course is one of the fastest in the UK and is highly recommended for those who are chasing a fast PB, with a high proportion of runners finishing with a time which will qualify them for London Marathon Championship entry. In total, this 2013 race yielded 37 runners running faster than 75 minutes. Of these, 13 ran PBs and 2 ran SBs. Not bad for a wet Sunday morning run…

A stat-attack: the best half marathons in the UK if you want to run fast times

I have a theory that if you want to run a fast time in a race, then you really should find a race with as many other fast runners as possible. I am just reading the new book by Malcolm Gladwell, called David and Goliath and in that he talks about the idea that very often the things that we think might have a linear relationship – such as diminishing class size and pupil success – actually don’t. In fact in the case of class sizes, there is a point where the smaller the class, the worse the pupils do. I will leave you to read the book and understand why.

But I think that the same goes for races, especially the closer you get to the front. The more runners there are (up to a point) the better the chances you have of running fast.

It is, perhaps then, no coincidence that I have never won a race. If you want to win a race then your aim should be to find a race with as few fast runners in it as possible. I admit that rarely does a weekend go by during the spring or autumn race seasons when I don’t see the results from a race and think ‘I wish I had done that race – I’d have had half a chance of a podium spot or even of winning it’. However, I am really only interested in racing my PBs and trying to achieve better times, so it matters not to me if I am second or 100th, provided I achieve what I set out to achieve – particularly if that is a PB.

The reasons I believe more = better

I think there are two reasons that having more runners around you is better if you are trying to achieve a particular time goal (and once again, there is not a linear relationship here: I have seen the runners filling the road at around four and a half hour pace in the London marathon and I accept that if you are in the race at that pace, there are too many people and you are actually hindered from running faster).

The first is physical. There is not doubt that a strong wind is not our friend when it comes to running fast times. The first year I ran the Cambridge half marathon I worked hard after a couple of miles to close the gap to a group of four runners in front of me. Once I was there, the group worked really well together, taking turns on the front. In that group was the first lady – Holly Rush – who was given very loud and strict instructions to stay in that group and shelter from the head wind as much as possible by her coach, Martin Rush, who was on the pavement at a number of points as we passed by.

I have experienced exactly the same in many races myself – the London marathon this year was made much tougher by the fact that as I hit mile 22 there was no one around me and there was a distinct breeze into my face along the Embankment. A better chance came in the Bristol half this year, when after about 7 miles I ended up in a group with two other runners and we worked together into the head wind along the Portway back into town. Without that shelter, I would definitely have not managed 78 minutes two weeks after a 100km mountain race and the weekend after 80 minutes at the Run To The Beat.

I also think that there is a huge psychological advantage to running in a group. If everyone in the group get it right, each person can allow the group to pull them along for a while, relaxing and simply following the feet, letting someone else take responsibility for the pacing and sharing the responsibility.

This sort of pacing benefit was brought home to me at the Wokingham half marathon last year. In that race there was a veritable peloton of runners, all clicking off the miles at sub-75 minute pace. Working together, sharing the pacing and sheltering each other from the wind. It was a perfect example of a group working together and the results show the effect that grouping had with the following times posted:

74:02… 74:08… 74:09… 74:13… 74:15…
74:18… 74:18… 74:33… 74:35… 74:38…
74:41… 74:41… 74:43… 74:53… 74:53…

Which race to pick

So I hope I have established that there are two very good reasons to try to find a race – at least a half marathon – where you can run with a group all targeting the same pace as you, if you want to push yourself and potentially run a fast time.

The next question is which race should you try to get in to? Well, if we look at the races where people run under 75 minutes – the time for a guaranteed Championship Entry in the London Marathon – then the pattern is stark. There were 21 races in the UK this year where more than six people have run under 75 minutes. Amongst those however, there are a super-group of three where more than 47 have achieved that target and six more where at least 10 have completed the course at an average of 5 minutes 43 seconds per mile. This chart shows you the races where people ran under 75 minutes (click on the chart to be able to read all the race names along the bottom):

 

Screen Shot 2013-10-16 at 17.08.32

I realise of course that there are factors that come into play here. Some of the races are big events and by the very fact that they have tens or thousands of runners, there is a good chance that there will be fast runners. But that is not always the case: in the Royal Parks half marathon last year – on a flat course, in good conditions – there were exactly 5 runners under 75 minutes – that is 0.042% of the 11,764 finishers. Compare that to Wokingham 2013 where 1.74% of the field finished under 75 minutes and Reading where 0.62% achieved the same time. Admittedly these are not big numbers, but in the case of Reading that was 80 runners out of a field almost exactly the same size as the Royal Parks.

It should also be noted that I have not taken into account any weather conditions or course profile.

But I think that the reality is that if you are looking to run a fast half marathon, you will have a much, much better chance if you run one of the three races where there are the most other runners trying to do the same. For runners further down the field, there doesn’t seem to be any benefit from running in the bigger races, indeed the opposite is probably true, but once you are looking to run 1 hour 30 minutes or faster, the Bath, Reading and Great North Run races are simply the best.

Appendix:
Here are the races that are in the chart above:
Reading (79 runners under 75 minutes)
Great North Run (64)
Bath (63)
Bristol (48)
Wokingham (47)
Peterborough (37)
Cardiff (32)
Birmingham (31)
Nottingham (31)
Wilmslow (31)
Gosport (25)
Fleet (22)
Glasgow (22)
Paddock Wood (18)
Inverness (16)
Llanwddyn (16)
St Leonards On Sea (16)
Alloa (12)
Edinburgh (12)
Worksop (12)
Chester (11)
Helsby (11)
Liverpool (11)
York (11)
Sheffield (10)
Tunbridge Wells (10)
Cambridge (9)
Llanelli (8)

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.

 

How to get your preparation on track

For many runners, training on a track is something other runners – more talented, more dedicated, more serious runners – do. There is a perception that training on the track is for the elite or for athletes training for track distances. But that should not be the case. We have a few athletics tracks still open in this country (despite the apathy of the powers that be and the insatiable appetites of sport-centre managers for all-weather fiva-a-side football pitches) so we should all be using them, if for no other reason than to keep them open for other runners.

And there are other, better reasons for why all distance runners should run on the track. Here are a few that I believe are important:

  1. it is the best place to run as fast as you can – nothing to navigate, nothing to trip on, no one to crash into
  2. it is a great way to make sure you are measuring your effort/pace/distance
  3. track is a great place to get competitive in sessions
  4. a good track is easier on the legs than the equivalent session on concrete or tarmac
  5. track sessions make you feel like a real runner*

Run fast or go home

I think that the approach to track sessions should be slightly reckless. No one wants to go off in any run at a pace that is so unsustainable that it is impossible to finish the session. But unlike on the road, if you do find that it is impossible to continue with a session, you are never more than 200m (provided it is a 400m track – the standard distance of an oval in the UK) from your bag. So I believe that people who run conservatively on the track are wasting their time…

© Tom Hull
© Tom Hull

I think that the real value in running on the track for an endurance athlete is pushing yourself harder, much harder, than you would in a race, so that your body – conditioned to deal with that higher level of discomfort – will feel much more comfortable at, for example, marathon pace.

I am sure there are biomechanical and physiological explanations for why track training is good for you. But I prefer to keep it simple.

If you train by pushing your body to run at a pace that, at times and for relatively short intervals, is much faster than the pace you want to run your 5km, 10km, half marathon or marathon at, then when you do run at your target pace for those longer distances, your legs will cope better allowing you to go further at a faster pace

Ultimately successful endurance training is about bringing speed and endurance together at the right time for your target race. So you need to do the speed work to go along with the endurance stuff.

What can be measured can be managed

One of the other great things about the track is that it is an exact distance around the oval. A 400m track will be measured around the inside lane and that means that 2.5 laps is a kilometer. Four laps is a near to a mile as you need to be (a mile is actually 1609.344m and the extra 2.33m is usually marked on the track so you can be super-exact if you want to).

This means that you can be really accurate with your running:

  • If you are doing a session at 10km pace and you have run a 45 minute 10km race (or you want to) then each lap should take you 1min 48 seconds.
  • If you want to run a 3 hour 30 minute marathon then your pace will be 8 min/mile pretty much. That is 2 minutes per lap.

So no GPS required. Just tick off the laps at the required pace with a glance at your stopwatch every 400m or listen out if you have someone at the track calling out splits.

The legs and lungs are all well and good, but what about the brain?

You laughin' at me?
You laughin’ at me?

Track training is not just good for the body. It is also great for the mind. Track training will make you feel like a real runner (*) and that is important. If you are confident and you believe in yourself when you toe the start line of your next race, then you are much more likely to succeed at whatever target you have set yourself.

I also think that the competition that comes from track training is also useful. Usually reps in a session will have the same start point and this means that at the start of each rep, the group that you are running with, will all be together. You will naturally respond to the runners in your group and as people push the pace, you will respond, probably surprising yourself with what you are capable of – bottle that feeling, it will serve you well in due course.

All of this is great for your race-day head. If you know you are capable of monster sessions on the track, then you know that you have the mental resilience to hit your target pace in the marathon and stick to it. You might even find yourself racing the person in front, just like in those track sessions.

All for track and track for all

Track training, despite the fact that is should be tough, is really inclusive. The pain of track training is universal and anyone who thinks that fast runners are not working as hard as everyone else is deluded. And therein lies the beauty of the track. You can run your session at your paces and there is no fear of getting abandoned miles from home as there would be if you were out on a long run. Simply set your own targets and work hard according to your paces.

Convinced?

As you can probably tell, I am a big fan of track training. It certainly made a big difference to my training when I started. However I do have a word of caution. In my opinion there is absolutely no point going to the track to run around at your steady, or even threshold, pace.

Track is where you run your heart out. Track is where you ensure that there is a big differential between your fast runs and your slow runs. Track is where you earn the right to collapse in a heap after the session. Track is where you will make a difference to your running, that come race-day will pay off the biggest dividends. Good luck!

My review of the 2013 Virgin London Marathon – a case of risk and reward

Going right back to when – and why – I started running in the first place, control was a big issue. I had lost control of my life, with my health, wealth and happiness all seemingly being managed by a greater and more malevolent force than I could muster. So I ran.

I ran around the block one weekday evening. I felt terrible. But I had taken a step away from all the things I hated about myself and towards the person I wanted to become. Then I ran again. And again. And again.

I soon realised that I could control so much of my life through running. My health, my weight, my self-respect were all within my grasp – the more I ran, the better I became. Simple.

And as I improved the control aspect of running became more important. To become a better runner, I had to control other aspects of my life. Work had to bend to the will of my training plan. As did social life. And family commitments. These were the choices (I prefer the word ‘choices’ to ‘sacrifices’) that I made in order to see how close I could get to being the best runner I could be.

Racing controlled

The ultimate expression of this control thing was racing. Sure, when it came to the rare occasion when I would race a 5km I would just ‘go for it’ but anything longer than that, and there would be a target time and target pace in mind.

When it came to the marathon, the need to control every aspect reached it’s zenith. Everything needed to be just so: taking time off work to relax for a couple of days before. Cooking exactly the right meals in the days before the race. Avoiding stress. Having the right kit, all well worn-in. Hydrating properly.

And on the day, I would try to control everything: my pace, who I was running with, how relaxed I felt, where friends and family would be on the course and so on.

Safety off

This year the pressure that I put myself under for the London marathon was less. Training had been disrupted since Julie and I launched freestak (please don’t get me wrong: this has been an absolutely wonderful thing, but it has undoubtedly made consistent training tougher) and the winter weather meant that I thought my chances of running a new personal best time were slim.

Additionally I think that having launched the business gave me a sense of satisfaction that previously I had only managed to obtain from running.

I had also been wondering about a few changes to my racing – things that I wanted to try out, but that could only really be tested in race conditions.

Oh and I had a place in the Copenhagen marathon… just in case things didn’t go to plan.

On the day

I arrived at Blackheath, having met my two training partners, Carl and James, on the train from London Bridge, feeling pretty happy and relaxed.

I had a new fuelling strategy – 7 gels this time rather than 3 or 4 which I had been using.

I was wearing a slightly different model of shoes for the first time (the wider version of my usual adidas adiZero adios)

And I had a new racing strategy…

My plan was to switch my watch off and run on feel. My coach Nick had suggested a strategy based on effort: slightly easier first 10km, a solid middle 20km and then push hard in the last 10km to do as much as I could to maintain my pace. I had also had a conversation with Stuart Mills in the car on the way to a trail running weekend in Wales, where he pretty much proposed the same, albeit in starker terms:

run as fast as you can for as long as you can and accept that you will slow down towards the end.

The race

Screen Shot 2013-04-26 at 14.48.06
This is literally the only photo of me in the marathon. I’m the one in the middle by the way!

The day was ideal, if a little too sunny, which made it feel warm. But there was little in the way of wind. The air temperature was low. It was dry. After an hour of stretching out on the grass and talking to people I know in the Championship start, I threw my bag on the baggage truck and jogged for a few minutes to warm up.

We were taken towards the start line where the elite athletes were waiting and then one of the most remarkable events of my running career happened. There was a well-publicised 30 seconds of silence for the victims of the bombing at the Boston marathon six days earlier. But I could not imagine that 35,000 people would manage to observe total silence like that. Everything stopped for that half a minute. The generators providing electricity and the gas burners on the row of hot air balloons on Blackheath fell silent. Everyone I could see around me bowed their heads. There was not a single cough or beep of a GPS watch – nothing, for 30 seconds. Then the whistle blew, everyone roared and applauded and a minute later we were on our way.

The early miles ticked past. I felt fantastic. I knew I was going faster than I would have run before, but I figured this was all part of the experiment and I had the extra gels so everything would be OK… probably!

At half way I looked at the clock and saw 76:45. I still felt great.

At this stage I had already consumed three TORQ gels (as many as I usually take in a whole marathon) and they were going down great – no intestinal distress at all. Because I was taking more gels than usual and because it was a hot day, I was also drinking more water – two mouthfuls at most water stations and the rest on my head or back of my legs. I felt hydrated and relaxed.

Once through Canary Wharf, I started to work harder. But I also had three secret weapons  – Nick and his fiancée Phoebe at mile 20, the RunDemCrew at mile 21 and the Mornington Chasers after mile 22. I started to look forward to those interactions and driving myself towards them.

As promised Nick and Phoebe were at the 20 mile mark. Nick simply said “You know what to do” and gave me a big smile. I told myself to get my head down, think about form and start to work hard to arrest the slow-down that I could feel in my legs.

The RunDemCrew were next. Since last year they have set up camp at mile 21 and create a cheering station the likes of which I have never seen before. Last year was good. This year was insane.

As I reached the start of the tunnel they had formed I was running with two other guys. I had rehearsed what I would do (after the frankly bizarre display I put on at the same point in 2012!) and I raised both hands in what I hoped was an appropriate and well-executed ‘Gun Finger Salute’. The noise was deafening. Utterly amazing. Overwhelming.

One of the runners with me at the point almost recoiled at the volume. We hadn’t spoken to each other despite running together for more than half an hour.

“Wow! What the fu%k was that?” He asked

“That” I said “was the RunDemCrew. An amazing group of people”

“They seemed to like you” he said…

Then it was back on to the Highway heading west towards the finish. Buy before that came the Mornington Chasers. I was still checking and rechecking how I felt at this point. I was on schedule for a new PB and if I could hold my pace it would be a significant one. So when I reached the Chasers – with about four miles to go – I was really pumped up. I can’t remember if I waved, high-fived or simply ran past. But I really enjoyed the noise and I knew it was on at that point.

The last few miles were tough. It was warm by this stage and I was tired. I had to remind myself a couple of times to take a gel. My head was tilted backwards (I do that whenever I am really tired) and I developed an effective – if slightly odd – mantra:

“literally and metaphorically get your head down… literally and metaphorically get your head down… literally and metaphorically get your head down”

And before I knew it I was out of the Blackfriars underpass and I could see the Houses of Parliament. A quick check with three miles to go told me that even three six and a half minute miles would get me home in a new PB. I was in pain and struggling, but I was also sure I could hang on.

As I ran down Birdcage Walk I saw a friend – Catherine – on my right and gave her a wave. At that point it was a matter of grabbing every second I could to push my new PB as far as I could. My mantra had changed:

“Just run… just run… just run”

And on to the finish line. I only had the official clock on the gantry to go on as I had accidentally stopped my watch much earlier in the race. The clock said 2:37:20-something. I thought I had taken five seconds to cross the finish line, so it was going to be a PB by a minute at least. To say I was delighted is a massive understatement.

In the end, after I met up with my wife and my parents, I found out that my official chip time was 2:37:07 – a PB by a minute and a half and good enough for 105th place out of 35,000+ runners.

What did I learn?

Here are my conclusions from this run

  • I obviously trained better than I thought I had
  • More gels is a good thing – one every 20 minutes for me in future
  • I race better when I am relaxed
  • It is always hot on the day of the London marathon
  • The crowds in London are the best of any race I have ever done (and that includes New York, Berlin, Paris, etc)
  • Being slightly reckless with my pacing worked for me – I slowed down, but I was expecting it and could work harder to minimise the decline in speed
  • I still have the hunger to push myself to become the best runner I can be and I am not there yet…

 

 

 

 

 

Disclaimer – I PB’d so everything in this article could be rose-tinted nonsense emanating from a deliriously happy brain…

 

 

Three is the magic number – interviewing Kipsang, Mutai and Makau at the 2013 London marathon

Mutai, Makau, Kipsang
Mutai, Makau, Kipsang

It seems as though every year, the organisers of the London marathon bring together “the greatest field ever assembled” for their race – London is one of the six major marathons and is an iconic race on the bucket list of runners from the very elite all the way to the back of the pack. So the job of getting the best runners in the world to London, whilst obviously not easy, is something that the London marathon organisers pride themselves on. But perhaps this year more than any other, in the afterglow of the Olympics, Hugh Brasher, the London Marathon race director, has outdone himself by bringing together a really incredible men’s field. And today, thanks to the marathon’s sponsors adidas, I got to meet three of them: Patrick Makau, Wilson Kipsang and Geoffrey Mutai – the fastest three men over 26.2 miles ever.

Patrick Makau

Serious business
Serious business

Patrick Makau is the marathon world record holder, having run a time of 2:03:38 in Berlin in 2011. Sadly he pulled out of the London marathon last year with an injury and subsequently was not selected for the Kenyan marathon squad for the Olympics.

I started by asking Patrick whether he knew, in Berlin, that the world record was in his sights. He said “From the average spilts that I got during the race, I knew that the world record was possible” and he confirmed that he went in to the race knowing what the record was and what splits would be required to break it.

I asked Patrick what he thinks will be required for his current record to be broken and he told me that it will require

someone to train very hard and be in good condition on the day of the race

This idea that hard training is the key was repeated again and again when I talked to the athletes. I wondered if there are other requirements when it comes to running fast and Makau told me that racing along with a fast group, like the one assembled for Sunday, really helps and that whilst he doesn’t train with Kipsang and Mutai, he knows them and they meet at races, so they will be familiar with each other on the day.

Terrible photo. Great athlete!
Terrible photo. Great athlete!

When it comes to training, Patrick told me that he doesn’t have a coach and that he trains himself. He said that he has been running for so long that he “know what I need to do and how to do my speed sessions” which for me, reinforces the theory that all the fundamentals required to create a world-class training programme could be written in a single side of A4!

So I asked Patrick what he thinks is the best advice for someone looking to improve their running.

Quite simple – you need to be good and consistent in training. Be disciplined and follow your training programme. And don’t forget to train twice a day

See, I told you it was simple!

 

Geoffrey Mutai

The fastest man over 26.2 miles!
The fastest man over 26.2 miles!

Geoffrey Mutai is the fastest man over 26.2 miles having run the 2011 Boston marathon in a blistering 2:03:02 – which is 4’42” pace! However this is not recognised as the world record because the course layout and profile of Boston is not within the regulations the IAAF stipulates for marathon record courses. Nevertheless, 2:03:02…! And if you need more convincing that Mutai is an incredible runner, his (legal) 58:55 half marathon PB should suffice. That an a victory in the New York marathon, again in 2011, in 2:05:05.

I started by asking Geoffrey whether he goes into races with a plan. He told me:

I cannot ever say how I will race and I never start with a plan. The plans only come during the race and I have to adapt and make decisions as the race develops. Instinct plays a big part

Like Makau, Mutai said that having a fast group like the one we will see in London this year is a good thing. He said that he enjoys the challenge of a race and that having fast runners with him will provide an added boost.

Keep. It. Simple.
Keep. It. Simple.

Unlike Patrick Makau, Geoffrey does train with Wilson Kipsang and they know each other well. He said that when it comes to race day he knows that sometimes he will beat his rivals and sometimes he won’t. But whichever way it goes, he is ready to race again as soon as the opportunity arises.

Mutai also said to me that he knows that running is a solo pursuit. He said that being the fastest in the field is not important and that all he worries about is himself. I asked him what he does if he feels that a race is not going well and the simplicity that seems to be a theme for all three runners I met, came through again:

Reacting to problems is all physical. If I can respond it is physical – if I have the energy to push I will. If not, then I don’t

For Geoffrey, this London marathon is a race that he has been looking forward to for a long time. He seems genuinely excited and happy to be here and said to me that racing is one of the best things about being an athlete. His philosophy is just that:

one of the best things about being an athlete is having discipline and enjoying your career. You must be happy when you run. You must be happy when you win and when you lose

I had to ask Geoffrey what he would advise any runner who wants to improve, aside from enjoying running. He told me that “through focus you can get the most from your training and if you sacrifice yourself in training you will succeed”

I finished by asking Mutai whether he thinks that he will win on Sunday. He said that he has done the training and feels prepared. He said that

God willing, I will win

I loved meeting the fastest marathon runner ever – he is a truly lovely man and I for one really hope he does have a great race in London.

Wilson Kipsang

VLM defending champion.
VLM defending champion.

Wilson Kipsang won the bronze medal in the London Olympic marathon and returns to the street of the capital as the defending champion, having won in 2012 in 2:04:44. This made him only the second man, after the great Haile Gebrselassie to finish three marathons in under 2hrs 5mins.

His 2:03:42 in Frankfurt in 2011 makes him the second fastest marathon runner ever, behind fellow Kenyan Patrick Makau and he has a pretty handy half marathon PB too – 58:59.

However by the time I sat down in front of Wilson Kipsang, he was ready to leave. The interviews were taking their toll and he was hungry. I had just given Geoffrey Mutai a couple of TORQ bars that I had in my bag after he told his agent that he was hungry. Wilson said something in Swahili and the second, unopened bar that Mutai had was handed over. Then he looked at me, smiled and said

Hi, I am Kipsang!

I only had a couple of minutes so I ploughed straight in with a question about tactic for the race on Sunday. Like both Mutai and Makau, Wilson said that whilst he had a rough idea of what he would like to do, the plan would be developed at the race went on.

I asked what he would do in the couple of days left before the race and he said that he would keep it simple: go for a gentle run, relax, drink water and eat well. He said that he also wanted to make sure he stayed focussed.

When it comes to the race, Kipsang said that he will constantly think about how he is feeling as they motor along. He said it is essential that you “feel the pace” and think about how far you have left to go in the race. And this translates into the advice that he gave me for the marathon itself:

Make sure you train so you feel comfortable running at a faster tempo. Be sure in the race to listen to your body and try, as hard as you can, to increase the tempo at the end of the race

My time with Wilson was up. But he finished by telling me, once again, that simplicity is the key – train hard, focus in training and racing, enjoy what you are doing and be dedicated.

Three really is the lucky number

It was an amazing experience to meet Patrick Makau, Geoffrey Mutai and Wilson Kipsang. I think that I was expecting – or is that actually hoping for – demi-Gods or people who are somehow other-worldly. After all, what they are doing seems super-human. But the reality is that they are just lovely, easy going, friendly and enthusiastic runners who keep their approach simple, dedicate themselves whole-heartedly to their sport, train hard from an early age and race to win every time they go out. It is those qualities that I think make them the best runners alive and the knowledge that miles ahead of me on Sunday they will be duelling it out on the streets of London, will certainly spur me on to do my best.

As for whether one of them will win… well I asked them all the same question. They were all too shy to really answer, but you know that they will make sure they give it their best on the day. If you’re running, I hope you do too.