5 August 2012 9:41pm – a moment of inspiration

© Guardian

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last night Usain St. Leo Bolt took a huge step to writing his name into the history books as a legend of sprinting by winning the 100m final at the London Olympic Games.

And in doing so he has ensured that Basil Ince, author of Black Meteors, will need to write a post-script to his book pretty soon.

Black Meteors – The Caribbean in International Track and Field

Black Meteors is a fascinating book. I really enjoyed reading it, although I would say that the way the book is written would seem to lend itself to a style of reading that I will call ‘dipping-in-and-out’ rather than necessarily reading it from cover to cover. It is quite statistical in places.

But I think that what I enjoyed most about the book is that it supports what I believe about running and more than that, excellence in all areas: that motivation, opportunity and self belief are the crucial ingredients that need to be added to genetic good fortune and the will to work very, very hard, to create greatness.

If you want to get hold of this book – and if you are an athletics fan and a student of performance then you really should have a copy on your book shelf – then you can contact ANTHONY ZURBRUGG/ GLOBAL BOOK MARKETING Ltd/ Tel/Fax +44 [0]20 8533 5800 99B Wallis Rd, London, E9 5LN. (UK customers may call at local rate  – 0845 458 1580). It really is worth getting a copy and please let me know what you think.

The ingredients required to win Olmpic gold in 9.63 seconds

Ince’s book describes a pattern familiar to those who have studied patterns of performance and excellence and which will be well understood by anyone who has read The Goldmine Effect by Rasmus Ankersen (who I interviewed for this blog – you can read that interview here) or Bounce by Matthew Syed. There was a point in time when Caribbean athletes – in the shape of McDonald Bailey, the Trinidadian who held the 100 m world record at 10.2 seconds between 1951 and 1956 and Arthur Wint who was the first Jamaican Olympic gold medalist, winning the 400 m at 1948 Summer Olympics in London – started to make a mark on athletics and enter the world of global sporting dominance.

From that point the seed of possibility was sown and other athletes in the Caribbean looked at what Bailey and Wint were achieveing and started to believe…

While the self-belief started to build, the motivation for runners to try to elevate themselves from the poverty that was common in the Caribbean in the 1940s and 1950s (and really persists to this day) was in place. And the opportunity to train hard and consistently was provided by the warm weather conditions.

From tiny acorns great (and fast) oak trees grow

Fast forward 50 or 60 years and Bolt and Blake reaped the rewards of a culture of sprinting that has developed in Jamaica based on all I believe has happened to create a hot-bed of high performance.

That is not to take anything away from all the work that Bolt and Blake has done to become the sprinters they are today. But hard work is only part of it – motivation, self-belief and opportunity are also required.

Which brings me to my favourite subject. How do we use the amazing things we are seeing in east London to motivate young people to make sport part of their lives, believe in what they are capable of and find more great athletes in the UK and around the world? My friend and mentor Charlie Dark (www.twitter.com/daddydark) asked the same question on twitter and I believe that there are a few things that are required, including but not limited to:

  • making amazing performances reachable: demystifying the incredible into small steps that everyone can attempt.
  • teaching young people to embrace failure and know that not succeeding is just a step on the road to being greater than they ever thought possible.
  • bringing young people together to discover sport in an environment rich with support, competition and positivity.
  • facilitating and supporting experienced and qualified coaches and mentors to work with young people.
  • using education to help young people understand the benefits of hard work and long-term goals.

I believe that Ennis and Farah and Bolt and Rupp and Blake and all the other amazing athletes we are watching were not born great. They were born with the potential to be great – but in that they are no different from everyone else in the world – and they used the opportunities they had and a determination to work hard, to turn that potential into a reality. Simple really.

 

The power of strength

When I met my coach, Nick from RunningWithUs, he changed a few things in my life and my training – well, you’d expect him to, wouldn’t you. One of them (which I admit I’m still struggling to get to grips with) is core- and, what I will call, functional-strength. Nick is a great believer in being strong in all areas and I think that is something that runners can be pretty bad at. So many runners I know, think that as long as they are running, then they are building the strength they need to be better runners. Why worry about core strength or upper-body strength, when you have legs that are pure ripped muscle?

The benefits of strength

Well, as I say, I struggle with this aspect of it all, but a few things recently have made me think that all round power and strength is desirable, not only for running, but in life generally.

One of these things is the chin-up bar that hangs above our kitchen door. Going to the gym is very low on my priority list. So I try to put ‘temptation’ in my way. One of the ways I do this – which was particularly effective when I worked from home full-time – was a cheap chin-up bar above the kitchen door. The idea was that every time I went to make a tea or get a glass of water, I should do as many chin-ups as I could manage.

The bar is pretty obvious and, as we usually have dinner in our lovely big kitchen when friends come round, guests usually comment on it… and want to have a go. The reaction to the bar has been interesting and the results at times, very surprising. People that I really didn’t expect to be any good at chin-ups have knocked out 10 or more straight-arm pull-ups whilst still chatting. Others, that I have assumed would be pretty good, have managed… well, none!

Now I don’t believe that anyone gets good at doing chin-ups without training (same goes for almost everything, in my opinion) and when I ask those people who have been good at chin-ups, why they are good at them, the answer is usually a variation on the theme that it is important to be strong or functionally fit. Whether that importance is limited the the purely physical, or whether these people gain a psychological advantage from the fact they know they have that strength, is up for debate.

Outdoors gym

Then today my wife and I went to a really big local park. I have been feeling under the weather recently and was going to take another rest day today to make sure that the cold that I think I have beaten, didn’t come back with a vengeance this week. But with my wife and I tackling the first of a series of ultra trail races in a week, my wife was keen that we do something. I was reticent, but we ended using the forest as a huge outdoor gym – jogging, lunging, doing triceps dips on a fallen tree trunk, pull-ups on the branches of another tree, standing on one leg with eyes closed (don’t laugh – it is a lot harder than it sounds!), hand-stands on the grass and so on. Despite my initial reluctance, it was great fun and also exposed weaknesses that I don’t usually realise are there. By doing something other than running on pavements I was suddenly struggling with a weak core or my puny arms.

Then when I got home I saw this tweet from my great friend Charlie Dark: “I think it was the point that my daughter did 3 pull ups more than me that I realised I need to get my #spartan fam on. Homework commences”

So I am more sold on Nick’s assertion that he would like all his marathon runners to be able to do 60 press-ups. I think that having more dimensions to fitness is highly desireable and with the next three races planned for rough, hilly mountain or coastal trails, I think that functional strength will be a crucial factor in success. What do you think? Do you work on over-all strength or stick to a single focus on running? If you are multi-dimensional what are you top tips? What are the best exercises for runners? While you thinking about that, I’m off to make a cuppa… and crack out a personal best 7 chin-ups on the way.

 

Competing or Completing?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Runner at the Sharp End #4: Ben Wickham

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

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

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

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

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

Are you coached? And if so, by whom?

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

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

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

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

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

What is your favourite bit of kit and why?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you stretch enough?

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

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

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

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

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

Please complete the following: I run because…

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

The 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.

Book review – Running with the Kenyans by Adharanand Finn

Make this top of your reading list

It is not all that often that I wait with real anticipation for a book to be published. Even less common for me to pre-order it online and count the weeks and days until it will arrive, mainly due to the fact that I always have a pile of books next to my bed that I have yet to start, so adding to that pile is never a priority. But a combination of some brilliantly written articles in advance of one particular book and the fact that the subject matter is something I am fascinated by, meant that I was impatiently waiting for my pre-ordered copy of Running with the Kenyans by Adharanand Finn from the day that the publishing date was announced.

Thankfully my great friend and mentor, Charlie Dark, passed on a pre-publication copy that he had been sent to read so I was able to see whether the book would live up to my rather high expectations earlier than anticipated.

I was hoping that the book would be part-training manual, part-inspirational tome and part-sports psychology discussion – maybe a combination of Paul Thoroux, Rasmus Ankersen and Professor Tim Noakes. It turned out to be a bit of all of them, though perhaps not in the proportions I was expecting.

The big question

There is no doubt that there is a plethora of literature, research, opinions and even movies about the reasons behind the recent and current domination of endurance running by people from east Africa and in particular the areas around Iten in Kenya and Bekoji in Ethiopia (there is a pretty amazing film coming out about Bekoji and you can see the trailer here) and the question that comes up again and again, is what is the secret behind their success? I have my own opinions and I’m happy to talk about this until the cows come home. But this is about what Adharanand discovered…

The (bigger) answer?

In Running with the Kenyans, Finn transports himself and his young family to Iten for a year to try to find the answer to the vexing question of why there are pockets of outstanding achievement in endurance running in east Africa. Along the way to trying to answer that question, Adharanand has adventures, set-backs, triumphs and no small amount of self-discovery.

I loved the parts in the book when Finn starts to train regularly and discovers that he is capable of much more than he thought he was. The descriptions of some of the runs – those that went well and those that didn’t go quite as well – had me variously laughing, wincing and nodding in sympathy. Finn ran the full gamut of experiences (pun intended) on his way to becoming the best runner he could be.

All along the journey of self discovery, Adharanand met people who gave him hints and tips, ideas and little nuggets of advice. But the answer to the big question always seems slightly out of reach. There are many examples of runners who are not super-human, of little set-backs, of every day struggles which makes the amazing achievements of the greatest runners alive seem even more extraordinary. So does Finn finally get the answer he is looking for?

I think in the end up Finn does answer the question. Certainly the answer might not be to everyone’s liking, but the end of the book has a very satisfyingly concise conclusion, that only someone who has really got up close and personal and lived the experience that Finn has, could confidently come to. The book is very well written – so really easy to read: I finished the book in two days on my warm-weather training camp – and whilst I personally might have liked a little more ‘science’ (I’m a running geek after all), I was massively inspired by the book and my desire to go to Iten has been stoked more than ever. And when I do pack my bags for Kenya, I’ll most certainly take a copy of Running with the Kenyans because is it well worth a second read.

 

 

 

 

 

 

When less is more.

If you ask any of my friends or colleagues, they will probably tell you that I am fond of drawing parallels between business and running (in fact at a push I can draw a parallel between running and pretty much anything) and every so often I read something that is ostensibly business related but which really resonates with me as a runner. Recently that happened with a blog post from my favourite business advisor Seth Godin.

Seth wrote a pithy short post about the fact that in the old world order, working longer hours was what got you ahead:

In that world, it’s clearly an advantage to have a team that spends more time than the competition. One way to get ahead as a freelancer or a factory worker of any kind … was simply to put in more hours.

But Seth then goes on to say that “After hour 24, there are no more hours left. Suddenly, you can’t get ahead by outworking the other guy, because both of you are already working as hard as Newtonian physics will permit.”

What runners and coaches know

Well this is also true in running and I believe that athletics coaches have known this for far longer than business people. Coaches know that at the elite level the days when a runner could simply ‘do more’ than the competition and consistently improve have passed. In the recent history of running, up to the present day, the winner is the person who can do the biggest volume of quality training and recover the best for the competition. Training more than Geoffrey Mutai will probably not make you faster than Geoffrey Mutai – you have to train smarter and recover better.

What Bill Bowerman knew

In his excellent book Out Of Nowhere, Geoff Hollister – Nike founder, Bill Bowerman-coached athlete and ‘Man of Oregon’ – who sadly passed away recently, wrote about training at the University of Oregon under Bowerman:

[Jeff] Galloway had become a sponge as to what Bill actually had us doing out in Oregon. The fact that he’d rest us with light runs for a day after a high mileage workout had escaped the Wesleyan team, a team that in addition to Jeff and Amby [Burfoot] included a then unknown Billy Rodgers. They hammered all the time. Bowerman would indulge endurance only with a long Sunday run

And guess who produced the better runners and lead more teams to victory – the coach at Wesleyan or Bill Bowerman? Yep, Bowerman.

What can we do then?

Finding balance is not easy, but necessary

I believe that the top runners are all close to, or at, the limit of the amount of time they can spend training without making themselves ill or injured. So what do they do? They train harder and smarter: run faster reps, train at altitude, use under-water treadmills, recover more effectively. And maximising the efficiency of our training is something that we should all be doing.

The trick here is to work out how your 24 hours are split up. If you are a full-time athlete living in Iten in Kenya then you day probably splits up like this:

Training
Resting
Eating
Sleeping

 

But for the rest of us, our lives are usually more complicated. So we need to work out our training budget, i.e. the time that we can dedicate to training. Then you have to sit down and consider how to create a three-way balance: trainingliferecovery. Recovery takes time and I’m afraid that the time you spend at work, socialising, meeting family obligations or commuting do not account as recovery. Recovering counts as recovery.

True, the best runners in the world train more than us mere mortals. But we all have the same challenge – getting the most out of the time we have available. So be brave and make sure that when you do train you train hard. And then leave plenty of time for recovery. And life. You’ll be amazed at what you can achieve and you will be on the road to being the best runner you can be.

The Runners At The Sharp-end (or the RATS!)

Like any athlete at the absolute pinnacle of their sport, elite marathon runners are amazing. As a massive fan of athletics and in particular running and especially marathon running, I love reading about the greatest runners in the world – past and present – or seeing and listening to interviews with them. But I almost always feel very slightly unsatisfied with what I learn. Being utterly narcissistic about it, I’m left feeling that there is little that I can learn from men who are running 2:04 or 2:03 for a marathon – their approach to training and life and nutrition and rest is so utterly alien to me, that there is very little, if anything, that I can adapt to use for my own success. So I decided that I would use this blog as an opportunity to do something about it.

The running community

I sometimes view the running community as a huge pyramid. There are very large numbers of slower runners who treat running as a hobby and as something that is far from central to their life. They form the base of the pyramid. As you get further up the pyramid the runners get faster, more dedicated to their running and less numerous. Until you reach the very top and there are the elite few. The pyramid is not static – runners move up and down the pyramid as their times improve or they slow down. And the analogy is not perfect because I realise that there will naturally be a bulge in the middle rather then a tapering from bottom to top (so maybe a better visual would be two pyramids base-to-base…) but I hope you get the image I am trying to create.

Runners At The Sharp End

My idea then is to interview people near the top of the pyramid, but not those at the very top. I am calling these individuals Runners At The Sharp-end (or R.A.T.S). Necessarily this is going to require some subjective judgement on my part, so please bear with me, but I think what I am proposing is that I try to interview people who have full time jobs, who started their marathon career with a modest debut (sorry Scott Overall, you’re out!), who know what it is like to not ‘be a runner’, but who have progressed to a point where they win smaller races or place in the top 50 or top 100 of big city marathons. They qualify for the roomy start-pens that you see at the front of some race fields. The idea I have is that these types of runners are more accessible than the elite men and women, they are normal (well, normal’ish) people and their training, whilst almost certainly further and faster than most, is something that we can aspire to moving our training towards.

I really hope that through a series of interviews with the R.A.T.S I will be able to gain an insight into what it takes to become a really good, in fact some might say great, runner and extract some tips from them that we can all use in our training to help us be the best runners we can be.

Never give up, never give in

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

…..Now you’re in New York. Catherine Wilding’s race

Ed: in a follow-up to the piece Catherine wrote before heading off to the New York City marathon (which you can read here), she tells us about how the day unfolded and whether she attained her goals.

The day of the race

I was in the city that never sleeps and as I ventured out in the dark, shortly before 6am there was evidence that this was a city on the move.  47,000 people were making their way to Staten Island and far from being a lone runner on the streets of New York, I was met by others  in old track pants, gloves and hats, all clutching their clear plastic bags packed with supplies. It was Sunday 6th November 2011:  The New York City Marathon.

The perfect day for a marathon

It was going to be an incredible day with clear blue skies, glorious sunshine, cool temperatures and virtually no wind. It was a day of “no excuses” for marathon running.

I headed across Central Park on foot towards 6th Avenue and 54th Street to pick up the “Elite Runners” bus. I was privileged to have an elite starting place which included transport to the start with the professional athletes.  The flashing lights of our Police Escort down 5th Avenue were the start of the excitement and the nerves.

Arriving on Staten Island, we were ushered into our heated tent to warm up and relax before the start. The girls shared tips on the course; discussed projected pace and split times and made frequent bathroom stops before being lead up to the start with just 20 minutes to go.

Standing on the start line of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge with the iconic backdrop of the Manhattan skyline in the distance on a clear, cold day, one becomes acutely aware of how far 26.2 miles is.  Manhattan, in all it’s breathtaking glory looks a long way away and if you’re running the marathon, it isn’t a straight route to get there. Once the canon fires the only means of transport to the finish is on foot.

The start

It was 9.40am and the streets of New York were about to be electrified by the energy and excitement of thousands of runners all heading to Central Park. The enthusiasm of the residents of the five boroughs from Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, The Bronx and Manhattan, cannot be contained in once sentence.  From mile 2 when runners take the turn off the bridge and into Brooklyn, the party starts and it doesn’t stop for the next 24 miles.  Bells, whistles, shouts, cheers, music and dancing from all ages and ethnicities, from the Italians in the Bay Ridge district of Brooklyn to the Orthodox Jews in Williamsburg – they  all join in, and this is what makes New York, New York. And it’s what makes the New York Marathon with it’s bridges, hills, and concrete, pot-holed roads the greatest marathon in the world.

As I set off up the bridge for the first mile (one of the hardest on the course) the sound of footsteps, the cross-winds around my ears and the buzz of the helicopters over-head, focused my mind on what I was here to do.  This year, I was running the New York City Marathon and my goal was to enjoy it; soak up the atmosphere; to listen to the shouts and the cheers; to notice the changing neighbourhoods; the signs, the sounds and the smells of New York City.

Whether to run

For weeks beforehand I had deliberated the wisdom of running a marathon despite many set-backs and a lack of training. I knew that I wasn’t fit enough to run a good time and that lead to much soul-searching and philosophical debate.  Why do I run?  It was a tough one to answer and threw out many interesting responses and further questions. The subject of the NYC Marathon provoked an emotional response.  It wasn’t just about running, achieving and setting a new PB.  The experience of running in New York – up 1st Avenue, down 5th Avenue and the undulations of Central Park, was something that I felt resonate in my heart.  It was something I didn’t want to miss. I wasn’t injured and I reasoned that a marathon is as much a mental challenge as it is a physical one.  So with just two weeks to go, I gave myself the challenge to get mentally strong enough to take on one of the biggest races.

This is Catherine flying along in the 2010 New York marathon

I arrived in New York believing I could run a great time and shatter all previously held beliefs about marathon training.  I was going to be the girl that believed so strongly that I made it happen. Being an experienced marathon runner, however, I knew that I was unlikely to be doing myself any favours by setting off at world record pace. So, I decided to run on how I felt and I quickly established a comfortable and conservative pace.

At the half way mark, I was able to make conversation with a guy I overheard proclaiming we were entering the Bronx.  “You’re optimistic” I said, “we don’t hit the Bronx until mile 20….we’re only just entering Queens.” I was still running comfortably and was able to focus externally but I was starting to feel like I was working. I was sensible enough to know that being under-trained meant pacing myself for the last half which invariably is harder.

Around mile 14 in Queens someone held up a handmade sign which read “Caution, Kenyan Runners Ahead.” By this stage in the race, they were well ahead. So far ahead that Geoffrey Mutai was probably just about entering the park and well on his way to breaking the course record. He was to cross the finish line in 2.05.06. Exactly 1 hour and 2 minutes later, I was to follow him.

Results

My official time: 3.07.06. It was going to be my slowest ever marathon but unlike the Mutai’s (Geoffery and Emmanuel) I wasn’t here to set a new course record or collect a prize. My prize was the sheer thrill, joy and exhilaration of running. No excuses.

I knew that the 20 mile marker would be the point at which I would know whether I had made the right decision to run a marathon. This is the point at which the mind takes over from the body and my mind told my body that it had been here before. As the 20 mile mark came in to view, I felt a wave of emotion, this was it: I was running the New York City Marathon and I only had another 10k to go.

As I ran through Marcus Garvey Park, I was able to admire the Brownstones in a way I hadn’t done before. My mind was focused but my eyes were open. I tried to ignore the fatigue setting in on the long climb up 5th Avenue between miles 22 and 23. I was nearing the turn into Central Park. The golden light streaming through the trees and the undeniable energy that is Central Park is what carries the runners those last few cruel and undulating miles. By mile 24 my quads were screaming at me to stop but my mind and my heart were not giving up. Not even on the climb up Central Park South towards Columbus Circle. With 800m to go and a final turn into the park, the crowds were deafening. I felt a surge of energy and I was still running strong, I wasn’t going to let go. I knew it was my slowest time recorded for the marathon and almost 20 minutes slower than my best, but it was still worth a sprint for the line with my arms in the air.

I had crossed the finish line of the New York City marathon. For myself and the other 47,000 runners who finished that day, we all know how that feels. It is a privilege to run in the greatest race on earth and it is something to be proud of.

Did I achieve my goal?  I certainly did.  My enthusiasm for running is unabated and I will be back next year with a new goal: to achieve my true potential.