Go hard, or go home – you decide.

Recently my friend and, dare I say it, sometime mentor Charlie Dark mentioned to me a motto he has adopted: ‘go hard, or go home’. Now I have been thinking about this quite a bit and I have come to realise that it means many things. But one thing in particular about this phrase has embedded itself in my mind. That is the implicit idea that we all have the opportunity to make a decision about our running within a framework – we decide to either go hard or go home. There is no option in this phrase for trying to go hard. Or going a bit hard. There is only ‘go hard’ or ‘go home’.

It has been well documented that the last 30 years have seen a rather spectacular decline in the standards of British male marathon running. In 1985, 102 British male runners ran under 2 hours 20 minutes for the marathon, only 5 managed this same feat in 2005. In the same period there has been an incredible surge in the number of runners from east Africa, especially from Kenya and Ethiopia and more specifically from around the Iten Valley.

This is not the place that I am going to go into a long-winded discussion of why western runners have fallen so spectacularly from grace or why, almost at the same time, African runners have come to dominate the sport. But one thing is for certain – genetics do not play any part at all in either process. Quite simply the genetics of a population change over vastly long periods of time and it is absolutely certain that European runners are not now any less genetically capable of running fast marathons. So the only possible reason for the drop in standards I can see is that we have decided to get worse at running. We decided to ‘go home’.

Last night I was at a friend’s birthday party. It was a typically drunken affair but with my focus on my training and my goals, I elected to stick to fruit juice. Of course someone noticed and it soon started a conversation about running and marathons and inevitably about the people at the party who knew someone who had run a marathon and then – finally – to my times for the marathon. The response to me saying that my PB is 2:40 was verging on hysterical. One of the guests at the party turned to the girl opposite her and screeched “Oh my God, that is fucking amazing. That is like totally elite. I can’t believe it” and I felt angry.

Why did I feel angry? Because 2:40 is good – in fact I am very proud of it – but it is not “fucking amazing” or anywhere near “totally elite” and the overreaction is a damning comment on the state of running in this country. In today’s east Africa a similar time might get me a pat on the back, nothing more. In this country in the ‘70s and ‘80s I would be considered a reasonable club runner.

Today in the UK an ex-smoker and former junk-food eating, heavy drinker who has only been running for 5 years is considered to have done something extraordinary with a 2:40 PB. I think this state of affairs is wrong and I really want to find a way to correct it. I firmly believe that sports (or the lack thereof) in the school system is failing our children and has been for 20 years or more and that has contributed to the decline in middle and long distance running. I also think that the totally disproportionate rewards enjoyed by certain sport-people versus others is another crucial factor. But let me be clear here – the population of the United Kingdom today is genetically identical to that during the 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s. There is no reason – save for opportunity and motivation – why we shouldn’t be producing runners at least as good, if not better, than in our golden period of marathoning. So this is my agenda and declaration – I want to understand why the decline has happened, what can be done to reverse it and then I want to do something about it. I want to contribute to returning to a situation where runners, quite simply decide that they are going to ‘go hard’. Simple, eh?

The talent myth and Matthew Syed

I have just finished reading an extraordinary book and I would like to share how it has had an impact on the way I think about my running.

The idea that natural talent is the primary factor when it comes to athletic ability cannot be new to most of the people reading this (whether or not they believe it). I am a victim of assuming that those I look up to – especially runners who I admire for their speed and endurance – must be genetically superior or somehow more gifted than me. Matthew Syed, in his book Bounce, argues that this is untrue.

When I met my coach for the first time I told him that I was sure I was too old to improve significantly or that – given my genetic limitations – I would not be able to run much faster than I already do. My coach gave me the same response as I heard from Bud Baldaro when I first met him: that I could improve with hard work, dedication and more running. It was a very straightforward message and I realise now that they were telling me that talent had very little, if anything, to do with how fast I could run a marathon. Hard work was the answer. Sadly the message didn’t sink in immediately and it has taken the beautifully crafted words of Syed to hammer the point home – we all have huge potential and all we need to tap into it is hard effort.

The thing that struck me most about Syed’s assertion that talent is a myth is the amount of evidence he is able to call upon to support his arguments. I won’t go into very much detail here (I’d encourage you to buy a copy and read it yourself) but naturally the really interesting passages for me are those where he writes about endurance sports. He explodes the myth that the dominance of long distance running by athletes from east Africa is something to do with their genetic abilities – he points out that indeed it is not east African’s who are ‘natural‘ distance runners, nor is it Kenyans in general who have the right genes for endurance and speed. In fact the majority of successful runners come from a really tiny region called Nandi District which contains only 1.8% of Kenya’s population but has produced about 90% of the top Kenyan runners (and about 50% of the world’s top-class Kalenjin athletes). The dominance of this region is down to opportunity and inspiration – this is a region where many, many children use running as the primary transport method to  get to and from school and where their local heroes are the stars of long distance running. To cut a long story and a very good book short, these factors along with the desire to work bloody hard at their chosen sport is what makes these people special.

So how does that relate to me and my running? Well I think that Syed’s book makes it clear that one of the reasons the talent myth is so widely believed and so deeply ingrained in the consciousness of the majority of people is that it offers an excuse for mediocrity. It is all too easy to look at someone who is better than oneself in any field and reach for the consolation that we could never be as good as them because genetics have dictated that they would be better no matter what (and that therefore trying is a waste of time and effort). It is a much more bitter pill to swallow to acknowledge that the reason they are better is that they practice more or they train harder.

So for me this means that I have to shrug off the mantle of inferiority. I have to face up to the fact that I can run faster – much faster – if I dedicate myself more and train harder. It becomes a question of motivation, because it now is apparent that if I get up earlier to fit in an extra run or turn down a social invitation in order to rest before a key session or race, my running will benefit and I will get quicker. Whilst running with two club mates on Sunday this was brought home with some force when, after describing how much more running I am doing now in comparison to what I did for my last road marathon (in Paris), I was told that the modest target that I have set for Florence in November is inappropriate – his point was that if I am going to put in this much effort then I should aim for and expect a much larger improvement. So I’d better finish this off now and get to the club… I’ve got the second of my two runs today to do and a new target to set for November!