I don’t think I raced enough in 2012.
Simon Wheatcroft should be familiar to anyone who has ever said “I can’t”… and let’s face it, that is pretty much everyone in the world. I think next time you are about to allow the words ‘I’ and ‘can’t’ to cross your lips, take a look at this video and rethink what you think you can and can’t do:
I was very fortunate to meet Simon recently along with Jay Watts from Born To Plod which is really worth a read as soon as you have finished here! We were invited to meet Simon as guests of ASICS, but it was not like any PR stunt or event I have ever been to. It was one of the most inspiring and heart-warming afternoons I have ever spent for one thing – no disrespect to PR people and the events that put on, of course!
Jay and I were collected from Doncaster station and driven to Simon’s house. He is happy to have complete strangers in his house asking him daft questions because – as you will now know from having watched the video above – Simon needs to be in familiar surroundings (just in case you haven’t seen the video, the most amazing thing about Simon – aside from taking on ultra marathons whilst studying for a degree and supporting his wife and child – is that he is registered blind).
Whilst in the house I had a chance to ask Simon a whole range of questions before we were due to go out for a run and Simon was happy to answer pretty much everything!
I started by asking Simon if he had always been a runner and his answer was not what I expected. Simon told me that he has only been running for two years and before that he wasn’t really into sport although he did train in a cross-fit gym and lift weights. Like so many people, Simon started running because it is cheap and accessible and it was something that he could enjoy by running with friends. When it came to choosing ultra marathons, Simon said that the last book he read before his sight deteriorated to the point that he couldn’t read, was Dean Karnazes’ book and that was an inspiration to him.
I asked Simon if Karnazes was a personal inspiration to him and he said that he was along with athletes such as Jenson Button – the Formula 1 driver and accomplished triathlete, Randy Couture and George St Pierre, from UFC and indeed any all round athletes.
One of the most amazing things about Simon – and let’s be clear there are a few! – is that he has memorised a route that he can run unaided. I asked Simon how he memorised the route and he said that he started running the route with a guide and was familiar with the area as he has lived in that part of the country his whole life.
As we would see later, Simon uses this uncanny ability to remember every inch of a 6 mile route along with physical clues like the grass verge or the change in texture due to the paint used for yellow lines on the road, to get around his route. He told me that he also uses RunKeeper which provides audio feedback on distances covered. Stuart Miles at Pocket Lint (@stuartmiles) wrote a brilliant piece about meeting Simon and his use of technology that you can read here.
I asked Simon what his favourite and most useful bits of kit are. Obviously he said that his iPhone, loaded with the RunKeeper app, are essentials. He is also a big fan of the ASICS 33s – of which ASICS were kind enough to send me a pair, so there will be a review coming soon – which Simon loves because they offer sufficient cushioning whilst being lightweight and low-profile enough to allow Simon to get the feedback from subtle variations in pavement surface or yellow lines, that is so essential for his non-guided running.
The other bit of kit that Simon is reliant upon is his treadmill that dominates the conservatory at the back of his house. This allows Simon to do speed sessions and intervals and even hill sessions and frees him from the need for his wife to drive him to his route or for him to call on friends to accompany him.
Pounding the pavements
After a really lovely opportunity to ask Simon all our questions, Jay and I, along with Mark from the PR agency, headed off with Simon to accompany him on a run along his memorised route. We drove to a parking spot on a turning off a very busy country road. From there, Simon was really unerring.
He runs with a very economical style – perfect for ultra marathons but also the perfect stride for someone who has to feel the ground as he runs. But unless you knew that Simon was blind, there really is no indication that he can’t see anything: he never faltered. Indeed this is part of the reason that Simon developed this route which involves quite a bit of running on the road – when we ran in populated areas and along busy pavements, people had no clue that he was blind and would expect him to get out of the way, which of course he didn’t.
As Jay and Mark and I ran with Simon, he kept up a stream of conversation which only goes to show how well he knows this route, but I can only imagine how scary it must be to be running completely alone without being able to see and not knowing if there will be bags of rubbish or road-cones or lumps of wood on the pavement. For Simon he only becomes aware of such obstacles when he hits them.
As we ran Simon talked about what he has got planned – a sandwich run where he was going to run 26.2 miles, then a local half marathon and then another 26.2 miles to make a sandwich, all in aid of a local charity.
Simon is also in a team for the Thunder Run because a woman called May asked Simon if he would like to make up a team with her. Simon obliged and now there are 9 runners of every ability.
And further into the future, there is Simon’s ultimate ambition – the record for the fastest Badwater ultra by a blind runner. At the moment two US-based brothers, Geoffrey and Miles Hilton-Barber, hold the record at around 40 hours. Simon wants to lower the record to more like 30 hours.
Badwater is a huge undertaking, whoever you are. Hours and hours and days and days of training will have to be done. Hard choices will have to be made. Deep fatigue and injuries will have to be endured. And that is before you consider doing the race without being able to see where you are going. It seems like a monumental task.
But you know what? I don’t think Simon Wheatcroft will ever say “I can’t”, in fact having spent just a few hours in his company, I am firmly of the opinion that Simon Wheatcroft probably can’t say “I can’t” and I for one will remember what he told me at the end of our few hours together for the rest of my life
a little bit of belief can do amazing things
Well, it has certainly allowed Simon to do amazing things and I think that is a lesson we could all do with learning from time to time.
As I stood on the start line of the London marathon this year, I couldn’t help feeling a pang of fear. Obviously there was the usual butterflies associated with the desire to do my best, the knowledge that pain was inevitable, the worry that maybe I should have done more or eaten less or worn different kit. But there was an added dimension this year. Twelve months ago, on a hot day, I had run the London in a disappointing 2:43. Disappointing because I had trained hard and thought I was in shape to improve on my 2:40 personal best. The heat and my inability to adjust to cope with that, along with a fairly quick first half, put paid to that. In the subsequent de-brief with my coach Nick Anderson from RunningWithUs we had agreed – me rather reluctantly – that I would not run an autumn marathon in 2011 and instead wait a year for my chance to redeem myself.
So here I was, on another sunny morning, after a year of training, hoping for the elusive personal best performance. Nervous only begins to describe it!
The race unfolds
The air temperature at the start was ideal: around 7˙C. However there was a breeze, blowing from the west and there wasn’t really a cloud in the sky. It was not going to be perfect so I knew I would have to deal with that, but I felt ready.
I edged closer to the front of the Championship start pen than I had the year before. No matter that the qualifying standards for the Championship start are pretty tough (sub-2:45 marathon or sub-75 minute half for the men), there were still people that I would have to pass, so I wanted the clearest run possible. We were walked up behind the elite men and after the elite field introductions, right on time at 9:45am, we were off!
I had been told by Nick that the first three miles were to be the warm-up. In fact, with a downhill start and a bucket-load of adrenaline, I passed each mile marker at target race pace – 6 min/mile. But it felt great – really easy and smooth and I soon feel in step with a group running at the same pace. The only downside to this is that I was shielded from the westerly wind which I would encounter in the last six or seven miles, so I wasn’t prepared for it when I faced it on my own. Still, I was loving racing and the feeling of gliding along.
By half way I was still feeling great. I had talked to Nick about pacing the race right and we had agreed that I would go through half way in 78-79 minutes. As I passed under the half way gantry the clock read 78:30. Perfect.
It’s getting hot in here…
The only issue at this stage was that it was warming up. I had consumed two of my four gels by that point and so I took out the two that were tucked in my arm-warmers and pulled my arm-warmers down to my wrists. But then I just had hot wrists. So the arm-warmers came off and down the front of my shorts. A mere 800m later and my new cod-piece was feeling very uncomfortable. So out they came and I tossed them to the side of the road about half a mile before we turned right into Wapping. I felt free again!
I had also decided that I needed to take on water. I think that one of the problems in 2011 was that I didn’t adjust my water intake sufficiently and so I was horribly dry by the time I was forced to stop and take a drink. This year I deliberately slowed through the water stations and made sure that when I took a bottle of water I drank three or four good mouthfuls. The rest went either over my head or more usually I squirted the back of my legs (ahhhh, bliss!)
Friends and crowds
I have heard it said that one runs the first half of a marathon with the head and the second half with the heart. I agree, that there is a switch where emotion becomes massively important. During the race I heard my name called out a few times. At mile 16 I saw my Mum and Dad. At mile 17 there was an advanced RunDemCrew party with Linda Byrne shouting encouragement. At that stage I still felt pretty good.
Just before the 21st mile, on a very sparsely populated section of the course, I saw Nick and his fianceé – and fellow coach – Phoebe. I was feeling good and just thinking about getting my head around the last 10km. Nick and I locked eyes and he repeated the instructions he’d given me before the race for this point. Relax, work hard and try to catch the vest in front. At that point I knew that I was going to succeed with my targets.
At mile 21 I passed the RunDemCrew‘s main cheering point. That was a massive boost as a huge group roared me on (you can read about what it felt like to see the ‘Crew here). Next stop, the Mornington Chasers.
The Chasers cheering…
My club, the Mornington Chasers, traditionally have a cheering point on the Highway, near mile 22 so they can see the runners just after half way and then again on the way back with 4 miles to go. On my route out to Canary Wharf I had, of course, seen the Chasers across the road and I noticed that the club flag was tied to a huge tree. I banked that bit of info for later.
On the way back I spotted the tree from quite a long way away, but this is a dead straight section of road and I know that Tom Craggs, who had his hawk-eye on times for the Chasers running, also saw me quite a way out. I must admit, and I’ll take this opportunity to apologise, that I didn’t really see anyone except Tom. But there was another rush of noise, much like at the RunDemCrew station, which sent the hairs on my neck into a frenzy!
In 2011 I had passed this point, and many of the same people, in a bad state and quite a way behind schedule. This time I had good form, I felt great, I was on track and I loved seeing the flash of smiles and hands and the noise. Four miles left and I was going to do it.
The end is nigh
From Tower Hill the race did become a matter of battling the wind and trying as hard as possible to catch the person in front. I pushed as hard as I could, but the lack of a group to shelter from the wind with meant that I was working hard to keep 6 minute miles. Some of the people I passed looked crushed and I flew past them. Others, who were holding it together, proved impossible to catch. So I simply locked in the pace (thanks to Alex Kitromilides for that phrase), repeated my mantras and concentrated on not allowing the nausea I was feeling to develop into anything that would slow me down.
Past Westminster and along Bird Cage Walk, I just counted and counted. I saw Catherine Wilding on the right and flicked her a wave. But really all I could do was keep pushing. As I came onto the Mall I could see the clock and raced for every second I could get. Nothing registered in that final 300m. I crossed the line in 2:38:30, in 138th place, with a new personal best and bloody sore feet.
And that is really the story of my race. I was a little disappointed to run a positive split and ‘lose’ 90 seconds in the second half (78:30 1st half vs 80 minutes for the second half) but PB are rare as hens’ teeth and so I’m delighted that all the work paid off on the day and I managed to hang on into the wind in the last few miles. What I do know is that it was most definitely worth the training and I’ll be back for more!
Catherine Wilding is a 2:49 marathon runner who started running in 2003 and ran her first marathon in 2005. Two years later she was competing in the women’s elite race in London and toed the start line as part of the elite women’s field in New York, so she knows a thing or two about preparing for a marathon. She has very kindly taken the time to give some advice for those looking forward to the Virgin London Marathon this weekend as well as all marathoners with a race just around the corner. If you have any comments or questions about Catherine’s advice please put them in the comments section and I’ll see if Catherine will answer them.
Marathon Day Tips
Sunday 22nd April is going to be the most exciting day of the year for you. You can already congratulate yourself on a very big achievement: Being fit and healthy and ready to toe the start line with a smile on your face. However, you may now be starting to wonder what exactly awaits you on Sunday.
Your training will have prepared you physically for the 26.2 mile challenge. For most of you it will have been a story of tiredness, aching muscles and mental anguish. In the process, you will have built a huge amount of mental strength, having become accustomed to dragging yourself out of the door with little motivation and in all sorts of inclement weather. Whether you realise it or not, this dedication will give you the focus needed to get to the finish line. The race isn’t done yet but the hard work is now behind you and you will be able to draw on this during the race. The bit no-one tells you, is that the marathon itself is the easy part.
The marathon is as much an emotional challenge as it is a physical one. It will be a roller-coaster of a journey with nerves, excitement, exhilaration, pain, frustration, determination but finally a huge sense of achievement as you cross the finish line. You have already begun that journey and the marathon itself is the last step on your journey.
What to do in the last few days
With just a few days to go, you should now be focusing on getting yourself mentally prepared. You will have been given all sorts of advice on pace, preparation, nutrition and injury prevention but don’t underestimate the power of the mind. You will run the first 20 miles of the race with your legs and the last 6.25 with your mind. The body will start to tire as you run out of glycogen but as human beings we have the emotional and mental strength to push ourselves beyond what we think is possible. Take some time in the next few days to visualise yourself running strongly along the Embankment and finally down the Mall towards the finish line. Remember how you felt on your best training run or during your best race and keep that feeling and that image in your mind. Have a mantra which you can repeat to yourself in those last few miles when your legs will be begging you to stop, but your mind will keep you going. Tell yourself you can do it and visualise yourself crossing the finish line.
Remember that even the most experienced runners get nervous before the start. There will be a lot of nervous energy and excitement on the morning of the race. Revel in it. This will get your adrenalin going and ready for the race of your life.
Our friend Simon Freeman wrote a brilliant race report recently which resonated with me as a runner:
check numbers… twice
grin nervously at fellow runners
get out of comfort zone
stay out of comfort zone
try to not get passed in last 200m
whoop for joy
realise actual time
still smile from ear-to-ear
start thinking about the next race…
Admittedly, Simon was reporting on a 3K race. You have the challenge of running 42K on Sunday but I think the above summarises brilliantly what most of you will experience.
Finally, enjoy the excitement and exhilaration of the day – you are about to take part in one of the greatest and most iconic sporting events.
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.
• 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.
Tonight I stumbled upon a video called Marathon Road. Lasting just over ten minutes, this is a mini documentary, produced by Ideatap Studios, about a group of runners training for the US Olympic marathon trials race, this weekend in Houston.
The reality of elite marathoning
I think that the video is really well made – very nice shots, great choice of music and I like the style of interviews. But what really struck me was what the runners were saying about training and racing. There was no talk of the paces they are running at or the splits for their intervals. They just talked about the mental approach to the biggest event in their lives. They talk openly and honestly about how tough it is to get through training hard. How the mental effort of keeping consistent training for eight or ten or twelve weeks of a marathon training programme is mental training for the race itself. They talk about how hard it is to get through marathon training without becoming ill or injured. They talk about how difficult the race will be, requiring mental effort, decision making, commitment and the ability to deal with pain. And then they talk about hope…
The spirit of marathoning
The four men that feature in this film capture the essence of marathon running for me – they know the training is tough. They know the race will be tougher. They know that their main aim is to push themselves to the absolute limit and yet one can see that they believe they can do it. They know they will prevail. They are not going to waver for one minute in the face of the massive task they have set themselves.
That for me is the lesson for everyone here, whether you are a seasoned marathoner or a first timer. Whether you are aiming for Olympic qualification or a 6 hour finishing time. Be positive. Stay strong. Commit. Be the best runner you can be.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In my other life – the one where I am not running, writing about running, reading about running or thinking about running – I work in the design industry. I subscribe to a blog written by a man considered by many in that industry to be a guru; Seth Godin. His daily emails are pithy and thought provoking, often helping me to think about the industry and business in which I work, in new ways. Today my two worlds collided, when I received this in my inbox;
Adversity and the route to success
Resource-rich regions often fall behind in developing significant industrial and cultural capabilities. Japan does well despite having very few resources at all.
Well-rounded and popular people rarely change the world. The one voted most likely to succeed probably won’t.
Genuine success is scarce, and the scarcity comes from the barriers that keep everyone from having it. If it weren’t for the scarcity, it wouldn’t be valuable, after all.
It’s difficult to change an industry, set a world record, land big clients, or do art that influences others. When faced with this difficulty, those with other, seemingly better options see the barrier and walk away.
Why bother? The thinking is that we can just pump some more oil or smile and gladhand our way to an acceptably happy outcome.
On the other hand, people who believe they have fewer options take a look at the barrier and realize that even though it will be difficult to cross, it’s the single best option they’ve got.
This is one of the dangers of overfunded/undertested startup companies. Without an astute CEO in charge, they begin to worry more about not losing what they’ve already got than the real reason they started the project in the first place.
I think what Seth describes is not only “one of the dangers of overfunded/undertested startup companies” – it is also one of the dangers for overfunded and undertested athletes who live very comfortable lives in societies where there are much easier (and let’s face it, more reliable) ways to earn a very comfortable living. So what is it that drives the best to be the best? It must be pretty powerful, because if you believe what Matthew Syed, Daniel Pink, Rasmus Ankersen and others say (you can read my take on that here and here) then it is only due to hard work that they will succeed, which is difficult in a comfortable world.
I recently attended a one day seminar called the Mental Muscle, presented by Rasmus Ankersen, the High Performance Anthropologist. The seminar was billed as an exploration of the factors that create environments where high performance becomes the norm, and that is exactly what it delivered.
To begin Rasmus Ankersen offered the delegates a brief background to his life and how he ended up starting a project that would take him around the world trying to find common links between ‘gold mines’ of high performance. Having harboured ambitions of being a top-flight footballer, Rasmus’ career was shortened by injury and so he found himself coaching. He was part of the coaching team in charge of an academy in a rural part of Denmark.
At one point Rasmus was coaching a player called Simon Kjaer, who at the time was considered to be disruptive, lacking discipline and low on talent. He was not one of the players picked by any of the coaching staff when they were asked to nominate the five players they thought would ‘make it’ in the game. Several years later, Simon Kjaer is now considered to be a world class footballer.
This inability to spot Simon Kyaer’s talent by a team of highly qualified and experienced coaches, forced Ankersen to ask what it was about talent that was so elusive. What Rasmus found is pretty exciting.
Genetics vs application
Ankersen said that in many cases there is a temptation to assume that dominence in a particular sporting field by a national or even regional group, must be down to genetics. Or in the case of individual prodigious exponents of a particular field, down to natural talent. But Rasmus told us that he was doubtful that this was the answer to the question of why these groups or people were so much better at whatever it was they did than everyone else.
He pointed out that in the case of Moses Kiptanui – the 3,000m and 5,000m world record holder as well as steeplechase world record holder and World Championship and Olympic medal winner – none of his extended family of 500 showed any ‘talent’ in running, despite obviously being closely genetically linked.
And when it comes to individual prodigies, such as Mozart or Tiger Woods, they were the products of environments where their fathers introduced them to the field they would become renowned in, at preposterously early ages.
The key in all these cases, was starting early and working continuously and as hard as possible.
Talent as the entry ticket
Rasmus acknowledges that a certain degree of ‘talent’ is the entry ticket required to put individuals with potential in a position to become exceptional. Much like basketball players who need to be tall to start with or sprinters who need to be blessed with a high proportion of fast twitch muscle fibres, only those who work the hardest actually excel. Tall people or people with a high proportion of fast twitch muscle fibres are actually pretty universally evenly spread. But the will to turn that initial advantage into excellence, is not.
Rasmus went on to introduce us to a theory proposed by James Flynn, Emeritus Professor of Political Studies at the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, who has suggested that in fact the existence of pockets of excellence is less to go with the distribution of talented people and more to do with how good any particular society is at capturing and nurturing a talent.
Capturing and nurturing talent
For example, Rasmus believes that the east African dominence of middle and long distance running is less to do with an uneven distribution of genetics and more to do with an uneven distribution of self belief and the desire to work hard.
This uneven distribution of the desire for hardwork – what could be commonly called ‘hunger’ – is key to Rasmus’ argument and to the concept of the Gold Mine Effect. After the seminar Rasmus was kind enough to allow me to publish a section from his up-coming book, which explains the important of hunger:
Hunger factor 4: Spartan and simple facilities
I still remember my meeting in Iten, Kenya with one of the world’s absolute best 1500 m runners, Augustine Choge, as though it were yesterday. I’m watching his training on a running track a couple of kilometres outside Iten. Choge has just launched into the last of his merciless interval runs which he has been forcing his body to endure for the last 45 minutes. Stony-faced, he rounds his last corner and accelerates towards the finishing line, where I’m sitting in the baking hot sun watching them train.
Mr. Choge is the very man I have come to meet. He was the fastest man in the world in the 1500 m in 2009. After training we sit for a while in his big white Land Rover, the only sign of his success, and trundled back towards his home. Twenty minutes later, Augustine Choge turns in onto a grass field between two trees and parks in front of two dilapidated shacks.
Somewhat taken aback, I ask him: “Is this where you live?”
He nods. By Western standards it looks more like a chicken shack than somewhere people would live. And certainly not the world’s fastest 1500 m runner. The rusty hinges let out a high-pitched squeak as he opens the wonky wooden door into his living room. Here, an old massage couch and a sofa with a cover full of holes come into sight. An old 15 inch television set is chattering away on the table. The walls have been papered with old newspapers. Behind the tiny living room is an even tinier double room with a bunk bed and from the ceiling hangs a small electric bulb which struggles to light up the room.
This is where Augustine Choge sleeps. But not alone, it transpires; he shares his accommodation with David Rudisha, Kinnear’s best 800 m runner, who this year managed to topple his fellow countryman Wilson Kipketer’s 15-year-old world record.
I have great difficulty believing what I see as I sit in Augustine Choge’s living room as he boils water on his humble gas cooker to make the Kenyan tea he drinks after every training session. This man has made an absolute fortune from his sport. He drives around in a big Land Rover and could easily buy himself a fashionable flat in Nairobi. Nevertheless, he isolates himself in this little chicken shack a few hundred metres from the centre of Iten all year round – interrupted only by the few months when he is competing in Europe. These are, as he puts it, the optimum conditions for doing what it takes. Sleep, train, eat, sleep, train, eat, etc.
I saw the same thing at MVP Track & Field Club in Jamaica, where the world’s best sprinters trained on the diesel-scorched grass track – not the hypermodern running track I had expected for athletes of that calibre. But as Stephen Francis puts it:
“There’s no need for anything that is not absolutely necessary. A performance environment should not be designed for comfort, it should be designed for hard work.”
This seriously challenges the modern American/European mindset. In poor, rusty and overcrowded facilities in the West it’s almost impossible to create world stars. We instinctively strive for groomed fields, top-level technology, comfortable surroundings. It’s just that the burning question is: Do we develop better performance in fine, fancy and comfortable facilities? Or is it possible to imagine that it may be advantageous to train under primitive, humble conditions like Augustine Choge certainly does, and which Stephen Francis insists on at the world’s most successful athletics club? Perhaps these are in reality perfect facilities for developing World class performance because they really test people to find out whether they have the will to maintain their focus, which is what it’s all about, and at the same time send a clear signal that the road to the world elite is far from easy or comfortable. Perhaps luxurious surroundings diminish effort. The Gold Mines deliver the point that if you want to create and maintain drive, then aim to make and keep facilities spartan and simple.
This idea confronts anyone who works on a day-to-day basis with talent development with a number of urgent questions. If hunger is created and reinforced by spartan and simple facilities, does this give certain parts of the world an advantage? And if it does, then how is an English boy growing up in an affluent and comfortable society ever going to match the hunger gnawing inside the belly of the Brazilian boy growing up in a São Paulo favela? It important to emphasise here that the message about simple and spartan facilities does not mean that we in the West should tear down our ultramodern training centres and train in rusty old fitness centres and on uneven grass tracks. Nor does it have anything to do with Roger Federer not being able to win a grand slam if he stays at a luxury hotel. But we must understand that creating World class performance does not necessarily require World class facilities. The Spartan conditions at the Gold Mines make sure that nobody falls asleep in comfortable surroundings and constantly reminds their performers of the humbleness and laser-like focus that is required to get good and stay good.
(reproduced with kind permission of Rasmus Ankersen. All rights reserved. Please do not reproduce without permission)
Cultivating my hunger
So where does that leave me? Well, it is always going to be a challenge to replicate the conditions necessary to create Rasmus’ hunger for success in a comfortable society like ours. But I do think that it is possible to create deep intrinsic motivation if the concept of competition and self-development is put at the heart of the ways in which we educate our children and if as adults we accept that we must be live the change we want to see in future generations. So on that note, I’m off out for another run… if I keep going, I might just become the world class runner that I know I have the potential to be (maybe!)