Why focussing on the marathon might be the wrong thing to do

I was recently at a really cool event called Write This Run – a get-together for running bloggers in Bushey Park. There were 12 speakers at the event, from inspirational characters like Mimi Anderson and Kevin Betts to a running form coach, a personal trainer, some blogging experts and Scott Overall. This post is all about Scott and one of the things he said during his talk.

A potted history of Scott Overall

Scott Overall in Berlin 2011
Scott Overall in Berlin 2011

Scott Overall is an international athlete and Olympian, having pulled on a Team GB vest to represent the country a number of times, initially over 5,000m and then, in 2012 in the marathon. You can find out more about Scott on his website: www.scottoverall.com.

But it was probably Scott’s marathon debut in Berlin in 2011 that catapulted him into the limelight and certainly meant that he was the male winner of the inaugural RESPY awards. He ran 2:10:55 and finished in 5th place overall.

Possibly the most impressive thing about Scott’s debut marathon was that at the end he said that it felt easy!

Easy! 5 min/mile pace… But the reality is that if you are used to training for and racing over 5,000m on the track, marathon pace does feel easy. This is why we all do track training. If you train part of the time much faster than marathon speed and can manage the fuelling issues around the marathon, then the pace won’t be a challenge.

Since Berlin

Since Berlin, things have not gone so well for Overall. He decided to pace other British athletes in the London marathon to try to help them get the qualifying time. They didn’t follow him and he stopped before he had said he would.

Then Scott went to the Olympic Games marathon and ran a disappointing 2:22:37. He followed this up with 2:14:15 in the Fukuoka marathon later in the Olympic year. And then in the London marathon this year he didn’t finish, dropping out just after half way.

Too much focus

Listening to Scott talk at the bloggers meet-up at the weekend, I was really struck by his plan for how to rectify the few poor marathons he has run since the amazing race in Berlin: he is going to focus on track work and training for 5km and 10km races.

The lesson we can all learn

Scott’s comments made me think that perhaps the problem has been that he had been focussing too much on the marathon, both mentally and physically? And I suspect that for many of us the same might be true. It is all too easy to get overly obsessive about marathon training and that can have a negative effect on both body and mind.

In Overall’s case, leaving the marathon to one side while he trains for shorter distances will allow him to get some mental perspective on the 26.2 mile race and also allow him to train in a way that his body is more used to: still likely to be very high mileage, but fewer of the really damaging long runs.

In my case, I think that the launch of the business I run with my wife, meant that I had less of an obsessive focus on the marathon. I missed sessions because of work and possibly through that avoided over-training. I also did other things like a little bit of swimming and cycling. And I felt more relaxed: suddenly my self-esteem and confidence was not precariously reliant on the time that I could run a marathon in. The result for me, was that I went into the London marathon this year relaxed and ready to do my best come what may… and I loved every step of the way to my new PB!

I hope that for Scott the same is true. He is undoubtedly a hardworking athlete and I really hope that he has a great race when he returns, refreshed mentally and trained perfectly, to the streets of Berlin later this year.

And maybe if you have been training consistently hard for marathons for a while now and worry that you are hitting a plateau, a change will be as good as a rest. Try training for 5kms or 10kms or even for a bike race or a triathlon. Mix it up and let me know how that works for you…

Nike Free 5.0+ review

The people at Nike recently sent me a pair of the new Nike Free 5.0+ to review. Having always had Nike Frees in my ‘collection’ of shoes, I was interested in trying them. But I must admit that I have bought Nike Frees in the past as a shoe for walking around town, rather than for running. However since hearing Mo Farah talk about how he incorporates natural running into his training to strengthen feet and ankles (and my ankle is my (ahem) Achilles heel when it comes to injuries) I was immediately interested in seeing how a minimalist shoe like the Nike Free 5.0+ could help me get back into running since the Virgin London Marathon. The short answer is that they are a pretty good first step as far as I am concerned. The 5.0 refers to the amount of cushioning and support that the shoe provides, with the Nike Free 4.0 and the Nike Free 3.0 offering decreasing levels of both. So if you are after a shoe that can help you take the first steps (sorry!) into minimalism, perhaps give these a go. And if you want to have a look at them, here is a short video review – bad hair and all!

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.

The truth about being the best runner I can be

As some readers of this blog will be aware, I recently managed to make the leap from my passion for all things running, into the way that I make my living: my wife and I have set up a social media and marketing business for running and endurance sports brands. The business is called freestak and you can check it out at www.freestak.com.

I love my work. I have a legitimate reason to spend time reading, thinking and talking about two of my favourite things – social media and endurance sports. At freestak we have a wonderful group of clients all of whom have exciting products that we really believe in. My job involves creating and delivering campaigns which I really love doing… but (you knew there would be a ‘but’) it is not easy. We are very, very busy and the amount of sleep I get seems to be inversely proportionate to the amount that I care about what we are doing. And I really, really care! So sleep is a rare commodity.

At the same time, I have been striving to get myself in the right shape to run a PB in the upcoming London marathon. But I am discovering that the two things – the growth of freestak and the desire to run a faster marathon – aren’t entirely compatible. Training has been patchy – a couple of really good 80+ miles weeks, then a crash and a 40 mile week, applying ice to various injuries and being a moody bastard.

Me being the best I can be.
Me being the best I can be.

So I have been wondering what on earth I am doing, questioning what I am trying to prove and what my priorities are? Listening to too many people and starting to feel really negative about my running. Then in the space of three days I read two things which have really resonated with me and I’d like to share them with you (and perhaps give myself a well-deserved kick in the backside!)

The first thing that I have been reading is James Cracknell and Beverley Turner’s new book, Touching Distance. In case you have not heard about this book, it recounts the period of their lives when James and his wife, Beverley, were dealing with a near-fatal accident that James suffered whilst cycling across the USA as part of a challenge he was taking on. He suffered a very severe head injury which led to changes in his personality that both James and Bev recount in the book. You can read about the accident here.

The start of the book is mainly the story of James’ life as an Olympian and elite athlete and it really tells a warts-and-all account of the ups and downs of trying to be the best in the world. At one point, having won Olympic gold, James writes that:

I believe there’s a gulf mentally between ‘not carrying on’ and ‘giving up’, even if, practically, it amounts to the same thing

This was at the point at which James was married, starting a family, getting older and wondering whether he had the drive to train for another four years to try to get to the Beijing Olympic Games.

In my own little way, I can really relate to that. I am not suggesting for a moment that I am on the same level as someone like Cracknell, but if I commit to lowering my marathon PB, that will involve running eight, nine or even ten times per week. That means spending somewhere in the region of 9 hours a week running, which is only the half of it, because I believe that for every minute actually running, it takes at least one more minute to get ready, wash kit, eat, stretch, travel to training sessions, lay on the sofa eating malt-loaf, etc. That means that it could easily take 20+ hours a week to train for a marathon. That is a big commitment at the best of times, let alone when I am trying to build freestak and do the best possible job for our clients.

I realise that this might sound as though I’m wimping out. And that is part of the problem. For me now, training has started to become something that I don’t really enjoy. I am not sure I really want a PB enough to put myself through what I know it will take to achieve it. That is not to say that I have made a decision one way or another, but I am not sure I have the drive to do all the training.

This is where the other thing that I read comes in. One of my training partners, Steve Tranter (@tranter_ on Twitter) sent me a link to an article in Running Times magazine written by an American runner and journalist called David Aim, who had the opportunity to spend a few days with a group of elite level athletes, during which time he discovers that, to some extent, the different between elite runners and recreational runners is their attitude.

One of the passages that really struck me in the article, was about how, in the desire to record ever better times, we can lose sight of why we run in the first place:

who of us hasn’t considered how our peers will react to our performance in a given race, whether good or bad? And in those moments, whom are we ultimately running for? The sport is difficult enough as it is; doing it for anyone but ourselves makes it unsustainable (David Aim)

I started running to improve my self-esteem, to lose weight, to take control of my life and undo the physical damage that I had been doing to myself since my late-teens with cigarettes, alcohol and general bad-living. I soon discovered that I wanted to see how good I could be. But what I seem to have lost sight of, is that I live in a set of circumstances and what I need to remember is that I am trying to be the best runner I can be in those circumstances.

There is no point comparing myself to anyone else: I have no idea what their circumstances or motivations are. And moreover there is no point in comparing ‘me now’ to ‘me then’ – my circumstances have changed and I should be striving to be the best runner I can be in today’s circumstances.

Now I come to think of it, every time I have had the opportunity to meet and talk to elite athletes they have been the same as those described in the Running Times article – kind, encouraging, helpful, modest. None of them has belittled me or the results I have achieved. I recently met Haile Gebrselassie and he said that my marathon PB was great, for goodness sake! The same cannot be said for many of the non-elite athletes that I train with and associate with.

So I am going to try to develop a mind-set closer to that described by David Aim in his Running Times piece – I am going to try to develop an elite attitude and see where that takes my running. Here are my new rules, courtesy of David and his elite friends:

4 Keys to An Elite Attitude

1 – Don’t treat training runs or race times as indications of your self-worth

2 – Value every runner’s efforts, success and potential

3 – Don’t beat yourself up in training or in evaluating your workouts and racing

4 – Recognize that your running ability is a result of many factors, not just how serious you are or how hard you push