April 2015 Archives

With A Little Help From My Friends

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Charlie Dark often points out that 'running is a metaphor for life.' One of the myriad ways in which this is true is the extent to which achievements which are often seen as individual triumphs are actually the product of a network of support. I have had some experiences over the last month which have reminded me of this fact. My story starts with plans to run the Endurance Life Coastal Trail Series Sussex Ultramarathon. I knew that my friend Jason was running this race, and I had arranged to run it with him. Then Jason had to drop out due to work travel. And engineering works made travel to the race complicated. So I landed on taking a Zipcar for the day (now that I have my UK licence) and driving down, although I wasn't keen on a long solo drive, a long race, and another long solo drive. I reached out to my networks looking for someone who would be interested in Jason's race place, and would be good company for the driving. After a false start or two, I ended up arranging to pick up my friend David in Southeast London on my way out to the coast. 

Thanks to turn-by-turn navigation on my phone I was able to safely get to the arranged point, pick up David, and head off. In addition to being an endurance runner, David also had tons of practical advice on UK driving and navigation which proved invaluable. I fear that the trip may have gone badly wrong had I not had his support. Talk naturally turned to running. I frecalled some advice I received from Simon Freeman (of Freestak) before one of my early endurance races: I should be prepared to experience despair during the race, but this will pass; I would experience times of euphoria during the race, these too will pass. I hadn't thought of this fantastic advice for quite while. It was perfect advice for the day I had ahead of me.


The race started in sunshine along a stunning stretch of coast (btw, David took most of the photos that accompany this post). My race strategy was to push as hard as I could early and see how long I could maintain intensity and pace (and of course to see just how much more capable I was after the past months of rigorous preparation by my coach and friend Barbara). I ran up the first couple of hills, only walking when I hit a really large one. Good weather, good conversations with fellow runners, and some almond butter and Jam sandwiches got me through the first seventeen or eighteen miles feeling good. Then there was a long set of very steep uphills, accompanied by very steep downhills, and I really had no choice but to walk a fair bit of it. Despair started to set in. Remembering Simon's advice I reminded myself that my down mood would pass. Upon reflection I was letting being affected by the slowness of walking uphill. Remain patient, I told myself.  Soon there was a long downhill, some flat, and some level running which brought me to the twenty-one mile checkpoint in a great mood. I refilled my water, added some Nuun, and started in on a Clif Bar as I headed back out. The next few miles were glorious. Beautiful countryside, a long downhill, nice weather (there was a recurrent threat of rain which never actually materialised). I was feeling good and enjoying the run. 


Then I bottomed out and started to climb again, and the euphoria was gone. I still felt good, just not euphoric. Soon I was running past the start line (where the marathon runners were peeling off to finish), and headed back out the way we had started that morning. This time around the hills were much tougher and I was walking where I had run earlier. Things got tough, but I just kept focusing on moving along. There were a couple more brief bouts of despair (especially re-running the same sharp hills that I had struggled with earlier; the intervening fifteen plus miles did not make this stretch easier) Again remembering Simon's advice kept me focused and continuing to progress rather than wallowing in despair. When I finally crossed the finish line it was with a great sense of accomplishment and a strong sense of having succeeded at pushing myself all the way through the race. I was met by David's shouts of congratulations and was thrilled to have such a warm greeting.


Running 'Naked' Through Paris

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Sometimes technology is not your best friend on race day. We have become so accustomed to having constant feedback as we make our way through life (any 'likes' on my latest Instagram yet?) that we can lose sight of the real purpose of activities. Running, which at its core is one of the most pure activities an athlete can pursue, is no stranger to technological distractions. The most obvious example of the tension between technology working for you and you working for technology is the sports watch. I hate to run without my trusted Garmin 610, but I am trying to learn how to choose when the watch is in charge. A lot of my training is structured workouts, for which the watch is absolutely brilliant. If I am meant to run a certain time at a certain effort level, and I know that the watch will beep when it is time to switch paces, I can just focus on running. Or focus on thinking about something else. This is definitely the watch working for me. Then there are times when I use the watch as a crutch, the most egregious example of this being on nights when I am supposed to run with the Run Dem Crew elites (think suicide pace) for a limited number of minutes. Some of the worst runs I have had have been twenty minutes with Elites. Why? Well, when you keep looking at your watch to see if you are done yet you are constantly losing your focus, in particular losing a grip on your mental coping techniques for pushing your body to its limit. The effect is compounded when you think you have just done a good long stretch since you last peeked at the watch, and discover it was only 45 seconds. Soul crushing. This same problem arises in races. My current marathon PB was in Berlin in 2013. In many ways that race was the best marathon I have yet run. My biggest regret was that I didn't listen to my inner voice telling me to hide my watch from myself. A lot of the mental struggle in that race was my dealing with the feedback from the watch, rather than focusing on running as best I could. 
I've been training myself to be less dependent on my watch, and working on running longer and longer stretches without paying attention to the data available to me. I took the next step in this process in Paris a few weeks ago. My training this year is focused on strength and endurance. Sure I am still doing tempo runs, but I am not pushing myself to my limit in the pursuit of speed. Which means that while I felt fully prepared to run a respectably fast half marathon, I hadn't specifically trained to run fast at this distance. This seemed like the perfect opportunity to run a complete race without paying attention to anything but the messages from my body. Yet I still wanted to have the data from the run to look through afterwards. So I was wearing my watch, but I had it set to a display which only showed my altitude above sea level, a completely useless piece of data while running through central Paris. In retrospect I could have had a more pure experience if I had switched off the watch feature which beeps every kilometre and shows the time it took to run that kilometre, but I only looked at a few of those times during the race, and didn't adjust my running in response to them. I wouldn't say I truly went 'the Full Monty' as I didn't simply leave the watch at home, but this was quite close to running 'naked,' that is without technology. The result of this was that I crossed the finish line of the race, and honestly did not know what my time was.
The last time I ran this race it was cold, my stomach was a little off, and I really struggled. That race is still my half marathon PB, but it felt like a struggle most of the way. This year the weather was nearly perfect, perhaps getting a bit warm by the finish but comfortable (even in vest and short-shorts) at the start. I did get to the starting pen a little late, and as a result ended up stuck behind the 1:35 pace group. I had been thinking that I should be capable of outrunning them, but after expending a bunch of energy trying to get clear of them I gave up and just settled into running comfortably. After about 7km my thighs were starting to ache a bit, and I had this bout of negative thinking along the lines of 'if I am in pain now how awful will this be to run with for another 9.5 miles?' Then I cleared those thoughts out of my head, took an inventory of my technique, corrected my leg stride to be more correct, and the pain vanished. Phew. Once I was back to being pain-free I really started enjoying the run. Sunshine, beautiful city, feeling good. After about 45 minutes I took a short break at a water station, had a few sips of water, gave up about 15-20 seconds of time to walk while drinking, and then got back to cruising speed. The rest of the race passed by with occasional reruns of an inner conversation about whether I should just be enjoying myself, or whether I should be pushing harder. I kept reminding myself that the goal was to run on feel, and the feel was telling me that my pace was respectable. Eventually I settled on a promise to myself that when I hit 20km I would kick up the pace and race the final 1100 metres. This focus on allowing my body's feedback, rather than technology, dictate my thinking about how well I was running was tremendously liberating. I could have had constant feedback telling me I was slowing down a bit, which would have probably triggered negative thinking about how I don't run well in the heat, which would have likely resulted in my slowing down more and struggling. Instead I just kept assuring myself that the feel of how I was running was fine, which allowed me to enjoy the weather and the scenery, and kept my pace steady. This was the first race I have run where after the race others were commenting about how hot it had been, and I was saying how comfortable I had been. As promised I kicked my speed up for the last stretch, flew past people struggling to finish, and crossed the finish line with a big smile. Final time: 1:41:06. Not a PB (but under two minutes off my best time), but a very satisfying and fun run.

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This page is an archive of entries from April 2015 listed from newest to oldest.

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