In the car on the way to Lancashire, we discussed the race we were about to take part in and all agreed that it had the feel of a big event. Big, that is, within the very small pond that is UK distance running. Which is to say not very big at all. When we arrived, however, the event certainly felt serious and important, if not quite ‘big.’ Podium 5k is part of a new breed of no-frills, no-nonsense, no-finisher-medal type events where everyone participating is at very least a serious club runner and everyone goes with the same goal, to run fast. No one is using this one as a tempo run.
Of the four of us in the car, Dan, Mike and I were in the men’s ‘B’ race with a 15:15 entry standard, and Omar was in the ‘A’ race with a 14:30 cut off. We discussed the race ahead, looked at ranking lists and plotted our strategies. Us B racers agreed that ‘hang on to the pack and pick off a few in the second half’ seemed like a reasonable tactic to deploy. Omar, quiet and more prone to letting his legs do the talking than his mouth, decided he was going for more of a ‘get on the front and do some damage’ approach. I think there is a lesson to be learned here.
We walked to the start. The organiser had clearly jumped through plenty of logistical and health and safety hoops to obtain a permit under the new guidance but once we got in the start area it didn’t feel too different to a normal race, with the exception of the small field. Behind the start line was a grid of yellow dots. He called the names of the fastest five in the field (I wasn’t among them) and invited them to stand on the first row of dots. He then half-heartedly implored the rest of us to give each other a bit of room, mentally ticking boxes marked ‘H and S’ and ‘cover your arse in case someone gets ill.’
The gun sounded and we embarked on the first of just under five laps of a pancake flat, smooth cycle circuit. The temperature had dropped and apart from a bit of wind, conditions were perfect. I went straight to the back. Apart from the fact that I didn’t want to go any quicker, this also felt like a good strategy and I had a large group in front of me to block the wind. Because of this I constantly felt like I was going to run into the runners in front; I concentrated and tried not to clip anyone. The last thing I wanted was to trip myself or someone else. It felt too slow. It must be too slow. The first kilometre split is going to be well outside three minutes and I’m going to leave myself with far too much to do. “2:51,52,53,54…” OK, maybe not.
As we went round the next two laps I tried hard to concentrate on not letting any gaps form and on not letting the pace drop at all. When we got on to the long straight with the headwind, rather than running the tangent and aiming for the apex of the next bend as I normally would, I veered out into the middle of the road. The lead bike was doing this and the long line of runners between the bike and me had exactly the same idea: get in the slipstream and get out of the wind. Once I hit 3k in 8:48 I still felt like I had a bit in reserve and that I was definitely going to get under 15 minutes. With my track PB before the race just 14:59 it would have been tempting to ease off at this stage but I kept pushing myself in the knowledge that I could take a big chunk off this if I pushed hard to the finish. In the 4th kilometre I was unable to cover a surge from a club mate who was also running in our heat and found myself detached. By this point, though, I was so close to the finish and knew I only had to grit my teeth for a few more minutes. At this stage of the race a few runners were coming back through the field and were useful targets for me. It is always important to go straight past in this situation though; the reason they are coming back is that they are slowing down. You do not want to lose time getting stuck behind them.
The last kilometre passed quickly and in a blur. Whilst the first part of the race was all about concentrating on form, on pace and on staying relaxed, the last part was all about squeezing out every last drop. The phrase “give more” popped in to my head. It felt appropriate so I kept repeating it. In the long finishing straight I was outsprinted by one runner but held off another, crossing the line in 14:44. Fifteen seconds quicker than ever before.
Dan and Mike didn’t have the races they were hoping for, but were still quick to congratulate me on my time. As is often the case when a race has gone well, I didn’t feel pain or discomfort immediately afterwards or on the cool down. Writing this in significant discomfort 24 hours later I can confirm that this is not because I did not push myself hard enough; I think I was just on a bit of a high from a good performance.
We jogged round the outside of the cycle circuit whilst watching the women’s A race, then headed back to our position near the start to cheer Omar. Coming from a slightly warmer part of the world, Omar is not used to the British weather and whilst the rest of the field did their strides and final preparations in their racing vests, Omar wore a jacket and, almost comically for August, a pair of gloves. I took his jacket at the very last minute and he walked over to the start. As promised and true to form, he went straight to the front, undeterred by the presence of some truly world-class athletes in his heat, one of whom had stated his intention to target the British record.
Watching Omar is an absolute joy and an inspiration. For all we over analyse running, it is, in essence, a very simple sport. Run hard and keep running hard until you’ve crossed the line. Omar is as hard as nails and epitomises this way of thinking. Although he didn’t win the race, he finished fifth in one of the strongest possible domestic fields and made everyone sit up and take notice with his aggressive and uninhibited style of racing. He is one of my running heroes. He is also one of the kindest and most modest people I know. Although I ran a personal best on the night, this evening will be just as much about Omar when I look back on it in the future.
After five months of no competition I finally have the opportunity to lace up my racing shoes tonight at the Podium 5k and I’m pretty excited. Back in March, when the whole country shut down and sport pressed the pause button, I had no idea how long it would be until racing would resume. In the mean time, I have consistently logged my biggest ever mileage and put in some very high quality training. At first this felt strange; I was training harder than ever before with no objectives to focus on. It also felt like just the right thing to do. For a start, I knew that I would never again get the opportunity to live the life of an elite athlete and that I should grab this opportunity with both hands. When I return to my physical place of work, I know life will be busier and more hectic and I want to know that I made the most of the time away. Secondly, running is the one thing I always turn to in difficult or uncertain times. It will always make me feel better and it will always allow me to think clearly and with a sense of perspective. Like many people in the last few months, I have reflected on the things that really matter. Running really matters to me.
During this time I have also managed to keep the quality of the sessions high, despite being in the strange position of not knowing which races I am trying to get in shape for. Without races it is hard to judge your current fitness but I feel that mine is good. I ran two time trials, the first a 14:42 3 mile on grass and the second a 30:56 10km on road. I feel I am fitter now than when I did these, so am optimistic of a good performance. Although my motivation and fitness levels are high, I know that racing will feel very different and that I am unaccustomed to pushing my body to its absolute maximum. If I can do this I feel I have it in me to run a great time.
In the last eight weeks I have done so many new things. I have worked from home, I have walked through empty streets in the city centre, I have heard birdsong in the morning, I have washed my hands ten times a day, I have breathed clean air on the balcony of my apartment, I have bought a turbo trainer, I have crossed the road to maintain a two metre distance from other pedestrians, I have experienced irrationally high levels of excitement at finding flour on supermarket shelves, I have made and delivered face shields for care homes and doctor’s surgeries, I have read books, I have learned songs. And I have been running. A lot.
Granted, the last activity on the list doesn’t really qualify as ‘new,’ but the way I have been doing it is. I haven’t raced since the first day of March and haven’t done a group training session since just after that. Instead I have filled my time with a sustained period of high mileage, aided by the fact that I have more time to train and to rest and that there are no races to taper for or recover from.
About a week or two ago, I was really starting to notice the fitness gains that were resulting from this block of heavy training. Frustrated not to have any races to put this fitness to good use in, I asked my coach if he could include some kind of time trial or race simulation effort in the next two week plan. He agreed it was a good idea, not just as a means of testing fitness in the absence of races but as a way of adding some variety and novelty to the training. When I saw the plan I immediately regretted asking, though, as he had included not one time trial but two in the next week’s schedule. The first was a 3 mile flat out effort and the second an hour test to establish how far I could go in that period of time.
Doing something new can be equal parts daunting and exciting and I experienced both feelings on Wednesday afternoon before doing the 3 mile test. The fact that it is not a common race distance is a clever way of making sure I have no PB for the distance and am therefore unencumbered by expectation. The main worry I had was that I would not be able to raise my level of effort to anything like the level I would in a race, given the lack of competition and the fact that the result carries no weight or significance beyond being a loose indicator of fitness. I was pleased to hit 3 minutes for the first km but was also very worried I would blow up completely.
One advantage of running purely against the clock is that you have no external stimuli to respond to and can run a very even pace if you are able to judge it correctly. I slowed slightly in the next couple of kilometres but still felt I was running smoothly and in a controlled way; I glanced at my watch just after 3km and was just outside 9 minutes. Pretty good on my own on grass. I tried to visualise what a proper race would feel like to give some motivation and help me push as hard as I could. Every time I looked at my watch I tried to picture how many laps of the track remained. The last few minutes were very tough, a situation that was not helped by the wind, which was starting to pick up. I threw everything I could at the last few hundred metres and stopped my watch as soon as I saw 4.83km. 14:42. I’d have been happy with anything under 15 minutes, so was pleased with the effort I was able to put in. Further evidence that I had managed to get a lot out of myself came the following day; my legs were completely wrecked.
Although any self-timed result must be taken with a pinch of salt, not least because GPS watches are known for measuring inconsistently and unreliably at times, it’s a good indicator that I haven’t lost any fitness. In fact, I’m feeling as strong as I ever have so it feels like a shame that there are no real races for me to take part in any time soon. In the mean time I will just have to make do with running as far as I can in sixty minutes on Sunday. Pain awaits…
Here are some of my reflections from the past year as a runner. At the end of the post is a video in which I talk about my year.
I am a better runner than I was a year ago
This is beyond dispute. I have improved in every discipline – on the track, on the road and in cross country. I am stronger in sessions, tougher mentally in races, faster over shorter distances and have better endurance. Statistically speaking, my six best performances ever on road and on track all happened this year. My coach has motivated me, stretched me and challenged me to be better than I was before and continues to do so.
I am better at training than I was a year ago
This year I feel as though I have improved the quality of my training. By this I don’t mean that I have churned out more miles and worked harder in the sessions; I’ve never had a problem with that. I feel I have become more disciplined with regard to all of the other elements that contribute to athletic success: sleep, gym work, stretching, rest. I am better at listening to what my body is telling me; at taking a rest day when I am ill or when the signs of injury are rearing their heads, at skipping the morning run if I am heavily fatigued, at sometimes choosing to do less when it is better than doing more.
Having a proper break at the end of a season is a great idea
I love running. I want to do it all year round. But sometimes a full and proper break from running can do wonders for your ability to recover, unwind and regain motivation. It is now part of my routine to take a break at the end of the track season in late August. This is now part of the rhythm of the year; just as the spring and autumn are about road relays and as winter is about cross country, the end of summer is about resetting and rebuilding.
I take a full week of rest then a week or two of easy running. I eat what I want, do as much or as little physical activity as I want, sleep plenty and go on holiday. This allows my body to recover fully from the demands placed on it by a heavy training load, and allows my mind to switch off. This almost always leaves me feeling unfit and sluggish initially, but before long I feel fresher and more able to handle the training. It also renews my motivation.
This sport needs to drag itself into the modern era
It is ridiculous that at the start of 2020, men and women are not equal in athletics. The two most recent world cross country championships were the first times that men and women have raced over the same distance. However, at the levels below this that I compete at, nothing has changed. At national level, men run 12km and women run 8km. At regional level, the same disparity exists. At county and league level men do 10km and women do 6km.
In track leagues the situation is no better. Women often run 3000m whilst their male counterparts run 5000m, a throwback to the days when 3000m was the longest event on the Olympic programme for women. In our regional league, men do steeplechase and women do not. In our road relays women run a shorter leg than men do. There is no scientific or moral justification for any of this. Athletics rules and traditions hark back to a less enlightened and less equal era. They need to change.
I have met some wonderful people through this sport
Some of the best people I know, I know because of running. The fact that I could have met other great people by doing something else with my life does not alter the truth of this. I have met Dave, my coach, who is one of the most kind and generous people I have had the privilege of meeting. He turns up when it is freezing cold, when it is baking hot, when we are racing a hundred miles away, when it is Saturday morning and he could be spending time with his grandchildren, all so he can offer us encouragement and see us develop. I have met Tim, who I rarely see these days but keep in regular contact with and who always shows such a keen interest in how I am doing. Running is what unites us. I have met Dan, the only person crazy enough to want to join me for runs at 6am or earlier on weekdays. Sometimes we even talk about matters unrelated to running on these morning jogs around Edgbaston. I have met Mark, one of the first people I ran with when I moved to Birmingham over a decade ago, and whose continued improvement motivates me to make myself better. I have met Kadar and Omar, my friends and clubmates from Ethiopia, both of whom have endured unimaginibly difficult lives at a very young age and who have taken huge risks and made significant sacrifices just to get to the UK. Their work ethic inspires me. Their positivity inspires me. Their confidence to assimilate and integrate into a culture completely different to the one they once knew inspires me. They also kick my arse every session and make me realise how much better I need to get.
At the moment I am in a virtuous cycle of good performances giving me belief, and this belief leading to good performances. Yesterday, I ran 51:11 for ten miles, a personal best by nearly two minutes. In my last road race a few weeks ago, I took nearly a minute off my best 10k time. In the last two months I have achieved my two best cross country results ever. In between I have trained well, spurred on by the confidence that these good results have given me. I know that this eventually I will escape the orbit and that this cycle will end, but for now I’m just going to enjoy it whilst it lasts.
This recent upturn in form has prompted me to think about the interplay between belief and performance and the extent to which one influcences the other. I will try and share some of these thoughts…
Performance Creating Belief
Whilst this seems like an obvious idea, I have given some consideration to why this happens. When results are going your way a number of things happen. One is that your prejudices are challenged and that your notion of where your ‘limit’ lies is altered. You start to view yourself differently and place yourself a rung up on your perceived performance ladder. When I broke 31 minutes for 10k, I was now, unarguably, a 30-something athlete rather than a 31-something athlete. This objective assessment of where you are can carry much more weight than merely being told you are performing well.
Another consequence of a breakthrough performance is that you begin to believe you are capable of more in training; sessions that may have seemed daunting appear less so, and paces that once instilled fear can seem achievable. Crucially, though, the main way in which I believe training can be influenced by performance is in one’s ability to put bad days into context. On Wednesday I went down to the Christmas day parkrun in the hope to get some faster running in the legs ahead of Sunday’s race but just never got going. I felt heavy and laboured and at what should have been a fairly comfortable pace, felt as though I was working far too hard. Afterwards, though, I was able to be rational about it. I was very quick to just write it off as a bad day and move on. No overthinking the matter. At least it was a good hard tempo run. Four days later I managed a quicker average pace in a ten mile race than I did for just the 5k!
Lastly, I feel that your expectations begin to align with those of others the better you perform in races. I am certainly guilty of telling other athletes what I think they are capable of doing but not believing them when they do the same to me. Before my first Birmingham League cross country race after I started training with Dave, he said to me “top 5 today Ed.” I was nowhere near, and remember feeling that his expectations were unreasonably high, but now feel like this is completely achievable. This was less than three years ago.
Belief Influencing Performance
This can happen in two ways, in training and in racing. As I have stated already, your ability to train well can be influenced by recent results in races. I have also noticed from my own experience and from observing others that self-belief can be extremely important in ensuring you do not overdo it in training. Belief creates confidence, and with confidence comes the ability to stop when necessary, to take a rest day when you feel you need one, and not to run each session at 100%. It is easy to stay sensible when recent performances provide evidence that it is OK to. Conversely, I have seen athletes for whom races are not going as expected make poor decisions, over-train and under-rest, seeking the validation that comes from an impressive looking training log.
In a race situation, belief in one’s ability creates a positive mentality. Races are always going to hurt. This is beyond dispute. In my opinion though, the extent to which the physical discomfort of competition can be overcome is influenced by your self-belief. When on a bad run of results the standard response to difficuly and discomfort is acceptance. The pain is here, as expected. Now it’s just a grind and a slog to the finish. When on a good run, the pain is embraced and turned on its head. Good, it hurts. That means I’m running quickly. Just imagine how others are feeling if this is hurting me!
Whilst I won’t continue my upward trajectory forever, I know that I need to keep reminding myself of these ideas when results take a downward turn or when I am injured or ill. It is very easy to talk about belief when you have it, much less so when you do not!