This time last year I felt I had reached a plateau with running and that any further performance gains were unlikely. Whilst I wasn’t seriously considering quitting, I was starting to think, with my 30s approaching and 10 years on the running clock, that it had been fun while it lasted. Pretending to be an athlete was a laugh. Not going to get better but it doesn’t matter. At least I’m not fat. And then I made some changes.
In February I started training with a group from Birchfield and a few months later I moved club. Here are the races I have done since (yes, I am annoyed about the 5000 that broke the streak):
23rd May – 4:07.4 1500m (PB)
4th June – 9:46.09 3000mSC (PB)
20th June – 15:23.4 5000m
8th July – 15:05.6 5000m (PB)
15th July – 9:38.57 3000mSC (PB)
18th July – 4:27.3 Mile (PB)
25th July – 8:47.4 3000m (PB)
It would be foolish to attribute this improvement exclusively to a change of vest, and whilst I am under no illusions that this is just a honeymoon period, there are a few important changes that I feel have contributed.
For a start I am no longer doing my sessions on my own. I have never lacked motivation and have always been fortunate enough to have the mental toughness just to get out there, lace up the trainers and get it done. Shut up, don’t ask questions. Start the watch. As I have discovered, this stubbornness will get you a long way in running, but not always where you want to be. With a group to train with, most of whom are fitter than me, I am pushing myself harder than before in training. I am accountable to more than just myself. It is easy to convince yourself you are doing well because you are doing the training and logging the miles. What matters more though, is the quality of the training, not simply that it is happening.
Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, I have experienced a change in mentality. Surrounded by good athletes, your aspirations rise. When people you train with are running times that you would once have considered to be beyond you, you adjust your mindset. Why not break 4 minutes for 1500? Why not get under 15 minutes for 5k? Everyone else can. I realise now that the people who run fast times are just normal people like me, not genetic freaks who I have no chance of beating. They just happen to be a bit better than me at the moment. The other facet of this change in mentality relates to competing at a higher level. Aiming to be a decent steeplechaser at Midland level and to pick up a few points for the club is not enough any more. Winning the British League is a minimum requirement; the goals of my clubmates are far loftier than mine once were.
So with this in mind I hope to keep the streak going for as long as I can manage. I will continue to have troughs as well as peaks, but a reminder that I can keep improving and hold my own at a much higher level has been welcome.
Often a traumatic experience takes a long time to recover from and depending on the severity of the trauma this can be counted in days, weeks or even years. In my case it is 10 months.
Periodically I have a dream where I am competing in a race that I am well prepared for but when the gun goes I freeze, unable to move. My legs feel like they have concrete weights attached at the ankle and the track has turned to treacle. Incapable of running, I desparately flail around trying to find something to grab hold of as I fall to the floor, in the vain hope that I can pull myself forwards. My opponents laugh as they lap me, or even worse, give me a condescending pat on the back as they fly off into the distance. The torment is usually concluded, not by me finishing the imaginary race, but by my alarm clock sounding. I wake up, check that it was just a dream, and when I realise this, laugh it off and get out of bed.
But February 27th this year was, sadly for me, no dream. I entered the National Cross Country Championships as one final attempt to salvage what had been, by the standards I had set myself, a mediocre cross country season. I was in decent but not peak shape but thought that this would be at least sufficient for a finish somewhere in the 100-150 range. How wrong I was. Accompanied by Stephanie, who did not realise what she was letting herself in for, I made the short journey to Donnington Park, an uninspiring corner of the East Midlands better known for heavy metal and motor racing than for athletic excellence. The charcoal grey skies punctuated by low flying budget airliners on the descent to the nearby airport felt like a dark omen for the horror that was about to unfold over the next 49 minutes.
The details escape me so long after the fact, but the memories I do still have are similar to those of my recurring nightmare and appear in my mind in a hazy black and white; the mud seemed thicker for me than for everyone else, the hills steeper, the course longer. Every ascent heralded a loss of 10 places, every descent 5 more. Nothing was working. I was overtaken by people who I didn’t recognise from races and those I would normally be racing against were several minutes further up the course. At some point I saw a runner I knew step off the course, clearly having a similarly bad day. The voice in my head telling me to do the same was loud but silenced, perhaps misguidedly, by the fact that Stephanie had come to watch me race and would be disappointed if I were to record another DNF. At some point I entered the finishing straight. By this point all mental strength I did possess was gone and I didn’t even bother trying to muster a finishing sprint. I collapsed over a railing near the finish line and went home and sulked.
In fact, though it never got as bad for the rest of the year, 2016 was far from a vintage year for me from a running perspective. The summer and autumn were better but unspectacular, characterised mostly by performances in races that didn’t quite match up to how well I was training. Highlights included a steeplechase PB in August (finally under 10 minutes!) and a good position in a Birmingham League race at the end of the year, but others were few and far between. Whilst this all sounds very negative, I am actually as optimistic as ever about running. In every race I performed badly in there was a winner. In each of these races there was someone setting a personal best, someone beating a competitor they had never finished ahead of before, someone exceeding their expectations. There is always something good that can happen in a race; there is always a winner. On several occasions in the past that person has been me and it will be me again. And as long as the overall trend is upwards I’ll be working hard and sticking at it.
Here is s short film my wife Stephanie made about my running. She is working on a larger project to do with my attempts to break 15 minutes for 5k but made this as an entry for a film competition. I really enjoyed helping her make it!
The year begins, as it always does, with the county championships. In fading light and muddy conditions I muster a 6th place finish, enough to get me in the county team for the Inter Counties in March. A 22nd place in a Birmingham League fixture helps the team maintain a good position in Division 1.
In my only race of the month I gain my best ever position in a league race, finishing with only 13 people ahead of me. However I am most proud of finishing the race without getting hypothermia, unlike the corresponding league fixture last year. A fine achievement indeed.
I am given a lesson in race tactics in finishing 2nd in a half marathon I had previously won four times in a row. I apply my new ‘don’t push the pace at the front for nine miles on a windy day’ strategy at the Reading Half Marathon a few weeks later but sadly I overdo it and finish 74th. I run my first ever Inter Counties and make the scoring six.
The track season starts ridiculously early and I complete my first steeplechase of the season without suffering any embarrassing water jump related injuries. A 1500 and a relay leg later I drive two hours back to the centre of Birmingham wondering a. why I do it to myself and b. what I can do to get some more speed in my legs.
I travel to London to compete in the Highgate Harriers ‘Night of the 10000m PBs.’ This is truly one of the best events on the national running calendar, with great organisation, high quality racing and a raucous atmosphere. Oh, and I shave a few seconds off my PB. I want to go back next year.
I somehow manage to finish second in a race where I have a clear lead at the bell at the Midland Championships. I run back from Alexander Stadium to the centre of Birmingham wondering a. why someone of my standard is anywhere near the medals at an event of that level and b. what I can do to get more speed in my legs. I actually manage to win a race a couple of weeks later, setting a new PB of 15:09 for 5000m.
Another journey down the M5 takes me to the next league fixture of the season (who knew Bristol was in the Midlands?). Having traveled all that way I am determined to do well in the 2k steeplechase. I cross the line in a close 2nd only to be disqualified by a hawk-eyed track official for trailing my left leg round the barrier when leading the race. Sorry lad, rules are rules, no discretion here I’m afraid. It’s OK, I’m not bitter; it’s not like I did a 4 hour round trip to go and race there or anything.
As a now fully paid up BMC member I make the most of the free entry to Grand Prix events and enter the Solihull 5000. I am happy with the time, just a few tenths away from the PB I had set earlier in the summer. The following week I pick up win number two for the year, beating a whopping 5 people in a 10000m race at Tipton.
From winning one race to trying to avoid coming last in another, I venture north to compete in the 10000m A race at Stretford. I just about manage to avoid the Lanterne Rouge and better still, set a new personal best. A much needed week off follows.
Autumn wouldn’t be autumn without the National 6 Stage at Sutton Park. Like a lamb to the slaughter I take over from our club’s best runner Jack on leg two. Though it sounds like a terrible run, I am pleased to only lose 12 places.
Another cross country season starts at Leamington, a course that is invariably described as a ‘proper British course.’ I think the phrase ‘world war one trenches’ is more apt, but there you go. Muddy and knackered, I cross the line in 24th.
Win number three comes at the world renowned, highly prestigious and delightfully named Sneyd Christmas Pudding Run. For the uninitiated, this is a 10 mile road race near Walsall where all finishers get, you guessed it, a Christmas pudding. My 52 minutes of work earn me the privilege of a gold one. Perceptive and forthright as ever, my mother-in-law dispenses some useful advice that I intend to take with me into 2016: “don’t take a rest day on Christmas Day, it makes you grumpy. You were much better on Boxing Day after you’d got your run in.” That’s me told.
Next weekend I will put my toes on the start line of the 5000m of the BMC Grand Prix at Solihull. I’m really looking forward to it and am very grateful that my entry was accepted despite my season’s best being outside the entry standard, but it’s going to be predictable. This is what will happen: the assigned pacemaker will stand near the starter and say something like ’68s OK boys?’ referring to the target time per lap. Someone will say yes and that will be it. The race will string out in single file ahead of me whilst I hang on for dear life at the back, either until I get cut adrift or until people whose early pace was too optimistic start coming back to me. No tactics, no thinking, just running as hard as I can from the gun. I will either run a PB or blow up trying, and limp home in a time I’m disappointed in. I know this because it happens every time.
Last Sunday I raced for my club in the final fixture of the Midland League season. I was in the 1500m and then the 3000m half an hour later, a tricky combination at the best of times, but even more so when you’ve only got back from holiday the day before. The wind was up so I suspected the race would start slowly. Sure enough, by the time we got to the first bend, we were in a tight pack, all looking to see what the others were doing. Jogging, it seemed.
This didn’t really suit me because I’m no sprinter and didn’t want it to turn into a 400 metre race. I wanted to get to the front and make a long push for home but was boxed on the inside of lane 1. We went through 800 outside my 5k pace and shortly after we did so a small gap appeared to my right. I stepped out, darted through the gap and ran as hard as I could, trying to distance myself from the field. I knew that this probably wouldn’t get me the win, but would at least take the sting out of some of the faster athletes. I was third in the end, a pleasing result, and probably better than I would have done if the pace had stayed slow for another lap. Half an hour later in similar coniditions, the 3000m went out slowly and we only really got going in the last km. Heavy legged from the 1500 I let two guys get away who I knew to be significantly faster then me, whilst making sure I did just enough to hold off the runners behind.
In both races I was constantly thinking, judging my effort, making decisions about what I should do to maximise my position. It was thrilling, and certainly added a dimension to the races. When watching athletics on TV you often hear commentators talking scornfully about tactical races, as if anyone who doesn’t run an ‘honest’ race is a disgrace to the sport. I disagree. These are the races I enjoy the most. They are less predictable and more exciting, both to watch and to be part of, and often throw up nice surprises. At the level I compete at, races where you have to make tactical decisions are rare and therefore even more interesting.
Time trials have their place, but give me a ‘dishonest’ tactical race anyday.