Saturday, 13th January 2007 – Wyken Croft Park, Coventry
I don’t remember much about it, but the records show that I took part in my first ever Birmingham and District Cross Country League race for my university. Aged 19 and competing in division two I managed a lowly finishing position of 87. This was probably no more than I deserved given the half hearted nature of my training at the time. Running was, at the time, vying for space on my schedule with maths lectures, travelling to Birmingham to visit my then girlfriend (now wife), playing football, watching football, seeing bands, working a part time job and going out like any self-respecting undergraduate does.
What I do remember, though, is that it was painful and humiliating. My memory of the day is largely in black and white, though I appreciate that this may be as much due to the passing of time as it is to the fact that most Saturdays in January tend to appear this way when I look back on them. I was unfit and underprepared. Eighty six people beat me and I didn’t make Warwick’s scoring six.
Saturday, 1st December 2018 – Warley Woods, Birmingham
Hoping to make amends for some poor pacing that cost me several places in the field and my club the win on the day three weeks earlier, I set off conservatively, allowing myself to drift back to around 50th at the end of the first lap. Division one in this league is a high standard of competition, but I know that a lot of the athletes ahead of me have overcooked it and will come back. On the second and third laps I move through the field, picking one man off at a time. Ahead of me I can see five other runners from my club occupying positions in the top ten. We are bossing the race at the front and I now need to pick up as many places as I can to keep our team score as low as possible. I continue to move up and into the top twenty. I am starting to run out of room to catch all the guys ahead who are coming back to me. I cross the line in 18th regretting not having taken a few more places in the last mile. Those 18 points contribute to a team total of 48, more than enough to take us to the top of the league. We’re going to be hard to catch now.
Sunday, 9th December 2018 – Telford 10k
I stepped off the road in a race this morning, the first time in many years that I have ended the day with ‘DNF’ next to my name. I never really got going and started to struggle with the pace well before half way. I hadn’t felt right all week and took a gamble on trying to compete. Save it for another day; there are more important races than this one.
When I started running eleven years ago I didn’t realise it was possible to run 15:43 for 5k, let alone go through half way in a 10k with that split whilst feeling terrible. I had no idea I’d be able to get to a stage where I’m making the scoring six for the team at the top of Birmingham League Division One. I didn’t know what steeplechase was, let alone think I could rank in the top 50 in the country for it.
As a teacher, I often encourage my students to reflect on how far they have come in their lives and in their education. Stopping to look down the mountain at everything beneath you gives a great sense of accomplishment as well as the motivation to continue your ascent of it. Now I need to do just that. I had an awful run this morning but I am in great shape and need to remember all the progress I have made. I have improved so much since I started and will continue to do so.
Right from the gun in the first Birmingham League fixture of the season I just felt as though my legs weren’t as light and fluid as I hoped they would be. I tried not to let it affect me, hoping it was just a case of me taking a while to build in to the race and that I would be better in the second half. Unfortunately I wasn’t, and lost several places I needn’t have lost in the last mile. This was particularly galling as we finished second on the day by one solitary point from Loughborough. Whilst 25th in a very strong field hardly represents a disaster, it doesn’t match the shape I feel I am currently in.
I also felt heavy legged on Thursday, and especially so on Wednesday after a session on Tuesday night that led Dave, not someone prone to hyperbole or exaggeration, to declare it my best session ever. On reflection, I just went a bit too hard and probably had some lingering fatigue going into Saturday’s race. Tuesday’s session was a high-volume effort, but one that I should have been able to recover from had I toned the effort down on the last few reps. Sometimes you train and unexpectedly feel great; this often results in pushing a bit too hard to confirm your fitness. Even as someone who has been training and competing for years I occasionally fall into this trap, losing sight of the fact that it’s what you do on a Saturday that shows in the results, not your amazing session on Tuesday.
On the first day of October I forgot to record my day’s training on my training log. And then I forgot the next day. And the day after. By the start of the following week I couldn’t remember exactly which runs I had done when, and how far I had gone on each occasion. I then realised: it doesn’t matter.
Several years ago, in the post-log book and pre-Strava era, I decided to start keeping an online record of all my training as a means of maintaining motivation and of being accountable to other interested parties. If they could see what I was doing, I thought, it would keep me on track and putting in the hard work. I also believed that, added to over the course of several years, it would become a useful document that I could refer back to and learn from. I would know exactly what types of sessions preceded successful races and what kind of training I should avoid in order to prevent injury. This seemed like a wonderful idea but it contained one flaw: I never did any of this. I kept habitually adding to it but never using it. Yes, I reflected, via my weekly posts, on the training I had been doing, but my training log largely existed for no other reason than the fact that I didn’t want to break the habit.
The habit is well and truly broken now. Coupled with my lack of motivation to update my log, I have also got out of the habit of wearing a watch for most of my runs, so even if I wanted to piece the jigsaw together again I wouldn’t be able to. The era of the training log is over. I have noticed small and unexpected changes as a result of this. For a start I genuinely don’t care how far I run on any given run. Additionally, I have stopped paying attention to my weekly mileage, something I could have told you to a fairly good degree of accuracy for any of the previous 400 weeks of my life. No longer do I add an extra loop to my run to make the distance round down to 12km rather than 11km. No longer do I set a target volume for my weekend’s training to hit certain weekly mileage targets. And most importantly of all, I am going easy on my easy runs. With no watch to tell me my average pace, I no longer seek to increase the effort to bring the average pace under a certain abritrary number. Typing this, I know how ridiculous this all sounds, but I am not the only one. Many people I know and train with are guitly of all of this and more, and none of it enhances your training.
But what does enhance your training? High mileage, tempo runs, interval sessions, strength and conditioning sessions, speed work, sleep, good diet, recovery runs, stretching, long runs, rest days…
The list goes on and I do everything on it. There might not be any evidence of it any more but the best evidence surely comes in the form of results in races, and these will continue to improve if I focus on doing the right things rather than documenting them. It’s liberating.
On Saturday my club won the Midland 6 Stage Road Relays for the first time in a decade with a dominant victory over all our local rivals. No one got within a minute and fifty seconds of our time and our athletes occupied the top three slots in the list of fastest legs for the day. We led from the very first leg. It was a crushing win.
And I wasn’t part of it.
Despite my best efforts in training and our unoffical trial race at the parkrun the week before, I didn’t get selected for the A team. As the seventh best runner on paper there was no room for me in a team of six. It was a bittersweet victory for me; I was absolutely thrilled that my friends and training partners were rewarded for their hard work and had the chance to taste success, but at the same time I was frustrated at myself for not being among them.
I need to remember that this is the exact reason I moved club last year, though. I wanted more competition and I wanted to be surrounded by other athletes who were going to drag me along with them. Sometimes that means being picked for the B team. Now I need to use this as motivation to improve. Next time the road relays come around I want the gold medal hanging round my neck.
Monday: AM 9km easy / PM 11km easy (20)
Tuesday: AM 9km easy / PM 9km easy (18)
Wednesday: rest (0)
Thursday: 10km easy (10)
Friday: 8km easy (8)
Saturday: Midland 6 Stage, 8th on leg 1 in 18:30 (14)
Why, one might ask, is this a noteworthy or remarkable occurence? After all, I have not broken 15 minutes countless times. I am an expert at not breaking 15 minutes. I am reliable and dependable and if you ever need someone to not break 15 minutes, I’m your man. My failures at breaking the barrier outweigh, by some margin, the number of times (one) that I have.
Yet despite my impressive aptitude for failing to get round twelve-and-a-half laps in under a quarter of an hour, I was very pleased with yesterday’s run. In fact, my near miss was almost as satisfying as the time I actually did it. It confirmed my belief that I have taken another step forward this season. Backing up a PB with another time in the same ballpark is reassuring and shows that you are on a new level; it shows that the performance was no fluke.
I also feel that yesterday’s run was intrinsically better than my 14:59. It rained constantly throughout my race and the track was soaked. I went for it, stringing together a succession of 70-second laps in the middle of the race in the knowledge I had nothing to lose, and paid for it later on when I got dropped from the lead group I had fought hard to get on to. Despite this, I had decent strength and didn’t completely blow up having gone off at 14:45 pace. I learned that I am not yet in that kind of shape but also learned that I’m really not too far away. With even pacing I would have run a personal best but wouldn’t have learned anything about where my limit is.
Last night’s race has made me excited and hungry for next season, and in the shorter term, motivated for the cross country races that winter brings. But first a break…
Monday: 10km easy (10)
Tuesday: AM 8km easy / PM 13km moderate, weights (21)
Wednesday: 10km easy (10)
Thursday: AM 10km easy / PM 12*100 on grass (20)
Friday: rest (0)
Saturday: AM 6km easy / PM BMC Gold Standard B race – Milton Keynes, 6th in 15:00.71 (17)