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Progress, Progress

Sunday 13th May 2012

See the ground from far away
And it’s progress, progress if it’s made

– Balance and Composure: Progress, Progress

It’s been a great weekend. On Saturday afternoon we went out for a bike ride from Birmingham to Stratford-Upon-Avon along the canal towpath; 50km of nothing but beautiful scenery and my wife’s company. Perfect. Sunday was just as much fun but for different reasons. I attended my former university’s reunion race in the morning, a trail race of approximately 5 miles where former and present students compete for bragging rights, and of course have a good catch up. In full sunshine, we got started and everyone went bombing off down the first hill. I ran along side another runner who was at university around the same time as me and by a couple of miles in we were away at the front, moving along at as even a pace as we could manage over rough terrain and churned up fields. I began to pull away in the final mile and ended up finishing first, which was a pleasant and unexpected bonus on a day that was only really meant to be about having fun and seeing old faces.

But that’s not to say I’m not competitive. In fact, I take training and racing very seriously, which sometimes causes me to lose perspective. All runners know that if you train hard and train sensibly you will usually get better. If we didn’t believe this we just wouldn’t bother, would we? We all believe that you reap what you sow; this is why any signs of a lack of progress can cause huge frustration in runners. I can think of several examples just in my own experience. Three weeks ago I ran a 5 minute personal best in the London Marathon and was annoyed with myself for not breaking 2:35. I won my hometown half marathon and after the initial joy of victory, reminded myself that I didn’t even come within a minute of my time from the previous year. Personally I think this attitude, this inability to be 100% satisfied with a performance, is what drives us and motivates us to get better. If you think you’ve achieved all your goals there is no incentive to improve, but a positive attitude can be very important too. Athletes need to look for positives rather than just seeing the negatives in a race or a session. For me today, this was reminding myself that I had just finished ahead of several guys by whom I would regularly have my arse handed to me in my university days. Granted, this is no absolute measure of progress; some of them might not be as fit as they once were, but there’s no harm in reminding yourself how far you’ve come.

I might not be as good a runner as I was 5 weeks ago, but I’m certainly better than I was 5 years ago and as long as the overall trend is an upwards one I’ll be happy. Please remind me of this next time I moan about having a bad race.


Wednesday 17th August 2011

It’s good to be put in your place as a runner.

The track we train at on a Tuesday evening is full of quality athletes. National champions, world championships contenders, top cross country athletes, the lot. And how they show us up. It is not uncommon for someone doing exactly the same rep as you to start well after you and finish before you. Stepping subserviently out in to lane two is common practice. Lane three even feels the pounding of my feet when they train in big groups. Just when you think you’re working hard you will get passed by someone who seems to be bouncing effortlessly from left foot to right, making a mockery of your lousy 70 second laps. Occasionally you try to latch on to a group, then regret having deemed yourself worthy of the group’s company as you fall dejectedly off the back of it.

And yet this humiliation to which we regularly subject ourselves does us some good. It is helpful to be reminded that there are people who are much better than you. In my case, this spurs me on and makes me strive for improvement. I know what a good athlete is, and just as importantly I know that I am not one. The moment you start thinking you’re good is the moment you lose the urge to get better.

But how many of the athletes flying effortlessly past me on a Tuesday are thinking exactly the same thing? I suspect quite a few. Of course, they are comparing themselves to a different class of athlete, but probably still need the sense of inadequacy to motivate themselves. A 14 minute 5000m runner will always show me a clean pair of heels on the track, but will no doubt remind himself that there are men in the world who can lap him. A friend of mine always says that a good athlete should be embarrassed by his PBs, that you should feel uncomfortable when someone asks you what you do for 10k. Perhaps my internal dialogue should follow along these lines: Over 15 minutes for 5k? Why do you bother? More than 70 minutes for a half? A good athlete has showered and had breakfast by the time 70 minutes comes around. A 2:44 marathon, and you still show your face in public?

So runners of the world, without so much as a smirk on my face I tell you this: You should be ashamed of your times, you are not as good as you think you are, there are many people better than you and the only way you can change this is to work harder.

Something tells me I won’t be getting hired as a motivational speaker any time soon.