With the recent popularity of Trail Monkey and parkrun here in Jersey, I have been so impressed to see people starting out running a 5km, then graduating to 10km, half marathons, trail runs and on to marathons and beyond. It is amazing to see, and so inspiring to see the change that people have effected in their lives just through the act of running regularly.
I myself started on this journey in 2011 – I ran the London marathon – before this I was 17 stone in 2010 and I was rapidly gaining more weight and heading for a health crisis:
I promise this isn’t going to be an “Oh look at me, I’m amazing post” or a before and after post I just want to reassure readers that I really have been there as far as starting from scratch and building towards things that pushed me out my comfort zone.
Over the years, and I think a lot of people who have been in this boat will also agree, I can confidently say I have made every mistake it is possible to make when training and preparing for races. I have trained through and been struck down with multiple injuries most of which have dissipated and I have been able to carry on doing what I mostly love: running.
First and foremost when training for a race that is out of your comfort zone it is important to recognise where you are at and where you want to be. And to have the confidence to mentally become that person. Not many people have the genetic fortune to be naturally gifted world beating athletes. As the saying goes success is 5% inspiration 95% perspiration. If you are willing to put in the effort you really can get to where you want to be.
The next step now you have this will of iron and motivation of steel is how do you direct it?? Well i would recommend a good plan, you don’t have to split the atom here, the principle is very simple when it comes to running I think, particularly at the outset of a training plan (as this is where the biggest gains are made) – run lots, run quicker than you can now for concentrated periods of time, run up hills to get strong, and don’t run so much that you don’t also rest to allow the body to recover from the stress you put it under. For a couch to 5km race this might be, run 3 times a week building from nothing up to a few kms initially to get used to the habit of running and then once the body is used to that a bit of data gathering to see how quick you are running to then identify how quick is slightly quicker than where you are at. And then run slightly longer runs that what you are comfortable doing at the weekend to expand your range. And this concept is expandable all across the board, from 5km to Ultra Marathon – all you need is time and hard work and an idea of where you are headed and it is all possible.
As a caveat to the above what I will say (I made this mistake) is that becoming a slave to the watch rapidly sucks the joy out of running. You will do it though no doubt, particularly when you start to get fitter, stronger and quicker and the mind starts to think “I want to run a sub 30 minute 5km” for example, and then it might be sub 25 min 5km and so on. This a good mindset for progress and I am not knocking it, but be sure to pay attention to the sights as your out and about running and dare I say do runs without a Garmin that perhaps you don’t upload to Strava! I know this is heresy, I have been there, still am there to a degree, but I do find real joy in just running particularly on the trails.
One thing I did also was going to far too quickly and overloading my body. I remember thinking how invincible and bullet proof I was at the outset of my running journey after I had run London and was looking to improve my first marathon time of 4:01 – as the weight dropped off me I got quicker and times tumbled – I thought I was going to go to the Olympics!! But then IT Band syndrome struck.. Jeez that hurt! I didn’t know what to do, I went to the Physio (Nigel at Jersey Sports and Spinal Clinic) if anyone is ever struggling btw, and was due given glute exercises, acupuncture and vigorous foam rolling exercises, and you know what? – I got through it. Seemed like the end of the world at the time though… But it was more running experience.. I think if I had my time again I would have definitely done more of the strength training and core exercises – long distance running is like a stress test of the body – the repetitive nature of road running in particular exposes the weaknesses of the body and the body then breaks down at these points – usually knees, calves or ankles. However I didn’t and went the long way round, I got there but I get out of bed a lot slower nowadays.
I have a personal theory that once you are at the standard that you can run a marathon in say 3.5 – 4 hours you have the physical capacity to take on an ultra marathon – however the real deciding factor is endurance and mental toughness – these are the two things I have noticed in other people as I have done various challenges : particularly mental toughness. I have seen people do half marathons having never run before, I have seen people do sub 3 hour marathons, having played a lot of football but no running training, I have seen people do long distance races, absolutely ruin themselves and still push through to amazing finishes. “Whats their secret?” I hear you ask? I think its self belief, the belief that they can do this, real unshakable belief that they “have got this..” to use a popular saying at the moment. But I think it can also be the fundamental enjoyment of the challenge, or what they are doing or just the idea of achieving a goal. And it can be different for different people and can be all of the above at different times. I think though if you are enjoying something then you cant go far wrong. This will mean when you are at mile 60 of a 100 mile race and you are asking yourself “Why in gods name am I doing this?” you don’t answer “Haven’t got a Scooby” and jack it in and head off home for the much more attractive option of a bath, a bag of chips and a pint – which I might add I have done on multiple occasions!
Of course the flip side to this is sometimes it just isn’t your day – I remember the days when I would run through walls to achieve a goal – “Quit? me? Never!!!!” But I remember my first DNF (did not finish) which was at the Cotswold Way 100 (yes I tried to run 100 miles in one go..) I pulled out at 65 miles as I had been sick had diarrhoea and had got lost on multiple occasions due to it being the inaugural running of the race and they hadn’t quite got the course marking down pat. I gave myself such a hard time, and after that the DNF’s flowed freely, almost as if now I had allowed the idea of quitting into my conscisouness it was now a distinct possibility. And a hard time for doing so I gave myself. All I really needed too was get over myself to be honest.. I was never going to the Olympics, I choose to do this for fun, so therefore if I’m not then find something I do enjoy!!
So how does one go from running a half marathon to standing on the line of a 100 mile race you might ask? Its not an overnight thing – I think of 5km races as the Marijuana of running – a gateway drug if you will. With 100 mile races being the heroin or crack cocaine end of the spectrum – you get the gist – 5km done you feel great! I want to 10km!! Before you know it you are going to the loo in the middle of the Sahara Desert and wiping your bum with the one sheet of loo roll you have allowed for the day due to weight constraints, weeping silently to yourself because you want to go home. It’s a slippery slope I tell you – but a thoroughly enjoyable one.. (contrary to the picture the above paints!)
So in summary – At the outset – get the body used to running and don’t over do it. When you get a bit better, get a plan, don’t lose touch with why you love running. And then when you really want to do crazy crazy things, don’t be afraid to jump in with both feet, enter a race with the promise of becoming that person who can complete that challenge, become obsessed with it, work hard for it and hopefully get it done. Which comes to the last lesson I guess – If you don’t get it done straight away, learn from the experience why you didn’t succeed, go back to the drawing board and get right back out there and have another go. But always come back to the love of why you’re doing it.
I know a few of you Trail Monkeys have signed up to my Double Top Ultra Race either in Solo guise or Relay guise, and you might be thinking “What the hell have I got myself into?” I know everyone who has entered is more than capable of doing what they have set out to do – hard work and enjoyment of the process will get you through it, and a little bit of belief. I am always here to answer questions as well. And we will be doing trail runs starting in November, I may not be with you on every run, but my hope is to facilitate a group of people that will meet regularly and train through the winter increasing in distance over that period.