Process versus outcome, pursuit versus the milestone itself

Steve just ran the Florence Marathon. A race review will follow, but we thought you might be interested in how he approached his own training over the last few months to produce the result he did;

“A simple text message (that I received shortly after returning to my hotel room) with your finishing time on it. Is that really what it all boils down to? What about how it came about – is that more interesting? Let’s see…

This particular journey begins at the Boston marathon in April where unseasonably hot temperatures, and possibly jetlag, impacted on my performance (2.48 with a few stops along the way). Before the race, I was really focussed on running well in Boston and while philosophical – I put the outcome down to bad luck, there is nothing we can do about the weather – it was still disappointing. I had trained better than ever and believed I was in better shape than ever. Afterwards it became clearer to me than ever that in training for a marathon (and in life) it’s really important that we don’t judge the success of everything based purely on the end result. We have to enjoy the pursuit of the milestone as much as the milestone itself. This is something I say to clients all the time. The best results come when you fully invest yourself into the process (of training) and let the outcome almost take care of itself. You HAVE to enjoy the training for its own sake, particularly with the marathon as there are so few opportunities to run them at your best. So, I made a pact with myself that I would not train specifically for an autumn marathon, instead I would prioritize other races and experiment with some new (for me) approaches to training and if all was well, I would, nearer the time, consider running a late autumn marathon.

This mindset worked well in the early summer and enabled me to relax, reduce my mileage and set 10000m (33.59) and 5k PBs (16.17). I also ran the famous Man vs Horse in this period, my first true trail race of any distance and I loved it. Just like in cross country racing, time and pace were irrelevant and this encouraged me to continue to think slightly differently.

In the late summer, my wife and I, who both work in flexible ways, took our young family to Bali for a month. Exotic huh? (its cheaper being in Bali during school holidays than it is in London!). For all of us, this was a chance to spend some good time together away from the stresses of daily London life. For me, it was ALSO a fantastic warm and humid weather training camp. I ran most days and once I’d got used to the humidity and the chaotic streets where motorbikes ride the pavements with little regard for normal pedestrians, let alone weird Europeans that go running (I saw maybe 2 other people running on the roads the whole time I was there), i racked up some good miles. I took a very relaxed approach to the running in Bali, I did very few speed sessions, mostly because when I did my shoes would fill sweat as if it had been raining, and only ever set the watch to time. I ignored pace and distance during all the runs and set myself challenges of running for a set period of time at a certain feel. Often, this was to run easy on the way out and a little quicker on the way back. By the end of our time there, I was comfortable enough to take on a 3 hour run, only stopping twice for water and completing over 24 miles. That gave me the confidence to enter Florence, but I wasn’t ready to book flights at this point. I was still fixed on short term goals.

On my return to the UK, i was hoping the cooler conditions would help my performance and I ran a few early autumn races. My intention was to concentrate on each race in isolation while keeping just half on eye on the longer term. At this time, I wanted to build strength and work on maintaining tempo over a longer period than offered by a 5k or a 10k (as well as have fun). This was something I felt had been missing in previous training blocks, and in fact I hadn’t run a half marathon in nearly two years so across September I ran the Maidenhead Half (74.31), and the South of England Fell running championships – 3 races over 2 days on the Isle of Wight.  Both of these went well, especially the IOW as i was able to hold my own among some trail running aficionados which gave me confidence that my plan was working, that i was fit and strong and that the next phase would work too.

It was then that I booked flights and accommodation to Florence, but i continued to think about each race in isolation.

I moved through a number of club races including the start of cross-country and a 10k road PB (34.05) and was performing consistently. Through this period i also ramped up the miles to 80-100 over a 7 day period with a couple more 3 hour runs, one to and through Epping Forest, and another including a section of hills and tempo work where I stopped the watch at the end to discover I’d run 26.1 miles. Another experiment I conducted in this period was some long midweek double days, culminating in one day where I ran 29 miles. This took a day or two longer to recover from than a normal midweek long run, but worked well for me in the long run. I hardly did any out and out speed work, preferring to use races for that purpose.

By the time, my next race came long, the Beachy Head marathon, i was feeling confident. Beachy Head is fantastically challenging-but-fair trail race over the South Downs near Eastbourne, finishing along the seven sisters and over Beachy Head itself into Eastbourne. I didn’t really taper for that race and had no expectations other than to run hard on the downs and flats and to take the uphills easy but figured based on the previous experiences of my club mates that I’d compete ok, and I confidently chose to run entirely on feel and treat it as a race. That confidence evaporated down a rocky path at around 5 miles, when I landed awkwardly on my left foot and my ankle folded underneath me. It was pretty sore – swearing out loud sore, hobbling for the next mile sore and running gingerly on more rocky and uphill terrain for the next 2 or 3 miles sore. As i was considering my options the pain eased and i settled into a rhythm. I was in fifth place at this point, and before halfway became reconciled that that would be my best finish position and resolved to enjoy the amazing scenery. Then, we had a nice long flat section on soft, forgiving ground that i knew preceded a downhill section and as my ankle eased on the soft ground, I just ran, and was surprised as the people ahead starting going backwards such that by the time we reached the seven sisters, I was up to 2nd! Now, determined to get a podium place even when faced with at least one runner behind me taking a bit of a shortcut, I pushed on (relatively speaking) and held my place. I was delighted. I was delighted with my race performance and delighted with the shape I was clearly in.

The first thing I did was get some help (actually the first thing I did was buy a bag of frozen peas from Eastbourne’s co-p for the train journey back to London, and deal with the odd looks I received). The wonderful folk at Fix London, did exactly what they say they will do, and took a holistic approach to my treatment. Cate Boyle gave me acupuncture to reduce swelling and bruising in the ankle, and reduce stiffness in the calf that had been overworking as a result of an underfunctioning ankle. Acupuncture, as I understand it, is essentially designed to interfere with the pain signals that the body sends to the brain to protect you, and to help you distinguish what is real damage and what is your body telling you to protect yourself. I had damaged the ligaments and tendons for sure, but the advice from Helen O’Neill (Physio) was that with sprained ankles, the quicker you can perform proprioceptive exercises, the quicker AND stronger you will recover – sprained ankles are notorious for repeating themselves if they don’t heal properly first time. This involved a lot of hopping, jumping and balance exercises, and the acupuncture enabled me to do those exercises with less pain, which freed me up to do them sooner than i might have done otherwise as well as do more of them which speeded up my rehab. I didn’t run at all in this time, and nor could I even swim, but I trusted my training of the months prior and tried to relax. Within nine days I was gently jogging and by two weeks I was confident of doing some tempo work.  I selected the flattest, smoothest, least bendy, basically least stressful surface I know and did a session of tempo work for 30 mins in the west end of Victoria Park – roughly 5 laps on a Sunday morning. That went well, so the following week I did 70 minutes in 2 x blocks of 30 minutes, and 1 x 10 with rest in between. I was actually hoping to do 90 minutes in total but despite the ankle being largely pain free, it still wasn’t functioning perfectly and my calf was overworking as a result so stopped at 70 minutes as the calf was starting to tighten too much for my liking. I then had massage and a general working over by Joe Dale (massage therapist and Osteo) to ease that tightness.

The weekend before Florence I did a hard but pain free parkrun (16.33 – a parkrun, but not 5k, PB for me) and an hour’s continuous tempo at slightly quicker than my intended marathon pace – I think 11 laps of the west end of Victoria Park, on a Sunday morning. This was a great session, and gave me the confidence I needed for Florence, although in the back of my mind i knew that the ankle could still cause me problems. And so it proved. At about 15 miles in the race, (about 90 minutes) the calf started to tighten and become less powerful, and gradually got worse. By mile 21 I was limping and the extra work required on my right side meant that it started to tighten too, and the last 3k were very tricky (not least because they were through the narrow, winding, cobbled streets of medieval Florence), but knowing what I’d done at Beachy Head I kept going and having long forgotten about time objectives or even bothering to look at my watch, I was pleasantly surprised to see 2.38 on the clock at the finish line as I rounded the last corner with 200m to go. To be only 2-3 minutes off my PB in those conditions (it also rained heavily and was very windy in places) was as good an outcome as I could have hoped for.

So, Florence ended well, considering, BUT the process of getting there was fantastic. I’d learned loads about myself as runner (and a person), I’d got into best ever shape, and I learned loads about training in a different way that will help me be a better coach just in time for spring marathons. As I sit here today writing this, I have no feelings of regret, or disappointment and that is one reason alone why investing in the process and enjoying the pursuit as much as the milestone itself is important, in life, as well as in running.

What is next I (might reasonably) hear you ask…..rest….and then one race at a time….maybe starting with making the numbers up at cross country this weekend if Fix and I can sort this left calf out in time….”

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